For months, the world has been captivated by the last season of Succession, the Emmy-winning TV drama on the lives of the corporate élite.
But in India, a real-life succession plan, involving a fortune of billions of dollars, is making news.
The three children of Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s richest man and head of Reliance Industries, have now taken seats on the board of his expansive $220bn (£173bn) retail-to-refining conglomerate.
Twins Isha and Akash, 31, and Anant, 28, will join the board following shareholder approval. “The combination of the experience of senior leaders and the ambition of new leaders will script newer and more exciting chapters in Reliance’s every growing book of achievements,” Mukesh Ambani said in a statement on Monday.
This transition signifies the company’s entry into its third generation of family leadership in what is perhaps corporate India’s most anticipated succession plan.
With a sprawling business empire which ranges from oil, telecoms, chemicals, technology, and fashion to even food – the Ambanis are a ubiquitous presence in India, and everything the family does has been the subject of intense public fascination.
The children have their task cut out.
The group plans to enter general and health insurance possibly in partnership with global firms. It is planning to introduce 5G wireless broadband services in 200 million homes and develop 2,000 megawatts of AI-ready computing capacity.
It plans an ambitious wind energy business and a solar giga factory. The firm’s ambitious retail arm has revived a popular 1970s soft drink, Campa Cola, and is planning to take it global.
Sandeep Nerlekar, who runs succession advisory firm Terentia Consultants, says that Mr Ambani and his wife Nita have been grooming their children for this moment for years.
“They did not inherit the business just because they’re Mukesh Ambani’s children, it’s a well-thought- out strategy. He has taken time to plan a succession, very clearly identifying business vertical based on their strengths.”
Mr Ambani has been described as an “inscrutable” man who was raised poor and prefers to maintain a low profile. His children grew up in utmost luxury. They were raised in mansions, frequently traveling on private planes and mingling with celebrities.
Unlike Mr Ambani, who had to drop out of Stanford to look after his father’s business, twins Isha and Akash graduated from Yale and Brown, respectively. Together, they routinely make appearances in corporate events and adorn the covers of magazines. Both of them have married into other wealthy industrialist families, with the lavish ceremonies graced by stars from across the world, including Beyoncé.
Mr Nerlekar says the entire family, including Mr Ambani, has been “under the radar” for various reasons including their spends on luxury, weddings and properties. The fact that the children are still young heightens the excitement around their lives and could now put them under more spotlight – but “they know what they are doing and have been groomed well”.
After completing college, Akash joined the leadership team at the group’s telecom unit, Reliance Jio, in 2014. He manages the Mumbai Indians cricket team in the cash-rich Indian Premier League. Akash was also part of a team that brokered a $5.7bn investment in 2020 by Meta Platforms in a Reliance unit, Jio Platforms.
Isha, on the other hand, has been already tasked with driving the company’s retail, e-commerce and luxury plans. She is said to be behind the firm’s expanding presence in fashion through the company’s e-commerce app as well as its growing partnerships with top international luxury brands.
Isha’s rise in Reliance’s core business is significant because she has been given a senior leadership role, when other women in the family have played largely peripheral roles in the business till now. In 2021, Fortune magazine referred to her as “heiress on duty” while ranking her the 21st most powerful woman in India. And according to her father, she is also feisty.
In an interview with the New York Times, Mr Ambani said that his daughter often questioned her father’s way of doing business. She once asked him to “re-evaluate” his portfolio, he recalled, because some of his companies were in the plastics business, which “pollutes a lot”.
The younger son, Anant, is involved in Reliance’s energy businesses, which range from fossil fuels to developing solar panel manufacturing. Also a graduate of Brown University, Anant, who serves on the board of Reliance Charity alongside his mother, is often seen accompanying her to their team’s cricket matches during the IPL season.
Himanshu Rai, director of IIM-Indore, told Business Standard newspaper that the succession was a positive signal to all stakeholders and “will also prevent any dispute in the future”.
Many remember the bitter feud between Mr Ambani and his younger brother, Anil Ambani, over their inherited conglomerate after their father’s death in 2002. Without a will to divide the assets, the brothers could not agree on how to run the family business for years before their mother worked out a compromise.
“What they went through was bitter so they would want to define their succession at the right time,” Mr Nerlekar says.
He adds that after the pandemic, people around the world are focusing more on their own mortality, wanting to put their succession plans and wills in order. “The uncertainty and the simple fact that you could fall seriously ill or die has played a part in Mukesh Ambani’s succession plan.”
The change in leadership also comes at a time when the Ambani empire’s dominance has been challenged by the rise of coal and infrastructure tycoon Gautam Adani, who briefly overtook him as Asia’s richest man last year. The two are in direct competition for India’s renewable energy market and their increasing competition is keenly watched in India’s business circles.
For now, Mr Ambani has said he will remain chairman and managing director for five more years, preparing Reliance’s “Next-Gen leaders” and mentoring his children “so that they can provide collective leadership and dependably take Reliance to greater heights”.
Mr Nerlekar says that Mr Ambani has a good team who has been with him for years and will help the next-generation leaders in defining the future growth strategies.
But only time will tell how the children will take it from here and the next few years will be crucial.
“After Mr Ambani, someone has to lead the group, so he will use this plan to identify the right leader,” Mr Nerlekar says. “But he’s in no hurry.”
Source : BBC