I was nine years old. We lived in the naval cantonment in Colaba, Mumbai. The cantonment had a sprawling golf course by the sea, part of the premises of the United Services Club. It was a common sight to see Mr. Tata play golf there. I distinctly remember a fine Sunday morning, when my friends and I were cycling around the vicinity of the golf course. We saw Mr. Tata tee off in the distance. A young naval officer stopped us, pointed at Mr. Tata and said –
Young men, many a people earn money, very few earn respect
Fast forward fifteen years, I was a consultant with The Boston Consulting Group. We were advising Tata Motors, an assignment which was made public by Tata Motors. I spent many months in the remotest parts of Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and the North East. I must have met and interacted with over 500 truckers during this time, breaking bread with them, occasionally sharing a drink with them. In one such spirited interaction, I asked an old Sikh trucker (The Sikhs dominate the trucking industry in India) –
Sir, why the staunch loyalty to the Tata brand? There are others like Bharat Benz and Ashok Leyland, who might even give you a hefty discount.
The gentleman took a few deep breaths. He recalled the forgettable details of one cold November night back in 1984 – a night which took away his brother, his home and his only truck. While the personal loss was irreplaceable, his truck, the only means to feed a family of five, was also burnt down. He was broken and contemplated leaving town and returning to Punjab. A few days later, once the dust settled, a Tata Motors employee walked up to him and handed him the keys to a new truck. There were no questions asked. He, and many others like him, who had lost their trucks in the Sikh riots, their only means of a livelihood, were given a free truck by Tata Motors. And this story never hit the press, was never publicized by Tata Motors, just remained etched in the memories of these truckers. As he narrated this story with moist eyes, he told me that he trusts the Tata brand – it has his lifelong loyalty.
Fast forward a few more years, I am twenty-eight and have co-founded one of India’s fastest growing startups – Urban Company. My co-founders and I are sitting in a rather simple room, part of a small office tucked away in Elphinstone building at Fort in Mumbai. Across the table is Mr. Tata himself, patiently listening to us. We share our dream, our aspiration to build a company which helps people hire reliable local services with the push of a button. At some point during the conversation, he says –
Gentlemen, what you are building is something India needs. Never compromise on quality, it will take 10 years, but you will eventually get there.
As I left that office that day, I felt I had aged a bit.
Urban Company is fortunate to have Mr. Ratan Naval Tata as one of our investors and backers. We will work hard, our heads down, and do all it takes to build a large, trusted company – and repose the faith he has shown in us.