Russi Mody

Icon of industry

Print edition : June 13, 2014

Rustomji Homusji Mody. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Russi Mody (1918-2014), one of the most iconic and colourful figures of Indian business, bows out.

RUSTOMJI HOMUSJI MODY, popularly and universally known as Russi Mody, was one of the giants of the corporate world. He carved out his own path to immortality with his unique and original style of management where the focus was on man, rather than machine or technology. He, in fact, implemented concepts such as human resource development long before they became commonplace management practice.

One of the last of the legends of an erstwhile industrial era of closed economy, Russi Mody was a name synonymous with Tata Steel, then known as TISCO (Tata Iron and Steel Company Limited). In fact, this diminutive, rotund man with an ever-present smile on his face was affectionately given the sobriquet “Man of Steel”; he was also sometimes called the “King of Jamshedpur” (the headquarters of Tata Steel). His death on May 16 at the age of 96 in Kolkata closed the chapter on one of the most interesting icons of Indian industry, whose flamboyant personality and feisty yet genial nature did not allow his fame to remain confined to corporate boardrooms and factories.

Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus, Tata Sons Limited, called Mody an “institution at Tata Steel”. Cyrus P. Mistry, Tata Group chairman, said: “His vision was all-encompassing: excellence in business, enduring commitment to society, and focus on the dignity of the individual.” In his condolence message, President Pranab Mukherjee hailed Mody as an “iconic figure” and said that with his passing away, “the nation has lost a stalwart whose human touch endeared him to all”.

The steel years

Born on January 17, 1918, in Bombay (now Mumbai) to the eminent Parsi businessman Sir Homi Mody and Lady Jerbhai Mody, Russi went to England at an early age. After completing his schooling from Harrow, he studied history at Christ Church College at Oxford, where he developed a fascination for Napoleon Bonaparte, who was to become a huge inspiration for him in his later years. After finishing his studies, he returned to India and joined TISCO in 1939 as an office assistant. Thus began an association that lasted more than five decades and saw him rise to the very top of the organisation as chairman and managing director.

Mody was made director, personnel, in 1953, director, raw materials, in 1965 and director, operations, in 1970. Two years later, he was appointed joint managing director. In 1974, he became the managing director of TISCO and in 1984, the chairman and managing director of the company. It was his experience of coming up through the ranks that perhaps gave him his unique outlook towards the workers and a deep concern for their well-being. “What is man management? That one must behave naturally with any human being,” he famously said. Mody’s man-management skills were legendary. Even after he became managing director, he visited different workshops regularly, met the staff, and personally replied to every petition or grievance of workers. “In 90 per cent of the cases there is nothing I can do, but the fact that they hear from me means something to them,” was his view. His efforts did pay off and Russi Mody was adored by his workers.

A story goes that once a worker in the Tata Steel unit was dismissed for damaging some expensive equipment accidentally. When he went to say goodbye to Mody, he was asked by the latter why he was fired. After the man gave his reasons, Mody went through his files and found that he was a good worker and had a good track record, and he had him reinstated immediately. “Losing an efficient person is much more costly than losing a piece of equipment,” he reportedly said. It was this kind of understanding attitude towards the labour force that marked his tenure at the helm of Tata Steel.

“Among Russi Mody’s several multidimensional characteristics, what stands out is his passion for people, people aspects and people development…. As a people’s person he was adept in dealing with a wide cross section of people and made each of them feel comfortable,” said Tata Steel vice-chairman B. Muthuraman. According to company lore, Mody knew each and every worker of Tata Steel personally and by name—a characteristic also attributed to Napoleon.

Even though he was not a technical man, he was known as an excellent judge of people and for his ability to choose the best man for a job. For example, it was he who appointed Jamshed J. Irani (who would later himself become the managing director of Tata Steel) to be in charge of the steel melting shop even though Irani was considered a research man. Irani, it turned out, was the best man for the job. Irani himself acknowledged that Mody played a big role in building his career. Even before he was made the managing director, as head of operations, Mody would daily have his breakfast with around 15 people to discuss and plan out the activities of the day. It was through these meetings and discussions that he apprised himself of technical details and also got to know his staff better and identified their strengths. All this was serious work, yet done amid a feeling of camaraderie and enjoyment.

A full life

Mody was also considered the forerunner of the technological turnaround at Tata Steel, which became a benchmark for the rest of the industry in India. In 1989, he was conferred the Padma Bhushan for his contribution to industry. However, for all his recognition and popularity, Mody’s parting with the company he served for 53 years was not without acrimony. He had serious differences with the top brass of the Tata Group, leading him to quit in 1993, and Jamshed J. Irani took over as the managing director and Ratan Tata as the chairman. It took some years before Mody and the Tatas buried the hatchet. After leaving the Tatas, Mody had a brief and unremarkable stint as chairman of both Air India and Indian Airlines.

Mody’s talents and interests were not restricted to the corporate sector. He was a brilliant piano player: he played the piano with Albert Einstein on the violin during his days at Oxford. He was an expert cook, an avid art collector and a voracious reader.

But what really added to his legend were his flamboyant lifestyle, his gregarious, fun-loving nature and his joie de vivre. Be it riding an elephant through Jamshedpur town to celebrate his birthday (little wonder he was also known as the King of Jamshedpur), or spending Rs.28 lakh to light up the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata so people could enjoy looking at it by night as well, Mody drank life to the lees and remained defiant, unapologetic, iconoclastic and loveable right to the end.

And, to take a little liberty with the catchline of his old company, he also made steel.

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