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SPARK OF THE CORPORATE

 I have always followed the 80:20 rule....  

Any effort to arrive at a conclusive inference on K.V. Kamath's professional career and its impact on corporate India at this juncture, as such, is likely to be incomplete as this amazing man, at 64, is still chipping away at it, as strongly and as enthusiastically as ever. For, you will never know what surprise innovation or pioneering effort he is going to spring up with, like he has done over the last four decades during which he redefined umpteen practices in the realm of corporate culture in India. Looking beyond the obvious and coming up with out-of-the-box yet practical solutions has been the forte of Kamath. And it is with the same creative fervour that he is continuing to lead the next generation of business leaders onto the path of success in the 21st century. His approach to managing business has been revolutionary in many respects, from an Indian point of view. Most of that could be attributed to his make-up. A strong-willed man with both, the humility to accept weaknesses and the courage to face adversities with ingenuity is not a very common occurrence. These coupled with a flair for innovation which almost always propelled him to think ahead of the pack, have lead in shaping the career of this leading light of the Indian industry.

Early days

A Kundapur Vaman Kamath was born in Mangalore into a business family (his father, later, went onto become the Mayor of Mangalore city), just at the dawn of independent India (2nd December, 1947). Both his schooling and pre-university education were completed from St. Aloysius, Mangalore. Thereafter, he got into the Karnataka Regional Engineering College (now called as National Institute of Technology) at Surathkal to pursue mechanical engineering, which he thought was necessary for him to carry forward his family's roof tile manufacturing business. He used to go to the factory everyday for three hours to look after the business as well as get acquainted with its finer details. So, it is no wonder that he chose to enroll for the MBA programme at the IIM-A (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad) in 1969, when the course wasn't much sought after back then, or at least it was not known to be among the popular choices for career aspirants at the time. Even during his student days, he is known to have demonstrated flashes of the leadership that he was to put to effective use in subsequent years; this was corroborated by many a school and college mate of his. Encouraged by his father, he took up the responsibility of being the president of the college union. So, it can be safely assumed that the MBA programme only reinforced what many others already knew about Kamath's leadership qualities. It helped refine him and made him the finished product he was at the end of programme during which finance was the subject that he took the most liking to, and a successful career beckoned. Despite having the option to join the family business Kamath chose to join ICICI (Mumbai) as a management trainee. He joined the Project Finance Division of ICICI (Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India), which was an initiative of the Indian government that had started in 1955, backed by the world Bank, to accelerate industrial growth in the just born independent India.

This was an excellent opportunity for Kamath to acquaint himself with the nitty-gritty of the field - how things were done, how things were built, and the challenges managements face, and so on- that also helped fuel his entrepreneurial instincts. It also allowed him to -in his own words- learn to combine technical skill with soft skills to take decisions.

For instance, when he was asked to set-up ICICI's leasing business, he was sent to London to work with a leasing company for three months -the experience actually laid the foundations for whole new set of financial analysis and tools for ICICI.

A few years later, when it was time to strategise for the next decade, he was again at the helm of affairs. Egged on by his mentor, Mr. N. Vaghul (the then Chairman of ICICI), he took up the project to computerize the entire business resulting in ICICI establishing the country's most advanced computing set-up in the financial business. It was this pioneering initiative that heralded a revolution in the Indian banking system in later years.

Thus, through the course of his first association with ICICI, which was a good 17 years, he went on to demonstrate his talent and leadership skills, and created immense value for ICICI by setting-up new businesses in leasing, venture capital, and credit rating besides handling the general management positions.

The Spark

Perhaps feeling a bit jaded with his more than decade-and-a-half association with ICICI, Kamath was looking for a change. There was an offer from the Asian Development bank (ADB), Jakarta. He sought out his mentor, Mr. Vaghul, and put forth his plan to take the offer. He was allowed to go with a promise to return to ICICI when needed.

This was a very good opportunity for Kamath to explore, beyond the frontier of his country; the way businesses were run facilitating many a nation's rapid progress. The ADB facilitated his exposure to the South-East Asian countries as well as China. What this meant was that now he was able to get a first hand view of how rapidly these countries had reduced poverty levels through high growth rates. They seemed to him almost like developed nations. This also made him reflect what was wrong in the Indian scenario. One of them he felt was the License-Raj, resulting in a constrained atmosphere for businesses to work in.

In 1996, after eight years of not so eventful working with the ADB that took him to more than half-a-dozen countries although he did gain perspective and some new foresight, he was offered to assume the mantle of ICICI as Managing Director and CEO.

He realised what was required to be done, the moment he stepped back into ICICI. The opening up of the Indian Economy had opened up many avenues that also brought along challenging tasks if one were to make good of the now liberalized economy. The increase in per capita income would lead the populace to aspire for better things in life.

If that were to happen, then they must be provided with the options. Thus, KV Kamath hit upon the idea of a universal bank which would have the ability to provide complete financial services to different classes of customers. Under his leadership, by 1998 ICICI had built capabilities for everything under the sun: from home loans to mortgages and auto loans to every other conceivable financial product and service.

To make funding as well as operations easy, in 2002 he oversaw the successful merger of ICICI with its subsidiary, ICICI Bank, which was formed some years before while he was away working for the ADB. This was a first instance in the Indian context wherein a parent institution was merged into one of its subsidiaries.

The journey

Under him, ICICI has made significant progress in creating a strong retail focus and building the personal financial services business. But it didn't happen just like that. With only 50 branches across the whole country, the ICICI Bank seemed to be lagging behind the state-owned banks, and the multi-national banks which had forayed into the Indian financial market post-liberalisation. If ICICI were not to lose on the opportunity, increasing the number of branches was felt to be the need of the hour. But, that was a herculean task at that point in time, given the fact that the government had been reluctant to grant banking licenses.

