One of Kundapur Vaman Kamath’s favourite management mantra is the 90-day rule, a phrase he picked up from a dotcom seminar in New York many years ago. The startups, he saw, were taking products from concept to market in 90 days because if they didn’t, somebody else would. He put that idea into practice soon enough.
When ICICI Ltd decided on an American depositary (ADR) issue in 1999, the merchant bankers said it would take at least a year before the issue can begin.
But Kamath, then managing director and CEO of ICICI, gave them a 90-day deadline. He remembers how his team along with other external agencies worked round-the-clock and managed to list within 74 days.
Kamath, now 74, will surely put that rule to good use in his newest assignment as an independent director of Reliance Industries (RIL) and the non-executive chairman of RIL’s repurposed financial services arm Jio Financial Services, which marks a sharp escalation in Mukesh Ambani’s financial services ambitions — from operating in the fringes to acquiring a leadership status in the industry.
That’s familiar territory for Kamath whose long career has been built on either a big scale-up and re-engineering of existing institutions or setting up new entities. When he took charge of ICICI Bank in 1996 from his mentor N Vaghul, it had assets of 21,000 crore. By the time he stepped down in 2009 to take over as non-executive chairman, the bank had assets in excess of3.8 trillion.
Though his penchant for speed (he is a keen Formula 1 racing fan) created problems later as his immediate successor had to reduce ICICI Bank’s balance sheet size, Kamath’s capacity to embrace and implement new concepts is unparalleled. In the nineties, when there were fewer than 100 automated teller machines (ATMs) in the whole country, ICICI Bank said it would roll out 1,000 ATMs in the first year.
He has always been a techie at heart who laid down the rule that every new application had to be processed in 90 days, an extraordinary statement in the 1990s.
Kamath saw an encashable opportunity in the retail banking space and ICICI Bank’s strategy and product offering recognised the changing demands of a growing middle-class. Retail financing in the mid-1990s was an open field, with no major players and Kamath recruited a young bunch of strikers who would score winners for him. In 1997, ICICI became the first Indian financial institution to go online and offered a multi-channel delivery system to its customers.
In Jio, Kamath will have a big comfort factor in the promoter who trusts him implicitly. In late 2004, when Kokilaben, widow of Kamath’s late friend Dhirubhai Ambani, requested him to broker peace between her warring sons, both Mukesh and Anil accepted Kamath’s verdict as the basis of a settlement. It was Kamath, along with Dhirubhai’s long-time friend and merchant banker Nimesh Kampani, who helped draft a new ownership structure of the empire that Dhirubhai built from scratch. The friendship between the two has an interesting history. In the early 1970s, when Dhirubhai’s loan requests to expand his textile business were turned down by most others, the banker who came to his help was Kamath, then a young officer at ICICI.
And it was not the Ambanis alone who recognised Kamath’s art of influencing people and making friends.
When Narayana Murthy stepped down as the chairman of Infosys, the man he turned to for replacing him was Kamath.
Even the government has recognised his efforts. The “India bull” — as he is known for this almost-permanent faith in the country’s growth — was selected by the government as the founding chairman of New Development Bank, popularly known as the BRICS Bank, and then the National Bank for Financing Infrastructure and Development. These were all new institutions — Jio Financial Services is continuation of that journey to decide the strategic road map, handpick the leadership team and the rest.
Speaking to a financial daily during his stewardship of ICICI Bank, Kamath had said the lender is quite paranoid about what will happen next. “After net banking, the next challenge is cell phones. Are they going to change the way customers interact? Will banks face a new challenge from payment systems that can be embedded in mobile phones? These are the questions my team is grappling with.” Those were famous words at a time when nobody could imagine that the mobile phone will become your bank.
His aggressive approach in finance has also been combined with a phenomenal ability to create leaders that has helped many women bankers ascend the hierarchy. Jio Financial Services is in safe hands, indeed.