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India: India’s squabbling siblings

Mukesh Ambani did not have the greatest of years in 2008, with the value of his business empire shrinking by an estimated $28 billion. But he can console himself with the fact that he is still India's richest tycoon and that more importantly, his estranged younger brother, Anil, lost even more money, with his net worth slumping by $30 billion.

While Mukesh, 51, and Anil, 49, are two of the most successful businessmen that India has ever seen, the brothers' achievements have been blackened by their long-running dispute, which has its roots in personal differences as well as clashes over corporate strategy and governance.

In a classic tale of sibling rivalry intensified by generational change, tensions began to grow after their father, Dhirubhai, died in 2002 and his sprawling business empire was split between the two intensely-competitive brothers.

Despite a truce brokered by their mother in 2005, the row threatened to spiral out of control last year, when Mukesh derailed an attempt by Anil's telecoms group, Reliance Communications, to pull off an audacious $50 billion acquisition of African mobile phone giant MTN group. Not one to sit idly by, Anil brought a $2 billion defamation lawsuit against his brother over remarks he had made in a controversial interview with the New York Times.

While the billionaire brothers' ongoing battle has captivated India, with the country's economy continuing to slow, some observers are concerned that their tit-for-tat wrangles could be harming the health of India, Inc. At the same time, there is a hope that the deteriorating economic outlook may force the brothers to consider some sort of settlement. But those who have followed the Ambanis closely warn that their differences run deep and wide.

Randel Carlock, a professor who specialises in entrepreneurial leadership and family business at the INSEAD business school, has outlined three types of conflict that family businesses typically face: issues-based, process-based and relationship-based. What makes Anil and Mukesh's dispute appear so intractable is that they clash on all three fronts.

It is a situation that must be distressing for their mother Kokilaben. Alongside her husband, who rose from humble beginnings in a Gujarat village to become one of India's most visionary corporate leaders, she ensured that the two boys were brought up with the same entrepreneurial spirit.

Despite Dhirubhai's rapidly-growing wealth, he did not give his children the pampered life that many second-generation children receive. He even hired a tutor to keep them grounded, taking them on train rides and trips to villages.

"Dhirubhai showed that family background is not so critical to start new businesses and ventures," explained Kavil Ramachandran, a professor of family entrepreneurship at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. "He showed that you can think big and achieve global competitiveness if you have the hunger to grow. He drummed this ability to think big and execute big projects into both Mukesh and Anil."

Perhaps their father trained them too well because two years after he died in 2002, they began squabbling over control of the family group. With help from some of India's leading bankers, their mother managed to establish a division of responsibilities between her sons in 2005 that was meant to put paid to their in-fighting. Under the terms of the agreement, which has never been made fully public, Mukesh took control of the family's petrochemicals group, Reliance Industries, while Anil took responsibility for the family's interests in IT, telecoms and banking.

Delighted with this outcome, Kokilaben said she was "confident that both Mukesh and Anil will resolutely uphold the values of their father and work towards protecting and enhancing value for over three million shareholders of the Reliance Group, which has been the principle on which my husband built India's largest private sector enterprise".

Her hopes for a lasting resolution between her sons may have been misplaced but, undeterred by the rapid recommencement of hostilities, both brothers have created their own corporate powerhouses that have contributed significantly to the development of the Indian economy.

"Their public fallouts might appear distasteful at times but you can't argue with their success," commented one Mumbai-based investment banker who has worked with Anil on a number of deals.

"Shareholders in both Reliance groups have got a huge return on their investments," noted Rajesh Jain, head of research at SMC Global, a New Delhi-based stockbroker. "Overall they have contributed greatly to the development of the stock market, bringing a lot of new equity investors into the fold."

Ramachandran added that the Ambani brothers have also helped to fill gaps in a number of vital sectors of the Indian economy, highlighting Mukesh's oil refineries and Anil's work in mobile telecoms.

Jain shared this view that Anil has had a transformative effect on mobile communications in India. "When mobile phones first came to India, the price was very high," he said. "But [Anil's] Reliance Communications brought a revolution and India now has one of the cheapest call rates in the world. He brought down the cost of using a mobile phone by more than 90%, facilitating business across the country. It's been a big change for everyone, down to the man on the street."

But, critics say, how much more could Anil have achieved if Mukesh had allowed him to take over MTN last year in a deal that would have created a giant mobile phone network stretching from the Cape of Good Hope to the Himalayas?

No-one apart from the brothers really knows how much their clash is driven by personal, as opposed, to business issues. But Ramachandran, for one, believes that their fall-out could have been prevented by better succession planning.

"The Ambani family didn't have the proper mechanisms in place for a smooth transmission," he said. "The father didn't think the time had come to move on but the reality is that most family business empires break up because of a lack of succession mechanisms. Normally, by the time they realise the need, it's too late."

However, partly as result of the high-profile rows that have destabilised the Ambanis and others like the Bajaj family, there is a realisation among many Indian proprietors that they need to develop better transition structures.

"No father wants to see splits in his family," added Ramachandran. "Many families are starting to write up constitutions but there are problems. Many proprietors have little experience of and interest in developing good corporate structures. They need facilitation but there is a shortage of people to help them move to a better-governed situation."

The focus on improving corporate governance will only get stronger after the accounting scandal at Satyam Computer Services, which dealt a severe blow to investor confidence both within the country and beyond.

India's stock markets had already taken a real battering in 2008, slumping by around 50%, and leaving traders desperate for good news. Perhaps that's why in January, rumours started to circulate through the dealing rooms of Mumbai of a possible truce between Anil and Mukesh. The chatter hinged around unsubstantiated speculation that the brothers may reach an out-of-court settlement in their two-year-old dispute over gas supply at the Krishna-Godavari basin, on the east coast of India.

Observers say this talk is probably just wishful thinking, although a number of leading politicians and businessman have told the brothers that the Indian economy would be given a big boost if they could iron out their differences. "Let's keep our fingers crossed," an unnamed Cabinet minister told the Press Trust of India when asked about the likelihood of a rapprochement between the Ambanis.

"It makes business sense for them to bury their differences and complement each other rather than fight," noted SMC's Jain. "But it's just a hope."

Whether they find some lasting resolution or not, few would bet against the richest brothers in the world continuing to prosper. Their battles have been persistent and nasty. But they have always ensured that their limited conflict has not become an all-out war, which both men know could destroy their respective empires and their father's legacy.

"With these situations, you can either try to prevent a crisis or minimise the damage afterwards," concluded Ramachandran. "As soon as the situation was getting out of control, the Ambanis got advice from outsiders and limited the damage as they realised that the consequences of not doing so were extremely dangerous."

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