Dhirajlal Hirachand Ambani also known as Dhirubhai was born on 28 December 1932 in Chorwad, British Raj (now Gujarat, India) & died on 6 July 2002 in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India was an Indian rags-to-riches business tycoon who founded Reliance Industries in Mumbai with his cousin. Ambani took his company (Reliance) public in 1977, and by 2007 the combined fortune of the family (sons Anil and Mukesh) was 60 billion dollars, making the Ambani’s the second richest family in the world, next to the Walton family. Dhirubhai has been one among the select Forbes billionaires and has also figured in the Sunday Times list of top 50 businessmen in Asia.
Dhirubhai Ambani was born to Hirachand Gordhandhas Ambani and Jamnaben in a Gujarati family of modest means. Hirachand Gordhandhas Ambani was a village school teacher with little income. Hirachand and Jamanaben had two daughters – Trilochanaben and Jasuben and three sons – Ramnikbhai, Dhirubhai and Natubhai. Dhirubhai was the second son. Dhirubhai was precocious and highly intelligent. He was also highly impatient of the oppressive grinding mill of the school classroom. He chose work which used his physical ability to the maximum rather than cramming school lessons. When Jamnaben once asked Dhirubhai and Ramnikbhai to help his father by earning money, he angrily replied, “Why do you keep screaming for money? I will make heaps of money one day”. On weekends, he began setting up onion/potato fries stall at village fairs and made extra money which he gave to his mother.
Dhirubhai started off as a small time worker with Arab merchants in the 1950s and moved to Mumbai in 1958 to start his own business in spices. After making modest profits, he moved into textiles and opened his mill near Ahmedabad. Dhirubhai founded Reliance Industries in 1958. After that it was a saga of expansions and successes.
Reliance’s story as a company has been a ‘bitter-sweet’ saga in India. While on one hand it remains one of the biggest Indian conglomerates,on the other hand it is known to be a company evading taxes and being intransparent. It has presence in various sectors like petrochemicals, textiles and is involved in the production of crude oil and gas, polyester and polymer products. The company’s refinery at Jamnagar accounts for over 25% of India’s total refining capacity and their plant at Hazira is the biggest chemical complex in India. The company has further diversified into Telecom, Insurance and Internet Businesses, Power Sector and so on. The Reliance group with over 85,000 employees provides almost 5% of the Central Government’s total revenue.
In 1986 after a heart attack he handed over his empire to his two sons Anil and Mukesh. His sons have helped Reliance to grow in a more globalized world after economic liberalisation in India, which occurred in 1991.
When he was 16 years old, he moved to Aden, Yemen. He worked with A. Besse & Co. for a salary of Rs. 300 (Present Day $6.64). Two years later, A. Besse & Co. became the distributors for Shell products, and Dhirubhai was promoted to manage the company’s filling station at the port of Aden. He was married to Kokilaben and had 2 sons, Mukesh, Anil and two daughters, Nina Kothari and Deepti Salgaonkar. He also worked in Dubai for some time during his early years.
During those days, the Yemini Rial was made of pure silver coins and was in much demand at the London Bullion Exchange. Young Dhirubhai bought the Rials, melted them into pure silver and sold it to the bullion traders in London. During the latter part of his life, while talking to reporters, it is believed that he said “The margins were small but it was money for jam. After three months, it was stopped. But I made a few lakhs. In short, I was a manipulator. A very good manipulator. But I don’t believe in not taking opportunities.”
Ten years later, Dhirubhai Ambani returned to India and started “Majin” in partnership with Champaklal Damani, his second cousin, who used to be with him in Aden, Yemen. Majin was to import polyester yarn and export spices to Yemen. The first office of the Reliance Commercial Corporation was set up at the Narsinatha Street in Masjid Bunder. It was 350 sq ft (33 m2). room with a telephone, one table and three chairs. Initially, they had two assistants to help them with their business. During this period, Dhirubhai and his family used to stay in a one bedroom apartment at the Jaihind Estate in Bhuleshwar, Mumbai. In 1965, Champaklal Damani and Dhirubhai Ambani ended their partnership and Dhirubhai started on his own. It is believed that both had different temperaments and a different take on how to conduct business. While Mr. Damani was a cautious trader and did not believe in building yarn inventories, Dhirubhai was a known risk taker and he believed in building inventories, anticipating a price rise, and making profits. In 1968, he moved to an upmarket apartment at Altamount Road in South Mumbai. Ambani’s net worth was estimated at about Rs.10 lakh by late 1970s
A former secretary reveals: “He was very helpful. He followed an ‘open-door’ policy. Employees could walk into his cabin and discuss their problems with him.” The chairman had a special way of dealing with different groups of people, be they employees, shareholders, journalists or government officials. Ambani’s competitors allege that he bought off officials and had legislation re-written to suit him. They recall his earlier days and how he picked up the art of profiteering from the then-Byzantine system of controls of Indian officialdom. He exported spices, often at a loss, and used replenishment licenses to import rayon. Later, when rayon started to be manufactured in India, he exported rayon, again at a loss, and imported nylon. Ambani was always a step ahead of the competitors. With the imported items being heavily in demand, his profit margins were rarely under 300 percent.”
