High above the shimmering waters of Lake Lucerne in the Swiss Alps, one of the world's wealthiest families convened in early September.
Mukesh Ambani, India's richest and most powerful private citizen, retreated with his wife, three grown children and their partners to the Bürgenstock resort at a key moment for their sprawling business empire, Reliance Industries Ltd.
The coronavirus pandemic had gutted the global economy and Mumbai—where the family lives in a 27-story skyscraper named Antilia—was in the midst of a surge in infections. But in the preceding weeks Ambani, 63, had struck deals with some of the world's leading tech giants to sell stakes in Reliance's digital unit. The next blizzard of fundraising announcements in his retail arm was just days away.
The tycoon was transforming his refinery-led conglomerate into a technology titan, but investors had begun asking a key question—who'll take over?
For months, media in India had speculated about a possible new structure that Ambani was working on, whereby his immediate family—including twins Isha and Akash, and their younger brother Anant—would be granted equal representation to enable succession planning. The children, all educated at top-tier universities in the US, have been taking on increasing responsibility within the family business.
In recent years, as their fortune and influence has grown, the Ambanis have assumed an outsized role in Asia's economic and cultural life. Their wealth is often on display, whether it's weddings or parties featuring Beyonce and Coldplay's Chris Martin, or European trips such as their Bürgenstock stay, where the family took over the Royal and Presidential suites on the sixth and seventh floors, according to a person familiar with their itinerary.
What's at stake, though, is nothing less than the future of a company with almost $90 billion in annual revenue and some 195,000 employees.
Such is Reliance's dominance, the family is now more than twice as wealthy as Asia's second richest, the Kwoks of Hong Kong. The Ambanis have triple the fortune of South Korea's Lee family and almost five times the net worth of Japan's Torii and Saji clan, according to a Bloomberg Billionaires Index ranking of the 20 richest dynasties in the region. (see methodology).
A Reliance spokesman declined to comment on whether a succession plan is in place.
The succession issue is central for most of the families on Bloomberg's 2020 ranking, but it has added importance for the Ambanis.
The clan was in turmoil for years after the patriarch, Dhirubhai Ambani, died of a stroke in 2002 without leaving a will. A feud broke out between Mukesh and his younger brother, Anil. The siblings' mother intervened and brokered a split in 2005 that left the oil-refining and petrochemicals businesses to Mukesh and the newer ventures in finance, infrastructure, power and telecom to Anil.
What followed for Anil, 61, were years of debt-fueled expansion and then decline. His woes came to the fore in March last year, when Mukesh stepped in to settle an overdue payment and save him from a stint in jail. In February, Anil said in a court filing in London that his net worth is "zero," down from Bloomberg estimates of at least $31 billion in 2008.
Despite Anil's decline and the impact of Covid-19, the Ambanis' wealth has jumped more than $25 billion since Bloomberg's July 2019 ranking to $76 billion. Collectively, the 20 families on Bloomberg's list gained about $10 billion to $463 billion.
Of those, more than half of the clans saw their fortunes sink as real estate and finance-dominated industries suffered the fallout from the pandemic. Thailand's Chearavanonts lost more than $6 billion, while Hong Kong's Kwoks, down $5 billion, also had to contend with a new national-security law that puts into question the future of the city as a financial hub.
Like the Ambanis, other Asian families know they have to diversify and are pivoting to tech.
"Families with significant businesses and market share have two choices," said Neil Waters, a consultant at executive-search firm Egon Zehnder. "They can defend their share and deal with disruption as is happens, or they can attack."
The ultra-rich, though, face another emerging threat.
The widening wealth gap amid Covid-19 has led to growing resentment. In Thailand, students have led protests to decry the country's still-rigid social and economic hierarchy and high disparity. In Hong Kong, the most unaffordable housing market in the world, rents remain exorbitantly high, even as unemployment has surged to a 15-year high, threatening to add another source of discontent after the national-security law tightened Beijing's grip on the former British colony. In India, where 78% of the population cannot afford a healthy diet, the lockdowns and lack of jobs led to people starving to death.
