Credit: Tom Campbell

What's an ex-British diplomat doing heading Tata in Europe?

THE MT INTERVIEW: With the task of bringing some unity to a business that has brands as diverse as Jaguar Land Rover, Tetley Tea and Taj Hotels, David Landsman is going to need all the skills he gained as a diplomat.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 30 Mar 2016

Here's a question for all the wannabe headhunters out there (we're sure there must be some). Where would you go looking for a new de facto European boss of Tata, the giant Indian conglomerate behind such resurgent manufacturing successes as Jaguar Land Rover, Corus (now Tata Steel) and Tetley Tea? In the engineering industry, perhaps? FMCGs? Or would you fish in the costly-but-surefire default executive talent pools in the City - corporate finance, asset management, even private equity.

All eminently sensible sources for such a role, in some ways more so than the background of the candidate who got the job, back in May 2013. Because David Landsman hails from none of the industries for which the group is known. In fact he's not an industrialist at all - he is (or was) a diplomat. An Oxford classicist with a PhD in linguistics from Cambridge, he spent most of his career in Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service, latterly in Athens as British ambassador to Greece.

But far from making him a left-field pick, it's precisely this experience of the subtle differences between power and influence that suit him to the job, he says. 'Being a diplomat is about achieving things by persuasion rather than by issuing orders, and doing so in circumstances of ambiguity. It's about understanding where people are coming from and how you can get to a win-win situation.'

Great preparation for managing a corporate role that is similarly heterogeneous and bursting with stakeholders, each with a subtly different agenda. Across Europe, Tata employs 60,000 people and generates £25bn in revenues. Its continental portfolio amounts to 19 companies including not only those aforementioned brand names but also less high-profile but equally significant operations like Tata Chemicals Europe (making bulk chemicals like sodium bicarbonate and calcium chloride), Tata Hispano (one of the largest builders of bus bodies in Spain) and of course, IT services giant Tata Consultancy Services. The Tata name is even to be found over the door of the grand, central London hotel where we meet, the Taj on Buckingham Gate.

Landsman's job - his official title is executive director, Tata Limited, but he describes himself as 'the geography head of Europe' - is to bring some unity and common purpose to this sprawling conglomerate, to look for commercial and organisational synergies, to exploit the economies of scale and to join the strategic dots in ways that colleagues within each business might lack the time or 'big picture' inclination to do themselves.

To that end, he says he has three key interests. Business development - seeking out high-level commercial opportunities, partnerships and even potential acquisitions. Support services - bringing together companies to share ideas and best practice, and corporate affairs - being the face of Tata and ensuring that the group can speak more effectively with one voice, especially at an international level.

It's this latter piece that is being ramped up currently, not only in Europe but also across other Tata territories worldwide. 'What is new about my appointment is that I have been hired from the British public sector with a remit from (Tata Group chairman) Cyrus Mistry, who wanted a stronger group presence in the UK and Europe.'

He also has oppos covering the Americas, China, Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, some of them in newly created roles. Mistry - who took over from patriarch Ratan Tata in 2012 and has been described as the most important industrialist in both India and the UK - is clearly ready for his empire to assume its rightful place on the global stage. Regulators and government ministers everywhere can expect to be hearing more from Tata in future.

It's a multi-faceted job not made any more straightforward by the fact that Landsman's entire European portfolio comprises independently run businesses whose management teams report not to him but rather to the Indian mothership. 'Although we are a very large organisation, I actually have very few people who report directly to me. Most of what I have to achieve is done through people who don't report to me and who don't feel they have to do things because I am telling them to.'

Indeed so - they all have their own priorities and performance targets, and the likes of JLR CEO Ralph Speth are hardly known for their biddability. It must be like herding cats.

'When I have a meeting with people from the different companies, I want them to go away feeling that it was a good use of their morning. Not feeling that they will do anything to avoid being the one who's there next time. You have to show them what's in it for them, it's a good discipline.'

Well-dressed but not showy, he has an easy, somewhat erudite manner and mercifully avoids too much corporate patter. 'I studied languages and how you use language to get things done. I see myself as a communicator.'

He's even on Twitter, an arena which many senior execs fear to enter. 'If what you do is out there in the public arena then you need to be part of it, or there will be a vacuum that someone else will fill. My Twitter feed is not full of terribly contentious stuff, but neither can you be too cautious. You have to do it in a way that people want to read.'

Social media, he says, is important for generating new ideas but also for personal development. 'One of the skills that will be increasingly important in the corporate world is self-awareness. How will people who don't know you read it? Where will you be perceived as coming from?'

Only one thing seems to get his gander up - don't mention the F word. 'Let me say something - we are not a family business. Tata grew out of a family business but today it has more than 100 companies, $100bn in revenues, 70% outside India. 'It's too big to be a family company and it is not owned by the family. Two-thirds of our equity is owned by charitable trusts set up by previous generations. 32 of our companies are listed on the stockmarket. These are not private property they are public companies. AGMs in India I am told are very lively affairs.'

