January 2015 | Christabelle Noronha

'We promote the group’s business in North America'

A quintessential finance man, James Shapiro was appointed as resident director of Tata Sons in North America in August 2014. Mr Shapiro achieved a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard, and master’s degrees in philosophy and economics from Yale. He worked at the New York Stock Exchange for about 16 years and at Galileo Global Advisors for about five years. Before joining the Tata group, Mr Shapiro worked at the Bombay Stock Exchange for about five years, posted first in Mumbai and later as an advisor based in New York.

In this interview with Christabelle Noronha, he discusses a variety of issues, including the role of the Tata Sons’ Washington office and why there are numerous growth opportunities for the Tata group companies in North America.

How do you define the role and responsibility of the Tata Sons’ Washington office?
Overall, the role of the Tata Sons’ office in North America is three-fold — business development, government relations and public affairs, and brand and media support for the group.

Can you tell us about the agenda that you have set for yourself and the extended Tata organisation in North America?
I think my role and my agenda is pretty simple. It’s to make sure that the Tata Sons’ North America office continues to be a resource for companies operating in the US and for the ones that are not yet here but want to come. Secondly, it’s really to help build the Tata brand in North America, which will in turn support the growth of those businesses.

Where do you think the Tata brand stands vis-a-vis North America?
I would say today, in terms of attracting employees, we are doing pretty well. People that know the company are attracted to it because of what we stand for — a strong set of values — and because we are now a substantial global enterprise from a dynamic region with high quality management and employees.

Watch how the Tata group is leveraging opportunities in North America and building the brand in the region
What kind of image would you want to project in North America — to the government, the business communities and stakeholders?
What we are trying to do here is the same thing we have accomplished in other parts of the world. It’s really to help people understand that the group consists of companies that are held together by common values and a standard way of doing business. You can gradually get that across to people, mostly not by talking about it, but by behaving well and doing things that reflect those values.

Both Tata Sons and all the companies here in North America are doing quite a bit in terms of community involvement, volunteering activities and support for various programmes, like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) initiatives at TCS and Jaguar Land Rover’s involvement with children’s health. Tata Sons has also led the group companies in getting involved directly in education and reading in partnership with First Book and the Magic Johnson Foundation.

The community has always been an important stakeholder for the group. What are the initiatives for the community being implemented in the North America region?
In the last few years, Tata Sons has concentrated quite a bit on education and reading enrichment for underprivileged communities, especially where we have operations. We have partnered with First Book and the Magic Johnson Foundation, as well as others to really reach into these unprivileged communities. But that’s not the only thing we’ve done.

We’ve offered these kinds of opportunities to employees of the operating companies and the focus has really been on volunteering. It’s an immediate way to engage employees with the communities where they work. So it’s kind of a two-pronged focus. One is that you’re doing something beneficial for the community. But you are also getting the employees engaged and building relationships with the community which starts to build a virtuous cycle. We have had very good feedback from the volunteers about the success of these programmes. Beyond Tata Sons, we’ve seen that almost all the companies operating here have their own initiatives. Not surprisingly, the biggest and most established set of activities is from TCS in the STEM education area. They are doing quite a bit in terms of partnering with other institutions to encourage better education in the STEM fields, to support research on what kind of initiatives work, etc.

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) is working for child health in the region and Tata Communications has been working with Habitat for Humanity, getting volunteers to build houses. Across the board we are seeing companies embrace that part of the Tata ethos and demonstrate it in the US and Canada as well.

The political establishment in this country is a very important stakeholder. How are you addressing this stakeholder in terms of messaging?
We have a well established and effective government relations effort in Washington DC. We are in constant contact with people who care about India and who represent the states where we operate and have activities. So, I think we cover them well. They are well aware of the company, what we do, what we stand for, our community engagement activities, as well as our business activities.

Right now, we operate in a relatively small number of states in North America and just a few provinces in Canada, but that is destined to grow over the next few years, and as it does, the scope of our government relations engagement will grow.

What does the group have to watch out for in this market?
As I said, we are playing a very long game in North America. It is an enormous economy with tremendous potential. Despite setbacks as a result of the financial crisis, this remains one of the most advanced and vibrant economies in the world with advanced technology, innovation and opportunities for growth for Tata companies.

