UPDATE 2-India's Tata starts search for chairman's successor
* Ratan Tata to retire by end of 2012
* Tata Sons sets up panel to search for successor
* Panel will search internally, externally and overseas
(Adds analyst comment, possible successor, byline)
By Prashant Mehra and Jui Chakravorty
MUMBAI, Aug 4 (Reuters) - The Tata group, India's oldest and best-known conglomerate, is looking for a successor to its chairman, Ratan Tata, and is considering people from overseas to lead a business empire ranging from salt and steel, to cars and software.
Ratan Tata, who took the company global and made the world's cheapest car, will retire by the end of 2012. The firm's holding company has set up a panel that will search for a replacement within and outside the group within the group, for Tata, who is also Chief Executive.
With annual revenue of more than $70 billion, and with 357,000 employees worldwide, Tata group's 98 operating companies derive more than 65 percent of revenue from overseas.
Given that base, the firm, synonymous with India's industrial growth, could see its first non-Indian chief executive.
No other Indian family run conglomerate has looked overseas to fill the top spot.
Even though Ratan Tata has said he will look outside India for his successor, speculation is building that his half-brother, 53-year-old Noel Tata, may succeed him.
The announcement of the panel comes less than a week after Noel Tata was appointed to the top spot at Tata International, which trades in leather, steel and sponge iron.
Some analysts expect Ratan Tata's immediate successor will be from outside the family. Another name in the frame is Arun Sarin, former chief executive of British mobile phone giant Vodafone (VOD.L).
"This announcement makes it almost certain that the group will have a professional running the show. A family member can then be groomed over the next 10 years," Arun Kejriwal, director at Mumbai-based research firm KRIS, said.
"The group may have realised that Noel Tata doesn't have the experience to run such a large group, but he has been substantially elevated."
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The group, founded in 1868, runs India's top vehicle maker, Tata Motors (TAMO.BO), top software services firm Tata Consultancy Services (TCS.BO), top private sector power producer Tata Power and the world's seventh-largest steel maker by output, Tata Steel (TISC.BO).
In 2007, Tata Steel paid $13 billion for Anglo-Dutch steel maker Corus, the largest acquisition by an Indian company, which catapulted the unit to the world's sixth-largest steelmaker spot at the time.
In 2008, Tata Motors paid $2.3 billion to acquire Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford Motor Co (F.N), the first time an Indian automaker bought brands from a U.S. automaker.
While those decisions were praised by many, Tata also drew criticism for the pricey deals.
The chairman, who is a descendant of the conglomerate's founder, was the driving force behind the Nano, the world's cheapest car at 100,000 rupees ($2165), which it unveiled in 2008.
Ratan Tata, who was ranked No. 59 among the 2009 Forbes list of the world's most powerful people, serves on the boards of Fiat SpA (FIA.MI)and Alcoa (AA.N) and is an advisor to Mitsubishi Corporation (8058.T), American International Group (AIG.N), JP Morgan Chase (JPM.N) and Rolls Royce (RR.L). (Editing by Tony Munroe and Louise Heavens)