From $42 Billion to $0 – How Anil Ambani Lost All His Money
Find out how one man went from $42 billion to zero! This is the story of how Anil Ambani lost all his money.Stories
We all love a story of rags to riches, but how many times have you heard about someone going from multi-billion-dollar riches to empty-pocket rags? Well, that’s exactly what happened to Indian businessman Anil Ambani.
From the most expensive sibling rivalry in the world, to jail bailout scandals and a mindboggling $7 billion debt, here’s how one man went from $42 billion to 0!
Who exactly is Anil Ambani and how did he fall so far? To get an understanding, first we need to take a trip back in time to mid-20th-century India. Anil was born in Mumbai, then known as Bombay, on June 4th, 1959; the youngest son of the founder of one of the most powerful companies on the planet, Dhirubhai Ambani.
At the age of 17, Dhirubhai had migrated from India to Aden in Yemen to start his career as a clerk at Besse & Co., a large trading firm. Here, he learned skills in trading and accounting and got a taste for entrepreneurship.
Ready to strike out on his own, Dhirubhai returned to India in 1958, where he started his own business trading spices, which eventually developed into his venture Reliance Commercial Corporation.
While Dhirubhai and his wife Kokilaben had already had their first son Mukesh on April 19th, 1957, once back in India they welcomed little Anil. As a young family, the Ambanis were living in a humble two-bedroom apartment at the Jai Hind Estate in Bhuleshwar, Mumbai.
However, Dhirubhai’s business was on the up. He soon expanded into the textiles industry and followed a strategy of offering high quality products at a much lower cost than his competitors.
This risky approach – which depended on high-volume sales to be profitable – was a raging success, and saw business grow quickly. Soon, Dhirubhai was able to move the Ambani clan into a six-story apartment in the Usha Kiran building, Mumbai.
Considering his humble beginnings, Dhirubhai was determined that his sons should learn the value of hard work and would often organize incentive-orientated family outings. Anil later recalled that he and his elder brother would go out on challenging six-mile treks in the pouring rain and receive a box of mangoes as a reward, to show them that hard work and determination pays off!
But we’ll soon analyze how successfully those attempts to inspire business savviness worked out for each of Dhirubhai’s sons.
By the 1980s, Reliance had begun to expand into other industries including the profitable industry of petrochemicals. By 1983, Reliance had gone from a single, minimal office in Mumbai, to being worth $122 million!
As profit continued to pile in, Dhirubhai purchased a colossal 14-storey high rise property in Cuffe Parade, a significant business district in Mumbai, which became the official Ambani family home.
There was never any question of whether brothers Anil and Mukesh would join the family business and by their mid-20s both had important roles within Reliance Industries.
Aged just 24 at the time of their respective inductions into Reliance, Mukesh joined in 1981 as a hands-on facilities manager and Anil came through the door in 1983 as an executive dealing with business investors and the press.
The roles suited each man perfectly: Mukesh was more the low-key, rigidly focused businessman, who liked spending his evenings in with his wife Nita and two children. Anil, on the other hand, was a little more extravagant.
Anil enjoyed running with Mumbai’s elite crowd, mixing with socialites and Bollywood stars, developing a reputation as something of a playboy! While Mukesh shied away from the spotlight, Anil relished in it! But Anil’s love of stardom proved quite a problem, in more ways than one!
Ambani Civil War
While Anil loved mixing with those in the Bollywood Hall of fame to strengthen business relationships, he also had his very own romance with Bollywood actress Tina Munim. While they say love is blind, Anil’s family certainly weren’t when it came to Tina’s profession.
At that time, being in the film industry was slightly taboo for a traditional family like the Ambanis and Anil and Tina were soon encouraged to call it quits. However, after a lot of convincing, Anil’s parents reluctantly gave their blessing, and in February 1991, Anil and Tina were finally married.
While Anil might have thought that this was the last major feud he’d have with his family members, he had no idea the storm that was coming. By 2002, Reliance had grown into a $15 billion conglomerate, but tragedy was about to strike the Ambani family.
On July 6th that year, Dhirubhai Ambani died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 69. At the time of his unexpected passing, Dhirubhai was ranked the 138th richest man in the world according to Forbes, with a net worth of $2.9 billion.
At the time, the Parliament of India had strict rules about inheritance and the Ambanis had to follow a law called the Hindu Succession Act. Under the Hindu Succession Act, the personal property of a man who dies without leaving a will has to be divided among his widow and children.
In the case of the Ambanis, the responsibility of running Reliance was the biggest issue to iron out. As the eldest, Mukesh took on the mantle as chairman of the family business and Anil became the vice-chairman.
