Reliance abandons plans to buy Indian retailer amid challenges

Reliance’s decision to back out comes after almost two years of litigation as Amazon contested the takeover.

Packed boxes pass along a conveyor belt at the Inc. fulfilment centre in Tilbury, UK
Amazon had fiercely contested Reliance's attempts to take over local retailer Future Gorup's core units [File: Jason Alden/Bloomberg]

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani abandoned a plan to buy a teetering Indian retailer amid protracted legal challenges from Inc., potentially ending one episode of the broader clash between the two titans to control the country’s billion-people-plus market.

In a filing Saturday, Reliance Industries Ltd. 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 Ltd. failed to win the approval of its secured creditors for the deal. Reliance didn’t elaborate.

Future Retail’s shares slipped as much as 5.1% in Mumbai on Monday, extending this year’s plunge to 45%. Reliance fell as much as 1.8%, compared to a 1.4% drop in the benchmark S&P BSE Sensex Index.

Ever since Reliance announced the plan in August 2020, to purchase Future’s core units for 247.1 billion rupees ($3.2 billion), the indebted retailer has found itself at the center of a battle between Ambani and Jeff Bezos. Amazon has fiercely contested the takeover by 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 Seattle-based Amazon to expand its brick-and-mortar footprint across the country. Similarly, Ambani was counting on the retail, wholesale, logistics and warehousing units of Future to expand the operations of Reliance Retail Ventures Ltd. — part of a broader pivot from the group’s main oil refining and petrochemicals businesses.

Tortuous Litigation

Reliance’s decision to back out also comes after almost two years of tortuous litigation in various courtrooms across India and Singapore 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 Ltd.,

“There will hardly be any impact on Reliance from the cancellation of the deal as they already have taken control of most of the Future stores,” said Kranthi Bathini, a strategist at Mumbai-based WealthMills Securities Pvt.  “Also, many employees from Future have migrated to Reliance, and hence they already have what they 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% of secured lenders voted to reject Reliance’s offer, falling short of the threshold needed to win approval.

Source: Bloomberg