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Adani and Ambani: The big ambitions of India’s biggest billionaires

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.


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