The soaring ambitions of the two groups led by India’s two richest billionaires—Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani—are fast becoming stuff of corporate folklore as the two grow their massive empires at breakneck speed. Whether it is cement or green energy for Adani, or the rapid moves into business-to-consumer (B2C) and retail in the case of Ambani, the two groups have been picking up assets with relentless speed and aggression. Not surprising, their wealth has been growing, and Adani, in particular, has whizzed past Ambani in the billionaires sweepstakes, amassing a personal fortune which, at $104 billion (according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index as on May 20, 2022), places him as the sixth-richest man in the world, just after Warren Buffett. He’s now three spots ahead of Ambani who is at No.9 with $90.7 billion. Incidentally, and just for perspective, both Adani and Ambani are richer than storied billionaires like Carlos Slim, Mark Zuckerberg and the Waltons.
The rise and rise of the two Indian entrepreneurs, particularly with the string of acquisitions both have put together, is as much a story of the ambition of Indian enterprise as it is about the growth of their own groups. But while popular perception is about an Adani versus Ambani narrative, this may not necessarily be true, people who deal closely with both the entrepreneurs tell me. Instead, both sides are busy giving shape to their growth ambitions, despite the fact that they are both present in sectors like green energy and media. Informed corporate circles also say that the two billionaires are clear that the focus has to be more on growing their own groups, rather than battling it out against each other.
In the market capitalisation sweepstakes, however, Ambani’s Reliance Industries is still ahead of the Adani Group, with RIL’s market capitalization at the end of trading on May 19 standing at ₹16.77 lakh crore, and that of the Adani Group at ₹14.62 lakh crore. Within the Adani fold, the clear winner is Adani Green Energy, which commands 25 per cent of the group’s total market cap, with Adani Total Gas (18 per cent), Adani Transmission (17 per cent) and Adani Enterprises (16 per cent) being next in line, with Adani Ports and SEZ, Adani Power and the recently-listed Adani Wilmar comprising the remainder.
Ace dealmaker and tax expert Dinesh Kanabar of Dhruva Advisors tells me the key common factor which distinguishes the two from many others is the speed of execution which they demonstrate while making acquisitions or striking deals. Whether it is Ambani’s $22-billion giant fund-raising spree with marquee global investors like Facebook and Google during the peak of the pandemic, or Adani’s long line-up of acquisitions in the past one year, agility of execution is something the two billionaires have in common. Not surprising, dealmakers talk of how Adani moved in swiftly to grab SoftBank arm SB Energy’s renewables business for $3.5 billion, fuelling his group’s green ambitions further. The latest $10.5-billion deal recently, where Adani acquired Swiss giant Holcim’s Indian assets Gujarat Ambuja and ACC to catapult itself to No.2 in the cement business is another instance where speed and smart thinking (the deal was done through an overseas entity and hence made smoother) made all the difference. Meanwhile, Ambani has been stitching together several deals in digital, retail and brands, with stake buys in e-pharmacy firm Netmeds, quick commerce company Dunzo, Zivame, JustDial, Fynd, Haptik and many others (including fashion brands Manish Malhotra and Ritu Kumar) as it builds a formidable B2C portfolio across sectors. Reliance Brands and Reliance Retail Ventures are being used as key vehicles in many of these deals.
Those who know the two groups closely say there is enough and more to do for each of the two groups in terms of acquisitions and growth as India moves towards becoming a $5-trillion economy, so a faceoff is not on the cards. “They both know there can be no monopoly and both have enough room to grow,” a seasoned corporate sector observer tells me. That’s not to say they don’t follow the billionaires listings closely though.
If Ambani’s business brain was in ample evidence in the manner in which it took control of the ailing Future Group’s stores even without a deal, Adani’s move into cement demonstrated how he saw the cement business being supported by the group’s power and logistics play. Kanabar points to the fact that both are also swiftly moving into newer areas while their origins have been in traditional businesses.
Despite all these similarities, the 59-year-old Adani and the 65-year-old Ambani do have differences in style and approach. Reliance’s aggressive moves in new-age, digital and related businesses shows its keenness to get into areas where it would not need to deal too much with government. Adani, on the other hand, is in areas where dealing with government will still be necessary—think power and logistics. The other area of difference, as Arun Kejriwal, founder of investment advisory firm KRIS tells me, is while Reliance is happy doing most things on its own, Adani, on the other hand, is open to stitching up joint ventures like Adani Wilmar, and its deal with the Qatar Investment Authority for Adani Electricity Mumbai Ltd.
But at the end of the day, both know how to stitch deals as the unending line-up of announcements over the past months has shown. Adani has excellent structuring abilities, something which has been in evidence in several of his deals of late, including the Holcim one. Ambani has now set his sights on the UK drugstore chain Boots, as its B2C growth ambitions gain further ground, while Adani has just announced the group’s entry into the healthcare space. The family members in both the groups are deeply entrenched in the business, while the two billionaires maintain a relatively low public profile.
And for now, as Kejriwal points out, while the two move up the billionaires rankings, each is going about doing that in their own way, in businesses which they feel are best suited for their growth ambitions. In Kejriwal’s words: “It’s a healthy rivalry. But not aimed directly at each other.”
It’s Adani and Ambani. For now at least.
The author is Editor, Business Today.
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