orn to a low salaried school teacher, Dhirubhai Hirachand Ambani started his glorious legacy with selling groundnut oil on the side of a road when he was still in school. He used his instincts and awareness to establish one of the largest business empires in India.
Ambani was born in Chorwad Gujarat in Pre-Independence India on 28 December 1928. His father Hirachand Govardhandas Ambani was a school teacher and his mother Jamnaben Ambani was a homemaker. He had four siblings, brothers Ramnikbhai and Nathubhai, and sisters Jasuben and Trilochanaben. Among the siblings, Ambani was the favorite child of his parents. He was strong-willed, unyielding, vigorous, and determined.
Since his early childhood, Ambani was aware of the financial position of his family. Being a school teacher, his father did not earn much and even had to borrow money from their neighbours to make ends meet.
He was highly intelligent and street smart; his interest lay in learning outside the classroom. His interest and talent in trading were evident from a very young age when he bought a tin of groundnut oil from a local wholesaler on credit and sold it on a roadside while earning his first profit. After which he went on to make and sell fritters in village fairs during vacations and weekends.
Ambani’s Brush With Politics
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Sardar Patel were Ambani's idols. He was interested in politics from his teen years and was a voracious reader of the daily and weekly newspapers and was always on top of current affairs.
When India got its independence, he was studying at a school in Junagarh, which was then a princely state ruled by a Nawab. The Nawab there did not want Junagarh to be a part of the Indian Union, so he banned all celebrations and flag hoisting on 15th August 1947. Ambani did not like that and decided to defy it. He gathered a large number of students who then hoisted the Indian flag at a school ground and celebrated the Independence with patriotic songs and sweets. This was where Ambani gave his first public speech. His confidence and passion were largely appreciated.
An Ailing Father’s Orders
Ambani failed the matriculation exams the first time. After sitting for the exam the second time, his father fell ill and called him back home. His father told him that he could not financially support his education any further and that Ambani had to work. His brother Ramnikbhai had already arranged for a job for him in Yemen. Ambani wanted to study further and get a bachelor's degree but he could not say no to his father. So the next day he left his home to go to Rajkot to get a passport and within a few days he was on his way to Aden, Yemen. It was on the ship to Aden that he found out through a Gujarati newspaper that he has cleared his matriculation examination.
Contrary to popular belief, Ambani was 21 years old when he went to Aden, not 16. Aden was the second busiest ports in those days with nearly ten thousand ships and dhows visiting in a year. Ambani worked as a clerk with the A. Besse and Co. which was founded by Antonin Besse.
It was the largest trading firm there and was engaged in the trading of almost everything. Ambani worked in commodities trading section of the firm and then was later transferred to the petroleum product section where he handled the account of the oil company Shell.
Using Every Learning Opportunity
Ambani was largely a self-taught man. Within the first few months of being in Aden, he learned to speak Arabic as fluently as the locals. Also learned to speak and write in English and red several books to improve his vocabulary. Even there he used to read the daily and weekly newspapers which came in from India.
Ambani learned commodity trading, marketing, and distribution, currency trading, high Seas sales, and purchases, as well as money management while he worked at Besse, in addition to learning typing, writing in shorthand, composing legal documents, and drafting commercial letters. He even worked at a Gujarati trading firm in Aden for free to learn bookkeeping. accounting, preparing documents and shipping papers and dealing with insurance companies and banks.
In his free time, Ambani would visit the markets to understand trading better. All his accumulated knowledge had led Ambani to predict the trading trends instinctively. He decided to start trading in various good as a means of earning some extra money. He started offering the shopkeepers an irresistible term of “Profit we share and all loss will be mine” to get them to start doing business with him.
His trading turned out to be usually profitable, and he rarely faced a loss, if ever. He returned to India in 1954 to get married to Kokilaben. He was then promoted to work at the oil filling station of Shell oil refinery where he worked as a petrol pump attendant. Throughout his time in Aden, Ambani made lots of friends.
Return to India
By the late 1950s, the business in Aden dwindled, and Ambani returned to India. He wanted to start his own business; however, his funds were considerably low. Even so, Ambani started trading in commodities such as sugar, spices, jaggery, and other things to his friends in Aden. Since he did not have substantial funds, he offered his lucrative term of “Profit we share, and all loss will be mine” to the wholesalers in India as well.
His business took off because he paid more attention to the quality of the exports than his contemporaries. While in Aden, one of his friends had a small shop which sold watches, which was named Reliance. Ambani used the same name for his company as he thought that the name instilled ease of doing business with the company. As a first of a kind trade, he even sold manure to a Gulf trader which proved to be highly profitable.
His team of employees included mostly middle school graduates who were his friends or relatives. After trading in commodities he started trading in yarn and was one of the first to sell Bamber filament in India. When the government introduced the scheme of importing nylon yarn and exporting rayon fabrics in the mid-1960s, Ambani was one of the first traders to act on it and started importing and exporting with his connections in Aden.
Establishing His Own Manufacturing Unit
However, he believed that the government scheme would not last long and so he wanted to establish his own nylon manufacturing unit so that India would not have to use foreign currency to pay for the nylon imports. His manufacturing plant was set in Naroda and covered 5000 square yards. The plant was built and started producing fabric within a period of only a few months.
He named the fabric Vimal, which means pure, and is also the name of his nephew. The big fabric manufacturers persuaded the wholesalers against buying his fabric, so Ambani took to selling the fabric directly to the retailers personally. When the profits started pouring in, the retailers switched to selling exclusively Vimal fabric in their stores.
Ambani also ventured out into various other industries, the most notable among them was undoubtedly the setting up of the 25 million ton oil refinery in Jamnagar in 1999.
Left Bigs Shoes to Fill
On 6th June 2002, Ambani passed away after being in the coma for a week following his second stroke. After the sudden death of the business tycoon, his empire was left to his sons Mukesh and Anil Ambani. However, because he did not leave behind a will, there was a bitter and public ownership battle between the two brothers.
Their mother Kokilaben had to intervene and conduct a demerger of the empire.
Ambani received many awards and recognition throughout his life. He was awarded Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award in India, posthumously in 2016.