Dhirubhai Ambani emerges as India's most outstanding businessman of the last two decades (2024)

Dhirubhai Ambani has emerged as the country's most outstanding businessman of the last two decades, and his company - Reliance Textiles - has climbed to the top. How did Ambani achieve this? What does he have that others don't? A comprehensive report.

Dhirubhai Ambani emerges as India's most outstanding businessman of the last two decades (1)

Ambani addressing shareholders in a football field: Stock market deity

"I am the bubble that burst," says Dhirubhai Hirachand Ambani with a wicked gleam - recalling media forecasts a few years ago that his company, Reliance Textile Industries, was a "bubble that could burst".

But the press has been wrong, his numerous critics have been wrong, and the doomsayers have finally fallen silent. For the facts now stare them in the face.


Today, Reliance is barely 18 years old, but it already has the largest net worth among all private companies in India. It made more profits last year than any private company in the country, and it ranks third in both sales and total assets among the country's corporate giants.

Reliance has just paid out more money as share dividends than any company in Indian history. It has more investors than anyone else: 1.2 million. And Ambani talks of taking that figure to five million in the next two or three years. That is equivalent to the head of every household in Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi becoming an investor in Reliance.

The company last month had the largest ever attendance at any annual shareholders' meeting: 12,000. No hall in the city of Bombay could hold that number, so the meeting had to be finally held in a football ground.

The list of 'firsts' continues. Reliance produces more cloth every day than any other textile company, and does it more profitably than any other company. It is the country's largest importer of synthetic yarn. The company already produces more polyester filament yarn than any other rival in the business (10,000 tonnes), arid is more than doubling its capacity.

Soon, it will also be the country's largest if not its only producer of polyester staple fibre, purified terephtalic acid and mono-ethylene glycol - both these being raw materials for polyester fibre - and of linear alkyl benzene, which is used to make synthetic detergents.

Reliance is investing more money every day than any other private corporate entity. The projects currently under way involve a total investment of Rs 675 crore, and all the projects will be completed in two years, which makes for an investment of almost Rs 1 crore every day.

Already, Reliance holds what is probably a world record in setting up a 10,000, tonne polyester yarn plant in 14 months, and the plant reached full capacity production in four days. Ambani now plans to break that record: his 45,000-tonne polyester fibre project may be completed in 12 months.


It goes without saying, of course, that Reliance has proved to be the finest investment proposition ever seen by the Indian investor.

Anyone who invested Rs 1,000 in Reliance when the company first offered shares to the public less than eight years ago, in late 1977, has so far got Rs 3,937 in dividends alone, while the market value of his investment is more than Rs 50,000.

Dhirubhai Ambani himself started his first venture, the Reliance Commercial Corporation, 25 years ago with a total capital of Rs 15,000.

In 1967, he then floated Reliance Textiles with Rs 15 lakh in the kitty. Today, the market value of Reliance shares totals - hold your breath - more than Rs 10,000 crore. And Ambani estimates his personal net worth at Rs 150 crore.

Dhirubhai Ambani emerges as India's most outstanding businessman of the last two decades (2)

The village schoolteacher's son has certainly made good. His company will soon be the single largest contributor to tax revenues, with excise and other duties payable estimated for 1987 at Rs 600 crore, which is roughly 5 per cent of the Central Government's total excise collection.

By then, Reliance will almost certainly be the country's largest private company in terms of both sales and assets (it currently ranks third, behind the two Tata giants Tata Steel and Tata Engineering - both many decades old). And it will in all probability be the first private Indian company to figure in Fortune magazine's list of the 500 largest corporations outside the United States.


Indeed, when everyone thinks that Ambani has finally arrived, he himself thinks that he has only begun. Every thing that the company has achieved over the last 18 years will be achieved all over again in the next three years.

The company's turnover is billed to go up from Rs 604 crore last year to Rs 1.400 crore in 1987, its net worth is expected to climb from Rs 246 crore to Rs 550 crore, and its fixed assets from Rs 520 crore to Rs 1,200 crore. As if that weren't enough, gross profit as a percentage of sales is expected to climb from 19.6 per cent to an unbelievable 29 percent.

