SPEAKER INTERVIEW: MR. SUNIL SINHA, RESIDENT DIRECTOR - MENA, TATA SONS

The Georgetown University India Initiative (GUII) hosted Mr. Sunil Sinha-resident director of the Tata Group in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Beverly Lobo caught up with Mr. Sinha after,  for a candid interview about his current stint at the Tata Group and his perspectives on global trends.

Beverly: Mr. Sinha, you’ve worn multiple hats at the Tata Group. What do you think has been your most challenging role yet?

Mr. Sinha: This is like asking someone to choose their favorite child. Throughout my career at Tata, I have worked in two kinds of scenarios. The first kind is transactional roles - shipping, chartering, sales, marketing etc. These roles are exciting because you have daily goals, monthly goals it’s like running on a treadmill. The second kind is transformational roles like quality management, innovation management, etc. Here it's like you are embarking on a religious journey it takes time but it really changes the paradigm of the people in the organization and it changes the way the organizations performs and responds. This is why these have been extremely satisfying roles at Tata. A huge organization begins to work differently because of a small contribution from your side.

Beverly: Going off of what you just said, what is it about the Tata Group that made you stick around for 3 decades and want to dedicate your professional life to it?

Mr. Sinha: Well you see when I was younger my dream was to work in Tata Steel and so I joined Tata Steel. It was just a chance. But Tatas aren't just a profit making business, they are a beyond profit organization. They are an institution that works with a much larger purpose which is to improve the quality of life of people through profit. The foundation on which the Tata brand is built is dual- ethical conduct of corporate governance and corporate social responsibility. No one has ever told me to do something wrong and if I have chosen a part that is right no one has ever stopped me. When you work for Tata you receive respect in any society and any setting and you can’t put a value to that. Which is why even though I’ve been offered jobs with double the salary I would never take them. There is a saying Tata “You can take the person out of Tata but not Tata out of the person.”

Beverly: You mentioned the image of Tata as a socially responsible group and certainly that is the impression that most who know of the brand would agree with. Do you think that is the primary reason that Tata has been able to assert itself in a manner that, arguably, no other company ever has?

Mr. Sinha: This is the reason. Many companies talk but Tata has been doing this decade after decade, for centuries. And we’ve been able to do this because of our structure. Our parent company is held 66% by a charitable trust and therefore charity work is what keeps this going. Also, I must tell you that the wholesale ethics is very strong. For example, we had started up Tata finance but the company got involved in unethical activities because some senior management got corrupted. A lot of customer money evaporated overnight but Tata committed to the customers that no matter what happened to the company their money would be safe and Tata put in crores of rupees to secure these customers and bail out the company. Things like this are what sets Tata apart.

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Beverly: Mr. Sinha, I’m going to have to ask you to choose your favorite child again. Do you think there’s a particular Tata product that has changed people’s lives?

Mr. Sinha: My God that’s a hard one for me to answer! If you look at the way Tata started, they began with nation building industries-steel, automobiles, power, hospitality, education, science, and technology. If you want me to choose one I would say the cancer hospital. The Trust's’ investment in the cancer hospital has really changed the lives of people who suffer from this disease. We now have two hospitals that cater to people who would not be able to afford the best healthcare otherwise. That’s on the social side. On the product side, I have many favorites!

Beverly: You worked in quality management for several years. How have you all been able to sustain quality and still remain competitive as Tata has expanded over continents? 

Mr. Sinha: Any initiative-quality management, innovation management, are all leadership oriented. In some companies, it becomes a fad and then disappears. But we initiated it in a very honest and genuine way with the purpose of making Tatas globally competitive. We created a brand Equity Business Promotion (EBP) program. The Tata brand is owned by the promoter company and the business is promoted by them. Under the EBP each company has to sign an agreement with the promoter that makes them promise that they will run the business excellently and ethically. We have made it part of the system so everyone has to embark on this journey. But you are right that this is not easy to sustain transnationally because this is a transformative program and the cultures in different places are different. And therefore we constantly tailor the programs to suit local companies. We have worked hard to show those companies the benefits of the program. Today my role in the Baldrige Foundation is to share this experience with them and show them how Tata has implemented this globally as they, too, look to expand overseas. We learned from the foundation and now we are happy to share our successful model with them. Every company wants to excel and if you show them a path they excel.

Beverly: The current issue in India for most businesses has become the Make in India initiative. How does that impact a large company, based in India but run transnationally, like Tata?

Mr. Sinha: Even today most of our facilities are in India but huge portions of our revenue and facilities are overseas. We do our best to support the Make in India initiative. We are already supporting it through our defense industry, aerospace industry, and manufacturing industries. All the Tata companies will be participating in the initiative. This is very important for the success of the nation and we will do everything to support it.