Tata vs Ambani could be India’s version of Alibaba-Tencent

Mukesh Ambani

HONG KONG: Just as the Chinese duo of Jack Ma and Pony Ma have carved up major chunks of their country’s internet businesses, the battle for control of 1.3 billion Indians’ data could become a two-horse race.

The contest would get under way if, as reported by Bloomberg News, Tata Sons Pvt brings in financial or strategic investors. The holding company of the US$113bil coffee-to-cars conglomerate may be taking a leaf from the playbook of Mukesh Ambani, who has raised US$20bil this year from the likes of Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc, Silver Lake Partners and others for his digital assets. Ambani, India’s richest tycoon, is now parceling out stakes in his retail venture, and may have sought out Amazon.com Inc.

The 152-year-old Tata Group is talking to Walmart Inc for a US$25bil investment in a “super-app,” a multipurpose online platform combining fashion, lifestyle and electronics retail, food and grocery, insurance and financial services, as well as digital content and education, the Mint newspaper reported.

The advantage is with the 63-year-old Ambani, with roughly 400 million regular subscribers for his 4G telecommunications network. He also has India’s largest retail chain.

The kind of super-app that has succeeded in China and South-East Asia requires a reason for customers to visit it regularly. Commerce is incidental.

Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd has its popular Alipay wallet. Pony Ma’s Tencent Holdings Ltd has WeChat, a messaging service, and WeChat Pay. In South-East Asia, Grab built a steady user base as a ride-hailing platform before branching into financial services.

But if Ambani wants to spawn India’s Tencent, Ratan Tata, 82, can aim to launch its Alibaba. The conglomerate, which owns Tetley tea and Jaguar Land Rover car brands, has its tentacles in more than 100 businesses, all with their supply chains.

If Tata can provide a portal to its vendors to sell their wares, host data and discount bills, expansion into business-to-consumer or consumer-to-consumer websites – like Alibaba’s Tmall or Taobao – shouldn’t be too hard.

Besides, if Walmart comes on board, Tata may get access to both the US retailer’s India e-commerce website Flipkart, which it bought for US$16bil, as well as PhonePe, a payment service.

Tata has a stronger pedigree than Ambani in running consumer businesses, though some of its ventures – like the world’s cheapest car – have flopped.

The group also underestimated the challenge from Ambani’s Jio 4G network and was forced to offload its mobile service business. It’s a 51% partner in a low-cost domestic airline, though India’s aviation minister has said publicly that the unit is close to shutting shop.

Aviation will require further investment if Tata acquires taxpayer-supported Air India Ltd, which a cash-strapped government is desperate to sell.

The Tata Group was the carrier’s original owner before it was nationalised.

Ambani brought in outside equity to cut his flagship Reliance Industries Ltd’s net debt to zero and lower its dependence on refining and petrochemicals, businesses that will struggle with global oversupply in the post-Covid demand funk. Tata has a net debt overhang of more than US$20bil in steel and automotive businesses.

In addition, Ratan Tata needs billions of dollars to buy out the Shapoorji Pallonji Group, an 18.4% shareholder in the holding company. Ever since the group patriarch ousted SP Group scion Cyrus Mistry as Tata Sons chairman four years ago, the two sides have been trapped in a messy legal feud.

Now that SP’s liquidity crunch is forcing it to cash out, Tata must exercise its right of first refusal or bring in other investors, perhaps by tapping the group’s deep connections with Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund and its state investment firm. — Bloomberg
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