NICE GUYS FINISH LAST IS SOMETHING OF an anthem for many—and is often used as an excuse for all sorts of aggressive, sometimes downright unethical, moves. But here, on Fortune India’s first ranking of India’s most admired companies in partnership with The Hay Group, the nice guys come first. Companies may have announced poor results, been dogged by global crises, or battled management and succession issues, but those that paid attention, consistently, to quality, talent management, corporate governance, social responsibility, and delivering value to investors, have come out on top. (See Methodology on page 118.)

A survey like this one is a lagging indicator, in that past events foretell the future. So what do such disparate events as Ratan Tata announcing his successor, Anna Hazare and the public outcry against corruption, labour problems at Maruti Suzuki, the arrests following the breaking of the 2G spectrum allocation scam, and India’s first Formula 1 race, say about the state of India Inc.? The most obvious answer, based on the results of the survey is that size does not matter. Going forward, it’s attributes such as value creation and endurance that will make a difference. Reputation and trust will differentiate the best from the rest.

That’s why Tata Steel came in as No. 1. Over the past year, the company has had to deal with two of the most controversial topics in the country today—land acquisition and mining rights. Rising raw material costs and depressed demand across the globe wreaked havoc on its balance sheet and expansion plans.

Tata Steel’s third-quarter results show a net loss of Rs 603 crore, its overall performance dragged down by its European operations, despite many cost-cutting measures and major layoffs. But the company’s focus on providing shareholder value, steady growth, and corporate social responsibility schemes have put it at the top of the list.

In fact, the Tata conglomerate seems to have outperformed all others; there are five Tata companies in the top 50. Despite subdued sentiment in the industry caused by rising input costs, high interest rates, and stiff competition, Tata Motors leads the most admired field in the automotive segment, scoring high on all parameters. However, not too many of its peers have made it; there are only three automotive companies in the top 50. But that was still a better showing than banks; the sector is conspicuous by its absence. Ironically, the banking sector—public as well as private entities—has a strong presence in the top 50 companies in the Fortune India 500 rankings; 11 of the top 50 companies are from the sector. This clearly shows size does not have a bearing on admiration.

The absence of power companies in the top 50 should hardly come as a surprise given that for the last couple of years they have been battling chronic coal shortage and rising input costs. High import costs have not helped either.

If a year can be defined by a movement, 2011 in India was perhaps defined by the huge public outcry against corruption. The backlash was felt in corporate India too, where foreign multinational companies were held up as examples of transparency, good governance, and efficiency. Which, perhaps, explains the near dominance of their Indian subsidiaries in several sectors, particularly consumer goods.

Hindustan Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, and Cadbury India are not only ranked second, third, and fourth respectively on the overall list, they also score high on specific attributes. Cadbury India, for instance, leads the pack in leadership and innovation, Colgate-Palmolive in performance and investment value, and Hindustan Unilever in endurance and financial soundness. There’s GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare at 14, Johnson & Johnson at 25, and Nestlé India at 28. Cigarette-to-consumer goods conglomerate ITC tops these by coming in at 7, while the other Indian player, Britannia, is ranked 32.

In pharmaceuticals and health care, too, GlaxoSmithKline Pharmaceuticals, another global behemoth, leads the pack. German auto component maker Bosch is the undisputed leader in the auto components sector, with domestic player MRF following.

Champions of all things Indian may wring their hands at the light these results throw on home-grown companies, which don’t seem to have attracted the admiration of their peers when it comes to endurance, value creation, and the like. However, the good news is that domestic companies call the shots in the oil and gas sector. There are six oil and gas companies in the top 50, and they’re all Indian. Public sector exploration major Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) leads the pack at 16, followed by public sector refineries Bharat Petroleum (17), Indian Oil Corporation (19), and Hindustan Petroleum (20). ONGC’s foreign arm and 100% subsidiary ONGC Videsh too makes the cut at 22, while GAIL India is ranked 34.

Another local hero, Bharti Airtel, is the sole telecom company in the top 50. That’s possibly due to the fact that telecom companies have been hit hard by allegations of scams and wrongdoings. The recent Supreme Court ruling cancelling 122 licences issued after 2008 and the subsequent litigations are likely to make things worse for some companies right through the year.

Infrastructure major Larsen & Toubro (8) stood out among its peers; its closest competitor, GMR Infrastructure, is ranked 35. While it’s great going for L&T, there are murmurs from the industry that the company may need to re-examine its growth strategy (see page 128).

Of course, Indian information technology companies rank high, led by Tata Consultancy Services, and followed by Infosys and Wipro. The Indian arms of companies such as IBM, Dell, and Microsoft have also done well.

The other sectors where home-grown companies dominate are cement and steel. Aditya Birla Group’s UltraTech Cement heads the list of cement companies, followed by ACC. Tata Steel is the leader in the iron, steel, metals and mining, followed by the public sector giant, Steel Authority of India.

A similar trend is visible in the engineering and capital goods sector where a little-known domestic player, SKF India, has upstaged international behemoths such as Siemens.

Interestingly, Mumbai-based Raymond, one of the largest producers of worsted suiting in the world, is the only apparel company to make it to the top 20. Its nearest competitors are Arvind Mills and Aditya Birla Nuvo, both on the top 50 list.

In all, there’s plenty to show that there’s more to getting on this list than a strong bottom line. And, of course, plenty of proof that nice guys don’t always finish last.

Follow us on Facebook, X, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp to never miss an update from Fortune India. To buy a copy, visit Amazon.