Insight - How Ambani will split his empire to avoid his father’s folly

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,Mukesh Ambanis

AROUND this time 13 years ago, billionaire Mukesh Ambani (pic) and his younger brother, Anil, were living in the same Mumbai house with their mother while they were busy fighting each other in Indian courts over their father’s empire.

Dhirubhai Ambani had died in 2002 without leaving a will – and, thus, the seeds of a fraternal feud.

As part of a 2005 family settlement, Mukesh had won control of deep-sea fields in the Bay of Bengal that had just started producing gas.

But the agreement also required him to supply cheap feedstock at a fixed price for 17 years to Anil’s proposed power plant.

Honouring that pact might have ended the eight-hour-long electrical outages in the capital New Delhi, but it would have crippled Mukesh’s Reliance Industries Ltd, India’s largest non-state-owned company.

Luckily for the older sibling, the Indian Supreme Court’s May 2010 verdict went in his favour: The gas was held to be Indian sovereign property, not Mukesh’s to give.

Anil Ambani

Two weeks later, the brothers agreed to live in “harmony,” and end most of the non-compete clauses of their separation – including in the telecoms sector, where Anil ran Reliance Communications Ltd.

On that basis, Mukesh Ambani re-entered the industry a month later, a move that would catapult him to his current standing as the world’s 10th richest tycoon with a net worth of US$90bil (RM397bil).

There’ve been a few more developments since.

The gas discovery, the centrepiece of the feud, proved to be a damp squib.

Several of Anil’s companies have gone bankrupt. It was symbolic, therefore, that when Mukesh Ambani this week put in motion his own succession plan – the 65-year-old isn’t repeating his father’s folly – he started with the telco.

Ambani’s first-born, Akash, 30, will succeed him as chairman at India’s No. 1 wireless carrier Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd.

The patriarch, who resigned from the Infocomm board, will continue to helm Jio Platforms Ltd, which owns all digital assets including the telco.

This is probably a stopgap arrangement until Jio Platforms, whose investors include Meta Platforms Inc and Alphabet Inc, concludes its much-awaited initial public offering (IPO).

Since telecom carriage is entwined with commerce – Ambani’s Reliance Retail runs India’s largest network of stores while his JioMart is a federation of mom-and-pop shops looking to sell online – Akash’s twin sister Isha is widely expected to head it.

In such a scenario, the 27-year-old Anant – the youngest of the three children – will likely preside over the legacy oil-to-chemicals business.

Dad’s pivot

But with a twist: He has to complete his dad’s pivot away from polluting hydrocarbons and toward cleaner energy sources like solar panels, sodium-ion batteries and, most importantly, green hydrogen at under US$1 (RM4.40) per 1kg within a decade, or what his dad calls the 1-1-1 target.

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