The most incredible part of this story is that even after investing Rs 675 crore in the next two years, the company will still not be fully stretched financially. Right now, Reliance does not owe a paisa to any of the Government-owned financial institutions, on whom virtually every other company depends for finance.


And even when the current projects are completed, the ratio of its loans to share capital will leave room for more loans to finance fresh investment of between Rs 800 crore and Rs 1,000 crore. And though Ambani is not saying so, he is already working on new projects to venture into as soon as he is ready for them. The growth, it seems, will continue. And the bubble does not seem about to burst.

No one, least of all Dhirubhai himself, could have foreseen all this. At school in Junagadh in Gujarat, from where the young tycoon-to-be matriculated while staying in a local hostel, his ambitions were limited to possessing a car or a jeep.

Later, he went to Aden as a clerk in A. Beesse and Company, a French firm that acted as agents for Shell Oil. Dhirubhai was soon put in charge of retail marketing, his work taking him to such out of the way places as Eritrea, Djibouti. Somali-land, Kenya and Uganda. "Mazaa aathi thi" (I used to have fun), he now says of his past with a laugh.

Soon enough, the entrepreneurial bug bit him, and he returned to Bombay to start his first venture, the Reliance Commercial Corporation, with a total capital of Rs 15,000 and a shared office in Bombay's Bhaat Bazaar.

He exported ginger, cardamom, turmeric and other spices to the west Asian market where he had established links during his Aden stint, and then branched out into textiles and yarn in the early 1960s. His most unusual export, however, was the good earth: a sheikh in Saudi Arabia was keen on cultivating a rose garden and needed a good soil mixture, which Ambani supplied, ready as always to seize a commercial opportunity.

Dhirubhai Ambani emerges as India's most outstanding businessman of the last two decades (3)

In the years that followed, Ambani specialised in hawking imported yarn. A Bombay businessman recalls the Ambani of those days as being a "pucca Gujarati bania", stalking the city's yarn market, living off tea-shop snacks and endlessly chewing paan.

Dhirubhai's younger son, Anil, recalls that through much of the 1960s the family lived in a one-room chawl, with Anil and elder brother Mukesh growing up in the neighbourhood bylanes.

By 1967, Dhirubhai was ready to start Reliance Textile Industries as a private limited company with a share capital of Rs 15 lakh. He didn't have all the money he needed, so he asked the people he knew for help. This included Viren Shah of Mukand Iron and Steel Company, who came from Ambani's seaside village of Chorwad (now a tourist spot) and whose family was the biggest landowner in the village.Shah told a friend later that he was asked by Dhirubhai for Rs 4 lakh, but that he turned down the request on the ground that "this project will not fly". He couldn't have been more wrong.

Somehow, Ambani has always attracted scepticism. Even in 1977, when Reliance was changing to a public limited company and its shares were being offered to the general public, numerous investors didn't want a slice of the still untested cake. D.N. Shroff, then president of the Silk and Art Silk Mills Association and a long-time friend of the man he calls Dhiru, remembers trying to persuade friends in government to buy Reliance shares worth Rs 1 lakh, but with practically no luck.

If few people saw then that this was going to be a goldmine, and that Ambani had the fabled Midas touch, the critics kept pace with Ambani through his early successes. Throughout the 1970s, Ambani made most of his money importing and exporting rayon and nylon yarn and fabrics, on which the profit margins were stupendous because of their domestic scarcity.

Grabbing scarce import licences, often hawking them at a premium, Ambani was quicker off the mark than everyone else in the biggest money-spinning operation of the decade. Critics have charged then and ever since that there was more to this initial success than is publicly known.

