"Pursue your goals even in the face of difficulties,
and convert adversities into opportunities."- Dhirubhai Hirachand Ambani
Just after Dhirubhai was through his annual matriculation examination and even before the result was out, Hirachandbhai called him home to Chorwad. Hirachandbhai had been unwell for quite some time and had grown extremely weak and frail. "Dhiru, do you know why I have called you here?"
Hirachandbhai asked his son the very night he reached home. "Well, I'll tell you. You know I have been unwell for past several months. I cannot work any more. I know you want to study further but I can't afford that any more. I need you to earn for the family. I need your money. The family needs it. You must work now. Ramnikbhai has arranged a job for you in Aden. You go there."
Dhirubhai had really wanted to study for a bachelor's degree, but his ambition melted when he looked into the anxious eyes of his sick father. "I'll do as you say, Hirabhai," he said and the very next morning he left for Rajkot to get his passport. Those days Indians did not need a visa for entering Aden but there were rumours around that the no visa regime was about to change any day. So he needed to hurry up before the visa rules changed. In a few days he was in Bombay to board the ship to Aden. It was on board the ship that Dhirubhai learnt from Gujarati newspaper that he had passed his matriculation examination in second division.
On reaching Aden, Dhrubhai joined office on the very day of his arrival. It was a clerk's job with the A. Besse & Co., named after its French founder Antonin Besse. Those days Aden was the second busiest trading and oil bunkering port in the world after London handling over 6,300 ships and 1,500 dhows a year.
And, there in Aden, A. Besse & Co. was the largest transcontinental trading firm east of Suez. It was engaged in almost every branch of trading business-cargo booking, handling, shipping, forwarding, and wholesale merchandising. Besse acted as trading agents for a large number of European, American, African and Asian companies and dealt with all sorts of goods ranging from sugar, spices, food grains and textiles to office stationary, tools, machinery and petroleum products. Dhirubhai was first sent to the commodities trading section of the firm. Later, he was transferred to the section that handled petroleum products for the oil giant Shell.
"I learnt business at the Besse which was then the best trading firm this side of the Suez," he used to tell friends in later years. He was quick on the uptake. He learnt the ways of commodity trading, high seas purchase and sales, marketing and distribution, currency trading, and money management. During lunch break he roamed the souks and bazaars of Aden where traders from numerous different continents and countries bought and sold goods worth millions of pound sterling, the then global currency, during the day. He met traders from all parts of Europe, Africa, India, Japan and China. Aden was the biggest trading port of the times, a trading port where goods landed from all parts of the world and were dispatched to the farthest corners of different continents. Speculation in manufactured goods and commodities was rife all over the Aden bazaars.
Dhirubhai felt tempted to speculate but had no money for that and was still raw for such trading. To learn the tricks of the trade he offered to work free for a Gujarati trading firm. There he learnt accounting, book keeping, preparing shipping papers and documents, and dealing with banks and insurance companies., skills that would come handy when he launched himself into trading about a decade afterwards in Bombay. At the Besse office during the day he polished his skills in typing and Pitman shorthand, drafting commercial letters, and composing legal documents.
At the boarding house where he lived with another twenty-five or so young Gujarati clerks and office boys, he devoted long hours of the night mastering English grammar, essay writing, current affairs and a host of subjects that took his fancy from week to week. He was the first to snatch the English, Gujarati and Hindi daily papers and weeklies as soon as they arrived by the ship ever day. The Times of India, Blitz, Janmabhoomi and Navajeevan formed his favourite reading material. He also devoured all sorts of books, magazines and journals the passengers arriving from various European and Indian ports left in the ships and at the offices of various shipping agents.
"Of all the books I read so avidly those days one I remember most fondly are (Jawaharlal Nehru's) the "Glimpses of World History" and the "Discovery of India," he would recall long after his Aden days. "They were fat, big books but written in simple English and to me they opened a whole new world of adventure, of human wisdom and human folly. I began reading them not to learn of world history but to practice my English but once I opened their pages their breadth of vision had me in a thrall. I used to keep a dictionary by my side when reading these books and note down every new word I came across to increase my vocabulary. Later when I used to draft letters to ministers and senior officials during my early Bombay days, I used whole lot of quotations, phrases and impressive words from these two books."
He also gorged on dozens of books and magazine articles on psychology that became his favourite subject for a long time. "I learnt much from this class of my reading," he sometimes said, "I learnt how we humans and animals love to be loved more than anything else, how we are driven by desire to earn the love, affection and honour of those around us, what it is to be a leader, how to motivate those whom we want to attain great heights, how ideologies and interests clash and reconcile or cancel each other.
