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Ambani succession is a chance to divide and rule

Reuters Mumbai | Updated on October 20, 2020 Published on October 20, 2020

Mukesh Ambani can divide the $200-billion Reliance Industries conglomerate and still rule, if he wants to. India’s and Asia’s richest man has promised Silicon Valley investors that he will spin off telecommunications-to-technology unit Jio Platforms and Reliance’s retailing business from his oil-to-chemicals operations. That will leave three listed entities, and the 63-year-old Ambani has three children. But keeping family interests aligned is important, too.

Ambani has made no public statements about succession, but his adult children are stepping up. Akash has been announcing developments at Jio, backed by Facebook and Alphabet-owned Google and valued at up to $70 billion. Twin Isha is visible at Reliance Retail, valued at $57 billion by investors including Silver Lake and Mubadala. The youngest, Anant, has joined the management team of the industrial division that Saudi Aramco has valued at about $75 billion.

It points to an easy separation of fiefdoms with valuations in the same ballpark. That might avoid a repeat of Ambani’s own Bollywood-worthy sibling feud after the death of his father, the founder of Reliance, at the age of 69 in 2002.

Family management

Even if the empire is divided, there is value in family unity. Reliance is 50.4 per cent owned by Ambani, his mother, wife, three kids and related entities. Larger business groups in emerging markets find it easier and cheaper to access credit and have more influence with regulators and lawmakers. Keeping things in the family has paid off for Reliance: the Indian company has delivered total shareholder returns three times better than the Nifty 50 over the past 15 years, Refinitiv data shows.

Reliance dismissed as speculative an August report in Mint newspaper of Ambani forming a family council, but it would be a step towards something rare: a family-owned business group that lasts multiple generations. The Agnellis, the Italian clan behind Fiat Chrysler and the Juventus football team, manage the interests of 100-plus family members through a council, though they have largely yielded management to professionals.

At Merck, another potential example, the founding family controls the centuries-old $19-billion German pharmaceutical and chemicals company through a board of partners that supervises the executive management. Something comparable at Reliance would be a contrast to Hong Kong’s Li Ka-shing, who in 2012 announced he would hand his companies to his eldest son and cash to the other. Ambani’s ambition in business suggests he wouldn’t shy away from seeking a legacy to rival the Mercks or Agnellis.

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Published on October 20, 2020
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