It is a dream team. Father
Dhirubhai Ambani is the visionary, sons Mukesh and Anil (pic: left) the generals who
would lead Reliance Industries into the new frontiers. The Big
Chief and his two corporate warrior-wizards meet for two hours
every day identifying and planning for the battles ahead. Top
guns in each of the group's companies would have briefed them on
venturing into new areas, may be involving investments of a
thousand crores. Or they may have sought policy decisions on
crucial issues in core companies. They would get the nod or a
no-no. There are no ifs and buts.
Once a project is okayed, things have to move at jet speed. "Just do it. That is what Reliance is all about," says Group President K. Ramamurthy. The thumb rule seems to be: do your work and do it with excellence, and go have a ball with the salary and perks that are the best in the corporate world. The brothers lead by example. Anil is the first to report to office, checking in at his desk at 9.30 a.m. though the office hours begin at 10.30 a.m. It is a long day, winding up at 9 p.m. Often the work day stretches late into the night. If he leaves early, an important meeting has been scheduled somewhere.
Mukesh starts his working day at home and reports to his desk at 10.30 a.m. and immerses himself in his duties as vice-chairman and managing director. He monitors the progress of various projects, following up his frequent spot inspection tours. Anil is more into investment briefings, especially international investment briefing. Both, following in the footsteps of Dhirubhai, delegate as a matter of policy. The patriarch's fighting spirit is still in evidence after a stroke had laid him low for a couple of years. He is in the corporate office at Mumbai's Nariman Point Big Biz enclave in the afternoons for two hours, and his mere presence perpetuates the Ambani allure.
The brothers work in tandem. Anil is an excellent communicator. Mukesh is the strong silent type. Says Dr Gita Piramal, author of Business Maharajas: "They have carefully differentiated/allocated roles. Anil is very clearly in charge of corporate communications. The friendly public face of the intensely image-conscious group." Dr Piramal believes that Anil's strength lies in his very shrewd understanding of the financial markets, both international and Indian. "He is able to understand how the mind of financial analysts abroad works.... This is very important if you are going to have foreign share-holdings. The late Aditya Birla understood this very well. Now it is Anil Ambani."
The Ambani brothers have become business thoroughbreds, all along moulded by some tough times. "They have been through several baptisms by fire," says Dr Piramal. They are a perfect foil for each other: "Anil is very well read and he is very quickly aware of new trends," says Dr Piramal. Mukesh's actions speak for the can-do man in him. When an executive dithered over a project, he was told that nothing is impossible for Reliance and went on to do it in less than the scheduled time. The spirit is: this world is not perfect but still find ways and just do it.
The entire organisation is fine-tuned to react to any situation. Says Akhil Gupta, CEO of the oil and gas division: "Reliance prepares itself meticulously for this world that doesn't exist today. An example: Even though Reliance may have no intention of raising finance from the international market, it would always be sitting on a prospectus ready to the last full stop with only spaces kept blank for dates. The day the scene turns favourable, Reliance should be the fastest to raise capital."
The speed with which Reliance put up its 100-year bond in the US, the first and only Indian conglomerate to do so, stunned the big biz world. Says company treasurer Alok Agarwal: "[Then Union finance minister] P. Chidambaram gave Reliance the approval at 4 in the afternoon. At 7 in the evening he received a call saying that the bond had already been placed. That is how we work."
The biggest factor
in the Reliance success story is Dhirubhai's ability to carry people with
him. From brilliant technocrats to financial whiz-kids and
high-flier managers to small-time dealers and messenger boys.
Their commitment is total. Even those not involved in the
management directly chip in with suggestions, and these are
immediately implemented if good for the workers. Mukesh's wife
Nita said the amenities for the contract labourers at the
Jamnagar project should be upgraded. "Now you have a helmet
and shoes for each worker, plus housing, medical and recreational
facilities for his family. Schooling for his children from day
one. I think it is a tremendous human resources practice,
especially when you have 85,000 workers on the premises,"
says Reliance Petroleum Senior Vice-President S.C. Malhotra.
"It is a family spirit.... When my father died in 1978, the first telegram of condolence I received was not from my relatives but from the chairman," said Marketing Vice-President Suryakant Shah. "It was a longish message in which he said, 'This happens. Don't worry. We are there with you.' I was only 26 then, and it made a difference."
Those who do not fit in have to get out and those who do cannot fit in elsewhere. The manager of the mechanical power plant at Hazira, V.K.S. Unni vouches for that: "It is different from the culture one has in the outside world. I worked with Reliance between 1987 and 1994, left and joined again. Having been an insider and an outsider, let me say that it is difficult for a Reliance man to survive in the outside world. I suppose that is why people at Reliance don't leave the company."
Presumably the reason why comfortably placed go-getters are attracted to the group. Recalls A.G. Dawda, president, Reliance Petroleum: "I was working for a Saudi Arabian petrochemical company when I got this call from Reliance asking if I would be interested in joining them. I said no. 'Come and just have a look, even if you want to say no'. They sent me a ticket. I came down quite amused.
"Why was Reliance blowing up money on a fellow who has no interest in them. When I reached Jamnagar, they asked me to drive around to get a feel of the place. Oh God, I said, what can you show a man who has worked for 40 years in the construction industry? So to humour them, I said okay. I drove around the site. I saw 45,000 people working. After 45 minutes, I said stop. I went to the nearest phone and called Mukesh Ambani in Mumbai. 'This is it! I told him. The answer is yes'."
