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Sunday, January 19, 2003
Lead Article

Reliance is a philosophy, a way of life

IN sprawling Navi Mumbai, the spotless huge buildings at the Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge Centre, reflect the bright sunlight and appear like a space city shown in Hollywood movies. In just 18 months, dozens of buildings have come up here to house biotechnology, Infocomm and various life sciences departments. The centre, which will be completed by 2003-end, will be manned by nearly 5000 experts from various fields, and function as the nerve centre of all the activities of the Reliance Industries managed from the Reliance National Headquarters. The centre, a dream project of late Dhirubhai Ambani, has been brought to life by 44-year-old Mukesh Ambani, the current Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of the group. For over 90 minutes, Mukesh took time off from his gruelling schedule to talk to V. Gangadhar on how Reliance intends to transform the future of India.

 

Giants of Indian industry, from the Tatas to the Birlas, were remote figures, revered, but not close to the people. The late Dhirubhai Ambani was totally different and came to be called the Ďpeopleís industrialistí. How did this happen?

Papa never forgot the fact that the family was part of the millions who constituted the Indian middle class. He started the equity culture which attracted millions, sold the idea of investment in an era of high taxes and saw to it that his investors got handsome returns. All his efforts were to help the middle class. Thanks to Reliance, prices of polyester fell from Rs 320 a kg in 1982 to Rs 57 and India became the second largest producer of polyester, employing 7.5 million people. So it was with plastics, refining crude, natural gas and communication. He had the foresight to invest Rs 1000 crore in the hydrocarbon sector, got the best people to work on it and very soon millions of people will be supplied with natural gas, much cheaper than LPG. His dream of making India a better place for its people brought him closer to them

 


Were you overwhelmed at the outpouring of grief seen at his funeral?

Frankly, yes. I was told such grief had been seen only at the funerals of leaders like Gandhiji and Panditji. My mother observed that had papa survived his last attack and come to know about the public expression of grief, he would have been deeply moved and a bit surprised.

A family portrait of the Ambanis
A family portrait of the Ambanis

Yet the same public hero Dhirubhai, was once vilified by sections of the media and politicians. Anything which went wrong in the country was blamed on the Ambanis. How did your father react?

His philosophy, at all times, was simple. "I am accountable to myself, my conscience and God. Nothing else mattered." There were no feelings of anger, thirst for revenge. Theek hain, dekh lenge and he would shrug off the attacks. He never developed a negative attitude even when some of the attacks were on a highly personal level.

Now that the company has gone through a generation change, will there be any difference in the management style?

I donít think so. Look, papa was always thinking of the next 10 or 20 years when he made plans. We are working on the ideas he had conceived and it would take some time to complete the process. And they are good enough to guide us in future.

This knowledge centre was conceived by you. How did it come about?

Fifteen to 20 of our enterprises in Mumbai are spread all over the place. In the next 10 years, our workforce will be around 50,000. The knowledge centre which will cover all our activities needed a central location. Navi Mumbai was chosen after an internal poll. The focus will be on improving life standards and higher.

Reliance as well as other companies will need thousands of managers in the years to come. But these days, management education has become prohibitive. The middle class which formed the core of high academic standards may not be able to afford such high costs.

I have thought about this. We will be investing heavily in our own management schools and hope to price them reasonably. You see, education should provide you with the ability to earn well and then it will be worth investing in the field. Reliance will encourage bright youngsters with monetary help, loans and so on. The cost of education canít come down below certain levels, but if the money spent can yield good results, then it is well spent.

At the recent Indian Science Congress, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, urged Indian scientists and management experts who had settled abroad to return and expressed concern at the current state of brain drain. Do you think this can be reversed?

Why not? The process has already begun. In this complex alone, there are nearly 500 men and women who chose to work in India. In fact, our recruiting teams have persuaded Indians settled in high positions abroad to come back home and work here. They will not regret the change.

How important is it for an industrialist to be in the good books of the government? We often find that most industrialists are prepared to go along with any government which is in power.

This may have been true in the days of the licence-permit raj when the government had a finger in every pie. But with liberalisation, the attitude has changed. Today, government has less and less say in business and industry. This is a welcome trend. It is the duty of the government to govern, not interfere with industry and business. I am also very particular about following the processes laid out for doing business.

Union Minister Pramod Mahajan recently said that earning money and becoming rich was not a sin. But, several tycoons had taken the country for a ride, taking huge loans from banks and not returning them.

I find all this hard to believe, because papa had drilled into us that public money invested with us was sacrosant. We had never been exposed to this kind of thinking and acting. This is our most enduring principle. Yes, tycoons or anyone else should be held accountable for public money they have borrowed. But the entire community of industrialists can not be blamed for the actions of a few.

The reported closeness of any politician to Reliance immediately catches the mediaís attention. Why?

Judge people by their deeds, I say. Today, our activities and progress speak for themselves. There was a time when our remarkable progress created the doubt kuchh tho gadbad hoga. Today, we have gone past that stage even though we are a young company. Views like the one you mentioned are no longer relevant.

The Ambanis never raised the issue of level playing fields, why?

We donít make excuses. Our focus is always the goals, not the obstacles. The day you focus on obstacles, you will miss out on goals. So the issue of level playing fields just did not enter our minds at Reliance.

There is one black mark in your success story, the Observer publications, which had to be closed down. This foray into media never took off and the editors complained the management never bothered about the functioning of the papers.

(Smiling ruefully) Publishing was not our mainstream activity. It was the immediate reaction to the environment which prevailed in those days (referring to the attacks which were made in the media against the group). Somehow, the passionate commitment which was the hallmark of the group was absent. Because of this chalta hai attitude, the papers struggled and finally were shut down.

But today, you are very media savvy. I mean, you are a permanent feature in the page three celebrity culture.

(Smiles) It is better to be communicative. I donít see anything wrong in being open and available to the media.

Thanks to companies like Reliance, we are making progress. But the economy will be in shambles, if a war broke out in the Gulf. We import about 70 per cent of our crude requirements and higher prices will be disastrous.

Very true. A war will be a disaster for us. What we need is urgent and aggressive action to reduce this reliance on imports. I am happy that the government is alive to this problem. In another three to five years, there will be substantial improvement in import substitution. The ONGC is very active and is bound to be successful in its quest for additional crude deposits. At our own Jamnagar Refinery, we are able to export more and more petroleum products. Further, because the crude is refined locally, customers pay less for petroleum products.

As a Gujarati, do you think that the recent communal riots will affect the stateís investment process?

I donít think so. The riots will have no long-term impact on the economy and investment. We have huge projects in the state and they are shaping very well.

How do you react to scenes of abject poverty, reports on starvation deaths, suicide of farmers, intolerable conditions in hospitals which are very much part of Indian way of life?

Yes, we cannot run away from these unpleasant facts. I am comforted by my fatherís philosophy as brought out in the song, Hum honge kamiyaab ek din. We will work hard to achieve that goal.

Big industrial houses of the past are breaking up. Will the Reliance family stand together?

Reliance is not about individuals. It is a philosophy, a way of life. We are professional to the core, that is the only quality which counts. And there is so much work to be done, work for everybody.

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