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Brother versus Brother

Omkar Goswami


This is the most difficult article I have written. Since the mid-1980s, I have been, and always will be, an unashamed fan of Dhirubhai Ambani for his sheer width and audacity of entrepreneurial vision, and the way in which he made you feel at home. I was fortunate to be taught details of the textile business by Rasikbhai Meswani, one of the canniest minds that was, with his white safari suits, pot belly and a wicked smile. I have admired Mukesh’ phenomenal executing ability, clarity of thought and leadership capabilities. Other than enjoying Anil’s financial acumen and chutzpah, I have thought of him as a friend. And I feel terribly saddened by what is going on today — less than two and a half years since Dhirubhai breathed his last.


It is really not my business — nor anyone’s except the fourth estate’s — to investigate why the two brothers fell apart. These things do happen; and when they occur to the rich and famous, they cause news. But it is one thing to “cause news”, and it is altogether something else to “aggravate news”. Unfortunately, that is what is happening today, much to the public delight of the press and, I’ll wager, the private merriment of many industrialists who are loving this war for column centimetres. After all, there is nothing like a good public fight among the First Brothers of Indian industry to keep the gleeful gossip going.


So, here is my two-bit advice regarding what looks like irreconcilable sibling differences. When things come to such a stage, it is foolish to expect that the two brothers will hug and make up. Therefore, it makes no sense to think of delineating operational responsibilities in Reliance Industries or any other group company. Its too far gone for that. Clearly, the companies will have to separate, with Mukesh having sole control over some, and Anil the others. Since it looks as if Mukesh will control Reliance Industries and Reliance Infocom, Anil will need to be compensated for giving up claims on the two.


Unbundling complex cross-held assets is a difficult task. But it isn’t impossible. After all, another perspicacious businessman called Ghanshyam Das Birla did precisely that in his lifetime, and with quiet finesse. It requires good negotiators who are empowered with adequate slack, perhaps along with a concerned but neutral third party, to arrive at a deal. As Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said, it should be carried out in secrecy and within four walls. Incessant newspaper and TV leaks from people representing one camp or the other is hardly a fertile ground for reaching any such settlement. Fix a time frame for the deal; swear the negotiators to total secrecy; get out of public domain; and arrive at an agreement.


My concern with this profoundly public spat is not only because of what it is doing to the reputation of the two brothers and the companies they manage. I would be more worried about it causing organisationally debilitating chatter among employees. Sometimes, the occasional corporate gossip at the coffee machine can be invigorating. But it can’t be good for corporate motivation when every piece of tittle-tattle is about the “fight to finish” bout between the two senior-most executives.


Finally, all this media exposure is terrible for the morale of the ordinary shareholder — the hundreds of thousands who own Reliance shares because of their belief in the company. For years they have seen an entity where growth is the way of life. Now they are seeing one where their heroes are slugging at each other in harsh public glare. Isn’t it important to reassure them — they who are also proud owners — that the matter will be resolved and that it will not adversely affect the operations of the company?


At the end of the day, when you own a couple of thousand crores, it matters little whether you own a hundred more or fifty less. Unlike many temples, clubs and soirees in India, the gatekeeper up there doesn’t have fast track arrivals for anyone. So, Anil and Mukesh, please get off the press, and quietly solve it. Just as you did Naroda, Patalganga, Hazira, Jamnagar and the 100-year Yankee bond — to name a few.


Published: Business world, January  2005


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