"Even before the spread of the virus, inequalities were rising, societal divisions were widening and a lack of opportunities was causing frustration and unrest," United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Nov. 16 at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum. "A strong commitment to reduce inequality, to improve opportunities for all, is in my opinion a fundamental aspect of the way we recover from the pandemic."
Company: Reliance Industries
Dhirubhai Ambani, the father of Mukesh and Anil, started building the precursor to Reliance Industries in 1957. When Dhirubhai died in 2002 without leaving a will, his widow brokered a settlement between her sons over control of the family fortune. Mukesh is now at the helm of the Mumbai-based conglomerate, which owns the world's largest oil-refining complex. He lives in a 27-story mansion that's been called the world's most-expensive private residence.
DID YOU KNOW: Beyonce and Coldplay's Chris Martin have performed at Ambani weddings.
1957: Dhirubhai Ambani returns to India from Yemen.
2002: Elder son Mukesh takes over chairmanship.
2014: Siblings Isha and Akash join the boards of retail and mobile units.
Company: Sun Hung Kai Properties
Location: Hong Kong
Kwok Tak-seng listed Sun Hung Kai Properties in 1972. The company has since become one of Hong Kong's largest real estate developers and the basis of the Kwok family fortune. His sons, Walter, Thomas and Raymond, assumed control when he died in 1990.
DID YOU KNOW: Thomas Kwok rejoined the family business in 2020, after finishing a prison term for bribery.
1972: Kwok Tak-seng, a grocery wholesaler, incorporates Sun Hung Kai Properties.
2008: Walter Kwok is ousted as chairman after a feud with his brothers.
2018: Geoffrey Kwok is appointed as non-executive director of Sun Hung Kai Properties.
Company: Charoen Pokphand Group
Chia Ek Chor fled his typhoon-ravaged village in southern China and started a new life in Thailand, selling vegetable seeds with his brother in 1921. Almost a century later, Chia's son Dhanin Chearavanont is senior chairman of Charoen Pokphand Group, a conglomerate with food, retail and telecom units.
DID YOU KNOW: An arm of the family's conglomerate is considering setting up a shrimp farm in the US.
1921: Chia Ek Chor and brother set up a seed shop in Bangkok.
1939: Dhanin Chearavanont is born, the youngest of four brothers.
2017: Two of Dhanin's sons become CEO and chairman.
2020: Group pledges to become zero waste and carbon neutral by 2030.
Company: Djarum, Bank Central Asia
Oei Wie Gwan purchased a cigarette brand in 1950 and renamed it Djarum. The business has grown into one of the largest cigarette makers in Indonesia. After Oei died in 1963, his sons Michael and Budi diversified by investing in Bank Central Asia. That stake now makes up most of the family's fortune.
DID YOU KNOW: The family's Bank Central Asia cut back on drinking water to trim costs.
1950: Oei Wie Gwan buys the cigarette brand that becomes Djarum.
1963: Oei Wie Gwan dies, leaving the company to two sons.
2016: Armand Wahyudi Hartono becomes vice president director of BCA.
Location: South Korea
Lee Byung-chull started Samsung as a trading company exporting fruit, vegetables and fish in 1938. He got into the electronics business by setting up Samsung Electronics in 1969, which has become the world's largest maker of memory chips and smartphones. After his death in 1987, his third son Lee Kun-hee took over the business. He died in October 2020 after years of hospitalization following a heart attack in 2014.
DID YOU KNOW: The family could owe about $10 billion in inheritance taxes after the death of patriarch Lee Kun-hee in October.
1938: Lee Byung-chull starts a company exporting fruit, vegetables and fish.
1987: Lee Kun-hee becomes chairman of Samsung Group.
2015: Jay Y. Lee is elected chairman of two Samsung foundations.
Company: TCP Group
Chaleo Yoovidhya originally established T.C. Pharmaceutical in 1956 to sell medication. He later diversified into consumer goods, and in 1975 invented an energy drink he called Krating Daeng, Thai for "red bull." After Austrian marketer Dietrich Mateschitz discovered the drink on a business trip, he teamed up with Chaleo to modify the recipe and market Red Bull globally. The fortunes of the Yoovidhya and Mateschitz families can be largely attributed to the success of Red Bull. Chaleo died in 2012 and Saravoot Yoovidhya, his son, is now TCP Group's chief executive officer.
