An Exclusive Interview with Ratan Tata, Chairman Emeritus, Tata Group in conversation with Sudhir Sethi, Founder& Chairman, Chiratae Ventures on CNBC-TV18


New Delhi, May 14, 2020:

Q: As you are aware, this is a very different time from perhaps what anybody or you have seen in the earlier days and I would like to start off by perhaps an interesting anecdote. You are finding yourself at home right now and this must be very new overall in the last few weeks; how is your experience working from home?

A: There is a learning experience which many of you already have because of the business that has been the way you are living with your macro out of your briefcase, your office is where you are and that has not been the case with me. I have been perhaps more old fashioned, I need to have paper to feel comfortable with a note, to immerse myself in a note rather than look at a screen.

But that learning comes pretty fast because we were doing the same thing and after a few minutes you forget that you are looking at a face on a screen and you are looking at something in real time. The catch is that the times are different and not only are we looking at a different landscape, but we are looking at ourselves in a landscape that we have never seen before.

Q: In this pandemic, the scenario which seems to be multidimensional, earlier ones which at least I have seen are financial in nature, and this one is finance, health, travel, everything you can think of including the fact that countries are sort of locking down. Entrepreneurs are bucking up their cutting cost and trying to survive, in many cases extend the runway. Obviously, there is a lot of hardship in terms of making sure companies keep afloat, but do you see this also as an opportunity for entrepreneurs, especially in the technology field, as we move forward on a daily basis trying combat what is around us?

A: I think that is a very worthwhile statement to stay for a while because the people we are dealing with, the young entrepreneurs are people who have found solutions of another way to deal with a problem when it occurs. It is that innovativeness that has enabled some of the young entrepreneurs to operate in fields that seem to be sort of very mature, but they have found means of finding a spot or niche ,or a segment that they can operate in differently than the traditional way and have done exciting things in that manner.

So, it would be fair to say that we are going to see the same kind of innovativeness created and it is the same kind of situation like you have heard many times over that he was looking at a wall, you found a door in that wall and went through or a window. How you look at opportunities and how you package them are different and this situation does give us an opportunity to innovate, but it tests us and it involves going through the transformation of looking at a different way to do things caused by shortages in this case or caused by strictures or legislation on the other side. New partnerships, everything is up for grabs.

Q: We are talking about entrepreneurs; we are talking about young entrepreneurs using technology. If I may just take a step back, and the industry as you call it the smokestack industry, how does the smokestack industry deal with this? Is it very different, is it same, is it innovation or is it waiting for this to recover?

A: That is a difficult question to answer because — at the fear of talking specifics, let us take the steel industry. The inputs to make steel available to the customer cheaper or faster are there and have been in use, but there is no clean sheet of paper that has another way to make steel. I think there hasn’t been a major productive input after continuous casting for example where you cut out 2-3 processes.

So, it is different in terms of the product you produce and how you are able to sell it, how you are able to deliver it. All of that is much more imaginative with the young entrepreneurs that we are talking of and the new manufacturing systems and the whole supply chain has changed. I think in many ways the smokestack industry finds it difficult to change the entire supply chain. It can improve on it, but it is by and large tweaking it compared to what is happening in the digital area.

Q: However, innovations may be possible in the supply chain, in cutting out inefficiencies in distribution chains where possibly technology can help.

A: Yes, in that business area it could be just as innovative and just as far reaching in its area and it would contribute to a smokestack industry and have its effect in that sense.

For example, you look at the automobile industry and you look at the changes that are being envisaged today – autonomous driving, artificial intelligence being merged in terms of application, the industry was there. You had automobiles which you are seeing today, is a new world application for them –shared mobility, it is something that would be laughed on 10-15 years ago and yet it is happening in a smokestack industry.

For example, it is quite conceivable that a leading car manufacturer would be Tesla rather than a Ford, GM, or Mercedes. They have bought a lot of innovation into the business and so tomorrow the largest carmaker could be an Apple because it brings to the table a new approach to doing something.

I think what is happening is, the barriers are coming down and one way to look at it is that is being driven by the hardship that we are all facing in the marketplace caused by a completely different phenomenon namely a virus that has overtaken the world.

