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'Always invest in businesses of the future and in talent'

Mukesh Ambani, chairman, Reliance Industries Ltd.
Photograph: Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images
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January 17, 2007

If Dhirubhai Ambani was a larger-than-life patriarch and Anil was the public face of Reliance, Mukesh Ambani was an enigma. Those who knew him well credited him with leading Reliance's turbo-charged growth over the last two decades.

But very little is publicly known of his beliefs, vision and motivation. In his most expansive interview ever to MoneyLIFE, a personal finance magazine, Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani tells
MoneyLIFE editors Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu, what drives him and his business decisions

A lot of details about your life are already known. But we don't know things from your end. Your life has changed dramatically in just about three decades; will you take us through that process?

From my point of view, very little has changed (Laughs). In terms of attitude to life, little has changed. There are important lessons I have learnt during my upbringing. It is important to share these, though these are tough to practise as a parent (smiles).

We were like a joint family and I was the first child of the family of that generation. There were advantages in being the first child those days. My father navigated through life from Aden in Yemen to Bhuleshwar (a congested commercial precinct in Mumbai), to Usha Kiran (Mumbai's earliest skyscraper) at Altamount Road to Sea Wind (an exclusive tower which is the Ambani residence).

My first memories are of the early '60s at Altamount Road which was then an emerging area. We were a close-knit family and the four of us -- Dipti, Nina, Anil and I -- were left to do what we wanted. There were boundaries, of course, but within those, we were not micro-managed. Things have changed so much now. When my kids, Isha and Akash, were in the third standard, we behaved as though it was our exam.

Our own childhood was totally different. I guess when you are left on your own, you find your true potential. I remember my father never came to our school even once. Nevertheless, he was hugely interested in our all-round development for which he did some amazing things.

Give us an example.

Imagine this. In the mid-60s, he put out a newspaper ad for a teacher, but specified that his responsibility would be non-academic; he would have to impart general knowledge. He interviewed several persons and selected Mahendrabhai Vyas who taught at the New Era School. Mahendrabhai used to come every evening and stay with us till 6.30-7 pm.

His brief was our all-round development. We played hockey, football and different kinds of games, watched matches at Cooperage, travelled in buses and trains and explored different parts of Bombay. We went camping and stayed in a village for 10-15 days every year.

These experiences have helped us a lot, but at that time, we were not very aware of all the learning that was going on. The two hours with Mahendrabhai every evening were great fun. A third track running at that time, apart from academics and the fun stuff, was that my father shared with me his passion for business and entrepreneurship from very early on. Even when I was in high school, I used to spend long hours at office on weekends.

So, these were the four components of my upbringing -- the academic stuff where I was left to myself, Mahendrabhai, my father's passion for creating Reliance and the last piece was his deep links with the family.

A lot of what I have learned from these influences has stayed with me. From the external perspective, my life may have changed a lot, but when I look back at myself in the 1970s, 1980s and now, I see consistency.

How would you describe this?

For my father, life was uni-dimensional. Reliance was his life. Yet, some of my most vivid memories are about spending time with him. However busy he may have been, whatever the pressure, Sunday was for his wife and kids. I try to do the same with my family.

And it has to be non-academic. It is easy to be with your kids and say let's do homework together. But we try to do things, beyond doing lunches and dinners. I learnt that from my father. He was a big nature lover and during our school days, we went to different places every Sunday -- we walked through the forest or had a bath in streams.

I have turned into a big nature fan as well. The change in my life that you talked about is that I can afford it more today. These childhood influences have shaped me into what I am today.

What about your choice of higher education, why did you choose chemical engineering?

In fact, the choice illustrates what I meant about academic decisions being left to us. Nobody asked me to do chemical engineering. I chose to study science and which college I would go to.

By that time -- the early '70s -- Vimal was a fairly successful textile brand. So everybody expected me to do textile engineering. I shocked them by saying that I would go to IIT. Interestingly, 4-5 of us friends studying together for Inter-science were all among the top 10. Ajay Parekh, who runs Pidilite, topped Bombay University. I stood fifth or sixth.

Since Inter-science results were announced after the IIT entrance, I joined IIT, Bombay. After the Inter-science results a few weeks later, I left and joined University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT) along with my friends.

Did your academic choices help you in the process of self-discovery?

From the beginning, it was clear that we would have to find our own path. Along with that came the self-realisation that we would have to propel ourselves to achieve excellence. I am trying to learn how to do that as a parent. There is a trick somewhere; sometimes we do a lot. I feel that I am more ready for ICSE exams than my daughter. I know everything and I can beat any parent of my age in ICSE exam hands down.

How do you get the time to do it?

I am passionate about it, so one makes the time. My daughter says it is wrong. 'I will have to study it myself,' she says. The trick is to light a fire. It is not about pouring knowledge into the brains of kids but lighting that spark so that they learn by themselves.

With us, my father achieved it without trying as hard as we do. It also depends on circumstances, friends and luck. Probably, we were fortunate to have everything in place.

