Sucheta Dalal :He achieved what none even dared to dream about
Sucheta Dalal

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He achieved what none even dared to dream about  

July 26, 2002

In the last few weeks two Indians, just 14 months apart in age have dominated media headlines and reminded the world about the power of dreaming big. Both are stories of staggering achievements but completely contrasting in their ways and goals.

A few days from now, a Tamilian boy who distributed newspapers will become the President of India.

The brilliant boy who dared to dream big went on to master rocket science and was eventually conferred the country's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, for leading India's ambitious rocket technology and space programme.

Ironically, becoming the first citizen of India was probably the only element of A P J Kalam's mega dream that has come as an unsought and unexpected honour.

On July 6, 2002, Dhirubhai Ambani, a school teacher's son from Chorwad in Gujarat ended a career of blazing achievement that had begun as a humble petrol station attended in far away Aden.

Colourful, controversial and fiercely ambitious, Dhirubhai's story is a complete contrast to that of Abdul Kalam, but equally amazing. He created the largest Indian corporate empire that too in record time.

Reliance today is India's only private sector Fortune 500 Company. The Reliance group revenues crossed $12.5 billion in 2001, with assets of $11.5 billion spanning petrochemicals, synthetic fibres, fibre intermediates, textiles, oil & gas, financial services, refining and marketing, power, insurance, telecom and life sciences.

Reliance set up world-class assets and achieved many local and global firsts, but Ambani's path has been dogged by controversy and frequent comparisons to the cut and thrust of robber barons of corporate America.

His rise to becoming one of the most powerful men in India also came with an expensive price tag: he paid the price in the form of his bad health.

For over 16 years, he had struggled with the devastating effects of a stroke, which nearly killed him in 1986 when his business faced its first major crisis. It left him without the use of his right hand and despite the best medical attention in the world; his health slowly deteriorated and finally took him away at only 69 after another stroke.

But then, Dhirubhai had achieved in those years, what millions of others do not even dare to dream about. He combined the rare qualities of being able to dream big dreams, by being the first to spot opportunities and grasp them quickly, no matter where they should turn up.

While much is made about his early days as a petrol pump attendant in Aden, it is not equally known is that even in those days he spent a considerable amount of his time watching and learning the intricacies of trading in the Aden souk (market place).

Hamish McDonald in his book The Polyester Prince writes about how in the early 1950s Ambani, a clerk in Aden, realised that the value of silver content in Yemeni rials was higher than their exchange value against other foreign currencies. So, he began buying up rials, melting them down and selling the silver ingots to bullion dealers in London. Although the margins were small, it was 'money for jam.'

The cosy little business was stopped after three months, but as Ambani told McDonald in an early interview, "I don't believe in not taking opportunities."

Among the many stories that pepper the Ambani rags to riches saga, here is one: he took on the cases of unsuccessful insurance claimants on the understanding that they would split the claim amount if it turns successful.

On his return from Aden, he again plunged into trading. And although he saw his big business future potential in manufacturing nylon, rayon and polyester, he first spotted an 'opportunity' in cornering and trading in replenishment licences for importing yarn. He quickly became the main player in this little pre-liberalisation market.

In the process, he realised that unless he found he way through the Byzantine maze of India's bureaucracy there would be no growth. So, he mastered the skill of working the system and his methods were often controversial. It is not as though Ambani was ever apologetic about it.

"I am not Mother Teresa," he had famously told Time magazine in the 1980s.

What often gets lost in the controversy around Dhirubhai is his unique personal touch. If those who mourn Dhirubhai death today are not merely the powerful and the power brokers of the country, it is because of Ambani's reputation of never forgetting a friend. Even when he cultivated politicians, bureaucrats and journalists, it always had a personal element.

Many of his friends have touching stories about how Ambani and his entire public relations machinery were always available during their joy and crisis -- from school and college admissions to marriages and anniversaries to illness and crisis.

This helped him reach out to certain people who wouldn't have been 'influenced' otherwise.

His instincts as a trader and his people-skills are what turned him into what is popularly described as a 'messiah' of Indian investors.

Ambani quickly realised that he couldn't depend on bank funds to keep pace with his growth plans. He decided to approach the investors directly. Riding on renewed interest in equity that followed the wave of FERA (Foreign Exchange Regulations Act) dilution issues in the late 1970's, Ambani took Reliance Industries public in 1977.

The first issue was oversubscribed seven times and Dhirubhai never looked back since.

While working hard at project implementation, he always kept his investors happy - by keeping the share price up. He called investors a part of the 'Reliance family' and rewarded them handsomely in the initial years.

The high point of his romance with investors was 1985 which mammoth crowd of over 12,000 attend its annual general meeting held inside a shamiana set up on the Cooperage football ground, in a carnival-like atmosphere.

As with everything else, Dhirubhai's appeal was not universal and he also made powerful enemies.

This was partly his own doing. Ambani could be as dangerous an adversary and his corporate rivalries are now part of Indian corporate legend.

The war with Nusli Wadia of Bombay Dyeing, which had the legendary Ramath Goenka and the Indian Express as Wadia's allies, is now part of corporate folklore, including the allegation that certain Ambani staffers were involved in a plot to murder Wadia.

Interestingly, while Dhirubhai worked the system or powerful enemies he never for a moment let his attention stray from the relentless growth of the Reliance business empire.

In many ways 1986, when he suffered his most debilitating stroke, was a turning point for Ambani. Not only was he battling for his life, but the V P Singh government seemed set to cut him down to size and he didn't have a succession plan in place.

Not only did Ambani emerge successful from that crisis, but with sons Mukesh and Anil in the saddle with their Ivy League degrees, Reliance embarked on a second phase of much accelerated growth. Mukesh took over projects and operations, while Anil focussed on fund raising, marketing and external relations.

The duo has shown drive and ambition that matched their father's. Although Dhirubhai, the patriarch, supervised and guided them, there is no doubt that the new world records with the refinery in Jamnagar, entry into oil exploration, telecom and life sciences are as much to the credit of Anil and Mukesh as the vision and dedication of Dhirubhai.

One could say that the Ambani's last battle was to change his image from an upstart outcast to a revered business leader. Although some may quibble over details, in this regard, he had undoubtedly come a long way in the last ten years.

When I first wrote about the Bombay Club's meeting at the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai, the Ambanis, who have never pushed their case through business associations, were not invited to this elite group's meeting.

In fact, I remember getting a quote from the Ambanis supporting Manmohan Singh's policies and pushing for liberalisation. Their powerful support certainly dented the Bombay Club's effectiveness.

Today, as one watches the stream of pedigreed industrialists of the Bombay Club and powerful politicians troop in to pay homage to Dhirubhai, it is clear that no future Bombay Club would ever be complete without the Ambanis' leadership. But then it wouldn't be protesting against liberalisation either.

-- Sucheta Dalal