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K V Kamath is Forbes Asia businessman of the year

November 29, 2007 15:27 IST

Forbes Asia has named K V Kamath of ICICI Bank as the Businessman of the Year for 2007.

The chief executive of the bank since 1996, the 60-year-old Kamath was picked for building ICICI Bank into India's most valuable bank and one of Asia's top banks.

Kamath's win puts him in the company of fellow countrymen Nandan Nilekani of Infosys Technologies, last year's winner, and Ratan Tata, the 2004 businessman of the year.

His selection means Indian executives have won the accolade three of the last four years.

Under Kamath's watch, ICICI Bank's market capitalisation has risen to $31 billion compared with $1.6 billion in 2002 when the original corporate lending institution merged with its commercial banking offshoot. By this measure, it is among Asia's top 10 banks and is bigger than Singapore's DBS Group and Korea's Kookmin Bank.

The bank has attracted big stakeholders such as Singapore's Temasek Holdings and CLSA and Merrill Lynch funds.

The bank's assets have grown 40% annually in the last three years to $93 billion, propelled by a boom in Indian consumer credit where ICICI has a dominant one-third market share.

The bank has also built up its customer base to 27 million -- in 2006 alone, it added an incredible 8 million. "That's more than the population of Singapore," noted Kamath in an interview with Forbes Asia. The bank today has a foothold in 18 countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, Russia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

Tim Ferguson, Editor, Forbes Asia, said: "Kamath's leadership has been outstanding. His focus on serving India's growing middle class by providing First World banking service at affordable prices is largely the reason behind the phenomenal growth of ICICI Bank."

Early life

Kamath was born and raised in Mangalore, a middle-class town near Bangalore. His father owned a roofing tile factory and dabbled in politics. He was enrolled in the only English school in town and later went on to earn an MBA at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.


Kamath began his career at the Industrial Credit & Investment Corp. of India, a state-owned project finance institution and forerunner of ICICI Bank. Setting up ICICI's leasing business from scratch and helping prepare a blueprint for diversification kept him engaged before the Asian Development Bank lured him to Manila in 1988.

Kamath worked six years with ADB before Indonesia's Bakrie Group asked him to consolidate the group's financial services companies. He returned to head the institution in 1996.

By then, New Delhi had discarded the worst of its socialist policies. A partial liberalisation of financial services had allowed ICICI, which by then was only 21% held by government-controlled banks and financial institutions, to set up a commercial bank that was competing with inefficient public sector banks.

But ICICI itself was almost sinking under the weight of rising non-performing loans. Several of its clients, creatures of a protected era, were unable to survive in an increasingly competitive economy.

"When your back is against the wall, you think beyond your normal boundaries," Kamath said of ICICI Bank's bet on consumer banking.

Kamath is beefing up the bank's 33,000-strong staff, whose average age is 29. ICICI added 110 branches last year and reportedly has permission for 400 more. That alone will require 5,000 hires over the next three months.

At the top rung, Kamath has groomed lieutenants to contend for leadership of the bank if he retires when his contract runs out in 2009.

Younger colleagues who complain that India's lagging infrastructure is holding back growth can gain from their CEO's perspective. Back in 1996, ICICI had only 300 telephone lines and clients had a hard time getting through. Kamath sought 2,000 new lines only to be told that it would take two years. Today, companies like Reliance Communications can install that many lines in two days, he noted.

"We're preparing for growth in the long haul," Kamath said. But in an economy growing nearly 10%, where only China is a close benchmark, the conditions seem more suited to a fast blast at Formula One, Kamath's chief passion away from the office.

Kamath will receive the Businessman of the Year award at an evening ceremony on December 4.