Dhirubhai Ambani emerges as India's most outstanding businessman of the last two decades (4)

Shroff recalls criticism at the time from a host of rival industrialists, who charged that Ambani was indulging in black marketing. He informed Dhirubhai of the criticism, and the man's response was typical. He asked Shroff to summon a meeting of his executive committee, comprising the biggest industrialists in the synthetics business.

Dhirubhai was then invited to face his critics, but he had them silent with one question: "You accuse me of black marketing, but which one of you has not slept with me?" Since all of them had at one stage or another bought yarn from or sold yarn to Ambani at the going rate, none of them had an answer.

Dhirubhai had made his point: no one in the business could act holier than Ambani. Other criticisms have been voiced over the years: that Ambani has used friends in high places to get his way and to put down rivals, that Ambani has mysteriously managed to always get the licences he wants, and to get the Government to announce duty rates that help him while putting own his rivals. Dhirubhai himself affects impatience with such carping, but there may well be a point to what the critics say.

In 1982, for instance, Reliance was getting ready to manufacture polyester yarn from imported dimethy terephthalate DMT, while the rival Orkay Silk Mills planned to use polyester chips as raw material. But in the budget of that year, the Government raised the import duty on polyester chips so that the Orkay project now faced a price handicap in the market.

Then, in November 1982, almost immediately after the Reliance polyester yarn factory went into production, the import duty on the yarn was raised by the Government - giving Ambani a price protection that helped his profit margins. Such cases can be multiplied. And Ambani's denials and explanations are not entirely convincing. He argues, for instance, that his friendship or acquaintance with people like former prime minister Indira Gandhi and her special assistant, R.K. Dhawan, were not helpful to him in his business: "One bureaucrat low down the ladder can say no to something which no one can then overrule."

Nevertheless, the fact remains that in 1980 he joined hands with me Congress(I) members of Parliament from Gujarat to host a party in a New Delhi hotel immediately after the Lok Sabha elections, a party that Mrs Gandhi attended as almost her first public engagement after being sworn in.

Also, a liaison manager in an industry quite unconnected with Ambani's recalls sitting in the office of a joint secretary in the Industry Ministry when the joint secretary got a telephone call from Dhawan asking why Ambani's licence application had not been cleared.

A short while later, Dhawan was on the line again, asking about progress, and the joint secretary was reduced to stammered explanations about the cyclostyling machine taking too much time.

Dhirubhai Ambani emerges as India's most outstanding businessman of the last two decades (5)

Dhirubhai Ambani in characteristic white: Scoring points

It would be a mistake, however, to attribute more importance to all this than is warranted. As a friend of Ambani explains, "Any poor man who has made his money quickly and become wealthy has used a ladder that is not clean. But anyone who thinks that Ambani is successful only or largely because of this is living in a fool's paradise. The fact is that Ambani is a consummate businessman." That point should be well taken. For one thing, Ambani uses the same techniques and strategies that others do to influence government decisions and to run his business. The difference is that he is better at the game than they are.

And as he himself says, "You have to sell your idea to the Government, and show how the company's plans fit in with national priorities. For instance, we import edible oils worth Rs 1,400 crore every year, so Reliance is looking at the possibility of going in for commercial plantations. The Government says it does not have money for projects, and I point out that Reliance can finance the project from its own resources."

The more important point, of course, is that Ambani has numerous strengths as a businessman, combining a talent for everything from marketing to finance and choice of technology. If he excelled in his early years in spotting a quick-money commercial opportunity, latching on first to a high-profit area of exports and imports, fixing on synthetic textiles as the growth-cum-profit area with maximum potential and later in knowing how to get his way with the Government, he has other strengths as well: spotting the right technology to adopt, working out innovative ways of marketing his yarn and financial wizardry with the hallmark of genius that has not been seen in Indian industry for some decades.

While other businessmen were thinking of going in for DMT plants that would feed polyester fibre units, Ambani spotted a worldwide shift in favour of a cheaper substitute, purified terephthalic acid (PTA), and went ahead with a PTA project.

