THE FOR­TU­NATE SON

For a decade In­dia’s rich­est man waged a blood feud with his younger brother for con­trol of the sub­con­ti­nent’s telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in­dus­try. Now Mukesh Am­bani shares the in­side story of his ul­ti­mate tri­umph—Jio, an ul­tra-cheap 4G broad­band ser­vice whose bi

Forbes - - CONTENTS - BY NAAZNEEN KARMALI

For a decade In­dia’s rich­est man waged a blood feud with his younger brother for con­trol of the sub­con­ti­nent’s telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in­dus­try. Now Mukesh Am­bani shares the in­side story of his ul­ti­mate tri­umph—Jio, an ul­tra-cheap 4G broad­band ser­vice whose big­gest win­ners will be the mil­lions of or­di­nary In­di­ans who sud­denly con­sume more mo­bile data than ei­ther the U.S. or China.

On a cool, dry evening late last year, 50,000 em­ploy­ees and friends of Re­liance In­dus­tries, In­dia’s most valu­able com­pany, packed into a cav­ernous tem­po­rary sta­dium 25 miles out­side down­town Mum­bai to cel­e­brate the firm’s 40th an­nual “Fam­ily Day.” An­other 200,000 peo­ple di­aled in via video link to watch the show, which was hosted by Bol­ly­wood mega-celeb Shah Rukh Khan (33.6 mil­lion Twit­ter fol­low­ers), singer Sonu Nigam (18.8 mil­lion likes on Face­book) and vet­eran ac­tor and game-show host Am­bitabh Bachchan, who staged a round of Who Wants to Be a Mil­lion­aire? The five-hour event cul­mi­nated with dazzling fire­works and a mid­night feast fea­tur­ing veg­e­tar­ian del­i­ca­cies like chick­pea-and-rice­flour dumplings, spicy cot­tage cheese and lentils.

But the real star of the oc­ca­sion was Mukesh Am­bani, Re­liance’s 60-year-old chair­man, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor and largest share­holder and the 19th-rich­est man in the world, with a net worth of $40.1 bil­lion. “Can Re­liance be among the top 20 com­pa­nies in the world?” he called out to the crowd, which obe­di­ently raised their lamps, turn­ing the arena into a mov­ing sea of lights. “Yes, we can! Yes, we will!”

Am­bani’s am­bi­tion is un­der­stand­able given the scope of what he has al­ready achieved. Re­liance is the 106th-larg-

est com­pany in the world, hav­ing earned some $4.6 bil­lion in prof­its last year on $50.9 bil­lion in sales. The firm is a ma­jor player in oil and gas and op­er­ates one of the largest oil re­finer­ies in the world. It is the largest re­tailer in In­dia and has im­por­tant ven­tures in life sci­ences, tex­tiles and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions. Its Net­work18 me­dia sub­sidiary has part­ner­ships with prom­i­nent West­ern brands like CNBC, CNN, MTV and Nick­elodeon (tele­vi­sion), Para­mount Pic­tures (film) and Forbes (print).

But what re­ally has Am­bani ex­cited—and has set Re­liance’s share price on fire—is his $33 bil­lion in­vest­ment in Jio, a 4G broad­band ser­vice that has at­tracted 160 mil­lion cus­tomers since it was in­tro­duced 18 months ago. More than half those sub­scribers signed up in the first six months, when Re­liance jump-started the busi­ness by of­fer­ing the ser­vice for free. They stayed be­cause Jio has promised never to charge for do­mes­tic calls and its data rates are su­percheap. That hyper­growth has boosted Re­liance’s stock by over 70% in the past year and added $16.9 bil­lion to Am­bani’s for­tune. An­a­lysts call it the “Jio ef­fect.”

But for Am­bani, Jio is about more than adding 11 fig­ures to his net worth. He be­lieves the firm is ig­nit­ing a sub­con­ti­nen­tal data revo­lu­tion that will help solve some of In­dia’s in­tractable prob­lems in ar­eas like agri­cul­ture, ed­u­ca­tion and health care.