DID YOU KNOW: 7.5 billion cans of Red Bull were sold worldwide in 2019.
1956: Chaleo Yoovidhya founds T.C. Pharmaceutical.
2018: TCP Group to invest $120 million in Vietnam in three years.
Company: Chow Tai Fook
Location: Hong Kong
The Cheng family controls Chow Tai Fook Jewellery, a Hong Kong-based jeweler with $7.3 billion in sales for the year ended March 2020. Its stock symbol is 1929, the year it was founded. The Chengs also control New World Development, a real estate and infrastructure company.
DID YOU KNOW: Family owns Rosewood Hotels and Resorts, whose portfolio includes The Carlyle in New York and Hotel de Crillon in Paris.
1929: Chow Chi Yuen establishes Chow Tai Fook.
1970: Son-in-law Cheng Yu-tung establishes New World Development.
2011: Henry Cheng is appointed chairman and executive director of Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group.
2017: Adrian Cheng is named executive vice-chairman and general manager of New World Development.
Company: Shapoorji Pallonji Group
The Mistry family business was founded in India in 1865, when Pallonji Mistry's grandfather started a construction enterprise with an Englishman. Shapoorji Pallonji Group now spans various business areas, including engineering and construction. The family also has shares in Tata Sons, the main holding company behind Tata Group, which operates in more than 100 countries and employs 720,000 people. To sever ties to the group, Pallonji Mistry has sought to swap his Tata Sons stake valued at $24 billion for shares in the conglomerate.
DID YOU KNOW: Shapoorji Pallonji Group has built some of Mumbai's landmarks, including the Reserve Bank of India building.
1865: Mistry family business is founded in India.
1921: Founder Pallonji passes away.
1947: Pallonji Mistry joins construction business at age 18.
2012: Shapoor Mistry, son of Pallonji Mistry, takes over the chairman position in the group.
2016: Cyrus Mistry is ousted as chairman of Tata Sons.
Company: BW Group, Wheelock
Location: Hong Kong
Pao Yue-kong started his shipping business with HK$20,000 brought from Shanghai to Hong Kong more than 60 years ago. The company accumulated more than 200 vessels by 1979, managing the world's largest independently owned bulk-shipping fleet at that time. Adapting to market conditions, Pao diversified into real estate, using proceeds from ship sales. A sizable portion of the current family wealth is derived from Hong Kong property developer Wheelock. When Pao died in 1991, his businesses were divided among his four daughters and their families.
DID YOU KNOW: Andreas Sohmen-Pao has proposed a global, industry-wide carbon tax on ship emissions.
1955: Pao Yue-kong buys his first vessel.
1986: Pao Yue-kong retires and son-in-law Helmut Sohmen becomes chairman of World-Wide Shipping.
2014: Douglas Woo, grandson of Pao, becomes chairman of Wheelock.
Company: SM Investments
Henry Sy was born in China and immigrated to the Philippines when he was 12. He helped his father sell rice, sardines and soap before he opened the first shoe store in 1958. From a tiny shop in downtown Manila, it has grown into a conglomerate with interests including retail, banking and property. Today, the group runs almost 2,800 retail stores and has more than 2,000 banking branches.
DID YOU KNOW: The Mall of Asia, Sy's flagship mall, has the Philippines' first Olympic-size skating rink.
1958: Henry Sy opens a shoe store called Shoemart in Manila.
2017: Harley Sy, son of founder, hands over chief executive position in SM Investments to a non-family member.
2019: Founder Henry Sy dies.
Company: Cathay Financial, Fubon Financial
The Tsai brothers founded Cathay Life Insurance in 1962. In 1979, the family decided to split up their business, with Tsai Wan-lin and Tsai Wan-tsai taking control of Cathay Life Insurance and Cathay Insurance, respectively. Cathay Insurance was later renamed Fubon Insurance. The family now controls two large financial holding companies in Taiwan and has diversified into other sectors, including real estate and telecommunications.
