Chairman of Pininfarina S.p.A. Paolo Pininfarina and Tata Motors' Chairman Ratan Tata attend a press conference on the first media day of the 79th Geneva Car Show in Geneva.Denis Balibouse/Reuters

The announcement that a search for a successor to Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata group, has begun was every bit as understated as the man who has steered India's second-biggest conglomerate for nearly two decades.

A statement, emailed after the market close on Wednesday, simply said the group's holding firm has set up a panel to find a successor to Ratan, who is due to retire by the end of 2012, and will look within the group as well as externally, including abroad.

Ratan Tata is a symbol of corporate India's bold overseas push. The Tata group, ubiquitous in India but little-known abroad, purchased luxury brands Jaguar and Land Rover in 2008.

Tata, who is single and has no children, has said before his successor need not come from the family -- a break from tradition in a country where family ties run deep.

The 72-year-old, who lives quietly in south Mumbai, has said he lacked fire in the belly for another five years at the helm after the launch of the world's cheapest car, the Nano in 2008.

His successor has big shoes to fill: Tata is credited with transforming the sprawling conglomerate of more than 300 firms into a corporate powerhouse after he took over as chairman in 1991 from his uncle J.R.D. Tata.

Now Tata Sons, the holding company owned largely by charitable trusts, oversees less than a third that many firms.

Tata, who studied architecture at Cornell University and management at Harvard, is ranked among the world's 25 most powerful businessmen by Fortune magazine.

But his acumen has been questioned in the past, such as when he spearheaded Tata Motors' foray into cars.

The launch of the Indica hatchback more than a decade ago was far from successful, and Tata later joked that he was afraid even to walk his dogs because irate customers would accost him to complain about parts that rattled and doors that did not shut.

Since then more than a million Indica cars have sold, and Tata Motors, which had been known for its buses and trucks, launched the Indigo sedan in 2002, a car Tata sometimes drives to work.

Tata Motors, which was set up to make locomotives at the end of World War Two, successfully launched the Nano despite enormous challenges and is planning to sell it abroad.

Analysts also questioned Tata's plan to buy luxury brands Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford Motor in a $2.3 billion deal.

But Tata not only won over a tough-talking union representing workers at Land Rover and Jaguar, he has also beaten his own estimates for sales of Jaguar and Land Rover, even at home in India.


The Tata group, with interests spanning energy, luxury hotels, including Mumbai's Taj Mahal, retail, broadcast, software and telecoms, is India's second biggest group by market value, behind energy giant Reliance Industries Ltd.

Under Ratan Tata the group is not afraid to make big buys: Tata Tea bought UK's Tetley Tea for $432 million and Tata Power paid $1.3 billion for stakes in Indonesia's PT Bumi Resources Tbk's two coal mines.

But the biggest deal was India's biggest ever takeover, the $13 billion purchase of UK's Corus Group by Tata Steel.

Tata, a licensed pilot who occasionally flies the company plane, and who recently took a spin in an F-16 fighter jet, has described the launch of the Nano as a high point in his career, one that gave him a rush of adrenaline.

A low point was the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, which killed 166 people and was centered on the Taj Mahal hotel. Unlike some of his business rivals, Ratan Tata does not court media attention and steers clear of Mumbai's party circuit.

Tata has lived alone in the same upmarket apartment building for years and goes to work in a black Mercedes or Indigo, sitting beside his driver.

Tata is a member of the small but prosperous Parsi community, known for its love of music and arts, and upholds the family reputation for treating employees fairly and not paying bribes.

(Editing by Paul de Bendern and Louise Heavens)