After a string of successes, India’s industrial giant, Tata, has hit a rough patch in the United States. Advances made by Indian Hotels, which runs the Taj brand, to Orient-Express (OEH), the U.S. owner of luxury hotels, trains and cruises, have been firmly rebuffed. And American dealers selling Jaguar cars have objected to Ford selling the British luxury brand to Tata Motors (TTM).
The setbacks are a blow to Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Sons, the group holding company, and one of the world’s 25 most powerful people in business. Early this year, he scored his biggest triumph when Tata Steel bought Corus, the British steel company, for $12.1 billion, defeating a strong rival bidder, CSN of Brazil, in a dramatic knock-out contest. Now Tata is bidding along with Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M), another leading Indian autos-based company, to buy the Jaguar and Land-Rover brands from Ford (F).
Some analysts question whether Tata Motors can handle Jaguar and Land-Rover, especially their difficult trade unions. Critics also point out that Tata is more focused on smaller cheaper cars – including a low-end model now in development that it plans to sell for around $3,000. That feeds U.S. dealers’ worries that Jaguar would lose its upscale image if it were Indian-owned – whether it’s bought by Tata or M&M.
Ken Gorin, chairman of the Jaguar Business Operations Council, which represents Jaguar car dealers in the U.S., has said that Ford should sell the two brands to another bidder, One Equity Partners, a private equity arm of J.P.Morgan Chase (JPM). He’s reportedly concerned that the American public won’t accept a luxury-car brand such as Jaguar “out of India.”
Gorin, of course, doesn’t get to decide who buys the brands, and the deal is still open – with Tata being tipped to win in some reports. But he has a point: Indian manufacturing is only starting to gain acceptance internationally. Foreign car companies are increasingly looking to India for supplies of components and even complete cars – Suzuki Motor announced last week that a factory near Delhi will supply its planned A-Star car to Europe and elsewhere. But A-Star is not a luxury model.
Perceptions about the low quality of Indian products are also behind Orient-Express’s rebuttal of Tata’s moves for a closer relationship. Indian Hotels increased its stake in Orient-Express to 11.5 percent recently, prompting Paul White, the CEO of Orient-Express, to say a combination was not in his company’s interests. “Any association of our luxury brands and properties with your brands and properties would result in a reduction in the value of our brands,” he told Indian Hotels, which is expected to respond to the rebuff shortly.
White’s remarks shocked officials at Tata’s Taj hotels, who deem their hotels to be one of Asia’s, and maybe the world’s, best. Taj hotel guests, however, do not always rate them so high: There are frequent complaints about the quality of service and inferior finishes. The group’s award-winning Taj hotel on the waterfront in Mumbai is one of Asia’s most splendid buildings, but service there does not always match the elegance.
So it is perhaps not surprising that White has serious reservations. What is more curious is that Tata has pursued the company despite the cool reception. Ratan Tata recently said in a television interview that he does not like hostile takeovers. “We walk in the face of opposition on an acquisition bid,” he said. What’s more, he denied that Indian Hotels is seeking to acquire the Orient-Express. Tata approached Orient-Express management “basically to seek an alliance and were misunderstood,” he said.
Meanwhile, Indian jingoism is on the rise in the media and among the country’s politicians. “Racism can’t halt Indian takeovers,” declared the Economic Times, a leading business daily, slamming “quasi-racist slurs.” Kamal Nath, India’s outspoken commerce minister, said “there cannot be any discrimination against outward investment from India.”
The bluster is unfortunate. A more effective tack for Indian officials would be to accept that their country is just beginning to lose its decades-long reputation for dreadful quality — and to vow to show the world that it can do even better.