Sensing a good opportunity in the textile business, Dhirubhai started his first textile mill at Naroda, in Ahmedabad in the year 1966. Textiles were manufactured using polyester fibre yarn. Dhirubhai started the brand “Vimal”, which was named after his elder brother Ramaniklal Ambani’s son, Vimal Ambani. Extensive marketing of the brand “Vimal” in the interiors of India made it a household name. Franchise retail outlets were started and they used to sell “only Vimal” brand of textiles. In the year 1975, a Technical team from the World Bank visited the Reliance Textiles’ Manufacturing unit. This unit has the rare distinction of being certified as “excellent even by developed country standards” during that period.
Dhirubhai Ambani is awarded with starting the equity cult in India. More than 58,000 investors from various parts of India subscribed to Reliance’s IPO in 1977. Dhiru bhai was able to convince large number of small investors from rural Gujarat that being shareholders of his company would be profitable.
Reliance Industries was the first private sector company whose Annual General Meetings were held in stadiums. In 1986, The Annual General Meeting of Reliance Industries number of first-time retail investors to invest in Reliance. Ambani’s net worth was estimated at about Rs.1 billion by early 1980s.
The IPO was raised with the help of a Billionaire Investment Banker Yaggi-Bhai Kesarwani. He helped Reliance issue various Debentures worth 3-4 million US$ in later years also. He was the financial wizard of Reliance Corporation.
In 1982 Ambani began the process of backward integration, setting up a plant to manufacture polyester filament yarn. He subsequently diversified into chemicals, petrochemicals, plastics, power. The company as a whole was described by the BBC as “a business empire with an estimated annual turnover of $12bn, and an 85,000-strong workforce”. The final phase of Reliance’s diversification occurred in the 1990s when the company turned aggressively towards petrochemicals and telecommunications.
He was accused of acting unethically, having manipulated government policies to suit his own needs, and has been known to be a king-maker in government elections. Although most media sources tend to speak out about business-politics nexus, the Ambani house has always enjoyed more protection and shelter from the media storms that sweep across the country.
Nusli Wadia of Bombay Dyeing was, at one point in time, the biggest competitor of Dhirubhai and Reliance Industries. Both Nusli Wadia and Dhirubhai were known for their influence in the political circles and their ability to get the most difficult licenses approved during the times of pre-liberalized economy.
During the Janata Party rule between 1977–1979, Nusli Wadia obtained the license to build a 60,000 tonnes per annum Di-methyl featherlight (DMT) plant. Before the Letter of Intent was converted into a laziness, many hurdles came in the way. Finally, in 1981, Nusli Wadia was granted the license for plant. This incident acted as a catalyst between the two parties and the competition took an ugly turn.
At one point in time, Ramnath Goenka was a friend of Dhirubhai Ambani. Ramnath Goenka was also considered to be close to Nusli Wadia. On many occasions, Ramnath Goenka tried to intervene between the two warring factions and bring an end to the enmity. Goenka and Ambani became rivals mainly because Ambani’s corrupt business practices and his illegal actions. Later on, Ramnath Goenka chose to support Nusli Wadia.
As days passed by, The Indian Express, a broadsheet daily published by him, carried a series of articles against Reliance Industries and Dhirubhai in which they claimed that Dhirubhai was using unfair trade practices to maximise the profits. Ramnath Goenka did not use his staff at the Indian Express to investigate the case but assigned his close confidant, advisor and chartered accountant S. Gurumurthy for this task. Apart from S. Gurumurthy, another journalist Maneck Davar who was not on the rolls of Indian Express started contributing stories. Jamnadas Moorjani, a businessman opposed to the Ambanis was also a part of this campaign.