He had to do something that would allow ICICI bank to reach a greater target. From his earlier stint at ICICI when he had set in motion the computerization of organization, which was thereafter looked after by one of its subsidiaries called ICICI Infotech, he knew that technology-enabled operations would be the way forward. So he set up ATMs across the country, initiated online banking services, and also fostered banking services at the door-step of the customer - all three aspects combined to do the trick for him.
The bank has with around 3,500 ATMs, 35,000 employees in 20 countries and over 25 million customers. And today, less than 30 per cent of customers come into the branch. Almost 70 per cent of transactions take place through technology channels.

There have been doubters and naysayers who are skeptical of him being able to carry on the mantle from N.R. Narayan Murthy (Founder and Ex-Chairman of Infosys) right since the time he assumed the responsibility at Infosys in late 2009 (as Non-Exec Chairman), less even repeating his own success at ICICI. However, only time will tell if these fears were well-founded.

kv Admittedly, there were some eyebrows raised pointing at the mini turbulent phase with ICICI in 2008, when customer confidence had tanked a bit, leading to rumours of the bank going insolvent and the like (of course, nothing of that sort happened), also the two IPOs backed by ICICI Bank - 3i Infotech Ltd. & First Source Solutions (erstwhile ICICI Onesource Solutions) have proved to be duds, denting into investor confidence. Some also point to the fact that Infosys' performance has been disappointing in the last 2 -3 quarters, which is being hinted as his inability to lead the technology giant in the right direction. However, it needs to be pointed out here that the instances cited above were a result of a combination of extraneous factors like global economic down-turn (in 2008 when ICICI had to somewhat scale-down their retail & home segment business) and, weaker spending due to a very cautious approach adopted by clients (Infosys expressing concern over clients' apprehensions in the times prevailing leading to lesser allocation of funds for technology spend that is manifest in companies coming out with very few fresh project proposals). Therefore, a mere blip or two should not take anything away from K.V. Kamath's illustrious profile as one of corporate India's most inspiring leaders. His contribution to the growth of our nation's economy are laudable, in that he did his bit in helping spur the business stimulus with which the country went on to tread a reasonable growth path over the last 15 years.

The mentor

Like with any other progressing nation, India also had a couple of corporates that performed the duty of being its leadership schools, in the form of Citibank and Hindustan Unilever (then Hindustan Lever). As the country stepped into the era of globalization with a liberalized economy, many businesses found innumerable opportunities to grow. Obviously, this meant the country would be needing scores of business leaders with a burning ambition and the ability to take the country's economy forward. ICICI Bank, initially through Mr. N. Vaghul, and then in the form of Kamath, stepped up to the plate, and set about nurturing talent that showed sparks of leadership.

kv Kamath will be known for as much for revolutionizing the Indian banking system as he would be for mentoring some of the most successful leaders like Chanda Kocchar (current MD & CEO of ICICI Bank), Shikha Sharma (MD & CEO of Axis Bank), Kalpana Morparia (CEO of JP Morgan India), and V Vaidyanathan (MD of Future Capital), to name a few.

As one can expect, besides ICICI, and now Infosys, Kamath also serves under various capacities. He is a Member of the Governing Board on various educational institutions including the Indian Institute of Management - Ahmedabad, Indian School of Business, National Institute of Bank Management and Manipal Academy of Higher Education, besides serving as an independent director of Houston-based oil services company, Schlumberger. He is also a member of the national council of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), as well as the honorary member of the Government constituted Audit Advisory Board (AAB) that whose function will be to advise the CAG in matters relating to audit and suggest improvements in the performance and focus of audit.

Social causes

Kamath has been known to have always approached taking business decisions while also keeping in mind the need of the common masses, like encouraging and supporting projects that impact the lives of the underprivileged people. A Social Initiatives Group (SIG) was constituted under his guidance in 2000 to promote inclusive growth through focus on primary health, elementary education, and access to finance. The ICICI Foundation was established in 2008 to carry forward this legacy. He also contributes funds that provide scholarships to deserving students.

Family

kv He is married to Rajalaxmi; the couple has two children - a son (Ajay) and a daughter (Ajnya). He is an avid reader and a Formula-1 racing enthusiast.

Awards & Accolades
award starBest CEO for Innovative HR practices - World HRD Congress, 2000
award starAsian Business Leader of the Year - Asian Business Leader Award 2001 (CNBC Asia)
award starBusinessman of the Year - Forbes Asia, 2001
award starBusinessman of the Year - Business India, 2005
award starOutstanding Business Leader of the Year - CNBC-TV18, 2006
award starBusiness Leader Award of the Year - The Economic Times, 2007
award starConferred with Padma Bhushan by the Government of India, 2008
 
Quotes
kv"India needs to focus on inclusive growth."
kv"To build a successful business, you have to be able to pick entrepreneurs very early and get them embedded into the business. They need to go out into the ecosystem, demonstrate their abilities, nurture the business and build it up"
kv"Every leader worth his salt is capable of executing a plan to its finest details."
kv"I have always followed the 80:20 rule, which is prioritising the vital few and trivial many. The rule essentially means that you focus 80 per cent of your time and energy on the 20 per cent of your work that is really important."
kv"The reason is that turbulence in our customer markets would mean our customers would seek even greater operational efficiency and productivity gains. If Indian knowledge sector players can prove that they can partner in these areas, and deliver value, a win-win opportunity develops. I am reasonably sure this is going to happen".
Hope viewers caught up the spark...
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