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Why she has total faith in ICICI Bank

Shobhana Subramanian | October 14, 2008


Chanda Kochhar

The ICICI Bank [Get Quote] stock is down nearly 25 per cent and rumours are flying thick and fast about how the bank is in deep trouble but you wouldn't guess it from Chanda Kochhar's face.

The lady remains unfazed even though she's answered two dozen phone calls from the media and has appeared on every single television channel. We had decided to meet up for Lunch with BS at the China House at the Grand Hyatt but the market put paid to our plans.

So we're in the private dining room on the eleventh floor of the ICICI Headquarters, which overlooks the terrace garden, having a quiet lunch.

In fact it's so peaceful up here it's hard to imagine that there's complete mayhem outside with the financial markets almost coming apart. These are stressful times for the joint managing director of India's second largest lender - one regional channel reported that depositors were pulling out money from the bank - but Kochhar's taking it in her stride. She doesn't look harassed and is known to keep her cool, whatever the situation.

"I don't lose my temper, in fact I don't use the word stress at all, I call it excitement," she makes light of the matter, "but when I'm unhappy about something, my colleagues know it."

So, how does she cope given that she barely gets six hours of sleep, often works on weekends, travels and also has to run a home? She laughs. "I catch up on my sleep when I travel, I shop for sarees and jewellery and of course I watch lots of Hindi films."

There was a time when her friends decided that they would hold kitty parties at night so that she could make it. "But I barely made it twice, so they went back to their lunches. But they still invite me." Kochhar thanks God for her metabolism that keeps her slim and trim. She doesn't exercise at all and doesn't diet either and unfortunately has no time to play basketball, something she did a lot of in school.

In fact she quite loves to eat, especially Thai food - the red curry is a favourite - and also the Sindhi delicacies that her mother makes. Kochhar has a sweet tooth and is already looking forward to the 'gujia" that she'll have for Diwali, and says she also loves the big special jalebis that are made during Holi. She's already done her Diwali saree shopping, not wanting to leave that for the last minute.

We're tasting a little of everything that's on menu for the day: dosas and misal pav, chapatis, dal, some vegetables, a chicken curry, paneer, curd rice and even some bhajiyas. So is all this stress worth it, I ask, as we start with the tomato soup? Does power give you a kick? Yes, the stress is worth it because each time I come out of it out stronger, having learnt something, she says, adding she doesn't mind the hard work.

"What gives me a kick is the ability to influence the way business is done, the ability to create an impact." Though she wanted to be an IAS officer when she was growing up in Jaipur, the commercial milieu in Mumbai, she says, turned her into a banker.

Kochhar says she's religious but isn't the kind who flies down to Tirupati every now and then. And she doesn't feel it's necessary to follow rituals. She misses the family puja on full moon days - 'we would all sit together and pray' - but nevertheless manages to read the Satyanarayan katha when she's driving down to work.

"I'm surprised that my daughter, who's studying in the US, is so traditional. She fasted on all the nine days of Navratri, even though I told her not to do it." Does she feel guilty that she doesn't spend enough time with her children, though she does try to make it to her son's squash matches? "Probably yes, I do carry some guilt. But I also feel that my children have become more independent and confident people," she says.

Her own confidence stems from her track record of setting up new businesses for the bank - she's been there from very beginning. Did ICICI grow too fast? "Not really, we grew our business at a time when people's earnings were growing and interest rates were falling.

That was the right strategy. Sure, we can't grow at those rates in the current scenario and we have changed course." Why does ICICI attract so much negative attention? Kochhar feels it's the challenge of being a leader. "Not only are we big in terms of assets, we are leaders, we do things ahead of others. When you start something, which is not the proven course, there is scepticism. Like there was when we started retail, when we said we alone would have 2,000 ATMs - there were just 400 ATMs in all in the country at that time - and when we wanted to be in 2,000 cities. No one believed there was a retail opportunity but a couple of years later everyone had jumped onto the bandwagon. Ultimately, it's our performance that will speak for us."

Kochhar reasons that, like her, many others have stayed back at ICICI because the organisation has given them opportunities to grow and it's always been an exciting place.

The number of women in senior positions in the bank has always been a topic of conversation. She talks of how, once in a while, she and her lady colleagues indulge in a night out - the last time they went to Olive.

"We don't talk shop, we discuss our children or films or generally gossip." Why don't you let your male colleagues into the club? No, she jokes, they're not invited!

Neither of us can resist the litchi ice cream, which is really very nice. I ask her where she's invested all her savings and am quite surprised with her answer. "My salary goes into ICICI Bank stock.

All I spend on is jewellery and sarees and I put what's left into stock options, which we get every year at the prevailing market price." Amazingly she's still smiling after the battering that the stock has seen. I ask for her comment on the likelihood of her succeeding KV Kamath as the bank's CEO. Kochhar isn't one bit frazzled. She smiles.

"We'll wait and see what the board decides."



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