Many of your childhood friends are still working with you -- you clearly forged lasting bonds.

Anand and I have been friends since the sixth standard; he then went on to study commerce. I met Manoj at UDCT. (Anand Jain now leads the Reliance effort in SEZ and Manoj Modi heads the retailing venture). I have other friends as well from that period. Kiran Manelkar became a doctor; because of him, I have many friends who are doctors.

Why did you choose chemical engineering?

Nobody had anticipated that chemicals was the direction in which Reliance was headed. I did chemical engineering because it was supposed to be the future. Think of the line from the movie The Graduate, which was very popular in our times -- "There's a great future in plastics." (Laughs) I guess, it left a mark on my mind.

In a sense, it also reflected two of the tenets on which my father built Reliance: always invest in businesses of the future and invest in talent. We believe in these two principles even today.

When did you start working for Reliance?

Even when I was doing chemical engineering, I was working almost full time for Reliance. I finished college at 2.30 pm and went straight to the office. I remember, we were raided and my father was in the US.

I was literally in charge, handling the problem. I must have been about 16 or 17. After chemical engineering, everybody said, 'what would you do'? My friends and I wrote all sorts of competitive exams. It was mainly driven by a desire to prove to ourselves that we are no less than anyone in the world. That attitude has not changed either. We even took the civil services exams just to see whether we can get into the list. Then we said, let us apply to Harvard, Stanford and other colleges. I was lucky to get into the top 2-3 business schools. I joined Stanford.

Our class and faculty were outstanding. Nobel Laureate, Bill Sharpe was a professor of financial economics. He made a great impact on me. I hit it off with him on day one -- just as I did with Professor MM Sharma. These are the kinds of professors who make you think out of the box.

Prof MM Sharma's first lecture was on how you make money in the chemical business. Bill Sharpe started by asking 'how do you make a difference to the world.' It was my good fortune that I had a good set of professors and, of course, a great peer group.

While I was at Stanford, Reliance got a licence to make polyester. At that time (early '80s), the World Bank's Young Professional's Programme (YPP) was extremely prestigious. I was very keen to do it too. I had the choice of completing the Stanford graduate programme over the next six months, do the YPP for a year and then return to India. I planned to do this and return to work on the polyester plant.

But you didn't do that. What happened?

When I explained my thoughts to my father, he said, 'you are right in the way you have planned your things. I am starting work on the polyester plant.' I said, 'Oh you are not going to wait for one and a half years?' He said, 'No, I won't wait.' So, I decided to come back immediately.

This was in 1981. Rasikbhai Meswani, Nikhil and Hital's father, was my first boss. The management style used to be very open. We could walk into each other's cabin, join in a meeting or get involved in any discussion. My father encouraged it. But when I joined Reliance formally, he said you need to have a boss and I was put under Rasikbhai's charge.

He was running our polyester business, which consisted of importing polyester fibre, texturising it and selling it to textile mills. It was a new business compared to our own textile mill at Naroda (near Ahmedabad) that brought in almost 60%-70% of the profits.

When we started work on setting up a polyester filament yarn project, my chemical engineering and business school background helped me in organising the work, creating reporting structures, motivating people. . . in all this, my father and Rasikbhai were two steps ahead of me.

We worked liked a partnership; I was fortunate to be able to contribute from day one. One of my biggest obsessions today is that senior people must give bright 25-year olds the opportunity to contribute meaningfully.

The time was different. Reliance has been in the middle of so much of tumultuous growth. You did many things for the first time in India. Isn't it difficult to replicate your own experiences?

Well, I will share with you my perspective. Even before we went public, my father used to say, we need capital but we don't want to be dependent on traditional sources of capital. It was very difficult to convince banks about his ambitious plans.

In the journey of an entrepreneur, the most important thing is self-belief and the ability to convert that belief into reality. He believed that we could raise money from the capital market and return it with profits. His second belief was that India is a great opportunity.

While going public was relatively a new thing, he also wanted to change the status quo and unleash disruptive changes. May be he did not articulate all this then.

The actions were loud enough. For instance, for many years, Reliance was not part of any trade or business association. It also had nothing to do with the old established houses.

Absolutely. That was his belief. He said, 'let's build a different company.' This is my 25th year in Reliance as a full-time employee.

When I look back over the years, what did we change? We changed the mindset and we showed the way. Dhirubhai propelled the Indian capital market forward. We raised money only till the middle of 1985 and then in 1989. Then many others came along and raised money. That was a paradigm change.

The first 200-odd people who built Patalganga with me are still around, running different businesses. It has gone into their psyche that we do things differently here. We have taken money from ordinary Indians and we are their trustees. When this is drilled into thousands of people, you automatically get performance.

The other thing that is not visible externally is methods, processes, systems that moved Reliance away from a system that is totally owner-driven. We were among the last to put up a polyester plant. Before us there were Birlas, Modis, Singhanias, the multinationals -- everybody except the Tatas.

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