RICH PICKINGS: Family feuds

The bitter dispute between Indian billionaire brothers Anil and Mukesh Ambani is part of a global tradition of super-rich family fallings out, of which Australia has had its fair share.

You can choose your friends and business partners, but you can’t choose your family. Just ask Indian billionaire brothers Anil and Mukesh Ambani, who are locked in one of the biggest family feuds in living memory.

Anil (worth $12.7 billion according to Forbes) and Mukesh (worth $24.5 billion) are the sons of famous Indian businessman Dhirubhai Ambani, who built his company Reliance Industries into one of India’s biggest corporations, with interests in everything from natural gas and telecommunications through to information technology, textiles, logistics and infrastructure.

When Dhirubhai died in 2002, the two brothers took over the business. But it wasn’t long before differences of opinions started to emerge. By 2005, the boys were at war and their mother, Kokilaben, was forced to step in, broker a peace settlement and divide up the Reliance empire.

Anil got the family’s interests in financial services, telecom and energy; his main holding company is now known as Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group. Mukesh got the oil and natural gas business, the chemicals interests, textiles and retail. He also got to keep the name Reliance Industries.

But mum’s peace deal didn’t end the hostilities between the boys. In July 2008, Mukesh helped scuttle a merger between Anil's Reliance Communications and South Africa's MTN by claiming he had first right of refusal to buy Reliance Communications. In September that year, Anil sued Mukesh for defamation over an interview in The New York Times.

The brothers were in court again this week, this time over a natural gas supply agreement. An Indian Court ruled Mukesh's Reliance Industries should supply gas to Anil's Reliance Natural Resources as per the terms of the family agreement signed in 2005 – which entitles Anil to get the gas at a price 40 per cent below Reliance Industries’ normal price. The court even took the extraordinary step of suggesting the brothers get their mother involved again to work the dispute out. Mukesh appears almost certain to appeal the court’s decision.

The size of the Ambani brothers’ fortunes makes this a family feud on a scale rarely seen anywhere around the world. But Australia has seen its fair share of super-rich family battles. Here are five of the biggest:

Angela Bennett and Michael Wright

Angela Bennett and Michael Wright might be jointly listed on BRW’s Rich 200 with a fortune of $1.55 billion, but they reportedly talk very little these days. The pair are the son and daughter of the late prospector Peter Wright, who was the partner of iron ore mogul Lang Hancock. Michael, Angela and their brother Julian inherited a valuable iron ore royalty as a result of deal between Peter Wright and Hancock, but this royalty has been central to several family legal battles. Last year, Michael Wright and Bennett paid $68 million to settle a legal battle with Julian’s children, Tim and Natalie Wright.

Belgiorno-Nettis family

The late Franco Belgiorno-Nettis founded the Transfield empire in 1956, with fellow rich list member Carlo Salteri. But the last 15 years have seen the family embroiled in a series of disputes. In 1997, Salteri and Belgiorno-Nettis went their separate ways after a dispute over succession issues. Four years later, Franco reached a financial settlement with his son and apparent heir Marco, who started a bitter legal dispute after falling out with the other members of the family. Marco is now estranged from the family.

Ainsworth family

Back in the mid 1990s, Len Ainsworth, founder of poker machine company Aristocrat Leisure, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He handed his shareholdings and full control of the company to his wife and his seven sons. A year later, new medical tests cleared Len of cancer but his sons would not allow him to resume control of the company. After a stand-off, Len started a rival gaming machine company, Ainsworth Game Technology. It must be pointed out that the 85-year-old Len remains close to all his children.

Fairfax family

In 1987, Warwick Fairfax sparked a dispute in one of Australia’s great media families by announcing plans to privatise John Fairfax Holdings. While the deal, done at the height of the 1987 boom, made many family members rich (including James and John B. Fairfax, who received the Rural Press business) it left Warwick estranged from most family members. Three years after Warwick took control of Fairfax, it collapsed into administration.

Moran family

Healthcare veteran Doug Moran is no stranger to family turmoil. In 1995, his son Brendan committed suicide and they were later sued by Brendan's widow, with the case eventually settled out of court. His daughter, well-known monarchist Kerry Jones, is estranged. In 2001, the Moran family’s British business collapsed, leading to a legal battle between Doug and son Shane. And if that’s not enough, the family’s ugly disputes were laid bare in this extraordinary ABC documentary in 2003. But for all this trouble, Moran continues to build his aged care business – valued in May at $221 million by BRW– with three sons.

Want access to our latest research and new buy ideas?

Start a free 15 day trial and gain access to our research, recommendations and market-beating model portfolios.

Sign up for free

Related Articles