We have to continue to do what we are doing — operate in a way that we’re comfortable in. If we do this, our businesses will continue to see opportunities to grow in this geography. So, I don’t see any particular obstacles that we can’t overcome. In fact, I think North America is a relatively easy place to do business and we are seeing the potential for our companies to grow quite well here.

What are the factors involved in coordinating the unified Tata brand?
The group is a collection of independent companies. They have independent operations, boards and strategies. So it is not really feasible for us to be coordinated on every issue.

But there are also many areas where cooperation is very helpful and we see companies operating in North America embrace it. This is one of the roles of the Tata Sons office — to see opportunities for cooperation and bring these to the attention of the operating companies. For example, if one company is well established with a client or in a particular state, it often opens the door for others to get a foothold or to grow their business.

We also carry more weight with business partners and in the political sphere if we are seen as a coordinated group. If we have five companies operating in a state rather than one, our voice is stronger in policy discussions that might affect us.

Is that happening?
Yes, it is definitely happening. Even in states where we currently have only one company, the potential for others in the group to also do business is greater. It is also helpful to have a coordinated approach when dealing with the political establishment.

Has the group been successful in what was earlier a stated goal — going beyond Washington DC and reaching out to people in other parts of the United States? What will it take to do this better than before?

Yes, we are certainly making progress in broadening our reach beyond Washington. This will continue to happen quite naturally as our footprint in the US and Canada continues to expand.

So what would you say is the stated goal of the Tata Sons office in Washington?
The goal of the office in Washington is to help position and provide context to the group’s business activities globally and in North America. To make sure that our stakeholders in government and policy circles understand the group and the brand. It’s really to project the brand for operating companies in the region. Also, to help our companies build and execute their plans for growth here. I think we have done a good job of that and will continue to work hard to do so in the future.

There is always a challenge in terms of the mother brand versus the company brands. How would you address that situation?
I think they are mutually reinforcing. To the extent that people understand the group and are aware of the Tata brand, it provides a kind of tailwind that helps the companies grow their businesses in this region.

Obviously the individual companies, especially if they are retail or B2C, will have to invest much more in terms of their brands, like Jaguar Land Rover, Eight O’Clock Coffee. I mean, they are going to have to reach individual consumers and change the way they see the company.

The group has consistently engaged with American universities and the academia. What has been the impact of these engagements?
I think this is another important area for us. Within the group we have many companies with various levels of engagement with academic institutions, whether it is for research or recruitment or some other kind of collaboration. In cases where many group companies have contact points with major American universities, the Tata Sons office can play an important coordinating role and help ensure that our relationships with these institutions evolve smoothly and can be mutually beneficial over many decades.

What has the experience of this new responsibility as resident director of Tata Sons been like? Has anything about it surprised you?
I wouldn’t say there are any big surprises. In previous jobs, I worked with the Tata group. When I was at the New York Stock Exchange, we had many interactions with Tata executives and worked with some of them to list the companies. So I’ve always been pretty familiar with the group, its unique structure, the kind of companies that are in it and many of the people within it.

But when I actually joined this summer, I got a flurry of emails from people that I knew within the group, basically saying, “Welcome to the Tata family”, which was just a very pleasant surprise. I don’t think you get that kind of welcome at most companies when you join. It was just very interesting. There is a warmth to the company’s culture that I think is very unusual.

Fact file: Tata sons

  • Started operations in the US more than 60 years ago.
  • Acts as central resource for 12 Tata companies and 22,000 employees.
  • Role in North America includes business development, government relations and public affairs, and brand and media support for the group.
  • Company’s community initiatives in North America focus on education and reading enrichment for underprivileged communities.

 

This article is part of the cover story chronicling the Tata group's history of doing business in North America, featured in the January 2015 issue of Tata Review:
Tata Consultancy Services: 'United States is a hotbed of digital progression'
Jaguar Land Rover: 'North America is a critical market place for JLR'
Tata Chemicals: 'We are investing in the technologies of tomorrow'
Tata Steel Minerals Canada: 'Tata Steel navigates subarctic challenges'
Tata Technologies: 'We have to get to a billion dollars quickly'
Tata Communications: 'Strategy 2.0 will make us a value–added service player'
Indian Hotels Company: 'We are the keepers of heritage and legacy'
Tata Global Beverages: 'The team is excited about the opportunities ahead'
Tata Elxsi: 'We are unique among engineering service providers'
Tata Interactive systems: 'Content creation is as important as packaging it'