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Dispute Over Control Of Largest Indian Private Company Rocks Country


India's biggest private sector group, Reliance Industries, is grappling with a family dispute that may lead to its reorganization.

Reliance Industries is a legend in India. It is a $17 billion industrial giant created from nothing by its founder, Dhirubhai Ambani, less than 30 years ago.

The conglomerate spans businesses ranging from petrochemicals and textiles, to telecommunications and energy, and accounts for more than three percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

But in the past month Reliance has been embroiled in a bitter control dispute between the founder's two sons, Mukesh and Anil Ambani. The family controls more than 40 percent of the group's shareholding through hundreds of small companies.

The battle between the brothers has sparked nervousness among the group's investors, and share prices have fluctuated up and down in recent weeks. The company has now promised a buy-back scheme to shore up investor confidence.

Reliance has as many as three and a half million shareholders - the widest base among any Indian group. Many of these are small retail investors who have been loyal to the group for years.

Share market analyst, Rajesh Jain of Pranav Securities says the Reliance shareholding community is watching the ownership battle closely. "A large section of the shareholders of the Reliance Group are really worried as to what is happening and is there an end to this seemingly unending dispute between the brothers," he says.

Many of India's large companies are family-owned - and many of them have split over time into smaller groups as they were divided among heirs. Mr. Jain says governance is an issue in many such businesses. "What happens when you are family run despite being publicly-listed, these families control a large chunk of the shareholding. Most of the decisions are confined to three-four-five people all of whom form a closed club and certainly corporate governance is less than what would be optimum," he says.

But during the decades of heady growth when Reliance overtook every other company in India, its owners said they were able to set new milestones due to their commitment to professional management. Analysts say that claim will be severely tested in the coming months as the brothers slug it out for the control of the empire.

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