Mukesh Ambani scraps $4.4 billion deal that sets up clash with Jeff Bezos

Reliance's decision to back out also comes after almost two years of tortuous litigation in various courts. PHOTO: REUTERS

MUMBAI (BLOOMBERG) - Billionaire Mukesh Ambani has abandoned a plan to buy a teetering Indian retailer amid protracted legal challenges from Amazon.com, potentially ending one episode of a broader clash between the two titans to control the country's market of more than one billion people.

In a filing on Saturday (April 23), Reliance Industries said its proposal to acquire certain assets of Mumbai-based Future Group, which ran the nation's biggest retail grocery chain before the pandemic struck, "cannot be implemented" after its flagship firm Future Retail failed to win the approval of its secured creditors for the deal. Reliance did not elaborate.

Ever since Reliance announced the plan in August 2020 to purchase Future's core units for 247.1 billion rupees (S$4.4 billion), the indebted retailer has found itself at the centre of a battle between Mr Ambani and Mr Jeff Bezos. Amazon has fiercely contested the takeover by Mr Ambani, arguing in several courts that, contractually, it had the first right of refusal to buy Future.

Adding Future's Big Bazaar brand of stores to its assets would have helped Amazon to expand its bricks-and-mortar footprint across the country. Similarly, Mr Ambani was counting on the retail, wholesale, logistics and warehousing units of Future to expand the operations of Reliance Retail Ventures - part of a broader pivot from the group's main oil refining and petrochemicals businesses.

Reliance's decision to back out also comes after almost two years of tortuous litigation in various courts that worsened the financial health of Future Group. With no lifeline in sight to help revive its businesses, the retailer has defaulted on debt repayments, forcing some of its lenders to initiate bankruptcy cases against the firm.

The setback to Reliance may be minimal after the group began poaching employees and taking over rental leases of hundreds of stores once run by Future Retail and Future Lifestyle Fashions.

"There will hardly be any impact on Reliance from the cancellation of the deal as it already has taken control of most of the Future stores," said WealthMills Securities strategist Kranthi Bathini. "Also, many employees from Future have migrated to Reliance, and hence it already has what it wanted without taking over Future."

Last month, Amazon told India's Supreme Court that truce talks with Future Retail to bury the dispute had failed and published notices in newspapers warning the local retailer and its founders that any transfer of assets to Reliance would trigger civil and criminal legal action.

Separately, Future Retail said in filings on April 22 that as much as 69 per cent of secured lenders voted to reject Reliance's offer, falling short of the threshold needed to win approval.

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