Isha Ambani, Executive Director, Reliance Retail Ventures LimitedI
n a rare interview, a few years ago, Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s richest man, recounted a tale about his daughter Isha. She was at home on a break while studying psychology at Yale University; a few days in, she flatly told him: “Dad, the internet in our house sucks.”
“At Yale, I do everything on the internet. I can’t do anything from home,” she grumbled.
That conversation, recalled Ambani, chairman of the oil-to-data conglomerate Reliance Industries [the owners of Network 18 that publishes Forbes India], triggered the birth of Jio, the mobile network launched in 2016 that went on to upend the Indian telecom market with unlimited free calls and low-cost data.
Isha permanently returned to India after finishing at Yale, earning an MBA at Stanford University, and briefly working at McKinsey & Company in New York, in 2018. She was made director of Reliance Jio in 2014, and, along with her twin brother Akash, she helped seal the company’s megadeal with Facebook—$5.7 billion for a 9.9 percent stake in 2020—plus follow-on investments from titans like Google, Qualcomm and Intel.
Jio grabbed attention. The flurry of funding lent it an eye-popping $65 billion private valuation and it amassed 400 million subscribers in little time. But its tearaway success overshadowed the slower-yet-steady growth of another Reliance Industries’ vertical: Reliance Retail Ventures Limited (RRVL). The 17-year-old shopping unit is India’s biggest retailer by revenues—posting ₹1.7 lakh crore ($20.6 billion) in net revenue from operations in FY22. It has 16,000 stores across India—the highest among all brick-and-mortar retailers—and online purchases contribute almost 20 percent to revenues, according to Bernstein, a brokerage.
It’s here that Isha, now 31, has proven her savvy. So much so that she was named executive director of RRVL in August 2022, from being director since 2014. Akash, meanwhile, was given the top job at Reliance Jio.
Also read: CK Venkataraman: On a mission to make Titan every woman's best friend
Like her father, Isha isn’t short of ambition. She wants to dominate every aspect of India’s $800 billion retail market. Like her father, she too has a nose for opportunities. Consider how she pushed for the launch of Ajio.com, a digital marketplace for fashion and lifestyle products, which, despite being a late entrant to the space, is now the number one branded apparel business by revenue. Or how she was instrumental in launching JioMart, an ecommerce platform for food and groceries, in 2019. It has not only created value for customers, but also for small businesses and kirana owners who use the app to order fresh supplies, manage their inventory and get access to working capital.
“The entire purpose of the retail venture was to create a home-made truly India solution for every Indian problem. We live by the motto, ‘What is good for India, is good for Reliance’,” says Isha, in a written response. The retailer’s revenues jumped 17.1 percent to ₹67,634 crore ($8.2 billion) in the three months ending December 2022, from ₹57,717 crore ($7 billion) in the corresponding quarter last fiscal. EBITDA shot up 24.7 percent in the same period to ₹4,786 crore ($581 million). While the numbers are modest compared to Reliance’s enormous refinery business, which had revenues of ₹1.44 lakh crore ($17.5 billion) in the same period, RRVL is emerging as an important growth driver. Consider how its digital and new commerce businesses, of which Ajio.com and JioMart form a part, grew 38 percent Y-o-Y and contributed 18 percent to retail revenues in the three months ending December 2022.
Underlying RRVL’s success is its strategy of adopting a multi-format approach, that is, online, offline and omni-channel, to service varied customer needs at varied price points. In apparel, for example, which forms a significant part of RRVL’s overall operations, it has Reliance Trends, a cut-price fashion shop; the soon-to-be-launched Azorte, Reliance’s first in-house fashion store that will compete in the premium segment against the likes of Mango and Zara; and in the luxury segment it has partnered with a bevy of brands including Balenciaga, Burberry and closer home, Manish Malhotra. Similarly, in the toy segment, RRVL has Hamleys, the iconic British toy retailer that it acquired in 2019, to cater to the top-end consumer and Rowan to cater to the more price-conscious consumer. Also read: How Abhay Soi acquired and made Max Healthcare India's second largest hospital chain
“Reliance has been clear about dominating the landscape in any sector that it has entered in the last 30 years, whether it was petrochemicals, telecom, or retail. Its entry into retail was with a similar philosophy of dominance: Get into as many segments and formats as it makes sense to, with a view to capturing a large share of consumers’ wallets,” says Devangshu Dutta, founder and CEO of Gurugram-headquartered retail consultancy Third Eyesight.
Over the years, the retailer has grown organically, as well as through franchises, joint ventures, and acquisitions. Isha is said to have had a hand in RRVL’s recent acquisition of Campa Cola. The homegrown fizzy drink will be a cool addition to the company’s less-than-a-year-old FMCG foray, which includes consumer packaged goods brand ‘Independence’.
“There’s a lack of competition for RRVL at scale,” says Ankur Bisen, senior partner at business consultancy Technopak Advisors. DMart serves as competition in the general merchandise category; Shoppers Stop, H&M and Puma in the fashion and lifestyle segments; HUL, ITC and Tata in the FMCG space; Amazon, Flipkart and BigBasket in ecommerce, and its soon to be launched beauty portal Tira will have to contend with Nykaa. But there isn’t a “conglomerate structure” that straddles value, mid and luxury retail across product categories in the way RRVL does. “It’s unparalleled,” says Bisen.
Says Isha, “RRVL owes its spectacular success to many a factor, the biggest among them being customer obsession.” A strong supply chain—straddling fibre to wardrobe in the case of apparel, for example—that lets RRVL offer competitive prices and yet earn healthy margins; and an abundance of resources to fund its expansion are other factors.
Importantly, Jio has been a key enabler for RRVL. Consider how millions of merchants and kirana owners are now digital-first thanks to the cheap data that the mobile network made available; or how JioMart’s omni-channel experience was made possible or how stores like Azorte will lift the customer experience to a new high by offering smart trial rooms, fashion discovery stations and self-checkout kiosks. “Everything runs on the backdrop of Jio,” says Bisen.
Isha talks about “inclusive growth” and “shared prosperity” for the smallest of kirana owners with the same ease with which she talks of partnering with the czars of Indian fashion like Manish Malhotra and Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla. “We hope to place Indian craft permanently at the best runways and racks across the world, where it truly belongs,” she says. She adds, “I feel a sense of stewardship.”
As her father, in the interview referenced above, put it, “Ceding to the next generation is always a good idea.”
(This story appears in the 31 March, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)