“Can Jio be the first com­pany to trans­form an en­tire na­tion in each one of these sec­tors?” Am­bani con­tin­ues, whip­ping up the crowd. “Yes, we can! And, yes, we will!”

Or as he some­times says more suc­cinctly, “Data is the new oil.”

MUKESH AM­BANI IS PROB­A­BLY best known out­side In­dia for build­ing the world’s most ex­pen­sive pri­vately owned home, a 27-story sky palace that looms above South Mum­bai and cost an es­ti­mated $1 bil­lion. There, with his wife, Nita, a mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee and the chair of one of In­dia’s premier soc­cer leagues, he fre­quently en­ter­tains lu­mi­nar­ies from the worlds of sport, fash­ion and en­ter­tain­ment. “I have just one home,” he says some­what de­fen­sively, “not 30 or 40 around the world, as some do.”

But within In­dia, Am­bani is equally well-known for his decade­long blood feud with his younger brother, Anil, 58, who was point­edly not in­vited to the Re­liance Fam­ily Day bash in De­cem­ber.

Their fa­ther, Dhirub­hai Am­bani, was born to a poor school­teacher and grew up in a re­mote vil­lage not far from Por­ban­dar, the birth­place of Ma­hatma Gandhi. Dhirub­hai never fin­ished high school, quit­ting to help sup­port the fam­ily. He spent seven years work­ing in a gas sta­tion in Ye­men— where Mukesh was born in 1957—be­fore re­turn­ing to In­dia to set up a spice-trad­ing busi­ness with his brothers from a tiny 500-square-foot Mum­bai of­fice. Then in the 1960s, the si­b­lings ex­panded into yarn and be­gan im­port­ing a new won­der fab­ric, polyester.

By 1966 the “Prince of Polyester” had built his first syn­thetic tex­tile mill in his na­tive In­dian state of Gu­jarat. The en­tre­pre­neur per­se­vered through sti­fling bu­reau­cracy and en­demic cor­rup­tion un­til, in 1977, when In­dia’s na­tion­al­ized banks re­fused to fi­nance fur­ther ex­pan­sion, he took Re­liance public. The of­fer­ing was mar­keted to mid­dle-class In­di­ans and heav­ily over­sub­scribed. The 58,000 mostly small-town In­di­ans who de­cided to gam­ble wouldn’t re­gret it. Over the com­ing years, the shares ap­pre­ci­ated sharply, plac­ing Dhirub­hai firmly on the path to an even­tual $6.6 bil­lion for­tune as he ex­panded into petro­chem­i­cals, re­fin­ing and oil-and-gas ex­plo­ration.

“My fa­ther fore­saw that In­dia could be­come glob­ally com­pet­i­tive and al­ways thought in terms of scale. That be­came the DNA of Re­liance,” Am­bani says from the com­pany’s 36-yearold down­town of­fices, sur­rounded by im­ages of his late fa­ther, in­clud­ing a su­per-re­al­is­tic 3-D-printed bust.

In 1986, when Dhirub­hai suf­fered a stroke, Mukesh and Anil took more re­spon­si­bil­ity. The brothers were tight. They worked side by side dur­ing the day, and their fam­i­lies lived to­gether on dif­fer­ent floors of a 14-story fam­ily-owned high­rise. By the time Dhirub­hai died in 2002 at age 69 from a sec­ond stroke, Re­liance was In­dia’s largest fam­ily busi­ness and ar­guably its most in­flu­en­tial.

Be­fore his death, Dhirub­hai had been keen to start a mo­bile­phone ser­vice for the masses that would pro­vide voice calls for less than the cost of a post­card. At the time mo­bile phones were toys for the rich, with ex­pen­sive monthly fees. In­spired by their fa­ther’s dream, the brothers jumped into mo­bile tele­phony.

“Some of us are big­ger risk-tak­ers than oth­ers,” Mukesh says. “With­out tak­ing some risk, there is no fun in life.”