While most yarn producing companies sold their product wholesale, Ambani and cousin Rasiklal Meswani, executive director in charge of yarn sales, set up a complicated retail selling system under which yarn is sold directly to small-scale weavers who then sell their grey fabric back to Reliance, which processes and finishes this before unloading it on to the market as Reliance cloth with its Vimal brand name.

In the process, Ambani has been able to get around the licence capacity limitations of his own weaving section and turn out far more cloth than he would otherwise have been able to. Says a contented Meswani: "As many as 25,000 units convert yarn into fabric for Reliance, and 30 to 40 per cent of our fabric comes this way. In the process, we have also earned the support of large numbers of customers for our yarn, because we guarantee them a market for their cloth." If that speaks of Ambani's capacity for innovation, there are numerous other examples, especially in the field of finance, that underline the same point.

Back in 1979, it was Ambani who first pushed through a forgotten idea in corporate finance, the convertible debenture. He had the devil of a time convincing the Government of its attractiveness as an investment proposition, arguing that it offered investors a guaranteed return as interest while simultaneously offering the prospect of capital appreciation when a part of the debenture was converted into snares.

The idea clicked, Reliance has issued six series of debentures in as many years for raising a record Rs 268 crore from the market, and other companies have jumped onto the bandwagon. As a result, the share market in the country has got its biggest boost in recent years because of the advent of the debenture. In the process, of course, Ambani has become the ordinary investor's stock-market deity.

Dhirubhai Ambani emerges as India's most outstanding businessman of the last two decades (6)

With sons Mukesh (left) and Anil: The builder and the inheritors

More daredevil ideas were to follow, some of them breathtaking in their originality. Ever since 1977-78, for instance, Reliance had not paid a rupee as tax on the substantial profits it earned, essentially because of outstanding tax planning by Ambani.

But in 1983, the Government announced in the budget that companies would have to compulsorily pay tax on at least 30 per cent of their profits. Almost everyone thought then that this would slow down Reliance's frenetic expansion as some of the company's profits would be mopped up by the Government. But Ambani would have none of it.

He announced shortly afterwards that the company was capitalising Rs 93 crore interest charges on its project loans, an unheard of stratagem that converted on-going expenditure into assets on which Reliance could now claim a higher depreciation writeoff from its profits. Result: Reliance has stayed a zero tax company.

The purists have demurred, of course. Reliance's own auditors have noted in the company's annual report that the capitalisation of interest is not a practice recommended by the Institute of Chartered Accountants. But Ambani is undeterred, and he has got what he wants.

Still more breathtaking financial legerdemain was to follow. Last year, Ambani was getting ready to launch on his latest clutch of projects. But the company was financially stretched, with little elbow room to increase its borrowings. The solution: the non-convertible part of the company's debentures were also converted into shares.

This seemingly simple gimmick killed several birds with one stone. First, it reduced the company's debt while increasing its equity capital, so that the debt-equity ratio now provided room for more borrowings.

Second, the debentures with a face value of Rs 100 were exchanged for 1.2 equity shares of Rs 10 each. This would seem unattractive for the investor, except for the fact that the Rs 10 share was then selling at Rs 115, while the market value of the Rs 100 debenture was only Rs 84. So the investor handed in an asset worth Rs 84 and got back another asset worth Rs 1 38 on the market.

The element of genius showed through this because while the investor gained, Reliance did too. The company had liquidated debt worth Rs 100 in the books and given out assets worth Rs 12 in the books.

The balance went into the reserves fund, which swelled overnight by a whopping Rs 63.2 crore, while the 13.5 per cent interest burden on the debenture was replaced by a smaller dividend burden. Dhirubhai demurs modestly when asked who thought of this absolutely brilliant stratagem, attributing it to teamwork, but son Anil says the real brain was none other than Dhirubhai himself.

So the list of Ambani's strengths grows longer: commercial skill, technical understanding, financial wizardry, managing the Government, marketing innovation. But even this is not a complete list, for there is still more to the man who is now reckoned by everyone as the brightest star on the corporate firmament.

