July 05, 2020
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Das Capital

Tarun Das, the smiling czar of Indian industry, charms his way to the top at cement giant ACC

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Das Capital

At 61, Tarun Das is just the right age to head a company. A company which is one of the country’s most venerable, biggest in the field, and a part of India’s oldest business house, the Tatas. Is he also the right person? It could have been mere coincidence that Das was chosen to become the non-executive chairman of cement giant ACC, which too was formed about 61 years ago by amalgamating 10 companies. But when chairman Shapoorji Pallonji Mistry decided to step down after a 48-year association and suggested a non-corporate name in his stead, what exactly was he thinking?

Mistry isn’t telling. Nor, regretfully, is Das himself. This young man in his 60s, who has turned what was essentially a businessmen’s club a decade ago into the savviest and most high-profile industry association of liberalised India, dismisses the ACC appointment with a polite shrug. "This is not a new distinction. It’s just an additional burden. I’ll have to go on handling CII," he says.

The politeness could be just a mask-Das, after all, rules CII with an iron hand. TD, as the director-general of CII is called by his colleagues, may be interpreted as The Dictator. It is not for nothing that FIs consented to Das’ appointment-"he was an independent nominee, a thorough professional and with a global reputation suitable for a professionally-run organisation".

Is Das’ entry into ACC, his first private corporate job, a reward for the lobbyist extraordinaire? Sources say the way is now paved for a complete exit of the Tatas from ACC and smooth takeover of the company by Gujarat Ambuja Cements Ltd (GACL) without involving the takeover code. Four months ago, GACL bought 7.2 per cent of the 14 per cent Tata stake in ACC. Two months later, it placed two nominees on its board-GACL MD N.S. Sekhsaria is now ACC deputy chairman. If GACL were to make an open offer, its cost of acquiring ACC would multiply. Enter Das.

For government officials and members of the World Economic Forum, with which CII is now closely associated, Das is India Inc’s smiling face who always has his way. He’s a man with a big heart, always the friend-in-need. Says S. Sen, deputy director general, CII, who has worked with and known Das for 33 years: "He interviewed me for my job and mesmerised me with his dynamism. He still does, not just impresses but motivates too. Very few people have his level of intelligence and ability to react fairly to a situation."

An economics graduate from Manchester University, Das started his career in industry in ‘63 when he joined the Bengal Chamber of Commerce. He moved to Delhi in ‘74, with the formation of the Association of Indian Engineering Industry (AIEI) at its headquarters. In Delhi, AIEI, of which he was the secretary, was a small entity operating on a shoestring budget-FICCI was the only industrial chamber with some recognition. But Das would change all that.

In ‘86, when AIEI became the Confederation of Engineering Industry (CEI), Das was king. He held the twin posts of secretary and executive director. In ‘92, he became the DG as CEI made itself over for the third time. Already, it was catering to the entire Indian industry. To end the anomaly, it changed its name to CII.

It’s a growth Das can be proud of. From almost nothing in ‘74-75, CII’s outlay rose to Rs 67 crore in ‘92 and to over Rs 100 crore today. There can be no disputing that Das made CII what it’s now. Instilling the organisation with strong values, being the biggest motivating force behind it, and commanding respect and loyalty uniformly among the staff. Says Manasi Roy, another DDG who’s known Das for 23 years: "He has a unique foresight which helps him see things before others do. This, coupled with the lack of an ego, combines him well with his people who bring in their best."

D OES that mean Das is CII and CII, Das? Says an associate: "Personally, he’s extremely humane and generous. But you have to be in his good books to be at the receiving end of that big-heartedness. His biggest shortcoming is that he does not like opposition to his thoughts and decisions. If there is, he’ll give an impression that he appreciates, but in reality, he may be hating it."

An autocrat, yes, but isn’t that what the head of a globally renowned organisation should be? Says Sen: "He takes too much on himself and decides everything. He should start delegating duties and allow people whom he has built over the years to take decisions." But Sen is also quick to dispel the adverse image that may have been created of Das in his own organisation. "I have him in my memory as the smart 28-year-old who interviewed me, called a spade a spade, yet it was comfortable talking to him. It’s true that most people in the organisation felt fearful of him, but over the years, he has mellowed down. Fear has now given way to respect," he muses.

Even his peers would hesitate to criticise Das. Says Amit Mitra, secretary general, FICCI: "He’s a corporate man. The corporate structure, financial solvency and professionalism he has brought in is certainly admirable." The essential reason why he was chosen for ACC, feel his colleagues in CII, understandably overjoyed at their boss’ elevation. Says Sen: "He was chosen as an independent voice, and he is. Through his interaction with industry leaders and authorities, he has gained valuable experience and can, therefore, deliver."

Detractors, however, say the ACC appointment may be just too much for Das to handle. Says an industrialist: "It could lead to a conflict of interests, especially when CII has a few prominent cement companies as its members." That includes GACL.

In recent times, CII has also come in for a lot of flak for its subservience to the World Economic Forum (WEF). And Das is seen at the root of this development. Says a peer: "WEF has become a mouthpiece of the oecd and gradually, thanks to Mr Das, CII too is becoming a mouthpiece of WEF without realising that it represents the extreme self-interest of the developed world. I.K. Gujral as prime minister realised this and showed his discontent in one of their India meetings. How can you be a repository for WEF’s opening up of India?" Adds Mitra: "FICCI is conscious of understanding the issues on the global political economic matrix and India’s position there. This has not been the strong point of CII."

Does Das have too much on his plate? Of late, some embarrassing moments have highlighted the chinks in the otherwise foolproof armour. A few months ago, a prestigious CII report on sick banks, advocating the closure of three, had to be hastily withdrawn after trade unions pointed out that some prominent CII members were the biggest defaulters. Also, Das’ sudden change in stance on multinationals a few years ago is alleged to have more in common with CII’s friendship with the WEF rather than a newfound realisation that competition is the best policy, even for protected domestic companies. Says an industry source: "Although Tarun Das’ event management and corporate capabilities are superb, everything that he and his team does is hype-related. Anything that gives them hype, they’ll do it."

The appointment as ACC chairman will not be Das’ first stroll into a corporate boardroom. He has also served on the board of the Industrial Development Bank of India, the steering committee on industrial policy for the 8th Plan under the Planning Commission, on the governing body of IIT, Delhi, the foreign exchange review committee of the RBI and the board of Air-India. Two years ago, he almost quit CII and then changed his mind at the last moment. Now, even with the new assignment, the CII honchos have allowed their leader a fresh two-year extension.

Still, the ACC stint could be a precursor of exciting and different days in Das’ long corporate innings. Everyone agrees that the GACL takeover could be the best thing that’s happened to ACC in a long time. Now if only the same could be said about Das too...

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