While this might seem like a logical conclusion to the problem of succession, the two brothers were very different, and cracks began to show as soon as the power-shift occurred.
As the eldest, Mukesh saw himself as the sole boss of things, whereas Anil saw the two as equal, and it reached a point where each brother was making important decisions for the company without consulting the other first.
Sibling rivalries aren’t exactly uncommon, especially when it comes to arguing who’s the best, but the role of Reliance had become so important for India’s economy that something needed to be done.
Things got so bad that even India’s finance minister tried stepping in to get these bickering brothers to make up to no avail! It was going to take even more than a government official to quash the most expensive sibling rivalry of all time, and no one was more suited to settle this rift than mommy dearest – Kokilaben Ambani!
However, despite Kokilaben’s attempts to knock some sense into her sons, the issue of leadership remained, and neither brother was budging on the all-important point of who was to have ultimate control of the Reliance empire.
Eventually, Kokilaben was able to get the squabbling boys to settle on a solution. Reliance was to be split in two: one half owned by Mukesh, and one by Anil. While their views on who should be running things differed greatly, keeping Reliance as a multi-industry enterprise was one thing the brothers could agree on.
Mukesh took on all the already established, profitable companies, namely Reliance Industries and Reliance Petrochemicals, whose main business was selling gas. Anil, on the other hand, wanted to take on the newer, flashier companies that showed great promise for growth, including Reliance Communications and Reliance Power.
The split included a fraternal truce in which neither brother could enter the other’s industries to compete with their businesses for ten years. It also contained another agreement called ‘right of first refusal.’ This allowed either side to get a chance to buy out the other, ahead of any other interested parties, in the case of business shares being sold.
But while the ‘truce’ seemed like a great solution, it would ultimately contribute towards some of the worst problems the brothers would ever face! After three years of negotiation, Reliance’s split was finalized and approved by India’s Supreme Court in December 2005.
The brothers were able to go their separate ways, each giving a soft rebrand to their respective halves of the business. Mukesh dubbed his venture Reliance Industries Limited, and Anil’s side became Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, more commonly known as Reliance ADA Group.
By 2006, each were settled in their new roles as leaders of two of the biggest corporations in all of India. While they were still living under one roof at the Ambani’s huge family home, there couldn’t have been more distance between the two – and both were determined to become the new most successful Ambani!
The Golden Years
In his early years as a solo act, Anil thrived. His first big venture was into the world of telecoms, and he successfully disrupted the industry with a low-cost mobile network provider dubbed Reliance Communications.
This venture saw Anil invest around $2 billion in securing 3G wireless signal technologies to keep up with the advancements being made in the telecoms industry.
In the late nineties, 3G was the height of tech and soon, Reliance Communications was the number one mobile provider in all of India. Anil didn’t stop to enjoy his success, though, and pushed on to the next!
In his quest to further strengthen his hold, Anil purchased the profitable AdLab Films and their chain of movie theaters in 2005, renaming it Reliance MediaWorks. By 2008, Anil had become the owner of the largest multiplex operator in India with more than 700 screens.
Anil also made Hollywood connections and signed a $1.2 billion deal with American filmmaker Steven Spielberg to help fund his production company DreamWorks in 2008.
His collaboration with DreamWorks meant that Anil reaped the benefits from some financially acclaimed titles you may recognize, including War Horse, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies. In 2012, Reliance MediaWorks helped fund movies garnering 11 Oscar nominations including a win for Octavia Spencer’s performance in ‘The Help’.
Anil even held private screenings of his Hollywood hits at his home and had a star-studded roster of guests that included everyone who was anyone in Mumbai society - all except for Mukesh that is!
In 2008, Anil’s golden years peaked. He made Indian stock market history when he put shares in reliance power up for sale in an initial public offering. The company finished with a demand for 10.6 times the number of shares available, all of which were bought up for $3 billion total in just 60 seconds!
To cap off his financial success, Anil was finally listed on Forbes’ 2008 list of billionaires as the sixth richest man in the world – an astonishing $42 billion to his name!
Despite all this, it still wasn’t enough, and Anil still felt he was in the shadow of his older brother who was just one step ahead of him in position number five – a billion dollars richer. Little did Anil know, however, that his jealous ambition was about to see him come tumbling down.
Anil’s troubles really started when he discovered that his mobile company, Reliance Communications needed to drum up a higher number of sales if they were to continue to succeed in the market.
To fund his plans for mega-extension, Anil took out numerous massive loans to prop up Reliance Communications in a bid to keep up with advancing technology. Thanks to Anil’s $2 billion investment into acquiring 3G capabilities, it’s estimated that this 3G expansion accounted for around 50% of Reliance Communications’ debt.