All the same, the founding family retains influence. Cyrus Mistry - only the sixth chairman in the firm's history - may not be family, but his father is one of Tata's largest individual shareholders and his sister Aloo is married to Noel Tata, Ratan's half-brother. Such dynastic intricacies may be unpopular in corporate governance circles, but they probably contribute to Tata's ability to successfully invest long-term in industries with equally long capital cycles - an ability that so many 'transparent' British plcs seem to lack.

So what are the unifying themes running through all the many and varied Tata businesses, and how does he present them to the wider world? 'It's the heritage, the sense of a link to society and our values.'

The Tata brand in other words, and it's his task to improve that brand's internal performance within the group, and to promote better public understanding of Tata itself. No fewer than 45m cups of Tetley Tea are consumed daily around the world, for example - but how many of the drinkers know that it is made by Tata Global Beverages, part of the Tata Group?

And Tata does have a heritage that deserves a wider audience. It began as a single cotton mill in Mumbai in 1868, whose founder Jamsetji Tata was the first businessman to come from a singularly unworldly sounding family of Parsi Zoroastrian priests. Like those Victorian paternalists the Lever Brothers or Titus Salt (although perhaps springing from a different source), Jamsetji Tata had a strong sense of the social purpose of business, famously arguing that, 'In a free enterprise the community is not just another stakeholder in the business but in fact the very existence of it.'

That philanthropic spirit remains very much alive today, says Landsman, not least thanks to those charitable trusts that own such a large chunk of the equity. 'They were set up by previous generations of the family. Instead of leaving their wealth to their own families they left it to charity. So two-thirds of our dividends go into philanthropic works - development work, arts and culture, water supplies, skills, education.'

But something has to pay for all those good works, and the group has ambitious growth targets embodied in its Vision 2025 statement set out by Mistry last summer. The plan is to invest $35bn with the aim of making Tata one the world's 25 most admired companies, one of its 25 most valuable companies by market cap, and one whose products and services will touch 25% of the world's population. And to expand in four new areas: retail, finance, infrastructure and defence. Oh, and to do it all by 2025.

Indeed, just this month the group announced its Tata Opportunities Fund will make a ‘significant investment’ (thought to be around $100m) in Uber, to help the cab-hailing service expand in India.

Landsman's part in the grand vision is to get customers and businesses together to explore lucrative new deals, to spread best practice and also to seek out cost-saving opportunities such as the group procurement scheme his team is working on currently.

Given the 19th-century historical precedent, it's perhaps not surprising that there are 21st-century similarities between Tata's plans and the Sustainable Living Plan espoused by Unilever CEO Paul Polman. Both suffer, if that's the right word, from being large global collections of smaller localised businesses. It's a very resilient model, but decentralisation can make such organisations hard to control.

So breaking down silos without squashing the mercantile spirit is the name of the game. 'We need to continue to grow and to gain the benefits of being large while also remaining separate, small and agile. If you are a very large group with ambitious growth targets, you can't achieve that without remaining diverse.'

The academically gifted son of an analytical chemist, Landsman admits that he hasn't always been the most career-minded person. 'As time has gone on, I have paid more attention to my career. To begin with I would say that I drifted - I studied classics because I enjoyed them, I didn't give as much thought as I should to what I was going to do next.'

The way he tells it, he ended up in the Diplomatic Service almost by accident. If so it was a happy one. Barring a two-year secondment at De La Rue, it was his life for the best part of 25 years, including a stint in Albania - perhaps accounting for a lifelong love of 'central European pavement cafés' - as well as two in Greece, where he returned as ambassador in 2009 to a ringside seat for the first Grexit panic. 'Twenty years ago the thing none of us really realised was how something happening in one small part of the EU with such a small proportion of the GDP could have such a substantial effect across the whole region.'

Now, having switched direction relatively late in life, he is determined to get on, fast. 'I need to be credible to people whose first reaction is going to be "What's he doing here?". I am very conscious of that. So I'm taking every opportunity to learn, including doing the official IoD director's qualification.' (This latter despite a latent dread of mathematics.)

So much for similarities. What's the biggest difference between being an ambassador and a businessman? 'While in diplomacy, economics can be important, the stock in trade is words. In business the stock in trade is predominantly numbers. I find it fascinating and refreshing that it requires a different approach. And I am delighted to find that I can do the maths after all, that's really good news.'


To make the Tata brand as familiar as some of the household names owned by the group.

To break down silos and prove the economic value of increased collaboration to his corporate masters.

To pass his IoD director's qualification with flying colours.


1963: Born 23 August, London

1985: Graduated from Oriel College, Oxford

1989: Gained a PhD in linguistics from Clare College, Cambridge

2000: Chargé d'Affaires in Yugoslavia

2001: British ambassador to Albania

2006: International affairs adviser, Identity Systems, De La Rue plc

2009: British ambassador to Greece

May 2013: Appointed executive director of Tata Limited.

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