Billionaire Mukesh Ambani moved a step closer to creating an e-commerce giant for India, unveiling plans to set up a $24 billion digital-services holding company that would become the main vehicle in his ambition to dominate the country's internet shopping space.
The board of Ambani's Reliance Industries Ltd. approved a proposal to plow 1.08 trillion rupees ($15 billion) into the fully owned subsidiary, which will in turn invest that amount in Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd., the conglomerate's telecommunications venture. A series of capital transfers would make Jio, which already has capital of 650 billion rupees, almost debt free by March 2020, the parent said Oct. 25.
The move by Asia's richest man is the latest sign of the oil-to-petrochemicals group's pivot toward data and digital services for future growth, as it builds an online platform to take on the likes of Amazon.com Inc. and Walmart Inc.'s Flipkart Online Services Pvt. in India. Ambani, 62, told shareholders in August that the new businesses, including retail, are likely to contribute half of Reliance's earnings in a few years, versus about 32% now.
With the new holding firm, Ambani is also readying the businesses for an initial public offering, which he has vowed to complete within five years. Since Jio's 4G network rolled out in 2016, the carrier has vaulted to the top in India with more than 350 million users. Ambani has also been stitching together a network of partners through acquisitions and stake purchases to build a backbone for his e-commerce plans.
"Given the reach and scale of our digital ecosystem, we have received strong interest from potential strategic partners," Ambani said in a statement. "We will induct the right partners in our platform company, creating and unlocking meaningful value for RIL shareholders."
Reliance Industries will invest the money in the holding company -- likely on the lines of Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd. and Alphabet Inc. -- through optionally convertible preference shares. The unit will acquire the parent's equity investment of 650 billion rupees in Jio, according to Reliance Industries.
Following the equity infusion, Reliance Jio will transfer liabilities worth 1.08 trillion rupees to a subsidiary of the parent, turning Jio almost debt free, excluding airwave-related liabilities.
"The reorganization of Jio's capital structure is intended at consolidating all digital assets under one entity, reducing debt at this entity and streamlining the structure to make it attractive for eventual monetization," Citigroup said in a research report.
While former English teacher Jack Ma started Alibaba in 1999 from scratch, Ambani is using the heft of his empire to build something similar for India by connecting retailers and consumers. Alibaba, whose market value is $454 billion, reported a profit of $13 billion in the year to March, on a revenue of $56 billion. The Chinese giant's expansion has included mom-and-pop shops -- a key segment Ambani is also seeking to tap.
Shares of Reliance Industries have rallied 28% this year, compared with an 8.8% gain in the benchmark S&P BSE Sensex index. The stock, near an all-time high, will resume trading Tuesday when India returns from a holiday.
Ambani said in August that Reliance Industries has spent almost $50 billion on Jio, whose entry with free calls and cheap data pushed some rivals to exit or merge in a consolidation that shook up the industry.
Jio's debt stood at about 840 billion rupees as on Sept. 30, Chief Financial Officer V. Srikanth said earlier this month. It had a stand-alone profit of 9.9 billion rupees for the quarter through September on revenue of 123.54 billion rupees.
The tycoon, whose net worth is about $56 billion as per the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has also revealed a plan to sell 20% of Reliance's oil and chemicals business to Saudi Arabian Oil Co. at an enterprise value of $75 billion. After years of spending billions of dollars on the new businesses, Ambani is cleaning up the parent's balance sheet, with the goal of making it free of net debt in less than two years.