One of the world’s great business schools, Wharton, has just honoured one of India’s most successful businessmen, Dhirubhai Ambani, by naming an auditorium after him. The decision follows in the wake of a multi-million dollar donation made by Anil Ambani, a Wharton graduate. As a matter of policy, like most American institutions, Wharton encourages its alumni to give.
There can be little doubt about Dhirubhai Ambani’s acumen. But there was also a dark side to the man who created wealth for hundreds of thousands of small investors. He was rumoured to have purchased politicians, bureaucrats and journalists, wholesale. He was said to have got policies made and changed to favour him. He was alleged to have moved and manipulated the stock markets. He was accused of installing and bringing down governments.
Should a businessman with such a “colourful past” be honoured by one of the great business schools? Or is this a fitting tribute to the man’s genius? Was Dhirubhai only a reflection of the licence-quota-permit raj or was he a master crook who is being lionised and legitimised by postage stamps and multi-million donations? Is Dhirubhai a role-model for future Wharton graduates, or are the techniques he adopted common for business success?
To the extent that Dhirubhai Ambani had a single minded focus on his fiduciary responsibilities (which happily coincided with his personal gain), he is a good model to emulate. There was no way any company in the License Raj days could have shown the performance that Reliance did without having politicians in its pocket. In the US that is called lobbying and is acceptable.
Being a graduate of an American business school, I can tell you that the biggest sin an executive can commit is cheat the shareholders and/or employees. It is considered fair game for companies to try and influence government, media and anyone else to further its own interests. Dhirubhai Ambani holds up pretty well to that standard.
I agree with G3S — the so-called “dark side” of Dhirubhai Ambani was an indication of a phenomenal capitalist.
In the United States (but not in many Commonwealth democracies), lobbying the government for favors is legal under the “redress of grievances” clause of the First Amendment. Many lobby groups have permanent camps in Washington, D.C., so they can hobnob with Congressmen. Lobbying is a protected type of expression and is seldom considered unethical.
During much of Reliance’s rise Ambani was seen as an unsavory fellow who had the money but not the class, ready to do anything to clinch a deal. Still, few people ever believed he was malicious.
Not even during his infamous 1980s dogfight with the stiff-upper-lipped Nusli Wadia of Bombay Dyeing was Ambani condemned as evil. Unethical, yes. Tenacious, certainly. A pest, maybe. Greedy, but of course! But a business genius? Hmm.. couldn’t deny that.
Ambani became a household name in the early 1980s after his famous “panga” with the Indian Express honcho Ramnath Goenka, who unleashed his investigative writers S. Gurumurthy and Maneck Davar, as well the roving businessman from Kalbadevi, Jamnadas Moorjani, to expose Ambani’s unprofessionalism against Nusli Wadia.
Interestingly, Ambani recovered from the Express onslaught — but Nusli Wadia, who wasn’t even attacked, seemed to crumble!
I remember my father, then the General Manager of a large textile mill in Hyderabad, enthusiastically followed the Ambani-Wadia rivalry in the newspapers. We had no TV at home, but Baba was an avid listener of the radio. The BBC, my father’s favorite radio station, refused to report on the feud. So did All India Radio’s Mumbai station, even though the Ambani-Wadia rivalry had very serious implications for India’s synthetic yarn industry.
My father’s favorite paper, The Hindu (he still is a Hindu fan in Mysore, but complains that the Bangalore edition is a far cry from the Madras edition!), for whatever reason, refused to cover that rivalry either.
So dear Baba was forced to subscribe to the Indian Express.
I hope someone — perhaps Sucheta Dalal of Mumbai, or some other smart financial journalist — will write a book about that infamous Ambani-Wadia rivalry and Goenka’s role in resolving it.
I believe that rivalry was Mumbai’s first mob war even without the guns and underworld. It was a telling chapter in the story of how our democracy earned its capitalist stripes.
1982 bear cartel busting by Reliance on the eve of its right issue makes Ambani a financial whizkid. Ambani screwed the bear cartel so much.. that they went bankrupt and settlement could not be done and stock exchange had to be closed for three days.
Ambani could teach lessons on money and management and made his fortunes in a commodity industry..
So what is the issue here
Wharton has no intentions of honoring Dhirubhai. Wharton is thanking Anil for his money, period. That’s exactly what happenms all over America. There is no point in reading too much into this. You pay and get a name for an auditorium. Nothing more to it really. It really doesn’t matter whetehr Dhirubhai was good, bad or ugly.
DS, that is true only to an extent. No school will accept a name that is slurred. USC for example would never name their football practice arena after OJ Simpson whatever the amount of money he gives them.
AF as Americans are concerned, the equation is simple. Reliance is a big company, Dhirubhai Ambani started it from scratch, Dhirubhai Ambani gave us money, we like Dhirubhai Ambani, ergo we will name building after him.
True of most things in our country as well. I don’t think anybody agonizes over Jawaharlal Nehru’s (lack of ) sporting achievements before naming every other sports stadium in the country after him do they?
No. Ambani is not a model to Emulate.
“Wharton is thanking Anil for his money, period.”
just like cornell recently thanked someone.
at the institutional level, americans are weird [pardon the unintentional pun!].
“Dhirubhai Ambani gave us money, we like Dhirubhai Ambani, ergo we will name building after him.”
this is how u.s. educational institutions react. similarly, the government reacts (positively) only when some nation appears threatening, but not until then.
i mean, as long as a country (even as big as india) kowtows to the usa, no concessions will be made in arms deals, loans, etc. etc. however, when the country threatens usa’s leadership (in whatever way) – like iran and north korea are doing – usa is ready to come to the negotiating table with an open billfold/treaty to see what concession/donation it would take to avert the (perceived) imminent threat.
“In the US that is called lobbying and is acceptable.”
as you appear to opine that emulating the usa is “acceptable”, while we are at it, why not legalize bribing too? the term i would propose – keeping the indian context in mind – is ’tis’ (see below):
tips = to insure prompt service (american)
tis = to insure service (desi)
World’s great business school Wharton???????????????????????????????????
Sorry i heared the name for the first time. I don’t think it is bad to name after Ambani as he is undoubtedly is one of the biggest business wizard, a India hampered by redtape and corrupt politicians.
When major localities, airports, stadiums are named after worthless politicians it is not strange to name business schools after the biggest donors.
Does the name Ken Lay ring a bell … a chair in his name hasnt been removed in Univ of Missouri as we blog today even tho he was behind bars. Money talks ….
I implied no such opinion – just a statement of facts from what I have seen.
Universities have those problems because there is usually a legal reason why they end up keeping those names. One of my “esteemed” marketing professors was jailed for insider trading. However he had donated money to build a hotel on campus that bears his name. As much as the university wants to change the name of the hotel (and people down from the President of the university have said they would like to), it still stands in his name as the man sits in Federal prison. They have now started not to draw attention to the hotel at all.
in my books, your comparison with the usa standards implies that your opinion is that the american way is the litmus test for ethical behaviour. i will let the readers decide who is correct.
either way, my point regarding bribes still stands – if we go by usa standards, i vote that we legalize bribes and make it completely official. just like irs assumes a that workers get a certain percentage of their salary as tips while expecting taxes, we could assume that a clerk whose salary is, say, Rs. 10,000 per month will have a ‘side income’ of Rs. 90,000 making his taxable salary Rs. 100,000 (you are welcome to use your own figures if mine are too high or too low).
then we can also tell visitors to our country what the ‘going rate’ currently is. all black money will be flushed into the open and we won’t have random businessmen being caught with Rs. 35000 crore hidden under their carpets (don’t take this literally please)!