“It’s really the world’s biggest startup,” Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) said at an event about Jio in March 2016. There was a certain irony to this statement. Here was the head of one of the largest conglomerates in India starting a new telecom venture with a Rs 1,50,000 crore ($22.54 billion) investment. And equating his venture to a scrappy startup struggling to raise seed funding or even proof of concept money. Many rolled their eyes in newsrooms after this statement, but eventually, almost everyone carried the same sort of headline.
After nearly a year-and-half of commercial operations though, the above statement might hold some water. The telecom arm of RIL has grown to more than 100,000 employees across India and has around 20,000 employees in the Navi Mumbai campus with more than 160 million subscribers. But ask a simple question and nine out of 10 would fumble with the answer.
Who is the chief executive officer (CEO) at Jio? No, it’s not Mukesh Ambani.
In fact, as things stand today, Jio does not have a CEO. Or even a chief operating officer (COO).
Most of the top-level strategic decisions are taken by Ambani, his long-time confidant Manoj Modi, and his children—Isha and Akash—who serve as directors in the company. Current and former employees at Jio say that Ambani’s decisions are executed by a group of presidents and vice-presidents at the company, while some directors in the company have functional roles. “In a structured organisation, you would have a CFO, a CTO, a CEO, a CMO, etc. Here, the organisation is unstructured,” says a former Jio employee who requested not to be named. “But the buck stops with Mukesh Ambani and Manoj Modi.”
In contrast, at another telco, Vodafone India, decisions are made centrally in London and local geographic CEOs are empowered to execute these decisions. Decisions such as ‘what spectrum to buy’, ‘what technology they want to use’ are made at corporate headquarters, but leadership is more diffused. Even in other family-owned groups such as the Aditya Birla Group’s telecom unit, chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla has empowered Himanshu Kapania as CEO to run the telecom business and make decisions. But not at Jio.
Officially, Manoj Modi is listed as a director in several of the businesses of Reliance Industries, including Jio, but reportedly, his business card only carries his name. Modi was also instrumental in setting up the Jamnagar refinery and the Hazira petrochemical complex in Gujarat; the retail business in Reliance Retail; and Reliance Communications, the telecom entity which Mukesh’s younger sibling Anil Ambani inherited after the death of their father Dhirubhai Ambani.