"More than anything else I learnt that nothing big can ever be achieved without money, influence and power and I also learnt that money, influence and power alone cannot achieve anything in life, big or small, without a certain soft, delicate, sensitive, understanding human touch in all one's deeds and words."
After he thought he had learnt the basics of commodities trading, Dhirubhai began speculating in high seas purchase and sales of all sorts of goods. He did not have enough money of his own for such speculative trading. So he borrowed as much as he could from friends and small Aden shopkeepers on terms nobody had ever offered them. "Profit we share and all loss will be mine" became his motto. During lunch break and after office hours he was always in the local bazaar, trading in one thing or the other.
Soon, those around him found that he had an uncanny knack for such speculative trading. He seldom lost money in any deal. "I think I had an animal instinct about such trading but there was a lot of reading and understanding of market trends behind that animal instinct of mine. I read every bit of paper I could lay my hands on about what was happening around the world, I listened carefully to every word uttered in the market, picked every bit of gossip in the shipping circles and pondered long through the night in the bed about the pros and cons of every deal I wanted to make."
Meantime, the Shell oil refinery and the first oil harbour came up in Aden in 1954, the year Dhirubhai returned home to Gujarat to marry Kokilaben. As expected, A. Besse & Co. became the agents for distribution of Shell refinery products. Dhirubhai had done well at the office during his first five years. Now he was sent on promotion to the oil filling station at the newly built harbour.
He liked the new job, though it was a lot more demanding than the desk job in the commodities section. Here he had to service the ships bunkering for diesel and lubricants. He enjoyed visiting the ships, making friends with sailors and the engine staff I heard from them first hand accounts of their voyages in different parts of the world of which he had until then read about only in books and magazines. And, here it was that he first began dreaming of one day building a refinery of his own.
"It was a crazy idea for a petrol pump attendant to want to build a refinery of his own, but that is the sort of crazy ideas I have been playing with all my life," Dhirubhai recalled at the time Reliance's 25-million ton oil refinery, the largest grassroots refinery in the world, went on stream in Jamnagar in 1999. "I have been able to build this refinery because I decided long years ago not to settle for anything else," he said, "I had heard a Yemeni proverb in Aden "la budd min Sana'a wa lau taal al-safr" (Sana'a is a 'must', however long the journey may take). I never forgot that saying."
By the late 1950s it became clear that the British rule in Aden would not last long in the face of growing Yemeni movement for independence supported by Gamal Abdel Nasser's revolutionary government from across the Suez. The large Indian community of Hindu and Parsee Gujaratis began preparing to move out of Aden. Some began returning home to India, while some chose to settle in Britain. Aden Indians those days were allowed to settle in Britain.
Where to go on leaving Aden was debated among the colony's settlers heatedly every day. Some of Dhirubhai's friends told him that he should migrate to London where, considering his talents, acumen and guts, he could find better opportunities of growth. At the port and on ships at Aden he often heard glowing accounts of post-war Britain and the promises of a life of much greater ease there than one could ever hope to find in India.
Dhirubhai weighed his options.. By now he had saved some money and was thinking of setting up some business of his own. Although Dhirubhai's father had died in 1952, he had in the meantime been blessed with his first son, Mukesh D. Ambani, in April, 1957. Kokilaben and Mukesh were back home in India.The choice of opening a shop somewhere in London was tempting but he felt India was calling him home.
Those were exciting years in India. The country was in the midst of implementing the second five-year Plan which promised to build big industries, raise new big dams across many rivers, lay new roads through the length and breadth of the country, boost agricultural production to new record levels and set up a huge network of food grains procurement centers.
Though by the end of 1958, the newspapers coming from India were painting a rather gloomy picture of the country's finances and foreign exchange reserves, there was also a new vigour and a new fervor in their reports of a new Rs 10,000-crore five-year Plan then under preparation. The Plan promised to open massive new opportunities for growth for the country's youth. Jawaharlal Nehru was daily exhorting the young to cast away their old ways and help build a new India. His words were stirring and roused the passions of every young Indian, especially of those living far away from the country.
Dhirubhai was now 26 years, full of youthful vigour and vitality, and filled with high hopes for himself and for the new India of Nehru's dreams. He just could not miss the excitement of being in India in such tumultuous times. He decided to return home, instead of going to London to live a life of ease there.