However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, as at the time, Reliance Communications were in talks with South African mobile company MTN to combine the two companies together into one mega-mobile merger.
This was expected to spawn a powerful global telecoms firm, spanning two growing mobile markets in India and South Africa, touted at over $70 billion in value. But disastrously, the plan failed - and all thanks to a member of Anil’s family clan.
Remember that ‘right of first refusal’ agreement the brothers signed in 2005? Well, that deal gave Mukesh priority claims on shares of Reliance Communications in the event of a sale or merger. This created a legality issue that meant MTN was unwilling to close the deal, and it fell through in July 2008. Anil’s hopes for a debt-clearing way out were dashed.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, in April 2011, Anil’s managing director and two vice-presidents were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to acquire mis-priced mobile network licenses for companies Reliance Communications invested in, to deceptively bolster share prices.
Now in a sea of debt and scandal, it seemed that the only way forward was to borrow even more money to pay back the money Anil had already borrowed! In 2012, Anil secured yet another loan from three Chinese banks, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China; China Development Bank; and Exim Bank of China.
Between the trio of banks, Anil secured a whopping $1.2 billion to help repay the $7.19 billion pile of debt that had stacked up around Reliance Communications by 2011. But as dire as the situation was getting, the worst was yet to come.
Another bank-busting venture had begun germinating in 2010 when Anil took out a loan of $922 million from Exim Bank to build a huge 7,80-megawatt power plant. This seemed like a feasible way to eventually turn a profit considering that, as a family agreement, Mukesh had agreed to sell Anil’s companies the gas necessary to construct and fuel the venture at half the rate of government prices.
However, when construction began, the government would not approve the brothers’ previously agreed deal, as the court argued gas prices must remain fixed to be fair to the wider economy. Unfortunately for Anil, and very fortunately for Mukesh, this ruling would mean Mukesh’s gas profits from the power-plant construction would double.
Feeling that this was just another ploy in the ongoing sibling rivalry, Anil publicly claimed - at several press conferences in the late nineties - that Mukesh was trying every trick in the book to back out of his contractual obligations.
The very public power struggle didn’t do much for Anil’s image and when the court ruled in Mukesh’s favor, many of Anil’s companies plunged in value at the stock exchange. In the aftermath of the exhausting case, the brothers agreed to scrap the non-competition agreement brokered for them by their mother back in 2005.
While the new agreement saw Mukesh promise to not enter the gas-based electricity generation business until April 2022, the brothers were now free to compete on any other remaining industrial turfs each occupied. And there was one of Anil’s industries that Mukesh had plans for.
While his younger brother was sinking, things had been looking up for Mukesh – in more ways than one! In 2012, Mukesh moved into his own patch of paradise in Mumbai.
This not-so-humble abode is one of the world’s largest and most elaborate private homes, scaling 568 feet with 27-stories, taking four years to build, at an earth-shattering cost of $1.2 billion!
In building such an over-the-top home, you can’t blame Anil for feeling like Mukesh was rubbing his face in all of this excessive wealth! Dubbed Antilia, this skyscraper mansion is beyond extravagant and includes a six-story 168-car garage and nine ornately decorated elevators!
Antilia even has its very own private 50-seat movie theater, although it looked like watching drama on the big screen just wasn’t enough. Mukesh was about to put on a real-life show of brotherly betrayal!
In September 2016, six years after the new agreement that allowed the brothers to compete, Mukesh entered the communications industry with a bang and launched his own mobile network called Jio. Jio quickly racked up more than 150 million customers after offering low-cost 4G mobile coverage, leaving other big players in the market scrambling to keep up.
Jio changed the face of the Indian telecom industry, and Anil’s Reliance Communications couldn’t afford to keep up given their colossal debts. Once the largest mobile company in India, Anil’s telecom company - unbelievably - lost over 98% of its value over a three-year period.
It’s unclear what exactly Mukesh’s motives were for moving in on his younger brother’s industry like this, but Jio’s success was making yet another one of the holes that were continuing to grow in Anil’s pockets.
Hero to Zero
In the aftermath of Mukesh’s success in the telecoms market, Anil landed in even more trouble! He was hit with a lawsuit from former partner and Swedish network company Ericsson in 2016, when he couldn’t keep up with debt repayments for the $80 million he owed them, and was ordered by the Indian Supreme Court to pay up with interest or go to jail!
With just days to go before the deadline, help arrived from an unexpected source. Straining to find a way to keep the Ambani name far away from any association with financial ruin, Mukesh knew he had to do something and swooped in with the cash needed to save Anil from going fully under.
