Leaders of the Pack

19 January 2010 Vikas Pota

In an extract from his book India Inc, author Vikas Pota looks at the second wave of trail-blazing Indian executives that have put India even more firmly on the world map.

The fact that the domestic Indian market is growing proves to be a major boon and safety net for Indian companies such as Tata, which face the severe consequences of the slowdown in other parts of the world while its home market sees expansion.

The Confederation of Indian Industry predicts a 6.5% growth rate for the Indian economy in 2009–10, which is lower than its double-digit growth rates in recent years but more promising than many Western economies that are struggling under their own weight. This growth pattern has been largely responsible for the success of those Indians who have become household names through their business fervor and economic might.

Many are dollar millionaires, with their every dollar chronicled by Forbes and Fortune. And though their fortunes have taken a slight dip in line with the downturn, they remain well poised for the upswing.

For me, the leader of the pack has got to be Mukesh Ambani, the older of the two siblings who each took over half of the Reliance Empire after the death of Dhirubhai Ambani. Mukesh, now the richest Indian and the seventh richest man in the world with a personal wealth valued at $15.5bn, is the chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries.

His empire extends from petrochemicals to textiles to oil and gas exploration. Reliance claims global leadership in its businesses, being the largest polyester yarn and fiber producer in the world and among the top five to ten producers of major petrochemical products. It exports products in excess of $20bn to 108 countries.

"The Confederation of Indian Industry predicts a 6.5% growth rate for the Indian economy in 2009–10."

If Mukesh represents ‘old’ industry, his brother Anil Ambani is forging ahead aggressively in what is popularly referred to as the ‘new’ services-led economy with the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group. Anil’s prowess lies in the fields of entertainment with Reliance Entertainment, telecommunications with Reliance Communications, and finance with Reliance Capital. He may be the younger one who has embraced new industry areas, but he has fast become the Ambani to track, following glitzy tie-ups such as the one with Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg, which he hopes to leverage to take Bollywood global. He knows the subject intimately, given his marriage to a yesteryear Bollywood starlet.

While Mukesh is a reclusive and private individual, Anil is seen as flamboyant and mega ambitious – as if he needs to prove his worth. Whether it’s pounding the streets of Mumbai in the marathon, or his parliamentary career, or his personal relationship with the Bachchans, the de facto royal family of India’s much-watched film industry, Anil’s businesses flourish the world over and his personality marks him out in the public eye as the Ambani to watch.

What both brothers enjoy is the head start that their father provided them, a fact that neither will deny. The true question is whether they make as big an impact as Ambani senior did by setting up a mega corporation from scratch within his lifetime.

If you’re looking for an Indian business leader who’s created a larger-than-life public persona, there’s no beating Vijay Mallya, who enjoys the tag of India’s Richard Branson. He took the reins of the United Breweries Group at a very young age and has made it a globally competitive conglomerate with business interests spanning alcoholic beverages, airlines, engineering, agriculture, and others, totaling approximately 60 companies.

Among his notable achievements are the 2007 acquisition of Whyte & Mackay, one of the world’s oldest Scotch whisky brands, and his genius in getting around Indian regulations on the promotion of alcohol to brand his airline Kingfisher after the beer brand he owns. His largesse extends beyond business to buying a Formula One team and holding the Bangalore franchise of the recently formed Indian Premier League, which has added to his brand recall in the hugely important Indian market.

Talking of brand recall, you just can’t get away from the Bharti Airtel mobile phone brand in India that Sunil Mittal has successfully established. Known as India’s poster boy for entrepreneurship, Mittal’s story is compelling. At the age of 18, in 1976, he borrowed Rs 20,000 from his father to form a business that made bicycle parts for local manufacturers, which he sold in 1980. As a result of his father’s position as a Member of Parliament, Mittal successfully obtained an import license in what can only be described as a closed economy. Through this, he became the sole dealer for Suzuki Motors’ portable electric generators, which were imported from Japan. However, he made his name by being one of the first to identify the telecoms sector as a major growth area and subsequently lobbied to allow private-sector firms to manufacture push-button telephones in India. As India opened up its wireless telephony segment in 1995, he was one of the first to launch a mobile phone service and there’s been no looking back. Today, over five million new mobile phones are sold every month in India and Sunil Mittal is the biggest beneficiary of this boom.

Ever keen on riding the next wave, Mittal has set his sights on the retail sector in India and has a strategic alliance with the famed US retailer Wal-Mart. Through this connection, he provides the promise of a new market in a landscape he understands all too well. So far his activities have focused on the domestic market, for understandable reasons, but given the potential of a merger between South Africa’s MTN and Bharti Airtel, as India’s regulatory environment changes we may see the day when a domestically focused Bharti becomes a truly global telecoms firm.

Of course, we also have to tip our hat to the other Mittal – Lakshmi N Mittal, not a relative, known equally for the dominant position he’s carved out in the global steel industry. He left India decades ago to make a name for himself on foreign shores. It all started in Indonesia, where he turned around an ailing steel company and found he could apply his learning elsewhere in the world.

"For me, the leader of the pack has got to be Mukesh Ambani."

Known for this particular ability, he charted a course that ultimately led to his company becoming the world’s largest steel manufacturer by acquiring Arcelor in 2006. Now based in London, he is the richest man in the UK with billions to his name. Whether you read about his donations to the Labour Party or his daughter’s lavish wedding – where it’s reported he spent £20m to mark the occasion – or buying what at the time was Britain’s most expensive home in Kensington Palace Gardens, you can’t but marvel at what made all of this happen.

We could also speak about the giant steps taken by the likes of Anand Mahindra, who’s shaken up the US tractor market by stealing significant market share from John Deere & Co., or about his recent acquisition of Satyam Computer Services, previously embroiled in one of India’s worst examples of corporate fraud.

Last but not least, we could also highlight the achievements of Kumar Mangalam Birla, who heads the Aditya Birla Group, a $29bn conglomerate, which acquired the Canadian firm Novelis in 2007, turning the company into the world’s largest aluminum producer. Among his other businesses is the world’s 11th largest cement producer, the fastest-growing copper company in Asia, and the global leader in viscose staple fiber.

India Inc.  How India's Top Ten Entrepreneurs are Winning Globally by Vikas Pota, published by Nicholas Brealey, 26 January 2010, £20, hardback, 196pp, 234x156mm.  ISBN:  9781857885248