When you hear the term "Rags to Riches", the name that springs to mind is "Reliance", and the man who created it, Dhirubhai Ambani. From near nothing to one of the largest companies in the world in a span of 50 years. This is the story of a hard-working man who refused to allow life to control him, and always preferred to control life.
Dhirajlal Hirachand Ambani was born in a village on 28th December 1932, in Gujarat. In the pre-independence era, and a background of poverty, young Dhirajlal knew he would not have a fair chance to make it big in his life, unless he did something radical, and something fast. With this vision in his mind, he sailed to Aden (in Yemen) to learn business and earn money. He was just 16 years old. At that time, Aden was a trading port for the British Empire. Slowly his savings grew and his dream of starting his own business was about to come true.
Ten years later, Dhirajlal returned back to India, and set up a small business trading in yarn and spices. He named it "Reliance Commercial Corporation." He used to go around the Bombay Textile Bazaars himself, trading his imported polyester textiles. It wasn't easy as there were established firms, which dominated the markets. But Dhirajlal with his phenomenal energy and passion to win slowly began to make headway.
Within a few years, he set up his own factory manufacturing textiles in Ahmadabad. He gained prominence steadily in the textile markets, more so because of his fair dealings and excellent product quality. He began to be called "Dhirubhai" affectionately by all. His personal life progressed, too. Dhirubhai married Kokilaben, and they had four children Mukesh and Anil, and daughters Dipti and Nina. The family of 6 lived in a one-room apartment in the Jai Hind Society in Mumbai, a tenement building that housed 500 families. Those were the difficult days, and often, Anil and Mukesh used to share each other's clothes.
In 1966, Dhirubhai set up a textile mill in Naroda, Gujarat to manufacture fabrics for suits and saris. This was a big move for him, which paid off. Within one year, the net profit from this venture was Rs.13 lakhs. Dhirubhai knew he was on the right track and wanted to expand. He plowed money back into the mill to buy more machines, and the business grew by leaps end bounds. At that time, Dhirubhai was marketing fabric under the "Vimal” brand, named after the son of his older brother, Ramniklal Ambani. In 1968, the Ambani family moved out of their one-room home in the Jai Hind Society building to a more spacious apartment in a better locality. Dhirubhai started driving a Cadillac and later a Mercedes-Benz.
In less than 12 years, Reliance had become a name to reckon with. In 1977, Reliance made a net profit of Rs. 1.28 crores on total revenue of Rs.68.7 crores. The potential was huge and Dhirubhai wanted to capitalize on it. But he realised that he could not do it without a large inflow of capital. That was when he decided to come up with a public issue. The company was re-named as Reliance Textile Industries Ltd and their maiden public issue garnered Rs.2.8 crores. Dhirubhai Ambani's dream of creating a corporation had come true. But he knew that there was a long way to go, and the prospect for growth was enormous.
Slowly, Dhirubhai started to focus on manufacture of chemicals and synthetic fibers. This would diversify his business interests and also provide the raw materials required for his textile business. From 1979 to 1982, Reliance raised a total of Rs. 91.8 crores rupees from small investors. In 1982, Dhirubhai moved from making polyester fabric at his mills to manufacturing the polyester filament yarn that goes into the fabric. He pulled Mukesh out of Stanford University in California, where he was studying for an MBA, to help build new plants. They bought the latest machines, which could produce 10,000 tons of polyester yarn a year at a time when total Indian consumption was 6,000 tons a year.
Industry experts termed it as a bold decision, but knew that the demand for this product was growing tremendously, and Dhirubhai had foreseen this potential. In 1985, Reliance had over 1.2 million stock and bond holders. Dhirubhai held the company's annual general meeting at a Mumbai football stadium. This was lauded as a "never before" event. About 12,000 shareholders attended this meeting with awe, each of them proud to be part of the Reliance realm. In this meeting, Dhirubhai announced that he was dropping the word "Textile" from the company's name, reflective of the great diversification that was taking place in the group. The company came to be known as "Reliance Industries Limited".
In February 1986, a stroke left Dhirubhai’s right side partially paralyzed, but this did not diminish his involvement in Reliance. By then both his sons Mukesh and Anil were totally involved in the company's affairs. In 1996, Reliance invested the $6 billion to build a 27-million-ton-a-year oil refinery at Jamnagar. This plant was Dhirubhai's vision. Reliance completed the refinery in less than three years. The plant required the amount of steel equivalent to 16 Eiffel Towers.
On June 24, 2002, Dhirubhai suffered a second stroke and slipped into a coma. He died 12 days later in a Mumbai hospital. He was mourned all over the world by millions of people. Dhirubhai's legacy and vision lives on in every inch of the mammoth business empire that he built.