What does Cyrus Mistry want? Ever since his summary 24 October dismissal as chairman of Tata Sons Ltd, the spurned executive has demanded a reason for his sacking from the holding company of India’s $103 billion salt-to-software conglomerate.
At the same time, Mistry, 48, has accused Ratan Tata, the 78-year-old who wrested back control of the group, of everything from a control fetish to governance failures and bad judgment. According to Mistry, Ratan Tata’s 2006 purchase of Corus Group Plc’s British steel assets, his vanity small-car project as well as the acquisition of pricey hotels have exposed the empire that bears his family’s name to an existential threat.
Some of this could just be wounded pride, but even if Mistry’s allegations have a kernel of truth, what does he gain from trash-talking a group in which his family owns 18.4%? One possible answer is that he might—if he can convince enough outside investors in operating companies to side with him—prize open the loosely controlled conglomerate, and pluck out a big reward.
Tuesday’s shareholder meeting of Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, the software business, may have been a practice session in that treasure hunt. Tata Sons’ 73% stake in TCS was enough for Ratan Tata to get Mistry thrown out as its chairman. But at five other companies—Indian Hotels Co. Ltd, Tata Steel Ltd, Tata Motors Ltd, Tata Chemicals Ltd and Tata Power Co. Ltd—the founding group owns less than 40%. All of them hold shareholder meetings between 13 December and 26 December to vote on Mistry’s fate.
On both sides, there’s much high-minded talk about values, and how the other camp was ruining the group’s reputation for fair play by cutting ethical corners. All that posturing diverts attention from what this spat is really about: Not UK steel plants laden with pension liabilities, nor US hotels saddled with exorbitant lease rentals, but a car key—or the key to a major global carmaker with a large, profitable market in China.
If that’s the end game, then the fight may be well worth it.