For Mukesh D. Ambani, chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), the financial year gone by was time to consolidate. After pre-paying $7.8 billion of long-term foreign currency debt, the highest ever pre-payment of debt undertaken by any corporate borrower in India, RIL has created a strong balance sheet with high liquidity that supports growth plans for three hyper-growth engines—Jio, Retail and O2C.
Addressing shareholders in the annual report 2020-21, Ambani said RIL’s diversified earnings stream and resilient consumer businesses helped it navigate through the unprecedented pandemic headwinds. Despite being a volatile environment, RIL recorded a 34.8% year-on-year growth in consolidated net profit at ₹53,739 crore ($7.4 billion) in 2020-21.
In the past few years, RIL has travelled quite a distance to metamorphose itself to a consumer giant. “Our consumer businesses now constitute nearly 50% of consolidated segment Ebitda compared to 36% in 2019-20,” he said. RIL generated an Ebitda of ₹97,580 crore ($13.3 billion) in 2020-21, 4.6% lower than the previous fiscal.
The company went on a mammoth capital raising drive in 2020-21, the largest ever in India, of ₹2,60,074 crore ($36 billion), through a series of asset monetisation efforts and a rights issue. Including the capital commitments, the funds raised exceeded RIL’s net debt levels, helping it achieve a net debt-free balance sheet well ahead of the earlier proposed deadline of March 2021. Jio Platforms and Reliance Retail raised ₹1,52,056 crore and ₹47,265 crore, respectively, from strategic and financial investors, including Facebook and Google. BP invested ₹7,629 crore for a 49% stake in RIL’s fuel retailing business. The fund-raising included India’s largest ever rights issue of ₹53,124 crore, also the largest in the world by a non-financial institution in a decade.
The pandemic gave an unexpected fillip to the retail operations of the group. Reliance Retail opened 1,456 new stores during the fiscal, taking the total store count to over 12,700 stores across the country. With its scale and spread, the company brought grocery and essential supplies to the customer’s doorstep, helping millions of Indians overcome the lockdown woes.
“Our retail business operations ensured support for the entire retail ecosystem including consumers, farmers, merchants, small- and medium-scale manufacturers and supply-chain service providers. The business generated over 65,000 new jobs providing vital support to the community,” said the RIL chairman.
JioMart, the new commerce initiative, has shown steady growth. The digital commerce channel, Ajio.com, witnessed 3x increase in business on higher orders and improvement across all key operating metrics, according to the chairman’s statement.
On digital services, the RIL juggernaut has rolled ahead. Jio’s high-speed connectivity services have enabled millions of Indians to work from home, study from home, and shop from home. It also enabled delivery of food and wellness at home, medical consultation at home, and above all kept families connected through the pandemic. Higher acceptance of digital services reflects in the 27% year-on-year growth in Jio’s total data traffic to 16.68 billion GB in the fourth quarter of 2020-21.
Ambani said Jio Platforms is building a massive digital ecosystem for a billion Indians by providing world-class connectivity and digital solutions across business verticals and customer lifecycle. Jio launched and scaled up multiple digital platforms like JioMart, JioMeet, Jio Haptik and Jio UPI during the year.
As technology becomes a driving force in all businesses and facets of life, the future belongs to organisations that can lead and leverage the digital revolution, Ambani said.
RIL’s oil to chemicals (O2C) business witnessed a demand destruction in the first half of 2020-21, but improved sharply in the second half with gradual easing of lockdowns and revival in economic activities, resulting in demand recovery to near pre-Covid-19 levels by the year-end. In the first half, the demand destruction resulted in the sharpest global oil demand contraction in decades, with a decline of 9.5 million barrels per day to around 90.5 million barrels per day. “Travel restrictions significantly impacted the global demand for transportation fuels. For downstream products, demand destruction in automotive, housing and construction, consumer durables were partially offset by heightened demand from health and hygiene, packaging and e-commerce,” the RIL chairman said.
In the second half of 2020-21, there was a V-shaped recovery. RIL operated its O2C facilities at near 100% by shifting products to export markets. High operating levels helped RIL meet commitments to suppliers, vendors, and consumers, ensuring continuity of operations for the entire ecosystem. RIL hopes that the reorganisation (of the O2C business into a separate subsidiary) will facilitate value creation through strategic partnerships and attract a dedicated pool of investor capital.
Emergence of a medical vertical?
The pandemic has opened a new vista for RIL. Though the initial efforts are virtually clubbed as humanitarian under corporate social responsibility (CSR), many are watching RIL’s increased focus on Covid-19-related efforts. RIL has spread its wings over several segments such as hospitals, production of medical-grade oxygen, high-quality PPE kits, low-cost sanitisers, and cost-effective diagnostic kits, among others. In the annual report, RIL said it has also submitted a proposal for the use of an oral, anti-viral medicine, Niclosamide, as a potential drug against Covid-19, without providing any details.
In May 2021, RIL repurposed its plants in Jamnagar to produce medical-grade oxygen in response to the urgent need for medical oxygen across the country. The plant soon became the largest producer of medical-grade oxygen from a single location in India. Since the beginning of the pandemic, RIL has supplied over 55,000 MT of medical-grade liquid oxygen across the country. It has also taken several steps to boost India’s capacity to swiftly and safely transport this life-saving resource.
In order to mass-produce high quality PPE kits for frontline health workers, RIL had also established a manufacturing unit in Silvassa in 2020.
The annual report said the Reliance R&D team has designed a process to produce low-cost sanitisers aligned with WHO specifications at one-fifth of the market cost. The company has also developed novel cost-effective diagnostic kits called ‘R-Green’ and ‘R-Green Pro’ for Covid-19 detection. The kits have received ICMR approval, according to the company.
In March 2020, Sir H.N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, in collaboration with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), set up India’s first dedicated Covid-19 hospital in Mumbai in just two weeks. In April 2021, the Foundation rapidly scaled up its Covid-19 operations to create 875-bed facilities dedicated to caring for Coronavirus patients. Along with the fully-equipped 1,000-bed Covid-19 care facilities in Jamnagar, RIL manages over 2,300 beds across various locations.
The pandemic has disrupted several lives and dealt a severe blow to the economic health of the country. RIL said that as a responsible corporate, it has mooted and implemented several HR measures. It will continue to provide salaries for five years to the nominee of employees who succumbed to the pandemic, RIL said. The company will also provide financial assistance of up to three months’ pay as interest-free salary advance in case of an exigency and has put in place a liberal leave policy for employees affected by Covid-19.
The company has already launched India’s largest private Covid-19 vaccination drive. It plans to give free jabs to over 1.3 million employees of the group and their families. Beneficiaries will include RIL’s employees, associates’ employees, partner corporations’ employees, and even retired employees and their family members, the company said in a statement on May 27. Over 330,000 employees and family members have already got their first shot of the vaccine and the company is targeting vaccination of all eligible parties, at least with the first shot, by June 15, it said.