JRD's life has shaped Indian history in a way that no one has. He was the visionary who introduced civil aviation to India, thus launching this country's future and placing it on the world map solidly. His contribution to the growth of the Indian industry earned him the title of "Grandfather of Indian Industry." For his contribution, JRD Tata was awarded the country's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, in 1992.
Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata was born on July 29, 1904 to Indian parents in France. He did his schooling in Paris, Bombay and Yokohama, Japan. But most of his education was in France. As a result, JRD’s French was impeccable, but his fluency in English had to be polished. For this, he joined an English Grammar School before he was supposed to go to Cambridge University.
Young JRD used to see airplanes and was awed with the prospect of being airborne. Louis Bleriot, the first man to fly across the English Channel, had a house on the coast of France near the Tata's country home. Bleriot's pilot, who used to land a small plane on the beach, once gave JRD a joyride. It was young JRD's moment of truth. On that day he decided that he would fly an airplane someday, and make a mark in the aviation industry.
JRD admired his mother, who single handedly managed the intricacies of bringing up five children, and shuttling between India and France every year. As a result of this, JRD's education was regularly disrupted. He never managed to go to University for a formal education. This was also because of the fact that he joined the family business immediately after his stint in the French Army. His father, R.D. Tata was among the senior management team in Tata Sons, and wanted JRD on board as soon as possible.
The business was growing at a rapid Pace, and there was a requirement of mature and rust worthy people running it. JRD returned from France and joined Tata Sons, skipping his ambition of studying at Cambridge. The lack of a formal education annoyed JRD for a long time, but he did not let it affect his life. He was a voracious reader, and studied many books on management and business after office hours. Once when he was recovering from typhoid, he came back to his room and started studying. His sister Rodabeh saw this and begged him to stop, “Why don't you rest Jeh, you are tired and unwell.” JRD replied, "I want to be worthy of the Tatas." Throughout his life, JRD never stopped learning.
JRD had begun establishing himself in the family business. His father's untimely death had already put him at the helm of affairs. And in 1938 when Sir Nowroji Saklatvala, the Chairman of Tata Sons expired, JRD was made the head of India's largest industrial empire. He was just 34 Years old. In an interview, he was asked about his appointment at such a young age as chairman of Tata Sons. There were senior and distinguished men like Sir Homi Mody and SIr Ardeshir Dalal on the board, he shrugged it off and said, "Perhaps, because I am hardworking."
When asked about his management style, JRD spoke about how he dealt with each man in his own way and brought out the best in people. He said, “At times, it involved suppressing yourself. It is painful but necessary…. To lead men, you have to lead them with affection." The group had promoted Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company (TELCO) in 1945 for the production of locomotives for the Indian Railways. This was a huge success for the Tata Group, and under JRD's management, TELCO had grown to become the country's largest commercial vehicle manufacturer.
While JRD was busy with building his business, his passion for flying never waned. He natured his passion of flying and eventually became the first licensed pilot in India. Once, he was asked about the greatest adventure in his life. JRD replied, "The flying experience. None can equal that. When you are on your own in that little plane-at the control without an instructor, and the plane speeds on the runway and finally takes off- you know you are in the air on your own."
JRD also carries the distinction of starting the first official airline in India. In 1932, the maiden flight of Tata Airlines happen when a small single engine aircraft carried the mail service from Karachi to Bombay. This was the birth of civil aviation in India. In 1948, JRD went on to start Air-India International. Within ten years, he was nominated to be President of International Air Transport Association (IATA), which is the Apex body of the Air Travel Industry.
Though Air India was nationalized in 1953, he remained at the helm of Air India till 1978, making it one of the most efficient airlines in the world. For decades, J.R.D. Tata directed the Tata Group of companies, with major interests in many industries in India, including steel, engineering and electrical companies. He was famous for succeeding in business while maintaining high ethical standards – refusing to bribe politicians or use the black market.
In one of his famous interviews, he was asked whether he believed in excellence. He retorted sharply, “Not excellence. Perfection. You aim for perfection, you will attain excellence. If you aim for excellence, you will go lower.” He was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1992. JRD died 1n 1993, but his legacy lives on in each of the myriad Tata Group companies. The foundation that he laid has been build upon. Today, the Tata Group is one of the most remarkable and profitable business groups in the world.