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July 8, 2002 | 1356 IST
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Man who revelled in adversity

N Vaghul

I first came to know Dhirubhai Ambani in 1978 when I was the executive director of the Central Bank of India but I knew him intimately only when I became the chairman of ICICI in 1985. What struck me most about Dhirubhai was that he could see into the future and was a person who came into his own during adversity. Indeed, he revelled in adversity.

In 1985-90, when Rajiv Gandhi had just come in as prime minister, a lot of businessmen wrote him off. V P Singh was the finance minister, and a lot of prominent businessmen in Mumbai said that the Reliance story was over.

There was talk that Reliance had come so far only because the Indian government had been benevolent to it. Most people said that Reliance was a bubble about to burst and this kind of thing continued right until 1990.

Dhirubhai had to live with this and it was not easy for him, but each time he came back stronger.

I knew that the Reliance story was far from over. Being with ICICI, I had access to business data and I knew what they were doing and that they would become a business house to contend with. When he came to Mumbai, business houses were conservative in their world view and Dhirubhai did not fit in. He brought in an entirely different world view.

If today Reliance is what it is, he is the only person who can be credited with dreaming big. He was a man who had mastered the art of handling New Delhi.

This was a skill one had to develop because the government was far more involved in business matters during those years. One can view the New Delhi factor negatively or positisvely and I tend to view it positively purely because of what Reliance has come to be today.

He knew what he wanted and he got it. Also, he came from the second generation of businessmen who thought that business would grow on its own and also through goodwill.

In all my years as chairman of ICICI, Dhirubhai telephoned me only twice with requests. Once it was for attending a brokers' conference just after Reliance's IPO in the late 1980s.

At that time Reliance was going through lot of public perception problems and Dhirubhai wanted me to attend so as to convey the message that the company's bankers were with Reliance and were backing it. My admiration for Dhirubhai was, one can say, conditioned.

He was the one who once told me that one should be as respectful to the despatch clerk or peon as to anyone else in the organisation.

As told to Sanjay Pillai

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The Ambani Saga