There used to be a hotline between Jamshedpur and Bombay House. So, one day in 1987, Russi called me to his office, got on to the line and said, “Get me JRD.” I asked him if he wanted me to go out, he replied, “No”. And after a few pleasantries, Russi said on the call, “You know Ishaat. We make him the finance director after Kassem Patel retires.” I was pleasantly surprised and in 1989, I came to Bombay House. It was also the period when India was changing its contours and about to embrace liberalisation.
I worked with Ratan Tata very closely when he became the chairman of Tata Steel in 1993. Though the transition from Russi to Ratan saw an unseemly tussle between them, the good thing was that we were never involved in such matters. While one had to be cautious and sensitive, there wasn’t animosity on a day-to-day basis. In fact, Ratan had the greatest respect and regard for Russi. If one were to ask Ratan today, I’m sure he would say that Russi’s management capabilities were exceptional. But we all make misjudgements and I believe Russi’s abrupt departure was on account of one such misjudgement on his part.
Reflecting on my years at Tata Steel, two events stand out in my memory. The first one is when liberalisation swept through the shores in 1991; duty on steel was brought down to 5-10% from 60%. Suddenly, Indian steel had to compete with imported steel. Tata Steel’s facilities were largely old and obsolete. On the other hand, steel prices were decontrolled. My colleague, R Sankaran, in Jamshedpur prepared a forecast for the financial year 1993-94, which was alarming. He called me on the hotline and informed me, “Boss, we are in deep trouble.” In addition, the working capital situation turned dramatically adverse, as earlier we used to collect cash in advance before we sold steel, but now, everyone was asking for credit. I went to Ratan and informed him about the existential crisis that TISCO was facing. He immediately rang up Jamshed Irani to brief him of the situation and asked him to come to Bombay urgently with his senior colleagues. Soon, a meeting of the top management of TISCO was held in Bombay and