The talent hunt is a continuing process. "We are a passport-independent company," says V.V. Bhat, group president, management services. "We will look for and recruit talent from wherever in the world we find it." For instance, Akhil Gupta was happily settled in California when the call came. And he does not regret accepting it.
Pay is no problem once they have decided on a new recruit. As Senior Executive Vice-President Tony Jesudasan would vouchsafe. After having introduced the company, the question of pay came up. Anil pointed to a blank sheet of paper and said, 'I will go out for a ten-minute walk. Write down whatever figure you have in mind... Don't sell yourself too short and don't put down a figure where I could feel cheated'. He returned, took one look at the paper and said: "What!? That's all?!" Recalls Tony: "We spent the next few minutes inflating the figures!"
The informal style is policy, not the exception. Dhirubhai once noticed that one of the invitees to a dealers' conference, a small fry from Bihar, was clearly out of his depths in the midst of the big fish. He strolled over to him, put his hands over the man's shoulders and made some small talk, expletives included. That dream sequence would stay with the Biharibabu for ever.
Cut to the present scenario. Anil (pic: left) asked his secretary to track down a senior executive who happened to be holidaying in Alibag. When the guy came on line from Alibag, Anil asked: "You are holidaying out there, then don't bother. Have a good time."
The mandate for the top managers is simple: whatever you are doing, if it is in the interests of the investors do it. If it is going to reduce the EPS (earnings per share) of this company, then don't do it. No paperwork as delaying tactics and no bureaucratic bungling. Anil Ambani, Wharton degree and all, has matured into a hard-driving chief executive who is itching to hit the autobahns of world business. And he has it all, Big Confidence, Big Money and Big Ideas, to take on the world.
Gone are the flashes of temper and tantrums that unnerved Reliance officers and employees. Instead, he dazzles or stuns listeners with his rapid-fire speech. The message is: take it or leave it, it's my business and I know what's good for my investors.
At 38, he is impatient with stragglers, whether in his own company or in the world around him. Driven by an urge, perhaps, to make Reliance Industries a global power, now that it is the No. 1 corporate house in India.
He struts the world reeling off Reliance's achievements. Proudly proclaiming that Reliance is No. 1 in the world in producing this, No. 2 in this and No. 6 in that. His projections for the future: Reliance will move up the ranks by 2000. True, father Dhirubhai laid a strong foundation for sons Mukesh and Anil to build on. They have responded magnificently.
Unlike brother Mukesh and Dhirubhai, Anil is always there, up front. Whether to pick up the gauntlet thrown by competing business houses or to defend the group's name when mired in controversies or field inconvenient questions from journalists. He handles it all with the flair, some would say arrogance, of a man born to reign. If he is not interested in answering a particular question, that's it. He moves on, restlessly pacing the centre stage, pointing to the next questioner in the audience.
There is no doubt that he is a decision-maker. There is no going back or fidgeting once he has decided on a course of action whether in his personal life or in business. As when he decided to marry Bollywood heroine Tina Munim. It is said that the conservative family was stunned and that Dhirubhai tried his best to prevent the alliance. Anil had his way and Tina merged into the Ambani ambience, playing the subdued role of the typical Gujarati bahu.
As in their business policy decisions, differences are quietly sorted out. All discussions over policy/personal differences remain within Seawind, the 13-storey family headquarters in South Mumbai. In public, Anil and Mukesh present a hand-in-glove twosome calmly skippering the Reliance flagship through often troubled waters. Last year, they were jointly selected 'Businessman of the Year' by Business India.
Anil's chillingly calm confidence in tackling difficult bends on the information highway is also on display when he steers his business behemoth into unchartered territory. In his keynote address at the Businessman of the Year 1997 award function in New Delhi, Anil put it all very succinctly: "At Reliance, we firmly believe in two things, betting on opportunity and betting on our people." The Ambanis bet it big on India and its investors and is still counting the jackpot-earnings.
"The Ambanis are focussed on creating a world class corporate house operating in India. Unlike say Sanjay Lalbhai who is striving to expand Arvind Mills Group operations globally. What Mukesh and Anil are aiming at is substantially different," says a keen chronicler of India's Big Biz world. As Mukesh put it during an address at the Indian Chamber of Commerce-hosted 'Vision 2020' meet, it is necessary for India to become important economically, it is important that it identifies and sets clear goals, and to cash in on India's huge reserve of information technology talent.
Mukesh may be low-key, but he thinks Big too, perhaps bigger than his brother. He swears by the mantra father Dhirubhai had inculcated in him: "Think big. Challenge conventional wisdom. Think differently. Think long term". Mukesh was oozing optimism addressing the Indian Merchants' Chamber's India 2020 meet. An example: "At $10 an hour and working for two thousand hours per year, a young Indian in the information sector can easily earn $20,000 a year... In the next 20 years, it should be possible to employ 50 million people in the information sector. They will bring in an astronomical income of about a trillion dollars."
The scion of the only billionaire business family left in India this year after the Asian markets turmoil, according to Forbes magazine, was also candid enough to note that "India's future is in her farms. Agriculture has the potential to accelerate economic growth and social development in India".
Ambani popularly known as Dhirubhai
Ambani (pic: right) has
become corporate India's living legend. Condemned a
decade ago as a manipulator, today Dhirubhai has become a
messiah of the country's investing public. A non-believer
of tried and tested theories, Ambani, a high school
dropout from Chorwad in Gujarat's Junagadh district, has
puzzled conformists and competitors with his brand of
management where the only things that mattered were
results and benefits for his shareholders.