Emerging From The Shadows

Updated: Sep 20 2003, 05:30am hrs
Its the Indian way of doing things. The elder son takes charge when the head of the family is no more. Younger siblings have to wait for their day in the sun. It was no different for Anil D. Ambani, 44, when father, guide, philosopher and Reliance group patriarch Dhirubhai Hirachand Ambani passed away. From being virtually the sole external face of the company till then, known particularly for his accessibility and financial acumen, the younger Ambani shifted into lower gear and chose to maintain a lower profile. In keeping with Indian tradition, elder brother Mukesh Ambani, took the baton and took the familys business empire forward. The more low profile of the two brothers till then, Mukesh Ambani took over as chairman of Reliance Industries and spearheaded the launch of the much-awaited Reliance Infocomm. The high profile adopted by Mukeshs wife, Nita Ambani also contributed to the impression that the vice chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries, Anil Ambani had taken a back seat. Clearly for a while, amongst the Ambani brothers, it looked like role reversal.

Cut to the present and in the last few weeks, it seems to be vintage Anil back again. For one, in typical younger Ambani style, last week, he presented an ambitious plan for Reliance Energy to invest a massive Rs 12,000 crore. Almost around the same time, he was voted the MTV Youth Icon, pipping to the post other hugely popular leaders like Sachin Tendulkar and Shah Rukh Khan. Again, Anil was in the news, when media moghul James Murdoch went to visit him, at a time when the domestic media barons were queueing up to meet Murdoch to cut a deal for Star TV in India. Just a little earlier, he was in the public eye at Mulayam Singh Yadavs coronation as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Cynics and business analysts familiar with sibling rivalry in business families drool over speculation about whos up and whos down among the Ambani brothers, but the real story seems to be one of a family equilibrium in which each does his own thing. Doing his own thing is what Anil Ambani is all about. Having stepped out of his fathers shadow, Anil is now stepping out of his brothers too.

Ambani As The Energy Czar
About a week back, Reliance Energy (formerly BSES Ltd)whose chairman is Anil Ambaniproposed to invest a whopping Rs 12,000 crore for setting up gas-based power projects with a generating capacity of 3,000 MW in Maharashtra. These mega numbers are typical of him: it plans to raise revenues of Rs 3000 crore and generate employment for about 35,000 people.

Says close friend and chairman of Godrej group, Adi Godrej, The acquisition of BSES is a major feather in Anils cap. Expectedly, as with most Reliance ventures, Reliance Energy has announced mega plans which are in line with Anils broad thinking.

Adds ICICI Bank managing director and CEO KV Kamath: Anil Ambani is extremely focused and driven. Over the years, I have seen him evolve into an inspirational leader who leads both in thought and action. Anil is a lateral thinker who then draws on his diverse experience and unconventional thinking. He then strives to convert these ideas into growth opportunities and profits. Anil was the first in the country to introduce modern financial instruments and access the global markets. Further, Mr Kamath points out that while contributing considerably at the strategic level, Anil thrives in putting thought into action to produce results on the ground. In sum, Anil encompasses in himself the attributes of a true modern leader, he adds.

Vishwavir Ahuja, Managing Director & CEO of Bank of America, who has worked closely on several deals with Anil Ambani feels that: He can manage a very wide canvas with consummate ease, and yet not show it. Anil has been the prime mover on several occasions when key deals were being negotiated. For him, whenever a deal is being worked out, there are two things: speed-breakers and deal-breakers. Speed-breakers are those where further discussion and refinements can take place, but deal-breakers are non-negotiable issues for him. Those wont change. These could be pointers to the future as the younger Ambani tries to carve a greater name for himself in the Indian energy sector.

Ambani As An Inspirational Leader
The MTV Youth Iconwhich was awarded to Mr Anil Ambaniis defined as an individual who has positively impacted or influenced the Indian youth in the last calendar year. MTV India commissioned an independent third party research agency-Indian Marketing Research Bureau, to conduct a quantitative study among the youth in eight cities (Ahmedabad, Chennai, Hyderabad, Indore, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mumbai and New Delhi) to identify their icons. The study revealed icons across seven categories (ie: Science & Academics, Politics, Business, Films, Sports, Television and Social Welfare) that echo todays salient youth interests and were selected for voting.

