Speaking to business leaders in 2016, India’s then richest man and chair of Reliance Industries Mukesh Ambani revealed a maxim from the company’s founder, his father Dhirubhai: “Always keep the average age of Reliance at 30.”
On Tuesday, a 30-year-old Ambani took centre stage. Mukesh’s eldest son Akash became chair and replaced him on the board of Reliance Jio Infocomm, the unit which transformed India’s digital economy by launching a super cheap mobile data service in 2016. Mukesh, 65, remains chair of parent company Jio Platforms, which US tech giants Meta and Google have substantial stakes in.
Akash’s elevation kicked off a carefully planned transition of power to Mukesh’s three children, ushering the third generation into leadership roles at the oil-to-telecoms conglomerate he has grown into India’s largest listed company. Investors appeared relieved to see an orderly transition beginning — shares in the $221bn company rose 2.5 per cent on Tuesday.
Twins Akash and Isha will now be under a harsher spotlight, having previously appeared at choreographed corporate events and on the covers of GQ and Vogue India. Although their parents have emphasised hard work, the younger Ambanis grew up in private planes and luxury homes, later starring in lavish weddings graced by celebrities including Beyoncé.
It’s a stark contrast to their father’s hardscrabble early years. Born in Yemen, Mukesh once said his earliest memory was living with eight people in a single room.
While Akash and Isha graduated from Brown and Yale respectively, Mukesh dropped out of Stanford to build a petrochemical factory for his father. “When you take young people and burden them with responsibility they always rise up to the occasion,” Mukesh said in the early 2000s.
Mukesh has turned his father’s textiles-to-petrochemicals business into India’s most powerful conglomerate. Their Gujarat refinery is the world’s largest; Mukesh spent $32bn on the Jio mobile network, which now has over 400mn subscribers; Reliance Retail boasts India’s biggest network of shops.
Such audacious bets, which have seen Reliance clash with companies from Vodafone to Amazon, have earned Mukesh the fear and respect of corporate India. “I would say he’s the most extraordinary businessman of his generation in India,” said Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys. “And among the top two to three in the world.”
Yet succession is a bête noire for India’s family-run industrial houses, regularly triggering ugly dynastic feuds. Mukesh has experienced this first-hand. After Dhirubhai’s unexpected death in 2002, Mukesh spent years vying for control of Reliance with his younger brother, Anil. After a protracted quarrel, their mother brokered the split of the company between them; Mukesh took oil and petrochemicals, while Anil got telecommunications and natural gas among other units.
But the feud continued, trailing bitter legal battles and scuppered deals. The brothers’ fortunes diverged — while Mukesh amassed enough wealth to build the world’s second most expensive home, Anil pleaded “zero” net worth to a London court in 2020. The pair have reached a detente in recent years: in 2019 Mukesh helped Anil to make a $77mn payment that allowed him to escape jail.
Mukesh wants the next generation to be different. He has fashioned Reliance into three interlocking but floatable businesses: digital, retail, and petrochemicals/energy. Analysts say he and his wife Nita, who is on Reliance’s board and co-owns the Mumbai Indians cricket team, are grooming their children to each take portions.
Isha and Akash joined the Jio Infocomm and Retail Ventures boards in 2014, and have been involved in acquiring a string of start-ups. People close to Reliance say that while Isha may not have been elevated to the chair of Reliance Retail, she is “running” the business through her director position. Anant, 27, is a director at the new energy unit. Analysts say the scions will be supported by trusted lieutenants.
But Ambani’s top spot on India’s rich list is no longer secure, thanks to the meteoric rise of coal and infrastructure tycoon Gautam Adani who hails from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state. On Friday, India’s government announced a tax on petroleum exports, wiping $6bn off Ambani’s fortune. Adani is now Asia’s richest man according to Forbes.
The two are now competing for India’s renewable energy market, the first time they have played in the same field. The burgeoning rivalry has gripped Mumbai’s business community.
Yet while Reliance’s share price continues to rise, not all Ambani’s wishes have come true. A much-lauded deal with Saudi Aramco fell through. Reliance’s attempt to take over troubled retailer Future Retail, which had previously promised itself to Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, has been messy. And some analysts have questioned the wisdom of Reliance’s recent M&A splurge — a brokerage note described the strategy as “spray and pray?”.
Ambani, however, thinks not just in financial quarters but in centuries. “It’s very difficult for companies to go beyond individuals,” Mukesh told the BBC after his father’s death. “There are very few companies in the world that have lasted centuries and I think that’s a commitment I have made to him, that I have made to myself and everybody at Reliance”.