Two additional strengths are revolutionary project management techniques that compress construction and erection time and the constant drive to modernise plant and machinery so that his own company escapes the fate of much of the textile industry.

Dhirubhai Ambani emerges as India's most outstanding businessman of the last two decades (7)

Ambani in his palatial office: Centre of a growing empire

Ambani takes an obvious pride in the speed with which he implements his industrial licences. His worsted spinning plant at Naroda, near Ahmedabad, was installed in eight months of getting the licence.

In 1981, when he got the Government's permission to instal the latest draw texturing machines, he had the equipment flown in and installed in next to no time. This may partly have been because of criticism from his rivals that he had been allowed to get the machines when others had not, and he may have wanted to instal the equipment before the Government changed its mind.

Nevertheless, the lightning reflexes of the man clearly stood out from the episode. In 1982, he out did E.I. Du Pont de Nemours, his collaborators for the polyester filament yarn project at Patalganga in Maharashtra, by getting the plant ready in 14 months, something that Du Pont itself had never managed to do in other countries.

The real hero behind this achievement is Dhirubhai's elder son, Mukesh, an unassuming youngster of 28 years who wears his Stanford mba lightly but who clearly has his father's genius in his veins. Mukesh attributes the record pace of project implementation very matter-of-factly to "diligence", and to the fact that he had no prior experience, "so I did not see the problems, only the solutions".

But it takes S.P. Chakravorty, chief executive at Patalganga, to point out that whereas other companies would wait for equipment on order to land before linking its various pieces through the long arrays of pipes that are integral to a petrochemical complex, Reliance has done the opposite: at Patalganga, scores of kilometres of pipes were laid in readiness for the equipment, which was installed as soon as it landed. The magnitude of this achievement can be judged from the fact that one of Reliance's new projects has 220 km of pipes.

Modernisation is another key to Reliance's success. The Naroda plant was first started in the early 1970s with four warp knitting machines, but these are already museum pieces.

As Dhirubhai's younger son Anil, who completed his own MBA from the Wharton School in 14 months before taking charge of the Naroda complex, points out, the average life of the machines at Naroda is only five to seven years.

Last year, the company spent Rs 50 crore for importing 280 state-of-the-art water jet looms and 16 projectile jacquard weaving machines. Investment of an even higher order is now planned for further modernisation and expansion.

When all is said and done, however, Ambani's greatest strength is probably his ability to keep changing to the situation in which he finds himself. He started out as an operator in international trade; when he shifted to manufacturing, the vast bulk of his sales continued to go out as exports - because that is where the profits lay, given the premium-fetching import replenishment licences that he got on his exports.

He then shifted from knitting to weaving, switching focus to the domestic market. And just when everyone thought that Ambani's profile was getting fixed, he did the chameleon act yet again by starting a petrochemical operation that has now resulted in the logical culmination: Reliance Textile Industries is changing its name to Reliance Industries.

The bulk of the company's investment will soon be in polyester filament yarn and staple fibre, and then in PTA, mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) and linear alkyl benzene (LAB). And future investment could well be in a Rs 500, crore aromatics plant in Uttar Pradesh that will use four lakh tonnes of naphtha turned out every year by the Mathura oil refinery.

Aromatics is the upstream raw material for synthetic fabrics, and will mark for Ambani the culmination of his drive for backward integration. So from being the country's most high-profile textile magnate, Ambani is about to transform himself into a petrochemicals giant. But he might change yet again, moving into oilseed plantations and oil exploration. As he himself says, "I will go in whatever direction that suits me."

Through these transformations, he has managed change in other ways as well. When he started out, his business forced him to footslog it through Bombay's teeming yarn market, and to wait outside the doors of the very textile tycoons who now envy him his success, because at that time they were his valued clients.

Today, he can sit through half-day long sessions with journalists without a telephone call to disturb him: he has passed responsibilities down the line, and people take decisions at their levels.

