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June 17, 1998


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The Rediff Business Interview/ Mukesh Ambani

'Infectious impatience is Papa's hallmark. We all want to inculcate it.'

He is the inheritor. Together with brother Anil, Mukesh Ambani runs India's largest and fastest growing industrial empire. Under the tutelage of his famous father Dhirubhai, who received the Wharton Dean's Medal on Monday.

What did he learn from Papa? How will he translate that into corporate strategy for Reliance in the coming millennium? Mukesh Ambani, in a rare interview about his father, to Pritish Nandy.

What were your father's childhood years like? Does he ever speak to you about them?

Very frequently, in fact. Stories about his childhood have always inspired us, taught us how to cope with life's vicissitudes.

Papa was always very responsible and enterprising. When he was in school, he went to the foot of Mount Girnar -- the famous mountain in Saurashtra, where he grew up in a small town called Chorwad in Junagadh -- and opened his own shop. To sell bhajias to pilgrims over the weekend. This is how he earned his own money though his needs were few. Until he left for Aden, he wore only half pants!

Why did he go to Aden? Yemen is not exactly an El Dorado.

He was fond of adventure. I guess Aden provided him an opportunity to experience it. To escape his own background, to see the world. He actually went with a recommendation for a job, like people go to Dubai these days. He had just completed school. SSC at that time. Even that on his second attempt! It was like MABF. Matric Appeared But Failed.

Luckily for him, he had admirers at that young age. One of them liked his spirit of enterprise so much that he sent him off to Aden for a job with an Indian trading company. A pedhi. A pedhi was like a proprietary firm. He started there and then moved on to a job with Shell.

What kind of job?

It began at the petrol pump. Then he went on to logistics. Loading all the ships and airplanes, making sure that the entire fuel logistics for Shell worked in perfect synchronicity.

For how many years did he do this job?

From 1954 to 1957. I was born there. He came back to India the year I was born. My mother was with him all through. She still talks about his amazing spirit of adventure.

Once they were on a ship, attending a party. From the ship to the shore was more than a kilometre. Some people at the party were betting among themselves -- that whoever could jump into the cold water and swim to the shore would get an ice cream. It was a joke and no one took it seriously. Papa heard it and turned around and asked them: Is that a deal? Everyone thought he was kidding. But he took off his shirt and jumped into the water and actually swam all the way to the shore. That was the kind of person he was.

You mean a gambler?

No, an adventurer. It was the spirit of adventure that drove him all the time. In whatever he was doing.

Why did he come back from Aden?

He had made Rs 50,000 and that seemed to him, in those days, to be a pretty neat kitty to come back to India and start a business of his own. He never wanted to do a naukri. That is why the moment he earned enough money to do his own thing, he was back. In Bombay.

The pedhi that sent him to Aden then helped him with initial introductions. Because they were in the traditional textiles business, Papa went into that as well. But he was always future-oriented. So very soon he turned around and told his friends: I want to now do something in the future of textiles.

Polyster had just been invented -- in the mid-fifties -- and by the late fifties it had started making a presence in India. It was called chamak and, for the textile industry, it represented the future of the business. Not many people understood that. But Papa did.

What happened thereafter? How did that become Reliance?

What Papa wants to pursue, he pursues relentlessly. That is his style. He got into the depths of textiles, understood the difference between fibres and then betted on polyster.

By the mid-sixties, he was the largest in polyster trading. ICI came to India and started a polyster fibre plant in the mid-sixties. But even though we did not have a plant, we were the largest. His bet was right. Polyster proved to be the best fibre. From zero market share, it has grown to 70 per cent. His own ambitions grew along the polyster line. He was the last to manufacture it but that did not matter. Reliance was built on the pillars of polyster.

Today, we are one of the biggest in polyster in the world. Our petrochemical integration was primarily to feed the polyster industry and then we diversified into plastics, refineries, oil, gas -- and now telecommunication. We have a whole host of infrastructure portfolios today but it all began with Papa's vision for polyster. It was the lifeline for Reliance.

What were Dhirubhai's parents like? Do you have any memories of them?

Remarkable people. Papa always says: I wish Bapuji was around to see all that I have built. He died before Papa went to Aden. He was a strict school teacher with lots of dreams for his son. Ba saw them fulfilled. She saw most of Papa's achievements before she died in 1979.

What does your father see as the future of Reliance in the new millennium?

That was enunciated by him in his acceptance speech on Monday. Now that economic realism has finally arrived in India, the future lies in becoming a strong economic power. Dominance in the world will come only from how well a nation can cope with economic realism and towards that India must work, must find its own place under the sun.

As long as we place millions of Indians at the centre of our thought process, as long as we think of their welfare, their future, their opportunities for self-realisation we are on the right track. For India can grow, prosper, flourish only if they grow, prosper, flourish. We cannot grow by any esoteric strategies. Our purchasing power, our economic strength, our marketplace all depends on the prosperity of our people.

What is Reliance built on -- apart from polyster?

Relationships and trust. This is the bedrock of his life. We have in the past few years built nearly Rs 500 billion of assets and these have been built by a team with an average age of less than 35!

That is called reliance on youth. We have given them a chance to perform and show the world what we are capable of. It is, Pritish, pursuit of excellence. Determination and perseverence. To really do a job and do it well. And when you win, to show humility.

But Dhirubhai is not known for his humility. He is known for his impatience.

Yes, I know. We call it infectious impatience. That's his hallmark and we are trying to inculcate it in the entire organisation. Infectious impatience. So that things not only get done but get done in double quick time.

What do you see as his single most crucial achievement? Not necessarily the largest.

Building morale. That is the thing he values most. He has always been a master at motivating people. His key achievement is understanding people. We are now trying to institutionalise this. It will give Reliance the ultimate competitive edge.

Is there any area he sees as his failure? Something he wanted to do and did not succeed?

I guess he wants more people involved in Reliance. We have 4 or 5 million shareholders today. He would like to see this as 40 or 50 million. He wants to grow the Reliance family bigger. He said that at the ceremony. Why 5 million? Why not 500 million?

I think that is why he is taking so much serious interest in agriculture. That is where he thinks India's future lies.

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