Mumbai: In Navi Mumbai, the spanking new buildings at the Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge Centre reflect the bright sunlight. In just 18 months, dozens of buildings have come up, housing the telecommunications and life sciences divisions of the Reliance group.
The centre, which will be completed by end-2003, will accommodate nearly 5,000 people, experts in various fields. The dream of the late Dhirubhai Ambani, it has been brought to life by Mukesh Ambani, 44, the current chairman and managing director of the group. For over 90 minutes, Ambani took time off his hectic schedule to talk to V Gangadhar on the group's vision.
The giants of Indian industry, from the Tata and Birla families, were remote figures, revered but not close to people. The late Dhirubhai Ambani was different; many considered him to be a 'people's industrialist.' 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; and he 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, the prices of polyester fell from Rs 320 a kg in 1982 to Rs 57, and India became the second largest producer of polyester. So it has been with plastics, refining crude, natural gas and telecommunications.
In June 2002, he said it was his aim to make a phone call cheaper than a postcard, and that has come true. He had the foresight to invest Rs 1,000 crore in the hydrocarbon sector, got the best people to work in that business, and very soon millions of people will be supplied with natural gas that is much cheaper than LPG. His dream of making India a better place for its people brought him closer to them.
Yet the same Dhirubhai was the target of criticism by the media and politicians. How did your father react?
His philosophy, at all times, was simple. ''I am accountable to myself, my conscience and God. Nothing else matters.'' There were no feelings of anger or 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 at a highly personal level.
Now that the company has gone through a generation change process, will there by any difference in management style?
I don't think so. Look, Papa was always thinking of the next 10, 20 years, and made plans accordingly. We are working on the ideas he had conceived and it will take some time to complete the process. His plans are good enough to guide us in future.
This Centre for Knowledge was conceived by you. How did it come about?
Our 15 to 20 enterprises in Mumbai are spread all over the place. In the next 10 years, our workforce will rise to around 50,000. We needed a central location to cover all our activities. Navi Mumbai was chosen after an internal poll. The focus will be on improving life standards, higher productivity and the concept that work can be fun and rewarding.
Reliance and other companies will need thousands of managers in the years to come. But these days management education has become prohibitively expensive. The middle class, which forms 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. Then it will be worth investing in it. Reliance will encourage bright youngsters with monetary help, loans and so on. The cost structure in education can't 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 expressed concern over the brain drain and urged Indian scientists and management experts who had settled abroad to return. Do you think the brain drain can be reversed?
Why not? The process has already begun. In this complex alone [the Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge Centre], there are nearly 500 men and women who choose to work in India. In fact, our recruiting teams have persuaded Indians settled in high positions abroad to come back home and work here. And 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 industrialists are prepared to go along with any party 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, the 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 laid-out processes for doing business.
Union Telecom Minister Pramod Mahajan recently said earning money and becoming rich is not a sin. But, as The Indian Express has shown, several tycoons have 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 the belief that public money invested with us was sacrosanct. We were never exposed to this kind of thinking and acting. This is our most enduring principle. Yes, business tycoons, or anyone else, should be held accountable for the public money they borrow. But the entire community of industrialists should not be blamed for the actions of a few.
The reported closeness of any politicians to Reliance immediately catches media 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 gad-bad 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 field, as a section of Indian businessmen did. Why?
We don't 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 field just did not enter our mind at Reliance.
There is one black mark in your success story - the Observer publications, which had to be closed down. This foray into the media never took off, and the editorial staff complained that the management never bothered about the functioning of the papers.
Publishing was not our mainstream activity. It was the immediate reaction to the environment prevailing in those days [referring to the attacks that were made in the media against the group]. Somehow the passionate commitment that was the hallmark of the group was absent. Because of this chalta hai attitude the papers struggled and were finally shut down.
But today you are very media savvy. I mean, you are a permanent feature of the page-three celebrity culture.
The media has become commercial these days. It is better to be communicative. I don't see anything wrong in being open and available to the media.
The economy will be in a shambles if war breaks 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 Oil and Natural Gas Corporation 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 in Gujarat will affect the state's investment process?
I don't 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 of starvation deaths, suicides by farmers, intolerable conditions in hospitals, which are very much a part of the Indian way of life?
Yes, we cannot run away from these unpleasant facts. I am comforted by my father's philosophy as brought out in the song, 'Hum honge kamyaab ek din' (We shall overcome). 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 that counts. And there is so much work to be done, work for everybody.