Tata expands business empire

India-based conglomerate grabs global attention with automotive moves, jump into outsourcing industry.

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MUMBAI (India) -- A dozen years ago, many believed that India's Tata Group -- the country's oldest and largest conglomerate -- was a bloated behemoth that would eventually go under.

Instead, it has become a powerhouse in the 21st century, focusing on core businesses like steel and automobiles and seizing opportunities, including the hugely profitable outsourcing business, that came with India's dramatic economic transformation.

A slew of recent acquisitions, including for Britain's Tetley Tea and Boston's Ritz Carlton Hotel, have thrust the Tata conglomerate -- which comprises 98 companies and was largely unknown outside India until recently -- into the global spotlight.

A year ago, Tata Steel Ltd. became the world's sixth-biggest steelmaker when it bought Britain-based Corus Group for $13 billion. Then in January, Tata Motors Ltd.

grabbed the world's attention when it unveiled the planet's cheapest car: a $2,500 four-seater that could change the global auto industry.

Surprising naysayers, the company has also been named the preferred bidder for Ford Motor's Jaguar and Land Rover businesses.

"We have been thinking bigger than we have done in the past," said Chairman Ratan N. Tata, 70, in a rare interview at Bombay House, the group's headquarters since 1926. "We have been bolder ... and we have been more aggressive in the marketplace."

In five years through March 2007, annual group sales more than doubled to $29 billion, while market capitalization of its 27 listed companies increased six-fold, to $78 billion. The numbers do not include Corus, whose sales totaled $19 billion in 2006.

While recent rapid earnings growth at Tata Steel and Tata Motors has slowed, net profit at Tata Consultancy, India's biggest outsourcing company, continues to rise, climbing 21 percent in the October-December quarter.

The globalization strategy will only get bigger, said the barrel-chested Tata.

"We are at an early stage," he said. "We are still feeling our way."

The resurgence of the 140-year-old Tata brand is as much a story of the country's economic rise as it is about the success of the chairman, whose ascent to the top job in 1991 coincided with the beginning of India's shift from a socialist-style state to a market economy.

For decades after India's independence from Britain in 1947, the government fixed prices, imposed curbs on foreign goods and capital, brought draconian tax laws and set limits to what a company could produce. The restrictive regime stifled growth and bred corruption.

The Tata Group was hit harder than others because it strove to create a business culture that emphasized transparency and integrity. Tata executives are known for refusing to pay bribes, a widespread Indian practice, and their lifestyles are mostly modest.

Ratan Tata, a bachelor, lives in a beachfront Mumbai apartment and is driven to work in an inexpensive Tata sedan.

When Ratan took over the company from his gregarious uncle, J.R.D. Tata, India's economy was starting to open up, but the Tata group was almost falling apart. Sales were sluggish and government controls had limited new investments.

Unlike his uncle, Ratan took charge from the start. It took him years to clean up the mess from the power struggles, pushing out a generation of executives and jettisoning peripheral businesses.

At Tata Steel, tens of thousands of jobs were cut. Tata Motors built the first fully Indian-designed car, the Indica -- a roomy hatchback rolled out in 1998.

Just as the group's fortunes were reviving, the Indian economy hit a slump. That's when it became compelling for Tata to look overseas.

What followed was a massive push to acquire businesses abroad. Nearly 30 overseas buyouts have since helped the group's international revenues grow fourfold to $11 billion and contributed more than a third to its total sales last year.