Re­liance started a dis­count tele­com ser­vice in 2002, shak­ing up the mar­ket and send­ing mo­bile rates tum­bling from 32 cents a minute to 2 cents. But be­hind that suc­cess an ugly bat­tle was brew­ing as the brothers be­gan fight­ing for con­trol of the com­pany.

Dhirub­hai died un­ex­pect­edly, with­out a will, but the un­der­stand­ing within the fam­ily—at least as Mukesh saw it—was that who­ever was chair­man of Re­liance (con­ve­niently it was

Hyper­growth has added $16.9 bil­lion to Am­bani’s for­tune in the past year.

him) would have to­tal man­age­ment con­trol. Anil, who was vice chair­man, didn’t see it that way and wanted to have more of a say. Mukesh felt he had done all the be­hind-the-scenes work of build­ing the big plants and re­finer­ies. He was also said to be closer to his fa­ther, who was ini­tially fu­ri­ous when Anil de­cided to marry a Bol­ly­wood star­let, which he didn’t feel was an ap­pro­pri­ate choice. (Mukesh’s wife had been cho­sen by his fa­ther.) Anil, who is more ar­tic­u­late and ex­tro­verted than his brother, was in charge of fi­nance and was the face of Re­liance to bankers, in­vestors and jour­nal­ists. He was closer to his mother.

Af­ter pro­longed bick­er­ing, fu­eled by the fact that their wives didn’t get along, their mother, Kok­i­l­aben, bro­kered a peace, and the fam­ily em­pire was divvied up in 2005. Mukesh got to keep the big­gest piece, Re­liance In­dus­tries, the flag­ship oil-and-gas busi­ness; Anil got the newer busi­nesses such as tele­com, fi­nan­cial ser­vices and the power-gen­er­a­tion unit.

The split gave a tem­po­rary mas­sive boost to the brothers’ largely public for­tunes. By 2008 the brothers’ com­bined worth was a stag­ger­ing $85 bil­lion. Mukesh was the fifth-rich­est per­son in the world, with a for­tune of $43 bil­lion. Anil was a close No. 6 with $42 bil­lion; his big­gest as­set was a 65% stake in the tele­com com­pany, then worth $20 bil­lion.

The fi­nan­cial cri­sis, cou­pled with bad blood, took its toll. It was soon ev­i­dent that the rap­proche­ment be­tween the brothers was only on pa­per. When Anil sought to merge his tele­com firm with South Africa’s MTN in 2008, Mukesh in­ten­tion­ally stalled the deal, cit­ing the fam­ily set­tle­ment that gave him the right of first re­fusal on any stake sale in the tele­com unit. In 2009, shares of Anil’s com­pa­nies plunged, wip­ing away nearly $32 bil­lion of his wealth. A year later, af­ter a le­gal skir­mish, the brothers ter­mi­nated their non­com­pete agree­ment.

Sud­denly the path was clear for Mukesh to get back into tele­com.

MUKESH STARTED SMALL—and stealth­ily—by ac­quir­ing a lit­tle com­pany in 2010 that had a li­cense to pro­vide only broad­band in­ter­net. But Am­bani knew “voice” was re­ally just an­other type of data and that the rules would even­tu­ally have to change. When they did, in 2013, Mukesh was ready.

He started build­ing at a fever­ish pace, tap­ping into Re­liance’s con­struc­tion, reg­u­la­tory and ex­e­cu­tion ex­per­tise to quickly cre­ate a coun­try­wide net­work that, by end of this year, will num­ber 260,000 tow­ers (some leased) and 186,000 miles of op­ti­cal fiber. He worked with elec­tron­ics gi­ants Qual­comm and Spread­trum to de­sign low-cost 4G hand­sets, a ma­jor leap for­ward in what was then largely a 2G mar­ket, sell­ing them for a re­fund­able se­cu­rity de­posit of $22. In all Re­liance has spent $33 bil­lion on the project to date, fund­ing it with a mix of debt ($7 bil­lion), equity ($17 bil­lion), plus de­ferred pay­ments and sup­plier cred­its ($9 bil­lion).

