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In open: Ambani vs Ambani

Mumbai, Nov. 18: Mukesh Ambani today confirmed months of rumour in the corporate grapevine: that there are differences with brother Anil.

'So while there are other issues, which are ownership issues, those are in the private domain, but as far as Reliance is concerned it is a very-very strong professional company,' the chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries told a TV channel on being asked about rumoured rift between the brothers.

The two brothers control India's biggest private empire, worth some Rs 99,000 crore, founded by father Dhirubhai, who died in July 2002.

Mukesh, Anil and mother Kokilaben are the heirs to the fortune. Some sources say Dhirubhai did not make a will. It is speculated that as the elder brother Mukesh has the right to buy out the stakes of others if there is a dispute.

Although Mukesh did not name anyone, the expression 'ownership issues' is being seen by corporate watchers as a reference to family differences.

This is the first time an Ambani has spoken on this sensitive subject and is all the more significant coming from the low-profile and reticent Mukesh, though he would only have been responding to a question in the context of steady rumours.

In the same breath, he reassured shareholders that 'ownership issues' would not affect the running of the companies. He said Reliance had become professional enough to not depend upon any one or two individuals.

'Reliance is one of the strongest professionally managed companies, that attracts huge talent and has moved beyond any one, two or three individuals, including myself,' he said.

In this context, Mukesh cited the example of General Electric, which, he said, had outgrown its legendary former chief executive Jack Welch.

The market may see the comparison as somewhat inappropriate as the Ambanis own Reliance ' Welch did not own GE. Shareholders may also ask if 'ownership issues' are really in the 'private domain'. One in four share-owning Indians has a stake in Reliance Industries.

Mukesh's comments, however, caused hardly a ripple on the market. The Reliance Industries share price gained from Wednesday's close of Rs 543.85 to end at Rs 545.55.

'The barometer is the stock market. Not the media,' a source said.

After Dhirubhai's death, Mukesh and Anil took control and unleashed a blinding expansion spree in power, oil exploration, finance and biotechnology. In the sunrise telecom industry, Reliance is a leader.

Speculation about differences between the brothers fed on incidents and remarks that may not have had any significance at all. When Mukesh inaugurated the Dhirubhai Ambani Knowledge City two years ago ' a big event in the Reliance calendar ' Anil was not present, ostensibly because he was ill.

More recently, when Mukesh met Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at a public ceremony he said he never felt the need to visit the Bengal chief minister because he was sure his company's work would be done. When Bhattacharjee reminded him that the younger brother had met him lately, Mukesh said that was for Anil's power projects.

Rumour mongers sniffing for a clue would have grabbed at it.

Anil took over last year as chairman of Reliance Energy Ltd that controls the group's power projects.

The two brothers have completely different personalities but both swear by the vision of their father. Mukesh is a technocrat who is credited with setting up the over 30-million-tonne Jamnagar refinery and Reliance Infocomm, the giant telecom company.

Anil is a finance and marketing person and the flashier of the two. Married to a former actor, he recently became a Rajya Sabha MP from Uttar Pradesh on the support of Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party. He is often seen in the company of Mulayam's right-hand man Amar Singh, making up the AAA team along with Amitabh Bachchan.

Mukesh is rarely spotted at public events and is said to prefer to spend time with his family.

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