The Learning Factory: How The Leaders of TATA became Nation Builders – Arun Maira

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A firsthand account of some of the principles, ethics and values that have catapulted the behemoth that is the TATA Group into a ‘humanitarian’ conglomerate, Arun Maira’s “The Learning Factory” is an anecdotal account that reveals the aspirations, ambitions and attitudes of two colossal figures, who strode across India’s industrial and engineering landscape. The duo’s passion and purpose made the word zealous read feeble. The efforts of J.R.D. Tata and Sumant Moolgaokar not just succeeded in making the House of Tatas a household name, but also ignited a spark that spurred an entire nation to achieve heights hitherto unimagined.

However, Mr. Maira’s book leaves the reader a tad bit unsatisfied when the covers come down on it. The structure of the book itself takes the form of a scatter graph. Instances and incidents are repeated across Chapters, thereby frustrating the reader. For example, an account of how Mr. Maira and his collection of cheap trinkets (souvenirs from Singapore) were allowed to pass through Customs Duty, after a senior authority accepted him for his word, regarding the amount spent on them, just because he was from the Tata Group of companies, gets an elongated, and avoidable mention in more than one Chapter. As does the stellar efforts expended by Mr. Moolgaokar in transforming a barren landscape allocated to the Tatas in Pune for their factory, into a dense ecological foliage, whose confines was deemed safe even by a leopard which choose to birth its cub under safe cover of such greenery. This particular episode has also been mentioned by another Tata veteran, Syamal Gupta in his book, “Quintessentially Tatas”.

The book is more a revelation of Mr. Maira’s own experience with some of the chieftains acknowledged to be titans of the Tata Group, rather than a legacy of the Group itself. The narrative stops in the year 1989. Readers will remember that India’s economic fortunes and reputation as a nation to be reckoned with took off like a whirlwind following the liberalization efforts initiated in 1991 and thereafter. Hence there is a total absence of contemporaneous analysis and dissection of the ‘Tata way of life.’ Hence controversial aspects such as the imbroglio surrounding the Cyrus Mistry saga, and the easing away of entrenched personalities such as Russi Mody from the management, are conspicuously absent. Instead what the reader is treated to are instances of successful turned around strategies such as the Tatab joint venture with a Malaysian local entity and the Tata-Daimler-Benz collaboration which resulted ultimately in trucks being manufactured within India of the same quality and precision that hitherto represented the sole preserve of the German company.

Mr. Maira pays unabashed and unashamed homage to the late Sumit Moolgaokar. This book in fact is more a testimony to the greatness of Moolgaokar than an overview of the Tata Group and its ethos. Not that this leaves reason for anyone to complain. Mr. Moolgaokar is undoubtedly one of the greatest ever visionaries that this country has had the privilege to grace, and his endeavours will remain immortalized in the lexicon of Indian industrial ingenuity and innovation. As Mr. Maira holds forth, Mr. Moolgaokar is, without any debate, acknowledged as the brain behind Tata Motors, formerly known as the Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company (TELCO) and of which he was the Chief Executive; he also donned the mantle of the Vice Chairman of Tata Steel. An indefatigable entrepreneurial spirt made Mr. Moolgaokar conceptualise from scratch a factory at Pune that manufactured trucks, vans, coaches, buses military vehicles, passenger cars, sports cars and construction equipment. Mr. Moolgaokar termed this plant, “The Learning Factory”, since an absence of talent as well as restrictions on import of equipment during a draconian exchange control regime ensured that all precision equipment to be used in the manufacture of the automobiles themselves, had to be manufactured within the factory. Mr. Moolgaokar, as Mr. Maira illustrates, succeeded beyond even the skeptic’s wildest imagination. The Pune factory was described as the second Taj Mahal by former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and played host to innumerable foreign dignitaries and heads of state. Mr. Moolgaokar wanted his factories to resemble ‘German hospitals’ in terms of hygiene and cleanliness.

Mr. Moolgaokar’s appetite for achieving the impossible and capacity for overcoming the insurmountable came to the fore in a resplendent and lambent fashion when the Government of India threw open the doors for foreign automobile manufacturers to manufacture and produce Light Commercial Vehicles (“LCVs”) in India. Japanese manufacturers Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Mazda, took up the offer of the Government with undiminished glee. These were the companies that had made quite a dent in the fortunes of General Motors when they entered and penetrated the US market. This was in spite of General Motors spending hordes of money in a counteractive strategy titled “Project Saturn.”  The Tata Group led by Mr. Moolgaokar set up their own “Project Jupiter.” “It provided inspiration for the symbiotic cooperation amongst all departments which was essential to make Project Jupiter successful. Project Jupiter was successful. A new, Indian-designed and produced LCV, the Tata 407, was ready for sales within eighteen months. Soon, thousands were running across the country. TELCO’S market share of LCVs reached 70 per cent, squeezing all the Japanese into only 30 per cent of the market share. In fact, within a few years, three of the Japanese companies closed their production in India. Only one survived the onslaught of the 407.”

“The Learning Factory” also recounts some exemplary instances of unbelievable altruism displayed by the Tata Group. J.R.D. Tata and Sumant Moolgaokar, standing shoulder to shoulder on a platform of the Munich railway station in 1946 accepted the board of Kraus Maffei’s offer to train Indian engineers in Jamshedpur after the war, in return for homes in Jamshedpur for Kraus Maffei’s engineers and their families, whose lives had been shattered by the devastation of Germany by the Allied Forces. The German company after a few years was shell shocked to receive a letter from the Tatas requesting for a bill in consideration for the technical services rendered  by the German engineers.

“The Learning Factory” contains a few more examples of the nature as alluded above. It also provides the reader the lessons imparted to Mr. Maira throughout his twenty five year association with the Tata Group by his leaders. Although making for a pleasant and feel good read, there is this intuitive feeling that the book has left out more than it has contained.