Ratan Tata looks back

June 27, 2012: 3:22 PM ET

He turned his family's company into a global powerhouse. Just months before his retirement, he spoke about his long career and his firm's philanthropic efforts.

ratan_tataFORTUNE -- Last night, Ratan N. Tata received a lifetime achievement award for innovation from The Rockefeller Foundation. Tata, chairman of the Tata Group, built his family's company into a massive, global business ranging from consultancy services to well-known automotive brands stretching across 80 countries. Some 66% of Tata is owned by philanthropic trusts founded 120 years ago. At a reception in New York City, he spoke with the foundation's president, Dr. Judith Rodin, about his long career. What follows are lightly edited excerpts.

On how business should think about social responsibility:
I think business should be sensitive to the fact that businesses are making a difference in the places that they operate. A company going into the Amazon and quarrying raw materials leaves behind a tremendous scar, which they don't attempt to do but which they do. And they need to be sensitive to the fact that they need to give back to the community and do things to help the prosperity of that community. This is all the more evident in the developing world where the disparities are so huge.

On being named to his role as a young man:
I followed someone who had very large shoes. He had very large shoes. Mr. JRD Tata. He was a legend in the Indian business community. He had been at the helm of the Tata organization for 50 years. You were almost starting to think he was going to be there forever. You feel suddenly that you've been thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool, trying to follow him.

I think the greatest dilemma in mind was how to mimic him and follow in his footsteps. And I realized that I could never be him and I should try to be whoever I was. That was read by those in the media, which had been less than friendly, as someone who would destroy the group, who didn't have his competence, his capability. I realised fairly soon it was not you but the entire workforce that you count on. I think I have only achieved what that force of 400,000 people has been able to support me to do.

On the philanthropic motive:
It's difficult to put into words. But when you see, as you do in Africa or parts of Asia, abject poverty and you look at yourself as being a person that has wellbeing and comforts, I think it takes an insensitive person not to think they need to do something that's not just handing out dough but playing a role in helping get prosperity to the community where they are. When you see hungry children, you see bright eyes, intelligent eyes of children who aren't given a chance. It would take a very tough person not to what to do something.

On what experience has moved him the most:
There have been several; there isn't really a single one I can talk of. What moves one very often is seeing a community that is almost decrepit because of lack of water. And then you bring in simple principles of conserving water and agriculture. After two or three years, you see that community suddenly becoming prosperous because they have fertile land. The whole community changes and, fairly soon, the members of that community will contribute to society. Nothing gives you greater pleasure than to see that transformation.

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