SOME businesspeople are guided by experts, spreadsheets and crunchy questions. What is your three-year target for market share? Will a project deliver a reasonable return on the capital invested? A few hurl all the forecasts and reports into the bin and surrender to their own hunger to make a mark.
One such figure is Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man. In September 2016 he placed one of the biggest business bets in the world by launching Jio, a mobile-telecoms network that allows India’s masses to access data on an unprecedented scale. In the past six months it has won 100m customers. Only one other firm on the planet has such an acquisition rate—Facebook. From Kolkata’s slums to the banks of the Ganges, millions of Indians are using social media and streaming videos for the very first time.
To achieve this, Mr Ambani has spent an incredible $25bn on Jio, without making a rupee of profit, terrifying competitors and many investors. The motivation for his gamble probably lies with his turbulent family history. Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), Mr Ambani’s company, was set up by his father, Dhirubhai, in 1957. Born in humble circumstances, Dhirubhai was famous for three things: running rings around officials; creating a fortune for himself and RIL’s army of small shareholders; and his appetite for giant industrial projects. RIL jumped from textiles into oil refining and petrochemicals. Its refinery in Gujarat is one of the world’s largest. It opened in 2000, two years before Dhirubhai died.
Mukesh Ambani and his brother, Anil, took the reins in 2002 and split from each other in 2005, leaving Mukesh in full control of RIL. Since then his record has been patchy. RIL’s shares have lagged India’s stockmarket over the past decade and its return on capital has sagged, halving from 12% to 6%.
Emulating his father, Mr Ambani has rolled the dice on several huge projects. He has invested huge sums to modernise the petrochemicals and refining business. This decision has been a success—it is an excellent operation that makes a return of about 12%. But Mr Ambani’s other investment calls have flopped. In 2010-15 RIL spent $8bn on shale fields in America. Now that oil prices are lower they lose money. The group invested about $10bn in energy fields off India’s east coast; they have produced less gas than hoped for and are worth little. And RIL has spent around $2bn on a retail business that produces only small profits. All told, RIL’s refining and petrochemicals unit accounts for two-fifths of its capital employed but over 100% of operating profits. The other businesses, developed mainly after Mr Ambani took sole charge, swallow a majority of resources but don’t make money.
A lesser man might have lost his nerve, but Mr Ambani has pursued another colossal bet in the form of Jio. He knows telecoms: in 2002 he oversaw the family’s first attempt to build a big mobile-phone business (his brother now owns the struggling operation). The latest effort has been a decade in the making. Step by step, RIL acquired spectrum, worked with handset suppliers and built a “fourth-generation” network. Jio’s offer of free services caused a sensation. A savage price war has ensued. One rival executive reckons Jio is carrying more data than either China Mobile or AT&T, the world’s two most valuable operators.
That underlines the potential of India’s telecoms market. Data usage is low, there are few fixed lines and most people don’t have smartphones. The incumbent firms are heavily indebted, so have limited ability to respond to a price war.
Jio will start charging from April 1st. Yet even assuming it keeps cranking prices up and wins a third of the market, a discounted-cash-flow analysis suggests that it would be worth only two-thirds of the sum that Mr Ambani has spent. To justify that amount Jio would at some point need to earn the same amount of profit that India’s entire telecoms industry made in 2016. In other words, there is no escaping the punishing economics of pouring cash into networks and spectrum. For every customer that Jio might eventually win, it will have invested perhaps $100. Compare that with Facebook or Alibaba, both asset-light internet firms, which have invested about $10 per user.
Jio’s three main mobile competitors have scrambled to respond. Bharti Airtel is buying a smaller rival to try to lower its costs. Vodafone is in talks about merging with Idea Cellular, another operator. Half a dozen or so weaker companies (including the firm now run by Mr Ambani’s brother) will probably disappear. The best hope for Jio is that in the distant future it will be one of three firms left and that a cut-throat industry will evolve into a comfy oligopoly, which is possible.
RIL’s share price has gone nowhere for years but excitement about Jio’s 100m new customers has helped it bounce over the past month. Still, the scale of the investment illustrates the risks that shareholders face at a firm that is controlled by one man. Even if Jio eventually gushes cash it is not clear if RIL will pay bigger dividends, or if Mr Ambani will instead pursue another grand project. As investors wait, however, many more of India’s 1.3bn consumers will gain—not only from low prices, but a welcome splurge on the nation’s telecom infrastructure.
Defiance from Reliance
And what of Mr Ambani? Perhaps he hopes to get his money back by turning Jio into an internet firm that offers payment services and content, not just connectivity. China’s Tencent, which owns WeChat, a messaging service, has successfully diversified into games and banking. Still, no telecoms firm has managed this feat and it is hard to see how RIL’s clannish culture can become a hotbed of innovation. More likely, Mr Ambani, aged 59, just doesn’t care what all the spreadsheets point to. Sitting atop his skyscraper, overlooking teeming Mumbai, where some 5m new Jio customers are surfing the web at high speed for peanuts, he can at last say that he has changed India. When you are Dhirubhai’s son, that is probably enough.