In the late 1990s, an employee of Adani Exports took a wrong call in sugar trading, resulting in a Rs 20-crore loss. Fearing he would be sacked, he apologized for the grave mistake and handed in his resignation letter. Gautam Adani, in his thirties then, tore up the resignation and told him with a smile: “I know you will not make a similar mistake in future because of this lesson. Why should your next employer benefit from this learning when I have paid the price for it?”
Old-timers still remember Adani, the unassuming billionaire from Ahmedabad, moving around on his grey Bajaj Super scooter during the 1980s while his childhood friend Malay Mahadevia — a dentist who now works with the group as a director of Adani Port and SEZ Ltd — rode on the pillion. Mahadevia used to fulfil a crucial role because Adani’s English was sketchy and he felt inhibited conversing with government officials.
The graduation for this college dropout, first to a Maruti 800, and now a fleet of BMWs and a Ferrari, has been spectacular. Apart from three helicopters, he has three Bombardier and Beechcraft planes with seating capacity of 8, 37 and 50. A picture of BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi alighting from one of these planes was recently released by AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, who has trained guns on Adani and Mukesh Ambani for being beneficiaries of Modi’s ‘crony capitalism’. Adani, however, explains that he rents out his aircraft to the BJP, or whoever asks for these services, at market rates.
Adani never tried to hide his close ties with Modi even after the NDA government was voted out in 2004. But he hasn’t really depended much on him. He cultivated friends in the UPA and other parties to expand his power business to Haryana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, besides bidding for ports in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Senior Congress minister Kamal Nath is believed to have helped him out in his early days. Businessmen also speak of his proximity to Sharad Pawar. His ability to make friends extends beyond the shores of India — he is known to have developed excellent relations even with the top political brass in Australia, where the group plans to invest $6 billion in a coal mine and port near Brisbane.
But the market believes Adani is the right man to back, given the seemingly bright chances of Modi becoming PM. Ever since BJP declared Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate on September 13 last year, the total market capitalization of the three listed Adani group companies — Adani Enterprises, Adani Port and SEZ Ltd and Adani Power — has risen by 85.35% to clock over Rs 95,925 crore. In comparison, the Sensex grew by just 14.76% during the period.
With an estimated group net worth of Rs 25,000 crore, Adani presides over an empire spanning coal, power, logistics, real estate, agro-products, oil and gas. The group, which employs 10,000 people, built the country’s largest private port and has also emerged as the top private power producer in the country.
The empire was created in 30 years out of virtually nothing. Born in a Gujarat Jain family of textile traders who migrated from Tharad in North Gujarat to Ahmedabad, 51-year-old ‘Gautambhai’, as he is known around here, had seven siblings as he grew up in the modest Ratanpole area in the walled city here. Even while studying in college in Mumbai, his sharp trading instincts made him try his hands at the diamond trade. For a while after dropping out of college, he turned entrepreneur, making plastic out of granules. He soon realized that trading was his forte and set up Adani Exports, which turned into the country’s leading export house within no time because of the speed with which Adani could spot opportunities and strike deals anywhere in the world.
“He has diversified interests but I would always call him the maritime man of India. He has almost single-handedly changed the sector in India,” says Mahadevia. Like Mahadevia, people who have worked closely with Adani think he is a visionary who always thinks bigger than anyone around him.
Most of his imports and exports were through Kandla port in Kutch. The turning point came in the early 1990s when Adani told Mahadevia to leave dentistry and help him set up a jetty at Mundra. By then the owner of a star trading house with a turnover of Rs 300 crore, he was looking to build a captive jetty along with a leading American company to export salt to Japan. The American partner withdrew midway but Adani did not give up the plan. As luck would have it, in 1995 Gujarat came up with the new port policy on the PPP model to develop six ports in Gujarat. Mundra was one of them.
To use a cliche, Adani has never looked back since. After commissioning Mundra port in 1998 and by the time Modi came to office in 2001, Adanis had transformed from an export house into an infrastructure company. The port is connected to the railway network by a privately built and maintained 65km rail line — again a first in the country. The port includes the world’s largest coal terminal which handles 60 million tonnes annually as Adani has bet heavily on coal, rather than gas, for his energy business.
Not surprising that this Amitabh Bachchan fan doesn’t remember how many times he has seen ‘Kala Patthar’, a film based on the Chasnala coal mine disaster in Bihar in 1975.”He is the Bachchan of his field, always hands-on but in a positive way,” says a business associate. Senior executives are alert while stepping into his tastefully done-up chamber. “Not because he would offend you, but because he will ask seemingly simple questions which are completely out of the box and potential game-changers,” says a senior Adani executive.
“In terms of the risk taking appetite and risk absorption capacity there are very few who can match Gautam Adani. There are many who take large risks, but very few have the ability to face their adversity with courage and conviction,” says former IIM-A director Bakul Dholakia, who is associated with the Adani group’s educational and CSR initiatives. Dholakia says it is impossible to make out from Adani’s face whether he has been delivered some bad news a few minutes ago. Close associates say Adani has a great ability to win over people, political or otherwise. When Mundra port was being built, a consultant came up with a novel idea of building floating break-waters to contain sea waves at the cost of Rs 7 crore. The experiment sunk — literally — within 20 minutes of its execution. Adani, who watched the disaster calmly, turned to the consultant and put his arm around his shoulder. “Well tried,” he said before leaving. The consultant broke into tears and worked for the group for the next 15 years.
While much is being said about his close relationship with Modi, Adani had been extremely close to previous regimes in Gujarat headed by Shankersinh Vaghela, Chimanbhai Patel and Keshubhai Patel. All these regimes allocated land to Adani in and around Mundra at cheaper rates than what the Modi government is charging.
In 2003, when most industry heavyweights stayed away from an investment meet that Modi had organized, a group of Gujarati business barons led by Gautam Adani saved the day for him. While doyens of India Inc warmed up to Modi much later, Modi never forgets people who stood by his side when it mattered the most.