Both Ambani and Goenka were equally criticized and admired by sections of the society. People criticized Goenka that he was using a national newspaper for the cause of a personal enmity. Critics believed that there were many other businessman in the country who were using more unfair and unethical practices but Goenka chose to target only Ambani and not the others. Critics also admired Goenka for his ability to run these articles without any help from his regular staff. Dhirubhai Ambani was also getting more recognition and admiration, in the meantime. A section of the public started to appreciate Dhirubhai’s business sense and his ability to tame the system according to his wishes.
The end to this tussle came only after Dhirubhai Ambani suffered a stroke. While Dhirubhai Ambani was recovering in San Diego, his sons Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani managed the affairs. The Indian Express had turned the guns against Reliance and was directly blaming the government for not doing enough to penalize Reliance Industries. The battle between Wadia – Goenka and the Ambanis took a new direction and became a national crisis. Gurumurthy and another journalist, Mulgaokar consorted with President Giani Zail Singh and ghost-wrote a hostile letter to the Prime Minister on his behalf. The Indian Express published a draft of the President’s letter as a scoop, not realizing that Zail Singh had made changes to the letter before sending it to Rajiv Gandhi. Ambani had won the battle at this point. Now, while the tussle was directly between the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Ramnath Goenka, Ambani made a quiet exit. The government then raided the Express guest house in Delhi’s Sunder Nagar and found the original draft with corrections in Mulgaokar’s handwriting. By 1988-89, Rajiv’s government retaliated with a series of prosecutions against the Indian Express. Even then, Goenka retained his iconic stature because, to many people, he seemed to be replaying his heroic defiance during the Emergency regime.
Dhirubhai Ambani was admitted to the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai on June 24, 2002 after he suffered a major stroke. This was his second stroke, the first one had occurred in February 1986 and had kept his right hand paralyzed. He was in a state of coma for more than a week. A battery of doctors were unable to save his life. He died on July 6, 2002, at around 11:50 P.M. (Indian Standard Time).
His funeral procession was not only attended by business people, politicians and celebrities but also by thousands of ordinary people. His elder son, Mukesh Ambani, performed the last rites as per Hindu traditions. He was cremated at the Chandanwadi Crematorium in Mumbai at around 4:30 PM (Indian Standard Time) on July 7, 2002.
He is survived by Kokilaben Ambani, his wife, two sons, Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani, and two daughters, Nina Kothari and Deepti Salgaonkar. Dhirubhai Ambani started his long journey in Bombay from the Mulji-Jetha Textile Market, where he started as a small-trader. As a mark of respect to this great businessman, The Mumbai Textile Merchants’ decided to keep the market closed on July 8, 2002. At the time of Dhirubhai’s death, Reliance Group had a gross turnover of Rs. 75,000 Crore or USD $ 15 Billion. In 1976-77, the Reliance group had an annual turnover of Rs 70 crore and it is to be remembered that Dhirubhai had started the business with just Rs.15,000 (US$350).
In 1998, a book published by Hamish McDonald titled “The Polyester Prince” is also an unauthorised biography of Dhirubhai Ambani, outlining all his political and business conquests. HarperCollins didnt sell the book in India, because the Dirubhai threatened legal action. As of 2010, Amazon.com listed the price book at >$900.
A film said to be inspired by the life of Dhirubhai Ambani was released on 12 January 2007. The Hindi Film Guru, directed by ace filmmaker Mani Ratnam, cinematography by Rajiv Menon and music by A.R.Rahman shows the struggle of a man striving to make his mark in the Indian business world with a fictional Shakti Group of Industries. The film stars Abhishek Bachchan, Mithun Chakraborty, Aishwarya Rai, R. Madhavan and Vidya Balan. In the film, Abhishek Bachchan plays Guru Kant Desai, a character implicitly based on Dhirubhai Ambani. The character is known in the film as “GURUBHAI”, similar to the real-life “DHIRUBHAI.” Mithun Chakraborty portrays Manikda who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real life Ramanath Goenka and Madhvan portrays S. Gurumurthy, who gained national fame twenty years ago, spearheading virulent attacks against the Reliance group in one of India’s bloodiest corporate wars ever.
In 2010, an updated version of the book went on sale in India, called Ambani and Sons, there has been no legal action against the publisher so far.