There will be those who balk at the idea of Boots disappearing into an even bigger global empire in the form of Ambani’s sprawling Reliance Industries conglomerate, which has wide-ranging interests spanning media, telecoms, energy and textiles.
Ambani himself is also a divisive individual. With an estimated fortune of over $100 billion, making him the second richest person in Asia according to Forbes, the industrialist has bulldozed his way into the Indian business scene, raising questions about the methods of his business and Ambani’s close ties to the country’s political elites.
In the past, officials and regulators have raised questions about the extent of Reliance’s influence, while anti-corruption campaigners have claimed Ambani was pulling the strings of Indian leaders, claims Reliance has dismissed.
Still, it’s not as if the West hasn’t had its fair share of influential billionaires dating back to John D Rockefeller, who controlled 90% of the world’s oil supply through Standard Oil until Teddy Roosevelt acts decisively to destroy its monopoly power by breaking the company into 34 separate entities. Ambani would also not be new to this country, having owned iconic Hamleys toys since 2019.
There is no doubt that he is a ruthless businessman. In a bid to dominate the Indian telecommunications industry, it has managed to crush its rivals. Even India’s Vodafone business has faced bankruptcy despite burying 20 billion euros in the country after Ambani’s mobile network Jio brutally undermined competition by offering data and services. unlimited calls for just a few dollars a month.
Yet unless there is evidence of wrongdoing, Ambani’s business acumen should not be overlooked. Boots has 2,200 stores, many of which are in desperate need of attention. Reliance has both the punch and the financial firepower to inject some much-needed spice back into its high street domain.
The retailer has also been unforgivably late to the e-race, if it has truly embraced it. Customers claim a clumsy website, and instead of capitalizing on the pandemic in the same way supermarkets have managed to do, Boots, with its vast collection of pharma stores and an extensive drug supply network, collapsed with an annual loss of £258m in 2020.
The resulting restructuring cost 6,500 jobs out of around 60,000, while 200 stores were cut. One would expect Ambani, whose mobile arm Jio has tied up with Facebook and created an online grocery business called Jiomart that allows customers to buy goods via WhatsApp, to have the digital prowess to bringing Boots into the 21st century.
Meanwhile, Reliance offers the potential to be a lucrative springboard into Asia, a gigantic market that Boots never really cracked. There are risks in building stronger trade ties with India – its ambivalent stance on Ukraine and the powerful billionaire class included – but also with experts who predict it will soon realize its potential as a one of the fastest growing economies in the world after several false starts, the upsides may outweigh the downsides.
After more than a decade in the desert, Ambani might just be the cure for sickly boots.