Ambani: From a gas station attendant to Reliance owner
During a visit to Mumbai I decided to interview, if possible, Dhirubhai Ambani, one of the richest men of India then. The other two then were Tata and Birla by virtue of their huge corporations. The three of them formed big business empires active and contributing to the Indian economy.
In order to get an appointment with Ambani, I sought the assistance of my friend and colleague Suresh Shah then chief reporter in the Economic Times. He is still there. Many years ago I had recruited him in Mumbai to work with me at Arab News in Jeddah. Later on he resigned and went back home.
Ambani had known my father in Aden as the two of them served in the largest firm there, a French company called Besse. So when Suresh mentioned my name to Ambani, who was in his 70s then, he remembered the name and recalled his association with Aden where he had worked as an expatriate and made some money, which he brought back home.
From his earliest days in Mumbai, Ambani demonstrated his promising skills as an entrepreneur and in a short while began to impress the business community of the city, which is the commercial capital of India. His flagship company, Reliance, was located in Makers Chambers off Marine Drive, a landmark that housed some of the country’s finest and most expensive residential flats.
During the interview, after introductions we talked about his years in Aden and his life in Mumbai and the phenomenal success of his business before and after his unfortunate stroke. He remembered my father and others who had died since his departure. He told me that he worked in Aden as a small gas station staff member which speaks volumes about his acumen and determination to surge ahead in life in a foreign country where the Indian community was doing pretty well. They practically controlled business and cloth trade. As Indians also, the Parsees were masters of the shipping business. There were famous names like Dinshaw Cawasjee, the Bicajees and the Pallonjees. Along with the Jews they held sway over alcohol distribution and sales trade.
It was a fairly prosperous community before independence when almost all foreigners left Aden especially after the closure of Suez Canal in 1967 because world shipping used to go via Suez to Aden then on to Mumbai, Singapore and Australia. And back the same route. Aden flourished and people from the Commonwealth countries rushed to pick some of the fruits of its prosperity.
Ambani went home with money. He charted his new role in Mumbai very carefully. Within 30 years from his humble gas station in Aden he rose to astonishing heights in petroleum products, textiles — the Vimal brand — and countless others. When he died he bequeathed his fortune to his wife, daughter, and two brilliant sons who have developed the fortune into a truly fantastic empire. One of them even went back to Aden and is in a joint venture with others in drilling for oil in the Hadhramaut region of the present day South Yemen.
After the interview, Ambani gave me specimens of his products, which could be carried since all of them would have been impossible to handle. In any case the specimens filled a car’s boot. But since I was returning to Jeddah the same day I gave them away to colleagues and some of the friendly staff of my hotel. Despite his ailment and poor health he rose from his chair and insisted on accompanying me to the elevator.
His two sons quarreled over the fortune but have now nearly patched up thanks to the mediation of their mother.
According to his biodata, Dhirubhai Ambani returned from Yemen to India and started “Majin” in partnership with Champaklal Damani, his second cousin, who used to be with him in Aden. Majin used 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 a 350 sq. feet (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, Ambani and his family used to stay in a one-bedroom apartment at the Jai Hind Estate in Bhuleshwar, Mumbai. In 1965, Champaklal Damani and Dhirubhai Ambani ended their partnership and Ambani started his own venture. It is believed that both had different temperaments and a different take on how to conduct business. While Damani was a cautious trader and did not believe in building yarn inventories, Ambani was a known risk-taker and believed in building inventories, anticipating a price rise and making profits.
Sensing a good opportunity in the textile business, Ambani, along with Amit Mehra, a Delhi-based chartered accountant and company secretary residing in Ashok Vihar, Delhi, started the first textile mill at Naroda in Ahmedabad in the year 1966. Textiles were manufactured using polyester fiber yarn. He 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 led to the establishment of the Reliance Textiles’ Manufacturing unit, which was certified as “excellent even by developed country standards” during that period. Amit Mehra had played a pivotal role in helping and supporting Ambani in this success.
On Ambani’s death, Atal Behari Vajpayee, former prime minister of India said: “The country has lost an iconic proof of what an ordinary Indian fired by the spirit of enterprise and driven by determination can achieve in his own lifetime.”
P.C. Alexander, governor of Maharastra said: “The nation has lost one of the doyens of the modern Indian corporate community, a philanthropist and above all a great human being endowed with great compassion and concern for the underprivileged sections of the society.
This new star, which rose on the horizon of the Indian industry three decades ago, remained on the top until the end by virtue of his ability to dream big and translate it into reality through the strength of his tenacity and perseverance. I join the people of Maharashtra in paying my tribute to the memory of Ambani and convey my heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family.”
n Farouk Luqman is an eminent journalist based in Jeddah.