With BankAm, Merrill Lynch looks for strategic India fit

With BankAm, Merrill Lynch looks for strategic India fit
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First Published: Wed, Jul 01 2009. 12 57 AM IST

Knitting patterns: Watts says Merrill Lynch is a real bank now as opposed to just a capital market bank. Ashesh Shah / Mint
Knitting patterns: Watts says Merrill Lynch is a real bank now as opposed to just a capital market bank. Ashesh Shah / Mint
Updated: Wed, Jul 01 2009. 12 57 AM IST
Mumbai: One of the first tasks for Kevan Watts as the new country head for Merrill Lynch and Co. in India—he took over in April—is to finalize the legal name for his company.
Knitting patterns: Watts says Merrill Lynch is a real bank now as opposed to just a capital market bank. Ashesh Shah / Mint
The New York-based investment bank and portfolio management consultancy’s India operations were formerly known as DSP Merrill Lynch Ltd, an alliance with Indian stockbroker DS Purbhoodas & Co. In September, Merrill Lynch was acquired by Bank of America Corp. In March this year, Hemendra Kothari, head of the Indian entity, sold his 10% stake to Merrill Lynch.
Merrill Lynch had been looking to get a banking licence in India but with the takeover, that is a moot point, given that BankAm provides banking facilities and cash management in India, a business that Watts described as “sticky”, or one with a more regular income stream than investment banking, which turns on deal making where even one might be a “historic transaction”.
“We are a real bank now as opposed to just a capital market bank,” said Watts in his office decorated with paintings and photographs of relatives and various horses. “The knitting of both firms changed because of the combination and so we can knit much better patterns.”
“The strategic fit and the opportunity is there. Now we are into the execution phase,” said Watts, who has been with Merrill Lynch since 1981. “We are bringing the businesses together and we are looking at the synergies at the cost side, and revenue side.”
He cited capital markets transactions as an area of synergy with Merrill that is now able to use BankAm facilities for escrow accounts instead of going to third parties. Escrow accounts are used to store money put up by investors for subscribing to capital market issues.
One of his key priorities, Watts said, is to bring the people together from two diverse corporate cultures and assimilate the best of both to work together as one group.
Watts also said that the exit of Kothari, with whom he has worked for at least a decade and who, he said, was “hard to replace”, would not shake up the company very much.
But the “the relationships central to DSP was also shared with our people (other employees). Personal relations always count for business but by all means they are not enough to do business. You got to provide a competitive service throughout the time,” he said.
“I don’t measure my life by league tables. Today in India more and more clients are defining businesses as not only in India but throughout the world. Over time, the kind of service that someone like I can provide can become more relevant. There will always be a role to play,” said Watts, who has earlier held positions such as head of European investment banking, co-head of global investment banking, chairman of Asia-Pacific and chairman of Merrill Lynch International.
As to reports that DSP Merrill Lynch has laid off a number of people from its businesses, Watts said the number is not “meaningfully lower than it was at the peak (of the Indian equity market boom)”, and that he has expanded the top management team. He added that “people working with him (Kothari) have remained with us... Shitin Desai (vice-chairman of DSP Merrill Lynch), who’s been with him, remains with us.”
ravi.k@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Jul 01 2009. 12 57 AM IST