Jio was im­pos­si­bly cheap and im­pos­si­bly fast and, per­haps most im­pres­sive given In­dia’s size, nearly ubiq­ui­tous, avail­able in 95% of the coun­try. The in­cum­bent play­ers strug­gled merely to stay in busi­ness. Te­lenor and the Tata Group both sold their wire­less op­er­a­tions to tele­com ty­coon Su­nil Mit­tal’s Bharti Air­tel, a joint ven­ture with Sin­ga­pore’s Sing­tel. One­time ri­vals Voda­fone In­dia and Idea Cel­lu­lar, owned by bil­lion­aire Ku­mar Birla, agreed to merge to bet­ter with­stand the on­slaught. And Mukesh, com­plet­ing the hu­mil­i­a­tion of his younger brother, bought the re­mains of Anil’s debt-strapped tele­com busi­ness for an es­ti­mated $3 bil­lion-plus. It had once been worth $43 bil­lion.

“It was purely a busi­ness de­ci­sion,” Mukesh says. “It works for us, and we’ll make the most of it.”

Thanks to Jio, In­dia’s an­nual mo­bile data traf­fic has jumped to over 15 bil­lion gi­ga­bytes from just over one bil­lion a year ago. In data con­sump­tion, In­dia now ranks above China and the U.S. Jio alone car­ries more mo­bile data traf­fic than Sprint, Ver­i­zon and AT&T com­bined.

Am­bani has grand vi­sions for how all that in­for­ma­tion can trans­form his coun­try and lift it out of poverty. He cites the ex­am­ple of In­dian agri­cul­ture, which is plagued by poor pro­duc­tiv­ity and low qual­ity. “I see all such in­ef­fi­cien­cies as op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Am­bani says. Jio has de­vel­oped a plat­form for In­dia’s 120 mil­lion farm­ers, most of whom have small land­hold­ings, that of­fers tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion on sow­ing and har­vest­ing in ad­di­tion to re­al­time mar­ket prices and ac­cess to top agri­cul­tural ex­perts.

Am­bani also sees Jio play­ing a role in trans­form­ing In­dian ed­u­ca­tion. Within a year, he hopes, Jio will have con­nected 35 mil­lion stu­dents at­tend­ing In­dia’s col­leges. At the same time, he wants Jio to reach the re­motest cor­ners of the coun­try, right down to the small­est vil­lages.

Of course, this will all re­main a pipe dream if Jio doesn’t find a way to make money. Thanks to some ag­gres­sive ac­count­ing, the com­pany man­aged to squeeze out a small profit ($78 mil­lion on rev­enues of $1.1 bil­lion) in the fi­nal quar­ter of 2017. But Jio’s core strength—that it’s cheap—works against it fi­nan­cially.

To suc­ceed, Jio needs to sign up many more sub­scribers and then up­sell them into con­sum­ing lots of data through apps like Jio Cin­ema (6,000 movies) and Jio Mu­sic (16 mil­lion songs). Once they are hooked, Jio will have to raise data prices with­out los­ing too many cus­tomers. Its cur­rent rates aren’t sus­tain­able.

Am­bani seems un­fazed by the eco­nom­ics and will­ing to in­vest for the long haul. He is groom­ing his three chil­dren to take over the busi­ness and is in­creas­ingly com­fort­able with a view of Re­liance from 39,000 feet. “These days I’m in the mind-set of be­ing nose in, fin­gers out,” he says, mean­ing keep­ing his nose in the board­room and his hands out of op­er­a­tions. A Jio IPO is on the hori­zon, but for now he’s bask­ing in the glow of hav­ing pro­vided mil­lions of or­di­nary In­di­ans with ac­cess to high­speed in­ter­net and all its at­ten­dant op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“This is a race,” he says, “that In­dia is run­ning with the rest of the world.”

Com­plet­ing the hu­mil­i­a­tion, Mukesh bought the re­mains of his brother’s debt-strapped tele­com busi­ness for $3 bil­lion.

not his brother’s keeper: si­b­lings Mukesh (right) and Anil Am­bani at a Re­liance share­hold­ers’ meet­ing in 2004.

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