DID YOU KNOW: With recently listed Xiamen Bank, the Tsai family got its first holding in a banking stock on a Chinese exchange.
1962: Cathay Life Insurance is founded by the Tsai brothers.
2001: Tsai Hong-tu becomes board chairman of Cathay Financial Holding.
2019: Chris Tsai is appointed to Taiwan Mobile's board of directors.
Company: Lee Kum Kee
Location: Hong Kong
Lee Kum Sheung invented oyster sauce and founded Lee Kum Kee in 1888. When the original oyster sauce factory in Guangdong province burned down in 1902, the business was rebuilt in neighboring Macau, where it remained until it relocated to the more prosperous city of Hong Kong. Third-generation member Lee Man Tat consolidated his control of the company, buying out his uncles and brother. The family ventured into the health-supplements business in 1992, when it established LKK Health Products Group, a manufacturer and seller of herbal products. The family also owns substantial real estate assets, including the Walkie Talkie tower in London.
DID YOU KNOW: The family business's constitution forbids the hiring of in-laws.
1888: Lee Kum Sheung invents oyster sauce and establishes Lee Kum Kee.
1920: Second-generation member Lee Shiu Nan takes over business.
1972: Lee Man Tat becomes chairman of Lee Kum Kee.
1992: Establishes LKK Health Products Group.
2002: Establishes the Lee Kum Kee Family Council.
Company: Hong Leong Group
Kwek Hong Png founded Hong Leong Co. in Singapore in 1941, along with his three brothers. His eldest son Kwek Leng Beng runs operations in Singapore that range from property development and hospitality to finance. Nephew Quek Leng Chan was sent to Malaysia to lead the family business, which has become one of the largest conglomerates in the country.
DID YOU KNOW: The cousin of the company's chairman quit the board of the property arm after 30 years, citing disagreements.
1941: Kwek Hong Png sets up Hong Leong in Singapore.
1995: Kwek Leng Beng takes over from father as executive chairman of Hong Leong Group.
2018: Sherman Kwek becomes CDL's group CEO.
Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii opened his first store in 1899, selling wine and Western-style liquors. His son, Keizo Saji, took over as president in 1961. Under his leadership, Suntory has become a multibillion-dollar conglomerate with interests ranging from alcoholic beverages to health foods. The founder's grandson, Nobutada Saji, chairs the company now.
DID YOU KNOW: Suntory Liquors is part of a group developing face shields designed for eating and drinking to help halt the spread of Covid-19.
1899: Shinjiro Torii founds Torii Shoten, Suntory's predecessor.
1961: Torii's son, Keizo Saji, becomes the company's second president.
2001: Nobutada Saji takes over as president of Suntory.
2016: Nobuhiro Torii becomes director of Suntory Beverage & Food.
Company: CLP Holdings
Location: Hong Kong
In the 1880s, Elly Kadoorie and his older brother Ellis arrived in Hong Kong to work for the Sassoons, a prominent family of the Baghdad Jewish diaspora. The brothers later set up a brokerage and amassed stakes in banking, real estate and power-generation facilities. Major investments include CLP Holdings, the electricity supplier to Kowloon and the New Territories, as well as Hongkong & Shanghai Hotels, the group that owns the Peninsula Hotel chain. Michael, Elly's grandson, now chairs both businesses.
DID YOU KNOW: CLP Holdings is freezing electricity tariffs in 2021 to ease Hongkongers' economic burden amid the pandemic.
1880: The Kadoorie family first arrives in Hong Kong.
1944: Elly Kadoorie dies, leaving the business to sons Lawrence and Horace.
1997: Michael Kadoorie is appointed chairman of the board of CLP.
2018: Philip Lawrence Kadoorie, son of Michael Kadoorie, is appointed non-executive director of CLP.
Company: Hinduja Group
Parmanand Hinduja, originally from Shikarpur, now in Pakistan, travelled to Mumbai to establish his business in trade and banking in 1914. Five years later, he opened an office in Tehran. The headquarters of the group remained there until 1979. Parmanand died in 1971, and his sons Gopichand and Srichand left for London eight years later while Prakash moved to Geneva and Ashok remained in Mumbai. The Hinduja Group currently has businesses in industries such as energy, automotive, finance and health care. The family owns real estate in India, as well as in other cities including London. A spokesman for the family said the group has "considerable holdings in private unlisted companies," without providing further details, which could mean their fortune is larger than calculated.
