Harish Bhat: A Storyteller behind the Corporate Exterior

Interview of Author Harish Bhat
Harish Bhat

I found a fairytale-like quality in his writing in his book TataLog, and he is one himself. Harish Bhat is better known as the MD of Tata Global Beverages. But here he wears his writer hat and talks to us.

Author Harish Bhat Interview

Let us begin by knowing a bit about you Harish Bhat: Where did you grow up, what did you study and did you always want to write?

Harish Bhat: I grew up in several cities, primarily in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I studied in schools at Madurai, Salem, Coimbatore, and Kollam. My Father worked in a Public Sector Bank, this was a transferable job. So every three or four years we would move to a new town. So I have fond memories of the bustling Temple city of Madurai, and the wonderful backwaters of Kollam. Both feed the imagination splendidly.

Yes, of course, I always wanted to write. As a schoolboy, I used to write quite obsessively. At the age of 14, I won a prize for a short story I wrote, in the Shankar’s International Writing Competition that was quite famous in those days. I am still very proud of that particular short story, which I recall was inspired by the Indo-Pak war of 1971. And I would write articles and essays of various kinds, sitting over my Remington typewriter at our house in Madurai.

Tell us about your relationship with Tatas. You have played quite a long innings with them, what do they mean to you?

If my family is my first home, the Tata group is clearly my second home. I like to think that I belong to both forever.  I love the Tatas and would like to work here until I finally hang up my corporate boots. The Tata Group has been an inspiration to me, and it has also been the crucible which has shaped me as a professional and as a person.

Which is your favorite Tata company that you have worked for? Is there a dream company/role that you would like to do before you retire?

I have had long stints in Tata Tea (now renamed Tata Global Beverages) and Titan. It has been a joy to work in both these Companies. They have provided me wonderful canvases to paint on, and the freedom to paint them as I wish. They have provided me the opportunity of working with wonderful leaders, who have been mentors, guides, and hard taskmasters. The teams in both these Companies have been fabulous. I love the brands I have been associated with in both these Organisations – Tetley, Tata Tea, Agni, Chakra Gold, Gemini Dust, Titan, Tanishq, Sonata, Fastrack. Creating and nurturing brands has always been my cup of tea.

I haven’t given thought to a dream role that I would like to perform before I retire. Because I have been pretty much living out each role as a dream. My current role as Managing Director of Tata Global Beverages is very exciting. So was my previous position as Chief Operating Officer of the Watches business, in Titan. And so was the intervening brief sabbatical, where I got an opportunity to write the book “Tata Log”.

A lot of senior managers in Tata Companies begin and end their careers in Tata World. How do you think this benefits these professionals and Tata group? 

Continuity in leadership and management is critically important for Companies. It ensures consistency of strategy and execution, it reassures the team. And most importantly it ensures that a consistent culture is nurtured over several years. Therefore, the long tenure of several senior managers in the Tata group is certainly one of the reasons for the steady growth of this Group over more than 150 years.

For professionals such as myself, the Tata group offers a wonderful long-term career, with a clear lifelong purpose, and exciting roles which are linked to our respective capabilities and interests. Isn’t that a wonderful thing, particularly in today’s ephemeral world?

Do you think this single company exposure can also put some constraints like a limited view of the outside world, a narrower range of experiences and more importantly missed opportunities of cross-pollination of ideas from other eco-systems?

Yes, exposure to a single Company can sometimes be limiting. Therefore, it is important to constantly reach out to the outside world, benchmark with other Companies outside the Tata group, understand their best practices and what keeps them ticking. My colleagues in the Tata group and I try to do that all the time.

The Tata group, one must, however, remember, are several Companies that reside within a single Institution. So over the past twenty-five years, I have worked in Tata Tea, Titan, Tata Teleservices and now in Tata Global Beverages – and each of these Companies has its own flavors. That has offered me unbeatable diversity within a single Corporation, which the Tata group is uniquely positioned to provide to professionals because it operates across so many different industries and product categories. This is a key reason why the Tata Administrative Service is one of the most preferred jobs in business school campuses today.

In last few years a lot of books are coming out on Tata Companies, written by senior executives and independent professionals. Is this a part of some strategy or brand building exercise or books are emerging as a platform to tell the stories that have a place in the history of Indian Business?

I don’t think there is an overarching strategy or plan behind books coming out of Tata companies. I think many of these books have been written because of the spontaneous urge to tell wonderful stories from within the Group. In my view, that’s how the books on the Nano car or the TCS story were created, and that’s exactly how my book “Tata Log” happened too. Of course, these books have a valuable place in the archives of Indian business. Because they capture forever stories from one of India’s iconic business houses. And they play an equally important role in narrating these stories to people around the country, to young managers and professionals, who have always had a keen interest in knowing about the Tata group, and learning from it.