Q: We saw entrepreneurs going to many crores worth of revenues and then when the lockdown happened, going down to zero. Then of course some of them are coming back as the lockdown hopefully starts opening up and, in some cases, digital revenue start ramping up. We are seeing that on the ground. However, the entrepreneur still has to use this choice of business priorities versus the human side of things, as you mentioned it earlier. Any thoughts on how to balance this because there is cost efficiency required, there is a business requirement, but you cannot afford too long because the cash run maybe small. How do you balance the business part and the human things?

A: I would like to say that that is something I cannot answer generally because I think you have to be looking at individual businesses and the leading entrepreneurs that are driving those businesses. In many cases the innovation or the change is driven by the innovativeness of the entrepreneur rather than the changes sitting to be undertaken.

A couple of things you have mentioned in your statement the last few minutes, correctly indicate that the opportunity is there, somebody has to see the opportunity and package it in a manner that makes sense, debug it and push it forward. So, whether you look at music done by Apple or whether you look at an electric car from a non-car manufacturer, you look at power grid distribution decentralize power as Tesla is doing to the home and you look at delivery of medicines and doctor examinations — synthetic general practitioner if you might, you look at the input of the data from the patient to the doctor on your wrist or on some decoder somewhere on your body, you look at remote medicine and surgery – it is there, today it is surgery through manipulators, but tomorrow it could be sitting in San Francisco and doing a surgery in Mumbai.

So, it is how far can you stretch the envelope and I think what you are looking at and what you are experiencing is there is no limit to that envelope, which a few years ago we kept saying that we have stretched it to its limit — that does not hold true today, and that is the opportunity. But a hard thing to say is that the virus today has an issue of generating those questions and forcing them on us, otherwise we would go along until there was a more enterprising entrepreneur who thought it. I think we have to look at this as an opportunity to do something that is more innovative than we would have done in 2020.

Q: Do you think India as a country with entrepreneurship and the technology around entrepreneurs you see right now presents to investors globally and in India, in essence possibly a bigger opportunity in the next few years?

A: I think it is not limited to India, what I am about to say, I would say with some degree of concern, you compare the situation we are in to a World War which was destructive, cities got bombed, manufacturing industries were disabled and yet it was in those times that many new technologies were developed, science was taken to a new height, rockets came, other forms of enterprise and forms of destruction both were an issue of application but there were entrepreneurs who were supported by their governments to open new doors. That could be the case again.

It is not a World War but it is like a World War. There is a dramatic need for vaccine, there is a dramatic need for solutions and strange things happen. I think we have to look back and say where so and so innovativeness has its roots. Quite often it has its roots at time of crisis and we have a crisis on our hands today and so there is an issue of throw your hands up, you have this crisis and then there is our own innovativeness, it comes to play that is a time we need to support to invest, to not dismiss something as being too far out but being something we should look at.

Q: Absolutely and you mentioned governments – any thoughts how governments can play major role, countries are collaborating, corporations are collaborating more, entrepreneurs are collaborating, any thoughts on how government can support this?

A: Yes, if you take an example – if you look at the US and you look at what organizations have done as government supporting new technologies and biotechnology or in integrated circuits or in total variety of things – the government has supported USD three-four-five billion, which the private sector would not have been able to do, they have ushered in new industries because of their ability to come up with the funds, earmarked for a particular development and if we at a time like this had a way of marshaling some funds in certain areas, we could have another wave of innovativeness arising out of a problem just like we have had in World War II or the Cold War. If you look at the plus side of that, it caused innovation to take place which is perhaps not have happened, it would have taken much longer to do than they have done.

Q: The government is playing the role and you are aware of the fact that government is supporting the venture capitalist industry through Small industrial Development Bank of India (SIDBI), which is like a sovereign fund of funds in the market but absolutely if it is bigger and better, this is like R&D, tech is like R&D, so it takes a little bit of time to come out but more is always good. In some sense, technology, entrepreneurs do you think can be GDP additive in this scenario, in a three-four-five year timeframe?

A: Yes, it can but I don’t think – I think some things are being driven like the vaccines, fighting for time to solve our problem but many of the other areas are one that needs patient capital, one very important thing that I believe has taken place is R&D earlier was in silos. You had electrical engineering or mechanical engineering or biology and they come together – biology has become life sciences, electronics has been part of it, manufacturing technics have started to use digital technology to make things better to go from millimeters to microns and today successful R&D is multidisciplinary, many things that we see today would not be there if they were in silos today. So maybe there is a new phase of what we have to look at, which today are not silly, they make sense but there is another page to be turned to deliver something that was not considered possible.

Corporate Comm India (CCI Newswire)