Dhirubhai Ambani emerges as India's most outstanding businessman of the last two decades (8)

"His methods are controversial, but he has been successful."
Kapal Mehra, chairman, Orkay Silk Mills

He puts in no more than an eight-hour day, clocking in at 10.15 every morning when a 50-to 60-page report is always waiting for him, giving every detail that matters on the previous day's operations: production, marketing, finance.

His role now is confined to supervising the functioning of his senior executives, making sure things are running to schedule and that problems are solved. And there is a mildly puzzled incomprehension when asked how he managed the shift from a one-man yarn hawker to the rarefied atmosphere of an 8,000 square feet 'Chairman's office'. "Decentralisation is the answer," he says simply.

If that is indeed the case, the two people he relies on most of all are his sons. For while he scoffs at their American degrees, touting instead the homegrown virtues of native entrepreneurship, he clearly relies on Mukesh to see the company through its Rs 675 crore expansion spree and on Anil, the more outgoing and articulate son, for running the textile complex and looking after the company's total marketing.

Meswani is another key figure: paunchy, and wise in the ways of the yarn market, Meswani has been with cousin Dhirubhai for the last quarter century. "He has taught me everything," Meswani says, and Dhirubhai clearly trusts his cousin to look after the company's complex yarn marketing operations.

Chakravorty is another key executive, pulled out of J.K. Synthetics by Dhirubhai and asked to help Mukesh with the Patalganga operation.

There are others like these, but Ambani now says he does not even bother with the recruitment of most of his personnel. He gives candidates the once over only if they are going to join in the key slots at the top. Everything else is decided lower down. And asked as to what kind of people he looks for, Ambani answers simply: "Engineers with talent."

All this decentralisation notwithstanding, Ambani's interests range far and wide. He is probably the best informed man in the country on the ups and downs of the smuggling business, because synthetic textiles are one of the most prominent items on the smugglers' list and these smuggled supplies his main competition.

Ambani's men estimate that a staggering Rs 3,000 crore worth of textiles are smuggled into India every year, a figure compiled by referring to the supplies reaching the United Arab Emirates from such sources as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Ambani also keeps a close check on the activities of his rivals. Last year, the excise authorities mounted a major raid on Orkay Silk Mills. The result reported in the newspapers last month was a Rs 10-crore fine on the company and a Rs 50-lakh personal fine on its chairman, Kapal Mehra.

It is widely believed in Bombay's business circles that Ambani had a hand in the initial tip-off to the authorities, who then mounted the raid. Whether this is true or not the fact remains that there is no one to beat Dhirubhai when it comes to close-range fighting.

Four years ago, when Ambani was trying to get a licence from the Government to manufacture polyester filament yarn, all the existing producers under the banner of the Association of Synthetic Fibre Industry ganged up to prevent Ambani from getting the Government's go-ahead.

Dhirubhai Ambani emerges as India's most outstanding businessman of the last two decades (9)

"He used to buy yarn from us, now we buy from him."
Virenchee Sagar, managing director, Nirlon Synthetic Fibres and Chemicals

But they reckoned without the trick up Ambani's sleeve. Knowing that the best way to break a cartel is to get one or two of its members on your side with the promise of goodies.

Ambani seems to have driven a wedge through the ranks of the opposition, which quickly fell apart for his own licence to come through. It may be purely coincidental that around the same time J.K. Synthetics got the Government's clearance for expanding its own plant, but there are few in the industry who do not believe that the two events are connected.

But such successes in the teeth of opposition inevitably generate more opposition, and some of this surfaced on the Bombay stock exchange in 1982. Ambani was just then readying for the single biggest capital issue in Indian corporate history (convertible debentures worth Rs 50 crore), and it was important that Reliance shares maintained a good price on the market so that investor confidence in the company was boosted.

But barely six weeks before the debenture issue was due to open in May, mysterious forces began hammering down the price of the Reliance share, which dropped from Rs 131 to Rs 121 in 25 minutes of unprecedented trading and near panic.

