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K V Kamath: A man who always challenges the status quo

By Nupur Anand
May 12, 2015 10:43 IST
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Kamath has often said he firmly believes in two things: One, a CEO has to always challenge the status quo and can’t be daunted by a change in orbit; and two, an important job of every CEO is to mentor people.

Kundapur Vaman Kamath, 67, joined ICICI Bank (then just ICICI) in 1971 with the intention of working for a couple of years before going back to managing his father’s roofing tile business near his ancestral village, Kundapur, which is 100 km from Mangaluru.

But the rub-off effect of studying at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and ICICI’s all-pervasive mood of transformation at that time changed that script drastically.

Forty-four years later, Kundapur has become a place where he intends to go but just can’t make time for it.

Time was already a big constraint and will become a bigger one as Kamath on Monday was nominated by India as the president-designate of the New Development Bank, also called BRICS Bank, a multilateral institution set up by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

He, of course, has to give up at least two of the hats he is wearing — non-executive chairman of ICICI Bank and of Infosys — as the appointment will become effective only when “he becomes free from his current assignments”.

The 6-foot-2-inch banker had earlier spent his entire career at ICICI and then ICICI Bank, with a hiatus from 1988 to 1996, when he worked at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), funding projects in other developing Asian nations.

The experience, which includes learning the importance of investing in technology, helped him position the once state-owned institution to the financial powerhouse that it is today.

The ADB effect was visible soon enough: At a time when there were fewer than 100 ATMs in the whole country, ICICI Bank said it would roll out 1,000 ATMs in the first year.

Kamath also ensured that the bank set up new technology platforms at a fraction of the cost of the current technology and a new delivery architecture which can’t be based on branches, but a partnership model. No surprise, therefore, that currently, half the bank’s customers transact via the digital medium.

He also spearheaded the retail finance revolution in the country and was responsible for ushering in the EMI (equated monthly instalment) culture among Indians.

At the helm of the bank between 1996 and 2009, he also led the lender into the rural territory, an area that till then had remained largely under-penetrated. He focused on the rural geographies to fuel its retail business.

Under his leadership, the market cap of ICICI Bank grew from Rs 796.13 crore or (Rs 7.96 billion) in September 1997 to Rs 37,027.03 crore or Rs 370.27 billion at the end of March 2009.

The Padma Bhushan award recipient in 2008 was the man N R Narayana Murthy turned to when he wanted to step down from the firm he founded. Kamath, who was a board member of Infosys, was appointed as chairman of the firm in 2011 and then again in 2014.

Kamath has often said he firmly believes in two things: One, a CEO has to always challenge the status quo and can’t be daunted by a change in orbit; and two, an important job of every CEO is to mentor people.

He has clearly walked the talk, as evident from his creation of a whole generation of leaders for India’s financial sector.

The Formula 1 racing fan will have ample opportunities to execute both the skills in his latest assignment.

Image: NR Narayan Murthy and KV Kamath during a press conference at the Infosys headquarters in Bengaluru.

Photograph: PTI

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