While this might seem like an act of brotherly love, being bailed out by his brother like this would have been the peak of humiliation for Anil given their financial feud! After the Ericsson fiasco, Anil knew that his days in the telecoms sector were numbered and in February 2019, Reliance Communications finally filed for bankruptcy.
As if things couldn’t get any worse, there were more lenders out there that were on Anil’s trail. Anyone that wanted a piece of Anil’s dwindling fortune would have to get in line, as he was being pursued by dozens of creditors in the latter half of the 2010s.
The most significant were the three Chinese banks that Anil still hadn’t repaid, who brought a case against him in 2019 with claims that he had provided a personal guarantee that they would be reimbursed.
Seven years after Anil had borrowed that $1.2 billion, he’d only managed to repay a small fraction and the banks were in hot pursuit for the remaining $717 million! With the seemingly never-ending sea of debts rising above his head, Anil Ambani finally reached a place that just ten years earlier would have seemed impossible.
On February 7th, 2020, to the shock of onlookers, Anil made the extraordinary claim that the dazzling net worth of $42 billion he’d had in 2008 had now plummeted to zero, zip, zilch, nada.
On top of his ongoing feud with his brother, as well as his besmirched track record in business management, Anil had well and truly made his way from hero to zero and lost it all. Or so it may have seemed.
Despite claiming to have nothing, and filing for bankruptcy, Anil somehow continued to enjoy the external indicators of vast wealth including his luxury home, a private jet, a $3 million fleet of cars and a yacht worth of tens of millions of dollars!
Anil rebuffed the claims that he owned this luxury yacht and instead claimed that it was owned by a company, so didn’t count as part of his personal wealth. But, of course, that didn’t account for the rest of the numerous, insanely valuable belongings he owned!
The truth is that while Anil’s wallet and bank balance may have appeared empty when it came to liquid assets, he was still in possession of a lot of non-liquid assets. In terms of ownership, liquid assets are those that can be quickly and easily turned into cash, like money in a savings account, while a non-liquid asset requires selling - at the potential expense of considerable time and loss of value - like Anil’s extravagant fleet of cars!
In cases where a defendant is expected to pay a lot of money, the court will often ask them to tap into their non-liquid assets to make payments.
However, while Anil claimed that he’d sold all his jewelry to pay for legal fees, he was able to get away without selling his $3 million worth of cars or lavish home by having his lawyers claim that he technically didn’t own those assets, and that they were purchased in others’ names!
What’s more, in 2021, claims surfaced that Anil had concealed millions of dollars in overseas accounts, so the reality of his allegedly empty pockets very likely has hidden depths!
During the case against the Chinese banks, the judge also contested that Anil surely had the option for more financial assistance from his big brother. Anil replied that he’d been told that his fraternal bailout was a gesture that would not be repeated.
As we’ve seen, the Ambani brothers have had quite the diverging paths over the years. In 2021, the Fortune 500 list ranked Mukesh’s Reliance Industries Limited as 155th on their list of successful global businesses, being worth an astounding $217 billion.
Anil’s big brother continues to make waves in the world of business, making friends with the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, who made a deal to purchase around 10% of Mukesh’s mobile phone company, Jio in 2020. As of January 2022, Mukesh is the richest man in India, worth a staggering $91.1 billion!
By stark contrast, Anil has taken to a more private lifestyle, working tirelessly behind the scenes to attempt to rescue his companies and reinflate his net worth, however much it may really be!
Reportedly, six days a week, Anil wakes up at 5am and goes on a 10-mile run, follows a no-sugar diet, and works 12-hour days at the office between 9:30am and 9:30pm. I mean, while he may be shady about how much money he actually has, you’ve at least gotta give the guy some credit for trying to claw back all he’s lost!
While his father’s story is one of rags to riches, Anil’s is one of riches to rags - according to him at least. After a complicated web of lawsuits and scandals, it’s almost funny to think that Anil was once hailed as a business genius.
And while Anil certainly had a few major successes in his career, it’s been argued that Mukesh’s slow, meticulously strategized, sustainable growth approach beat out Anil’s quicker money-making ventures in the long run. And Anil’s willingness to do everything to distance himself from his brother to claim the Ambani crown for himself may well have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
But with Mukesh’s ability for business-building and Anil’s people skills, who knows what heights the already-hugely-successful Reliance corporation could have reached if they’d put their egos aside and learned to work together?
One thing’s for certain – if you ever wind up filthy, stinking rich, make sure you keep your equally-filthy-stinking-rich family on your side!