MUMBAI: When it came to choosing the winner of the award for lifetime achievement, there was hardly any debate. Kundapur Vaman Kamath, 68, the former ICICI Bank chief executive who now heads the New Development Bank of the BRICS nations, got six votes against three for the next candidate at the shortlist stage. The jury didn’t feel the need for a second ballot.
After returning to India from the Asian Development Bank in the mid-1990s at the persuasion of the then Industrial Credit and Investment Corp of India chairman N Vaghul, the ambitious Kamath sowed the seeds of consumer lending, partly to wean away the industry leaning ICICI Bank. As the CEO of India’s second-largest lender, Kamath changed the rules of the game in banking. He served as managing director and CEO from May 1, 1996, till his retirement from executive responsibilities on April 30, 2009.
Kamath’s resume is studded with achievements. He created India’s largest bank in the private sector by assets, took banking technology to the people and created a retail finance market from scratch. He’s also an elder statesman of India Inc, and helped broker a peace deal between the Ambani brothers.
What has set Kamath apart from the rest of Indian bankers or professionals was his big thinking. Executives planned ahead for a year or two, or five. But Kamath did so for a decade or even more. When companies were contemplating raising funds of Rs 2,000 crore or Rs 3,000 crore in share sales, he went ahead and raised about Rs 20,000 crore ($5 billion) in 2007, a record that remains unbroken.
Kamath secured his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Karnataka Regional Educational College (KREC). After graduating from KREC in 1969, he joined the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, for a master’s degree in business administration.
He introduced ICICI to new concepts and best practices from sectors such as auto, hospitality and aviation. Years before the internet became ubiquitous, Kamath took a call that every new product should be e-enabled. He also demonstrated how mergers could be successfully managed. The most notable of all has been his ability to let go of things that don’t work, which is why ICICI gave up the concept of standalone development banking before it died a natural death.
His skill to spot and ride the next big wave — be it in insurance, retail lending, internet banking, online trading or business process outsourcing — has helped ICICI Bank gain the early-bird advantage.
His ability to spot and nurture talent has contributed to the banking sector as a whole. Many top institutions are today headed by those groomed by him, such as Shikha Sharma of Axis Bank, Sonjoy Chatterjee of Goldman Sachs and Renuka Ramnath of Multiples Equity. When Kamath decided to hang up his boots, the board selection committee had a number of bright young leaders to choose from.
That the Prime Minister has called on him to play the role of a banker and diplomat as head of the New Development Bank of the BRICS reflects Kamath’s stature.