Mukesh Ambani nears deal to buy stake in some units of Future Group

A successful deal may draw the battle lines between Amazon and Ambani, who just secured almost $14 billion for his e-commerce venture Jio
Reliance Industries is closing in on a deal that would see it acquire stakes in some units of Future Group, people familiar with the matter said, a move that would bolster the e-commerce ambitions of the conglomerate and its billionaire Chairman Mukesh Ambani.

An agreement between Ambani’s Reliance and Future, which already has a partnership with Inc., could be announced as early as next month, the people said, asking not to be identified as the information isn’t public. Though unit Future Retail Ltd. has attracted suitors, including Amazon, Reliance’s offer to buy into the group’s holding company is likely to sway the outcome in its favour, the people said.

The Future Group has five main listed units including Future Consumer, which sells food, home and personal care products, and Future Lifestyle Fashions that operates fashion discount chain Brand Factory. No final decision has been made and the talks could still get delayed or fail to result in a transaction, the people said.

A representative for Reliance Industries said the company “evaluates various opportunities on an ongoing basis” and declined to comment further. A spokesman for Future Group declined to comment.

A successful deal may draw the battle lines between Amazon and Ambani, 63, who just secured almost $14 billion for his e-commerce venture Jio Platforms from investors including Facebook Inc. Amazon has made the nascent Indian market, with its 1.3 billion consumers, a key focus of its global expansion. Investment from Reliance, India’s most valuable company, would help Future’s founder Kishore Biyani pare debt, even if it risks the tie-up with the US online shopping giant announced by the Mumbai-based company a few months ago.

The talks involving Future Group are part of the intensifying war to win over the Indian shopper — both online and in physical stores. Amazon has already pledged to invest $5.5 billion in the country, while Walmart Inc. spent $16 billion to buy local e-commerce leader Flipkart Online Services  in 2018.

Shares of Future Retail jumped about 5 per cent in Mumbai on Thursday, paring the year’s loss to 69 per cent and giving it a market value of $757 million. Future Lifestyle rose 3 per cent, while Future Enterprises Ltd. and Future Consumer surged about 5 per cent. 

In August, Seattle-based Amazon agreed to purchase 49 per cent of one of Future Group’s unlisted firms, allowing it to buy into Future Retail after a period of between three and 10 years. The two deepen­ed that partnership in January, with Amazon becoming the authorized online sales channel for Future Retail’s stores that sell everything from groceries to cosmetics and apparel.

Amazon, which holds an indirect stake of 1.3 per cent in Future Retail as a result of purchasing 49 per cent of Future Coupons, will continue to retain that stake and also the right to raise its holdings to a certain extent, the people said. As recently as May, Amazon was considering adding to its investment in Future Retail for a holding of as much as 49 per cent, people familiar with the matter said last month.

Pledged shares

After racking up debt, Biyani’s family had been negotiating with creditors to sell shares in several group companies, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News in March. A stock meltdown sparked by the coronavirus pandemic eroded the value of the family holdings, resulting in a breach of some covenants on loans raised against shares, the people said. By agreeing to invest in the holding company, Reliance may have an edge over rival suitors.

The holding firm, through which Biyani’s family owns its stake in the units, owes lenders including Apollo Global Management, Blackstone Group and UBS Group AG. The listed entities have debt of about Rs 100 billion ($1.3 billion), while the amount is similar for the holding vehicles of the family, the people said.

Since Facebook’s investment in late April, Reliance has aggressively raised funds from a slew of private equity firms for Jio Platforms, a vehicle Ambani is using to pivot his empire away from its legacy oil-and-petrochemicals business.

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