Mukesh Ambani is an impassive man— mostly. Yet, sometimes when he is talking about things he is really passionate about, a certain gleam comes into his eyes, his head energetically bobs, and his delivery—usually an even-toned drone—takes on a messianic tenor.
It’s been at least five years since the world has seen this side of the man, something it last did in the mid-noughties when Reliance Industries Ltd launched Reliance Retail. It isn’t that the elder of the Ambani brothers has been unenthusiastic about his other businesses; he has, usually in annual general meetings of shareholders, spoken animatedly about refining, life sciences, and gas. The passion, though, has been reserved for new businesses.
Reliance Infocomm. Mukesh Ambani would move from one conference room to another, arriving at just the right juncture for one meeting, participate in a crucial discussion, and then leave for the next meeting.
This writer’s meeting with him happened at the end of a long day replete with such meetings. Mukesh Ambani started off by speaking about how his father had wanted to make it possible for people to make a mobile phone call for less than the price of a post card but as he warmed up, the conversation turned visionary even by today’s standards. He spoke of creating a developer community to create applications for the company’s phones and phone service; using the company’s fibre optic backbone to carry voice, data, audio and video (even TV signals); even enterprise services.
That may explain why, on Friday, when Mukesh Ambani spoke at the company’s annual general meeting, he occasionally sounded the way he had at that meeting eight years ago. A substantial part of the speech he gave was dedicated to telecommunications, a business Mukesh Ambani has been able to re-enter after recently making his peace with younger brother Anil Ambani. The two brothers have been fighting continually since late 2004, though they did arrive at a settlement in 2005, carving up the Reliance empire between themselves and agreeing not to encroach into each other’s territory. Under the terms of that settlement, Anil Ambani, inconceivably, ended up with the business closest to Mukesh Ambani’s heart, telecommunications.
Friday’s speech by Mukesh Ambani referred to e-banking, using the developer community to create applications that will increase the reach of broadband in India, and several other things that he had first spoken off when he was building Reliance Infocomm (it became Reliance Communications after Anil Ambani took over).
Mukesh Ambani’s passion for telecommunications may have had something to do with the fact that it is clearly a business of the future, as compared with any business based on fossil fuel that, while being immensely lucrative, is oh-so-yesterday. Telecommunications is a business that can propel Reliance Industries into an entirely different orbit. It’s already making many people see Mukesh Ambani in an entirely new light.
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