For a company that’s serially in the red, Tata Tele Maharashtra Ltd (TTML) had a surprisingly good past month. Its stock price tripled—rallying from Rs 12 ($0.16) a share to over Rs 37 ($0.50). It’s a remarkable surge for a company that, just a few years ago, seemed to be on its last legs.
In 2018, the Tata Group was at its wits’ end as far as telecom was concerned. The entry of Reliance Jio two years earlier had seen tariffs crater, with Jio’s rock-bottom pricing also causing an exodus of users from competing operators such as Tata and Bharti Airtel. With no relief on the horizon, the consumer mobile business of Tata Teleservices Ltd (TTSL)—the parent company of TTML—was sold to Bharti Airtel. Tata Sons, the group’s holding company, subsequently wrote off a massive Rs 28,651 crore (~$4 billion) on its telecom business.
At the time, the future of both TTML, which handles Goa and Maharashtra, and TTSL, which caters to the rest of India’s telecom circles, seemed in jeopardy. The following three years did little to dispel that sentiment. Employees at both companies constantly worried about whether and how the firms, which now only catered to enterprises, would stay in business.
Senior executives at both companies have long speculated about a possible sell-off or even a merger with another of the group’s companies, Tata Communications, which operates in the same space.
A buyout never came to fruition. Indeed, Bharti Airtel was more than happy to take over TTSL’s entire business—both consumer-facing and enterprise—but couldn’t come to an agreement with Tata on the valuation. A former senior executive, Mukund Rajan, who had served as head of TTSL, even teamed up with a few other Tata Group executives and US-based private equity firm TPG Capital to buy the enterprise business. Their offer is understood to have been in the range of $1 billion. It was rejected out of hand.
“The Tatas wouldn’t have sold the company to Rajan even for $10 billion,” a senior Tata Group executive told The Ken. The reason for this, he hinted, was that Rajan was close to Cyrus Mistry, the former chairman of Tata Sons who was ousted in acrimonious fashion.
A merger with Tata Communications was also not an option. The Indian government held a 26% stake in the company and wasn’t in favour of such a move. With good reason, too. Tata Communications is a thriving, profit-making venture. The undisputed leader when it comes to enterprise connectivity in India, it serves as a carrier’s carrier, with its massive network of undersea cables accounting for nearly a quarter of the world’s internet routes. TTSL, on the other hand, was on life support—its survival predicated on the largesse of Tata Sons. The Indian government finally divested its stake in Tata Communications in March 2021.