He dropped out of formal education at the age of 16 in 1978 to take a train to Mumbai to try his luck and three years later made his first killing — a ₹10,000 commission doing a diamond trade with a Japanese buyer.
That marked the beginning of the entrepreneurial journey of Gautam Adani, now Asia's richest man. He, however, regrets not finishing college, saying early experiences made him wise but formal education rapidly expands one's knowledge.
Speaking at the 75th year celebrations of Vidya Mandir Trust Palanpur in Gujarat, Mr. Adani recounted his phenomenal journey that has made his group the world's largest solar power company, largest airport and sea port operator in India, nation's largest integrated energy player, country's second-largest cement manufacturer and a conglomerate with market capitalisation of over $225 billion — all in a span of four-and-a-half decades.
While the dry and tough living conditions of Gujarat's Banaskantha shaped his social behaviour, his father's involvement in what is now known as 'forward trades' gave him the initial learning.
After leaving Banaskantha, Mr. Adani moved to Ahmedabad where he spent four years completing secondary education.
"I was just 16 years old when I chose to give up my education and move to Mumbai," he said. "In this context, a question I often get asked is — why did I move to Mumbai and not work with my family? As many youngsters in the audience would agree, the optimism and desire for independence of a teenage boy is hard to contain. All I knew was that — I wanted to do something different — and do it on my own."
He bought a train ticket and boarded the Gujarat Mail to Mumbai with not much in his pocket.
"Once in Mumbai, my cousin Prakashbhai Desai enrolled me at Mahendra brothers, where I started to learn to assort diamonds. I quickly picked up the business and after working at Mahendra brothers for about 3 years, I left to start my own brokerage in diamond trading at Zaveri Bazar," he said. "I still recall the day I did my first trade with a Japanese buyer. I made a commission of ₹10,000."
This, he said, was the start of his journey as an entrepreneur.
"Another question I often get is if I have any regrets that I did not go to college. Reflecting on my life and the different turns it took, I — now — do believe that I would have benefitted if I had finished college. While my early experiences made me wise, I now realise that formal education rapidly expands one's knowledge," he said. "To acquire wisdom, one must experience but to acquire knowledge, one must study."
These, he said, are complementary. "And although I will never really know, I do reflect at times that the expansion in my abilities may have been faster had I gone to college."
Mr. Adani, 60, started off as a trader and has been on a rapid diversification spree, expanding an empire centred on ports and coal mining to include airports, data centres and cement as well as green energy.
"First-generation entrepreneurs mostly start with a unique advantage — the advantage of having nothing to lose. This belief is their strength. In my own mind, this was liberating. I had no legacy to follow — but I had the opportunity to create a legacy.
"I had nothing to prove to anybody — but had an opportunity to prove to my own self that I could rise. I had nothing to risk by jumping into uncharted waters. I had no expectations to fulfil except those of my own. These beliefs became a part of me," he said.
Mr. Adani said when he turned 19, he was called back by his elder brother Mahasukhbhai to help run a small-scale PVC film factory the family had acquired at Ahmedabad.
"We used to procure imported raw materials. It was a tough business. In those day, PVC film manufacturing faced great scarcity of raw materials given all the import restrictions," he said, adding the liberalisation of import policies by the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 gave him the first real break.
"While I had no trading experience, I took advantage of the opportunity and moved swiftly to establish a trading organisation. We started importing polymers, to supply to the raw-material-deprived small-scale industries. This move laid the initial foundation of the Global Trading Business I was soon to build," he said.
The 1991 liberalisation by the then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao allowed him to move swiftly to establish a full-fledged global trading house dealing in polymers, metals, textiles, and agro products.
"We became the largest global trading house in the country within two years. I had turned 29 and had a full appreciation of the value of two dimensions that would define everything we did — Scale and Speed," he said.
Till now Mr. Adani was primarily focused on trading. And in 1994, he listed Adani Exports, which is now called Adani Enterprises.
Yet another opportunity came in 1995 when the Gujarat Government decided to develop its coastline.
"It was around this same time that the global commodities trader Cargill approached us with a proposal to source the salt produced across the Kutch coastline," he said.
"To cut a long, interesting story short, the partnership did not proceed. But we were left with about 40,000 acres of marshy land to harvest salt and an approval to build a captive jetty at Mundra for the export of salt."
He then built a full-fledged commercial port in Mundra, Gujarat. "And the rest is history," he said.
When the Gujarat Government announced its SEZ policy in 2005, Mr. Adani moved quickly to convert the land originally allocated for salt works into the country's largest multi-product SEZ — supported by world class infrastructure including ports, rail, air, roads, and water networks.
"Today, I can confidently say that the real growth of Mundra is just starting. It now holds the potential to become one of the world's top integrated industrial parks in the years to come," he said.
Adani group continued to grow and today it is the world's largest solar power company and will be the world's largest renewable company by 2030. It is the largest airport operator in India with 25% of passenger traffic and 40% of air cargo.
It is the largest ports and logistics company in India with 30% national market share. It is also India's largest integrated energy player, spanning electricity generation, transmission, and distribution, LNG and LPG terminals, city gas and piped gas distribution.
Adani group is the country's second largest cement manufacturer and the highest valued FMCG company following the IPO of Adani Wilmar.
"We have declared our path forward in new sectors that include data centres, super apps, industrial clouds, aerospace and defence, metals, and petrochemicals," he said.
Mr. Adani also said India will be a land of massive opportunities over the next 30 years and this is the time to dream big.