DID YOU KNOW: The Hinduja brothers are in a dispute over a letter dividing their family fortune.
1914: Parmanand Hinduja starts the family business.
1952: Srichand Hinduja joins father in family business.
2010: Dheeraj Hinduja becomes chairman of Ashok Leyland.
2012: Gulf Oil Corp. buys Houghton International for more than $1 billion.
Location: Hong Kong
Stanley Ho and his business partners won the first license to set up a casino in Macau and built the city's first casino in 1962. The Ho family controls SJM Holdings, which owns casinos and hotels, including the Grand Lisboa. His wealth was divided among various heirs, including daughter Pansy Ho, who has stakes in MGM China, fourth wife Angela Leong, who is an executive director of SJM Holdings, and son Lawrence Ho, chief executive officer of Melco.
DID YOU KNOW: Stanley Ho's children will each receive more than $13,000 a month out of the family's trust fund.
1962: Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau is founded by Stanley Ho and his business partners.
2020: Stanley Ho passes away.
Location: South Korea
Juyung Chung, a farmer's son, founded Hyundai in 1946 as an engineering and construction company. It has grown into a conglomerate that makes everything from cars to ships. He died in 2001, shortly after the breakup of the group triggered by a battle for control between two of his six surviving sons. This resulted in the separation of Hyundai Motor, now headed by the founder's grandson, Euisun Chung, who recently took over from his father as chairman. Hyundai Motor is one of the world's largest car manufacturers.
DID YOU KNOW: Mong-Koo Chung is the first Korean to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
1946: Juyung Chung starts a business named Hyundai.
1999: Founder's son, Mong-Koo Chung, takes helm of Hyundai Motor.
2020: Euisun Chung, grandson of founder, becomes Hyundai Motor Group's chairman.
Company: Far East Organization
Ng Teng Fong moved to Singapore from China in 1934. He worked at his parents' soy sauce factory and as a bicycle repairman. Instead of carrying on the family business, he ventured into property development and set up Far East Organization in 1960. He also made inroads into Hong Kong and founded Far East's sister outfit, Sino Group. Now, his elder son Robert is in charge of the Hong Kong operations, while his younger son Philip oversees the business in Singapore.
DID YOU KNOW:Far East Organization is a Christian enterprise and considers its religious identity integral to the company's brand.
1934: Ng Teng Fong moves to Singapore with his family.
1960: Ng Teng Fong establishes Far East Organization in Singapore.
2017: Daryl Ng is appointed as deputy chairman of Sino Land, Tsim Sha Tsui Properties and Sino Hotels.
Company: Central Group
The Chirathivats control Central Group, which is now led by Tos Chirathivat of the third generation. The Thai clan of Chinese descent was originally headed by Tiang Chirathivat, who migrated from Hainan to Thailand. From its beginnings as a small family shop in Bangkok in 1947, Central Group is now one of Thailand's largest private commercial conglomerates, with more than 50 subsidiaries.
DID YOU KNOW: The group's shopping mall Central World was set on fire in 2010 during anti-government rallies.
1947: Central Group begins as a small family shop in Bangkok.
1968: Tiang Chirathivat passes away.
1992: Opens first Central Department Store outside Bangkok.
2020: Central Retail Corp. lists in the country's largest initial public offering.
Methodology: The ranking of Asia's richest families was compiled as of 13 November. It excludes first-generation wealth such as that of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.'s Jack Ma, as well as those in the hands of a single heir. As a result, the list doesn't have any families from mainland China, where fortunes are relatively young and often focused on tech.
Reported and edited by Pei Yi Mak, Venus Feng, Yoojung Lee, Cecile Vannucci, Alexander Sazonov, Richard Macauley, Devon Pendleton, Pierre Paulden, Bhuma Shrivastava, Sanjai P R, Ben Steverman, Ben Stupples, Steve Crabill.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.