NEW DELHI -- Cyrus Mistry became chairman of Tata Sons at the wrong time.
The secretive chairman took the helm of the holding company of the Tata Group, India's largest industrial house, in December 2012. In an interview with The Nikkei, his predecessor Ratan Tata, now chairman emeritus, said that the baton was passed to Mistry at a time when India's economy was stagnant. He also said the new leader has great future potential.
Little is known about Mistry a year after he assumed the helm. His family leads Shapoorji Pallonji group, a corporate entity engaged in construction and other areas of business. The company is a major shareholder in Tata Sons.
Mistry has served on the board of Tata Sons since 2006. Both the Tata and Mistry families are Zoroastrian. Cyrus Mistry's elder sister is married to Ratan Tata's half brother.
Some people in the Indian business world say that he is "too low-profile."
That said, recent moves by the Tata Group give a glimpse of Mistry's strategy. The low-cost Nano car, launched by Tata Motors in 2009 under the leadership of Ratan Tata, will be remodeled as the company tries to shed the vehicle's cheap image. A string of fire incidents involving Nano cars damaged their reputation. Tata under Mistry will look to claw back lost credibility by substantially remodeling the car's outer appearance and interior.
Mistry's Tata Group is also entering new business segments. The group decided in spring 2013 to break into the civil aviation business by forming two joint companies, one with Malaysian budget airline AirAsia and another with Singapore Airlines. The group is also interested in getting into defense industries.
A comeback is far from guaranteed. Tata needs to shore up a number of struggling group companies. Tata Motors is beset by slumping sales, and Tata Steel is in trouble because of overseas acquisitions. Can Mistry manage to steer the Indian conglomerate into new areas of business and resolve inherited problems?