MUMBAI: Noel Naval Tata, the obsessively media shy half brother of Ratan Tata and the current Managing Director of Tata International, has emerged as a contender for the top job at Tata Sons, after the committee to select a new chairman has initiated its search, said two sources aware of the matter.

Tata’s name is amongst the few internal candidates like N Chandrasekaran and Ralf Speth who have emerged as potential candidates shortlisted for the race for the top job at India’s largest conglomerate. TCS CEO Chandrasekaran and Speth, his counterpart in Jaguar Land Rover are the latest appointees to Tata Sons, the group holding company, having been inducted in October as additional directors, a day after Cyrus Mistry’s sacking.

The board of Tata Sons removed Mistry, 48, from the chairmanship of Tata Sons on October 24th, claiming to have lost confidence in his leadership and brought back 78-year old Ratan Tata for 4 months as the interim chairman. Within that period, the 5 member panel comprising Tata himself along with TVS Group chairman, Bain Capital’s Amit Chandra, Ronen Sen and Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, have been mandated to finalise a candidate.

External names like Former Unilever COO Harish Manwani too have been speculated upon.

Sources close to Tatas however cautions that the selection committee has just started their search and it would be premature to suggest anything definitive. One of them even added that Manwani or Chandra have also so far not met the panel for any interviews.

A Tata Sons spokesperson declined to comment on speculation.

Mails sent to Noel Tata seeking comments did not generate a response till the time of going to press.

“The list is a small one and Noel is certainly in it. He is someone who is fully aware of the Tata ethos and value systems that has come under strain in recent times. He is also family,” quipped another official keeping a close tab on the ongoing developments.

THE OTHER TATA

Since 2011, the soft spoken Noel Tata’s name has been in the fray for the corner office job in Bombay House, the Mumbai headquarters of the $103 billion salt-to-software group. But it was always believed that the relationship between the Noel and Ratan have been frosty. As early as May 2011, Tata in an interview had expressed his lack of enthusiasm for Noel’s candidature, even suggesting that he did not believe Noel was ready then for the responsibility. “I think if he is to run this, he should have greater exposure than he has had. Partly his not having it has been his own choice,” Tata was quoted as saying. Though Tata hastened to add that he was not involved in the selection process and the committee was the final authority, the statement drove home the point. Tata’s comments were also significant as it suggested that Noel himself chose to stay away from bigger roles within the group.

Noel (59) is the Chairman of Trent, the retail arm of the group, having served as its Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director until August 12, 2010. He is also on the board of Titan and Voltas and a director and since 2010, the non-executive chairman ofTata Investment Corporation (TIC). This was seen a strategic push to move into the higher rungs within the group as TIC, a listed investment firm, has substantial stakes in other Tata Group companies. Long expected to join the Tata Sons board, he however is yet to make the cut.

Officials close to Noel in the past has always insisted despite the surname he was a reluctant heir of the dynasty and always favoured his brother in law Cyrus Mistry who is ten years his junior. Noel is married to Aloo, Mistry’s sister and was amongst the first to congratulate him when he was handpicked five years ago. Both are believed to still maintain a cordial relationship and Noel has not made a single comment ever since Mistry was unceremoniously removed in a boardroom coup.

Noel it is believed volunteered to move to Tata International, far lower profile, trading arm of the group after a successful stint at Trent. Tata Group officials who have worked with him swear by his obsession to steer clear of any limelight or controversy. “Both Ratan and Noel are extremely private people. Both are also wanderlusts when it comes to searching for new business innovations,” quipped a close Tata family associate on condition of anonymity.

During his 12 years in Trent, Noel Tata pioneered the launched of the first private label in India. He also made Trent a profitable retailer and tied up with Tesco and despite volatile business environment, did not close down a single outlet.

His critics however argue that Tata played safe and thus grew far less compared to rivals and even missed the first mover advantage in hypermarkets. Some say his conservatism weighed against him during the last selection round, especially in the backdrop of fast changing global business environments.

Even in Tata International, where revenues grew four times in as many years from 2010 to 2014, Noel diversified into footwear retailing, stepping up exports and made acquisitions.