These were: Abdul Kalam (Science & Academics), Atal Bihari Vajpayee (Politics), Anil Ambani (Business), Maneka Gandhi (Social Welfare), Sachin Tendulkar (Sports), Shah Rukh Khan (Films) and Smriti Malhotra (Television). From the votes that came in, Anil Ambani came first closely followed by Sachin Tendulkar and Shah Rukh Khan. The total number of votes received were approximately 1,75,000.

Says Alex Kuruvilla, managing director, MTV Networks India, By choosing Anil Ambani as the MTV Youth Icon of the Year, the Indian youth have clearly indicated that they admire a person who can compete with the best and win. Anil Ambani is symbolic of the young Indians aspiration-a young, dynamic, successful entrepreneur. The new recognition from MTV indicates that Anil Ambani has captured the imagination of a whole generation of youngsters across the country.

It is not just the MTV generation that Anil inspires. His speech at a Confederation of Indian Industry annual summit was called inspirational by his peer group, as was a convocation address delivered recently to a group of management graduates.

Ambani As A Chip Of The Old Block
Despite a changed public image that emerged immediately in the post-Dhirubhai phase, there are some close friends who however feel that things have not changed much for Anil. They have also felt that it has been a time, when the Ambani brothers have tried to emulate their fathers style and vision in a more studied manner. Says Mr Godrej, I dont think Anil was at all low profile post Dhirubhais demise. He has been extremely active and in fact, I feel there is a redoubled energy in Reliance to ensure that Dhirubhais strong foundations are built upon even more successfully.

Adds Harsh Goenka, vice chairman, RPG Group: A chip of the old block, he has imbibed several of his legendary fathers vision and business outlook. With an incisive and strategic mind and a matching ability to act, he is a man in a hurry. Meeting deadlines was never known to be his objective - beating deadlines is what he has demonstrated. Within all this, he also nurtures a romance with his work, constantly raising the bar to achieve higher levels of performance-to never give up-to take every obstacle, or setback, or even outright failure, as a learning experience. To top it all there is an abiding commitment to traditional value systems. I have been a great admirer of his sense of adventure, his sense of friendship and his wide information base of all that is happening around.

Gita Piramal, business historian and managing editor, The Smart Manager adds: Its tough being a Birla or a Tata, but its even tougher being an Ambani: never free from the spotlight; never free from people looking at you sideways, trying to gauge your mood; never free from someone trying to catch your eye so that they can ask a favour from you; never sure whom you can trust and whom you cant. Its the Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible syndrome.

He may be MTVs youth icon, but hes equally at home with his two children, Jai Anmol and Jai Anshul watching movies and playing with them. Essentially, a family man, Anil is known to love sharing the pasta with his kids or enjoying a specially arranged preview of the latest Hindi blockbuster in town which the director may often personally bring to his private theatre. From Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan, superstars of celluloid get along famously with Anil, and swear by him.

In his speech on the occasion of the last birthday function of his father and the release of a stamp in Dhirubhais name, Anil Ambani recollected: Once Papa asked me, after my MBA, for the definition of the word leader. I searched my mind for the perfect meaning. After sometime, Papa said: Shall I tell you I nodded. So he said: A leader is a person who can attract followers.

One of the most charismatic leaders in Indias corporate scene, has his own fan following within India Inc. Though 44, Anil can easily mix with people of any age, and is hugely contemporary in his thinking. Anil has been the object of much admiration from a cross-section of peoplefrom corporate honchos to bankers to celluloid superstars, many of whom are his close friends. He is at ease equally with visiting heads of foreign banks and the friendly neighbourhood dhoti-clad politician. He may have kept low for a while. The exigencies of the new situation after Dhirubhais demise would have necessitated the need to adapt to the changed times of business, family and social dynamics. Thats what some management thinkers call adaptive leadership.

But now, as the Rs 80,000 crore Reliance group forges ahead, signals in its corridors point to Anil Ambani as one who will spend considerable time focusing on the energy side of the business too apart from petrochemicals or telecom, as one who will be known as a younger brother of Mukesh and also as an Ambani of independent standing and as one who cannot always hide behind the veil of a low profile personality but as someone who is true to himselfin the front ranks amongst global corporate citizens.