Tata leadership race must show open mind

Mark Kleinman
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Manufacturing To Be A Key Election Issue
Indian conglomerate Tata Group owns the Port Talbot steelworks (Source: Getty)

Trump, May, Modi: protectionism takes many forms, and has many masters (and mistresses). In India, a curious case of economic nationalism is quietly unfolding at the country’s most significant conglomerate.

In one sense, that’s unsurprising – India’s track record of foreign ownership restrictions in industries like insurance, banking and technology, is a lengthy one.

But at Tata Group, the owner of Port Talbot’s steelworks, Tetley Tea and Jaguar Land Rover, a protectionist streak is manifesting itself in the process of recruiting a new figurehead.

Indian candidates for the task of replacing Cyrus Mistry, the ousted chairman, include the head of Tata Consultancy Services – the group’s main profit engine – and Harish Manwani, the former Unilever executive, who has limited experience outside the consumer goods sector.

Read more: European steel bosses call for EU to boost ailing industry's trade defences

Foreigners have made it onto the shortlist too. One is said to be Ralf Speth, who heads Tata’s stuttering (JLR aside) car division. Another is George Buckley, the Smiths Group chairman who is unarguably among the UK’s most successful living industrialists.

At a time when a Brit is preparing to run Coca-Cola, with another already at the helm of McDonald’s – two of America’s most potent corporate symbols – exporting UK executives to run flagship foreign multinationals is in fashion.

Yet opposition is growing to the idea of a non-Indian running Tata, particularly, I’m told, in political circles.

Mistry’s exit from the board of Tata Consultancy Services this week was a formality, but the scale of non-family ownership of other group companies means it may not be so easy to remove him elsewhere.

In itself, that’s a reflection of the tension which surrounds the group’s current governance arrangements.

Tata has become one of Britain’s biggest inward investors because of an open-door policy which has helped revive sectors such as car manufacturing – to the mutual benefit of company and country.

So it would be a serious blight on its reputation if Buckley, for example, was denied the chance to head Tata purely on the grounds of the passport he holds.

Labour, Lloyd’s & Lloyds

Who says Labour politicians aren’t trying to get closer to British business?

The breathless press release landing in journalists’ inboxes this week from Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow City minister, probably won’t help the party change that perception.

Referring to Lloyd’s of London’s ongoing search for a new European Union hub as part of its Brexit contingency plan, Labour cited Lloyds Banking Group instead.

The hunt, said Reynolds, reflected the Tories’ “shambolic handling” of Britain’s EU exit.

But if they cannot tell the difference between a bank and the world’s most prestigious reinsurance market, what hope would there be for the City under Labour?

Read more: Labour's John McDonnell accuses Tories of seeking “bankers' Brexit”

Gilbert plays Trump card

Martin Gilbert will probably remember 2016 with a China-sized dollop of indifference. His Aberdeen Asset Management saw significant fund outflows as investors’ enthusiasm for the emerging markets story ran out of steam.

One factor in that? The prospect of a Trump presidency weighing on clients’ risk appetite.

So it’s not without irony that the year may be ending on a more cheerful note. I understand that one of Gilbert’s final dinner engagements of 2016 was with the next President, during a trip to the US last week.

Read more: Trump appoints another tech leader to his transition team

The two men are, apparently, long-standing friends, with their mutual love of golf likely to have absorbed much of their discussion.

But the Aberdeen chief has other reasons, too, to stick close to Trump. Contrary to assumptions, Gilbert remains interested in buying the US arm of Pioneer Investments, the group which has just struck a deal to be acquired by Amundi.

Pulling that off would give him reason to spend more time in the backyard of the next Commander-in-Chief.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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