W Power 2024

'Mrs Jhunjhunwala' to 'Rekha Jhunjhunwala': How the new custodian of wealth is finding her feet

She was her husband's biggest cheerleader for decades and rooted for him from the sidelines. Over one-and-a-half years after the death of ace investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, the homemaker has made a reluctant transition

Published: Apr 24, 2024 11:05:47 AM IST
Updated: Apr 24, 2024 11:20:45 AM IST


October 2021, New Delhi. The interviewer posed a frequently-asked-yet-fascinating question about the billionaire’s ever-soaring wealth, his Midas touch in the stock market and his fabled rise to fame. “The value of your portfolio is now estimated at ₹40,000 crore…,” the journalist quipped during an interview at a media conclave in October 2021. The Big Bull replied in his trademark style by quoting one of the famous one-liners of oil baron John Paul Getty. “If you can count it, you don’t have it,” said Rakesh Jhunjhunwala. “Who wants to count?” continued the ace stock market investor, trader, and film producer. “I just have one partner and one client: Rekha Jhunjhunwala,” he underlined, adding that his wife is not interested in the wealth. “She is not bothered if she is a billionaire or worth $200 million or $400 million,” he said.

Over one-and-a-half years later, a lot has changed. Rakesh Jhunjhunwala passed away in August 2022. The value of his portfolio skyrocketed to ₹50,410.37 crore by the end of December 2023, according to a Forbes India analysis based on information provided by data aggregator Primeinfobase. That's a whopping 49 percent jump in a year, outpacing a 20 percent gain of benchmark Nifty. Akasa, the airline that the veteran investor billed as his biggest bet and risk, has emerged as one of the top airlines in the country.

One thing, though, has remained unchanged. Much like her husband, Rekha Jhunjhunwala doesn’t want to talk about numbers. “I just want to carry forward whatever he has done and whatever he built,” says Jhunjhunwala, who is ranked 298th on the Forbes World's Billionaires List 2024, and 28th on the list of India’s richest. “I am getting better with numbers,” she smiles, alluding to her transition from a homemaker to the custodian of the wealth she has inherited.

It’s not easy being Rekha Jhunjhunwala, especially if one looks at the intimidating task of stepping into the shoes of her husband. “You can’t replace him, you can’t imitate him and you can’t expect me to be him,” she tells Forbes India. “But you have been making a transition into the new role over the last 18 months,” we try to nudge her into a free-wheeling conversation, which revolves around her business strategies.

She has been doing a lot on the business front. Take, for instance, her foray into pre-leased commercial real estate. The fact that she spearheaded three big-ticket transactions over the last six months in Mumbai indicates how Jhunjhunwala has been inconspicuously trying to establish her business imprint (see box).

In terms of her stock portfolio rejig, she exited from five stocks Autoline Industries, Dishman Carbogen Amcis, Edelweiss Financial Services, Prozone Realty and Rallis India by the end of December 2023. She was a shareholder in 25 listed companies during that time, adding Raghav Productivity Enhancers and Sun Pharma Advanced Research in her kitty as compulsorily convertible preference shares were converted into equities.

Despite a decent churn in the stock portfolio, Jhunjhunwala declines to take credit. “God has been kind. I am fortunate to have a good support system,” she says, referring to the work done by her team. “I have not taken a deep dive into the market,” she continues, adding that she has been on a learning journey. “I don’t know how the transition from Mrs Jhunjhunwala to Rekha Jhunjhunwala happened,” she says. “I never expected it. I was never prepared.”

For the reluctant billionaire, the start was overwhelming. “I am not used to so much attention,” she says, talking about how the world started writing about her and examining every business move made by her.

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For decades, she led a contented life and was elated to be the cheerleader. The Big Bull, too, often talked about the role played by his wife. “She knows nothing about stocks, but she has been my biggest support along with my dad and mother,” he had once remarked in an interview with investor Ramesh Damani. “She comes from a wealthy family… and has always stood by me in my highs and lows,” he underlined. “She never asked for anything except an air-conditioned (AC) room,” he said, referring to his formative years of trading when the chartered accountant was still finding his feet in the stock market. ‘I didn’t have a car and an AC,” he said.

Decades later in Mumbai, the 14-storey bungalow of Jhunjhunwala in Malabar Hill is all about the way the Big Bull aspired and lived his life: King size. Spread over a staggering 70,000 square feet, the imposing building is dotted with exquisite statutes of Lord Ganesha. As one enters the 12th floor, which was earmarked for the couple, a warm, smiling picture of Rakesh greets you. “He hated frowning faces,” says Jhunjhujwala.

Philanthropy was one of the tools used by the late investor to stay happy and spread happiness. His wife sees no reason to tread away from the path. “I am continuing with the Rare Family Foundation’s work,” she says, adding that she has joined the board of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Medical Trust, the trust behind the Sankara Eye Foundation. She has also joined the board of Agastya International Foundation, which works on developing curiosity and understanding of science among children. “There is no future without education,” she says, underlining her husband's love for books. “He was a well-read man.”

The capacious 14th floor reflects the hunger of the man who was a foodie as well. There are rows of bookshelves stacked with the favourite reads of the ace investor. Warren Buffet’s Ground Rules, Buffet: The Making of an American Capitalist by Roger Lowenstein, House of Cards: How Wall Street’s Gamblers Broke Capitalism by William D Cohan, Investment Fables by Aswath Damodaran, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway, An Uncommon Man by RK Laxman, and Oh! Those Parsis by Berjis Desai…Rakesh Jhunjhunwala was always in a hurry to read and learn. “He was always bullish on the India story, and I also feel the same,” she says.

The ace investor made it a point to keep Rekha abreast of critical matters at a 36,000 feet level,” contends Berjis Desai, a senior lawyer and confidante of the ace investor. “As a result, she can now shrewdly assess people and issues without going into granular details.” Rakesh, he adds, structured his transition well by ensuring that people whom he trusted were able to steer the ship until the next-gen was ready. “She instinctively knows whom to consult about what. This has resulted in growing maturity of decision making,” adds Desai.

Jhunjhunwala underlines that she is happy preserving and continuing with the legacy. “His portfolio has always done well, and earnings have compounded,” she says. “There is no need to mess up with a good thing,” she says, adding that she would still prefer to be known as ‘Mrs Jhunjhunwala’ rather than ‘Rekha Jhunjhunwala’.

Her husband, though, once mentioned the inconspicuous power of his wife. “She is the queen of the house,” he once reportedly said. “And when I am not there at the house, she is both Queen and the King.” Twenty months after his death, Rekha Jhunjhunwala is indeed the queen as well as the king.