But Ambani reacted with lightning speed and his men were quickly on the floor of the stock exchange, picking up every share that was offered. By the end of the day, the price had recovered to Rs 125, and a quickly formed "Friends of Reliance Association" took the battle into the opponents' corner. They kept buying for the next few weeks, driving the share price up.

In most share market transactions, sellers do not have shares ready for delivery because they intend to buy back later at a lower price. This game was now thwarted because Ambani's men had driven the price so high.

So the very sellers who were trying to beat down the price earlier now started buying because Ambani's men insisted on delivery, and this took the share price still higher, to a record level of Rs 175 and more. The sellers eventually lost an estimated Rs 3.5 crore for their pains.

Ambani's men had turned the knife with a vengeance after getting in deep, and the forces who had mounted the attack in the first place - presumably Dhirubhai's rivals in business - learnt a lesson that they will never forget: do not meddle with Reliance shares. In fact, Ambani is suspected to have tried to pay Orkay in the same coin last year, when it was Orkay's turn to float a share issue.

Dhirubhai Ambani emerges as India's most outstanding businessman of the last two decades (10)

Ambani exercising at hotel poolside, with stockbroker in tow: Healthy growth

If Ambani emerged triumphant from some of these financial skirmishes. he got his fingers slightly burnt in 1983 when some non-resident Indian companies with such unlikely names as Fiasco Investments and Crocodile Investments bought Reliance shares.

It turned out on investigation that some of the people whose names were listed as the directors of these companies had not even heard of Reliance, casting some doubt on who the real investors were.

Ambani himself explains this away by saying that "nonresident Indian investors will never reveal their true identity", but most observers believe that this particular episode has not yet been fully explained.

But such controversies appear to be nothing more than occasional hiccups even as Reliance continues to digest one project after another and to gain weight rapidly. So even Ambani's contemporaries in business are now forced to pay tribute.

Says Kapal Mehra of Orkay: "His track record shows that he is a go-getter. There has been a lot of controversy about the method he has adopted, but he has been successful, and I wish there were more people like Dhirubhai in India." And Virenchee Sagar, managing director of Nirlon, says: "He has this enormous, extraordinary ambition which should see him go far."

Such accolades, some of them grudgingly delivered, come on top of the adulation that is already Ambani's because of the unprecedented returns that he has given his investors. And the question inevitably crops up: what next?

There are clear signs that some leading lights of the Rajiv Gandhi government are not fond of Ambani, and one minister has a dossier ready on his past activities. But it is doubtful if even this can now come in Dhirubhai's way: Reliance is too big, and its creator still has a lot of creativity left in him.

Persistent rumour suggests that Ambani might get into the media game. His Mudra advertising agency, launched initially for in-house work, has already become one of the largest agencies in the business, with billings last year of Rs 8 crore. Mudra's offshoot is now investing Rs 4 crore in new video equipment that will launch Ambani into the growing field of TV and video film production.

Bombay has also been buzzing with talk of an offer he made to R.K. Karanjia, editor of the local tabloid The Daily, and journalists have been approached with job offers by people claiming to be speaking on behalf of Ambani.

But Ambani denies emphatically that he wants to get into the media business. If one takes him at his word, he still has numerous fields beckoning him. Quite apart from the various projects that he has already on hand, he has a stake in a new private oil exploration company floated with other investors by H.T. Parekli.

And as he points out, he has the ability to "pump money out of the people." In a capital starved economy, anyone who can get the capital together will clearly have no shortage of work to get done whether it is in edible oilseed plantations, oil related projects or computers, which too Dhirubhai is looking at.

One thing is certain. As he takes his morning constitutional on the Worli seaface, or has his standard breakfast of a papaya, Ambani is still thinking of the future, not the past. At 52, he has a good decade of work still ahead of him; and if his dreams come true, at the end of that period Reliance Industries could well be four or five times the size it is today. No one, of course, will be surprised.

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Nov 30, 1999

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Dhirubhai Ambani emerges as India's most outstanding businessman of the last two decades (2024)
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