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Throwback: From 6th richest in world at $42 bn to 'zero net worth', Anil Ambani's journey back to basics

 Once among world's richest, Anil Ambani is now struggling to pay dues of his debt-laden companies. Earlier this year, his legal team argued that his net worth is zero and Ambani family won't come to his aid.

Once counted among the world’s richest with a net worth of $42 billion, Anil Ambani, earlier in February this year told a UK court that his net worth was zero and his family won’t support him when “push comes to shove”.

The court was hearing claims by Chinese banks –Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd Mumbai Branch, China Development Bank and Exim Bank of China –that the younger Ambani owes them $680 billion in dues after an alleged breach of personal guarantee on a debt refinancing loan of around $925 billion. The UK court did not buy the argument of Ambani’s legal team, headed by Harish Salve, that the billionaire's worth, taking into account his liabilities, has turned to zero in a matter of years.

The plaintiffs' legal team brought into question Ambani's fleet of cars reportedly worth $3.2 million, private jet and helicopter that he gifted to his wife Tina Ambani, and even his two-floor house in Mumbai's Sea Wind building at Cuffe Parade. Ambani argued that these assets were owned by corporate entities and are therefore are not part of his personal possesions.   

“Whereas Mr Anil Ambani’s investments were worth more than $7 billion in 2012, they are now worth $89 million, and his net worth is zero once his liabilities are taken into account… Quite simply, he was a wealthy businessman, now he is not,” said his barrister Robert Howe. His legal team argued that their client’s financial standing took a big blow in 2012 owing to a downturn in India’s telecom sector where his company and Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG) crown jewel Reliance Communications.

Ambani claimed he had a personal deficit of $305 million and that his net worth collapsed from $7 billion in March 2012 to zero in December 2019.

A bitter feud broke between Anil Ambani and his elder sibling Mukesh Ambani to take control of their father’s business empire spanning over various industrial sectors and comprising many companies when the latter died in 2002. The brightest and best assets including the new-age telecom business as well as the financial service and energy and infra arms went to Ambani while Mukesh Ambani got the oil & gas, petrochemical, refining and manufacturing assets .

While the elder Ambani went on to become Asia’s richest, the younger sibling became a case study in how to lose a billion-dollar empire.

In 2008, Anil Ambani was named the sixth-richest person in the world by Forbes which pegged his wealth at $42 billion. In a mere 12 years, according to Ambani’s own admission, it was reduced to nothing.

So, what went wrong? According to analysts, the younger Ambani wanted ADAG to be the biggest player in telecom, power and infrastructure. This fast-paced, debt-fuelled ambition to juggle too many balls at once is what landed him in trouble. Lawsuits failed deals, and mismanagement of companies are other reasons which accelerated the pace of ADAG’s crash.

In 2018, AGAG group companies’ debt stood at Rs 1.72 lakh crore and in 2019, Reliance Communications had a debt of Rs 46,000 crore and was headed for bankruptcy proceedings. Its revenue crashed to Rs 1,734 crore in FY20 from  Rs 27,710 crore in FY10. Other group companies also went down a similar trajectory.

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