Mukesh Ambani has taken Reliance from oil to omnipresence



There was a time when it looked as if the Reliance telecom juggernaut would just steamroll opposition and conquer everything in its path. The landscape looked ripe and inviting. Competition was weak and scattered and they obviously didn’t have the financial muscle of Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL); nor did they have the product, service and pricing offered by the Dhirubhai Ambani-promoted company. Reliance was offering free incoming calls, rock-bottom monthly rates and free phones in return for an annual payment that it will collect upfront.Obviously, some of you have realised by now that I am not talking about the year 2016 or the launch of Jio. The 2002 launch of Reliance India Mobile promised everything that Jio promised in 2016. Cheap service, free or extremely low-priced phones, massive bandwidth and a determination to dominate the market. The stage was set, the cast was ready and all that remained was the knockout blow to be delivered. It couldn’t happen in 2002 due to a number of factors, key among them being differences between the brothers — Mukesh and Anil — on the extent of investments in the telecom business and Reliance’s own inability to plan and account for all the problems that would arise with rapid expansion and scaling up. The fight between the brothers and the subsequent breakup, with the telecom business going to Anil, ended the story and it looked as if Mukesh Ambani’s dreams of replicating in telecom, his father’s success in the energy-petrochemicals business, would be stillborn.So when RIL announced earlier in the last decade that it would once again foray into telecom and offer mobile phones and high-speed broadband connectivity, it failed to move a highly sceptical investor community.People preferred to wait and watch, unsure of what Reliance would deliver and whether it could deliver at all. For years, brokerage reports refused to ascribe any value to the telecom business. A fund manager at a top foreign fund house told me in 2013 that Reliance was a trading stock. You could buy it but be sure to sell it off in a few days, he added dismissively.All that changed in 2016-17. The scale of the ramp-up in the mobile connectivity business, the widespread consumer acceptance accompanied by dirt-cheap tariffs made everyone revisit their assumptions about the telecom business. Fund managers rushed to buy the stock while analysts were busy scrambling to redo and upgrade numbers about the profitability of the telecom business. But all that was dwarfed by the data revolution unleashed by RIL’s price war. Data not only became the new oil but also the new gold, as social media and video usage exploded. The contrast with 2002 could not have been greater. A disciplined, methodical roll-out and execution stood out in stark contrast to the chaotic and messy approach at the turn of the century. A tighter control on financials and a better technology were the other factors that have helped RIL succeed this time around.So, what does all of this success in the group’s telecom and retail business mean for you and me? In other words, how does this change things on the ground? To answer that question, one must understand that you and I as ordinary consumers and individuals would have never dealt directly with Reliance before 2010. Depending on where you lived, you might have bought fuel at an RIL petrol pump or shopped at a Vimal but that’s about it. It was a business that catered to other businesses.Pivot to ConsumerBut this last decade has changed things so dramatically for RIL that as a consumer you just couldn’t avoid Reliance.You would have not only shopped at a Reliance Trends or a Reliance Digital store, you might also have bought a Jio service or a JioFi dongle. Now, with JioMart, the online shopping platform, that connection is set to strengthen and change dramatically.The over Rs 2 lakh crore fundraising by RIL , including the rights issue and money from the BP joint venture , has helped deleverage the company. So all the money is going to RIL and only some to Jio. But what Jio gets is access to an array of global partners, including two of the biggest consumer tech companies in the world — Facebook and Google.The possibilities here are virtually limitless. Jio has created a suite of services intended to meet every consumer need.Financial services, video conferencing, grocery shopping, entertainment, education — you name it and it’s offered.From a solidly profit-making petrochemicals business, Reliance has now become a one-stop shop for every Indian for nearly everything that can be bought online. Map this against the potential consumer appetite over the next decade and you’ll get a idea of the size of the opportunity.What Mukesh Ambani has done is use RIL’s massive resources and fundraising ability to invest in a technologically superior backbone and create a digital platform that is indispensable to people’s lives. It is difficult to replicate because of the scale of investment and the years it has taken to accomplish this. Competition is thus minimised. Jio and RIL have laid a powerful foundation to dominate the consumer’s online experience and habits. Great businesses need to be constantly rejuvenated.Societies, markets, consumer preferences and technologies often change and evolve. Companies often become great not because of one killer product or technology. They become great or successful because a steady stream of leaders across generations are constantly involved in building and rebuilding the enterprise. AG Lafley did this in Procter & Gamble in the 2000s, Satya Nadella is doing this in Microsoft now and so are Jamie P Dimon and James Gorman in JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley, respectively.Mukesh Ambani inherited a great business from his father Dhirubhai and could have continued to run it without any major changes. Instead he chose to transform it and get it closer to ordinary consumers. He may have well provided Reliance with the foundation to dominate the Indian business landscape for another decade or more.



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