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July 13, 2002 | 1540 IST
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So what happens to Reliance now?

After Dhirubhai who? The question about the future of Reliance group in the post-Dhirubhai Ambani era haunts millions of small investors, who have staked their savings. Indeed, it affects the stock markets, concerns corporate India and bothers the government as well.

Some cite the market reaction on July 8, the first working day after Dhirubhai's demise and the subsequent movement of the group's shares as a barometer of the shape of public perception.

The shares jumped. Reliance Industries Ltd rebounded, hitting Rs 271, up 3 per cent. Reliance Petroleum was up Rs 24.40, gaining 3.4 per cent that day.

Another view: It is in keeping with the Ambani tradition. The tradition of remote control operation continued to give comfort to investors. Offering comfort to small investors also meant offering comfort to the largest shakeholders and other promoters.

However, it was argued that foreign financial institutions too were in the fray that day. Also, the group's shares had fallen sharply two weeks prior - soon after the news of Dhirubhai's hospitalisation spread.

It also could be that the shares might have crashed had there been no such cushion. The debate goes on and on. The upshot of it is that Dhirubhai's sons, Mukesh and Anil, have learnt the lesson from their father in the art of market management, coupled with the enhancement of shareholders' value that had helped the patriarch to build an investor cult -- and in the process build a formidable business empire.

Market management was part of overall financial management that the Reliance patriarch had developed and made into a fine art. The crux of it is accessing debt when opportunity arises, not necessarily when funds were required, and keeping the servicing angle in mind.

Mukesh-Anil duo is carrying on Dhirubhai's legacy. Latest reports say RIL mobilised Rs 2.50 billion in 180-day funds at a fine rate of 6.85 per cent.

If it is just a formula, why have others not exploited? Imitators did try. Abhay Oswal and Kapal Mehra of Orkay Mills tried to emulate Dhirubhai, but floundered. Probably because some analysts said that they might not be able to deliver the goods.

Dhirubhai had an uncanny sense of timing. Of what use would the cash be if it were not used to enhance the shareholder's value. But cash in the kitty also helps to cut costs and avoid time overruns.

Mukesh and Anil do not have one specific problem that Dhirubhai had to grapple with for several years during the licence raj: managing the environment.

Neither do they have an acceptability problem - the 'corporate untouchability' that Dhirubhai had suffered.

When I first met him in late 1970s, Dhirubhai had graduated from trading to manufacturing and was known for his 'Vimal' brand of synthetic textiles that were becoming a rage, sparking off a fight with fellow textile mill owners.

At that meeting, after a long preface, he came to the brass tacks. Sprang from his seat and said, "You are on the payroll of Nusli Wadia (Bombay Dyeing chief)." He got angry because something adverse was written about Reliance.

Recovering my composure at the sudden accusation, I said, "If you prove it, I will resign. If not, will you quit?"

Suddenly tempers cooled down. Suddenly, he said, "We are friends!" and sat down, gesturing me to do so too. After a long explanation, he came to the point: "They (his business adversaries) don't want a village school master's son to succeed," he observed.

He moved from trading to textile manufacturing and then on to backward integration to nylon and polyester manufacture first and then to petrochemicals and finally into petroleum refining and oil exploration.

As he moved from one orbit to the other, Dhirubhai could not help tread on many a toe. He spent a lot of time fighting fellow industrialists and eventually for lebensraum at the top of corporate sector.

For Dhirubhai, there were no grey areas: he categorised all not in his favour as anti-Ambani. He didn't recognise the neutral or the non-aligned.

The new generation does not have to grapple with the corporate untouchability problem. Dhirubhai himself settled that. The industrial liberalisation policy ushered in in 1991 took the wind out from his baiters' sails and dispelled the misgivings of Doubting Thomases, who felt the Reliance bubble would burst.

In a sense, the patriarch prepared his entire family for the shape of things to come. The stroke Dhirubhai suffered in 1986 was a signal, a warning bell. The last 14 years were therefore a period of transition at Reliance: a period of apprenticeship for the sons.

But then apprenticeship is apprenticeship. Though the sons handled most issues independently and efficiently, someone was always watching, which was reassuring. There is no such assurance now, with the passing of Dhirubhai.

The toughest decision in recent months was the sale of RIL stake in Larsen & Toubro to the Aditya Birla group. I am sure the sons would not have been the prime movers of this 'sell' proposal, as they would not have hurt their father, who acquired that L&T stake amid fanfare a decade ago.

It remained sour grapes with the government refusing to hand it over on a platter. Also, there was a sea change and the transformation is still under way.

In the globalised scenario with emphasis on core competence, L&T was a square peg in a round hole. It is a major cement producer and a construction company. Dhirubhai surely must have made that tough decision himself.

Several other crucial decisions are in the pipeline: short- and medium-term ones. Despite the tenacity and risk-taking ability Dhirubhai exhibited in his lifetime, all his investments, except perhaps for the telecom licences (yet to be implemented), are around Mumbai and in Gujarat, his home state.

Dhirubhai had not even ventured into the interiors of Maharashtra though he knew the state well. Will Reliance under the new management venture out into the Hindi heartland and into southern India?

It all depends on how the two brothers get along. Mukesh and Anil appear to be complementary to each other. The former is an engineer from Stanford, California. He has been RIL's vice-chairman and managing director. The latter is a financial man, an MBA from Wharton School, and is the managing director.

Mukesh is shy, humble and shuns limelight. Anil is outgoing - probably, it was for this reason that Dhirubhai chose him to be RIL's face.

On current reckoning, everything is moving smoothly. How would things be when their traits are in full play? Yet, their mother, Kokilaben, is a moderating factor and a binding force.

For diarchy to succeed at RIL in the long run, they have to curb their individuality. Will they?

Dhirubhai Ambani: End of an era
R C Murthy

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