How did the idea of this book happen and how was the journey of writing it? Any interesting anecdotes to share with us?

The idea of “Tata Log” was born around two years ago. The Tata group has been an inspiration to me, and as I was reflecting on this. I discovered that there were so many inspiring and interesting stories from the modern era of the Group which could fire the imagination of a new generation of young executives and students. Many of these modern stories (belonging to the post-liberalization era in India, which was also the period when Mr. Ratan Tata headed the Group) had not yet been told. Although stories from the earlier years of the Tatas had been chronicled brilliantly by R.M. Lala in books such as “The creation of wealth”. Therefore, I thought that I could contribute by narrating these stories, even as I explored in the book what really made the Tata group so unique. That is what I set out to do with “Tata Log”.

Of course, my passion for writing was the other key reason for writing this book. I love writing, I write very often for national newspapers such as the Mint and the Hindu Business Line. And I have always wanted to write a book, which is always a more lasting piece of literature.

The journey of writing “Tata Log” was a new experience for me, and very different from my life as a Manager. I realized that writing a book is an all-consuming affair. I discovered that writing is, in its essence, a heady but lonely voyage. It requires space, and it requires dedication.

The interesting anecdotes during the writing of this book all emanate from the people I met and interviewed, as I was researching the eight stories in “Tata Log”. I must have conducted over one hundred interviews, across all eight stories which are told in the book. I recall, for instance, my meeting with four shop floor operators in Tata Motors Pune, who had helped build the first Indica car. They spoke with such passion and pride, with so much emotion and intensity. I think I saw the clarity of that moment the enormous pride that binds all of us together, in the Tata group.

Similarly, when I visited the facilities which housed the EKA supercomputer, I was overawed with the sheer complexity and scale of this beautiful machine. I wondered how a small group of people in the Tata group had put it all together. And created what became the fourth-fastest supercomputer on the planet, in the year of its launch. I was so awe-struck I stood still within that cold room for several minutes, just could not pull myself away!

Book jacket bio talks about you cycling on Bangalore roads. What do you think can be done to promote cycling more in our cities?

I love my bright red Schwinn cycle. It is a geared mountain bike which my wife gifted me on my 49th birthday. Riding it provides me a new sense of freedom, of being close to the earth, the roads, the smells and weaving through the raw energy of the city. I don’t think driving a Porsche or Lamborghini car can give you the same sense of freedom. Even though these are such desirable and powerful beasts for most of us.

To promote cycling, cities need to provide cycling tracks at the edge of our roads, which ensure safety and convenience. Perhaps some of our role models in the country – cutting across cricket, Bollywood, corporate life, politics – should take up cycling in a very visible way, this will certainly encourage many others to do so.

Now tell us about your reading habits? What kind of books do you like to read and any favorites?

I love reading fiction, biographies, history. My favorite author of the modern age is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I have read his book “One hundred years of solitude” endlessly and on countless occasions. And every time something new leaps out of its pages and totally delights me. Marquez is truly a Zen master of the craft of writing. Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk come close, they write so beautifully too.

My all-time favorite writer is Shakespeare. He is so magical, in the stories he tells, the expressions he uses, the life-truths he narrates, the way he develops characters and plots across his plays. No one comes anywhere close to his genius.

For light reading, I love P.G. Wodehouse. His Blandings series of stories are particularly unbeatable. I cannot stop laughing loud whenever I read them.

I think every great book deserves to be read over a glass of fine red wine. That is an unbeatable combination, and one of the last few luxuries available to us in today’s hectic world.

Is there a next book in the offing?  If yes, please tell us about it, Harish Bhat.

Harish Bhat: Yes, there will certainly be the next book in the offing. Writing books is addictive, and I have loved the experience of creating “Tata Log”, which is my first. So I have no doubt that there will be a few books yet to come.

I would love to write a wonderful piece of fiction, I think I have that in me. There are a few nice themes swimming through my head, though I am yet to pin them down.  As soon as the story has grown on me and taken over my imagination, I will begin writing. I am not sure when that will be, maybe a few months from now, or maybe a couple of years. As the old song goes, Que Sera Sera.

I am certainly looking forward to your next book Harish Bhat.

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  1. Anu, you do keep picking up wonderful gems to interview. You told us the entire journey till date about the perfectionist like Mr. Harish Bhat. keep going, you are doing up splendid work through life…Good luck!


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