He is used to fielding questions on everything related to the Indian economy—the stock market, interest rates of private banks, the Reliance split, and, of course, the secret behind the phenomenal growth of his own baby, ICICI Bank Ltd. Kundapur Vaman Kamath shaped and revitalized it through the late 1990s and early 2000s and, in many ways, redefined private banking in India.
So, it’s hardly surprising that in his office at the ICICI Towers in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla complex, Kamath, chief executive officer (CEO) and managing director of the company, is enthused about an interview that has little to do with banking.
Reminded of his year of birth, a smile lights up his face. Kamath was born in Mangalore, Karnataka, in a middle-class family. “My father was a very active local Congressman and political discussions were always a part of our family. I remember my parents talking passionately about Gandhi and Nehru. One didn’t fully understand the meaning of all the new excitement but, looking back, I can say that it was a matter of pride to be in some way involved in the political system.”
After completing his schooling at Mangalore’s St Aloysious School, he joined the Karnataka Regional Engineering Educational College (KREC) and, in 1969, joined IIM Ahmedabad for his MBA, with a specialization in Finance. During his days at KREC, Kamath got involved with college politics and was elected general secretary of the college union. “There was an idealism about the idea of a popular mandate in those days. We were a new democracy and very few young people in the 1950s could remain indifferent to politics,” says Kamath.
Thereafter, his knack for leadership and a mentor in Narayanan Vaghul, chairman of the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI) until 1996 and now a non-executive chairman of the company, became a catalyst for Kamath’s rise. He started his career under Vaghul when ICICI was a fledgling institution; and its primary function was to provide industrial loans to support the country’s economic development.
Kamath worked in different departments of the company and, as part of his general management responsibilities, initiated and implemented ICICI’s computerization programme. In 1988, he joined the Asian Development Bank in Manila and spent eight years in South-East Asia, gathering experience in the banking sector of emerging markets.
In May 1996, he returned to ICICI as managing director and CEO. The rest followed—turning the concept of universal banking into a reality is considered one of Kamath’s biggest achievements. Now, ICICI Bank Ltd offers services in 18 countries and is the country’s largest private bank. “One of the most fundamental reasons that ICICI is a success is that we stressed on applying the best of technology to reach out to a large number of people. Technology is one of the chief reasons that we have moved forward as a country; we have some of the finest technical brains in the world,” Kamath says. He says he often has a hard time keeping up with the rate at which the world is moving forward technologically: “But I am very happy to learn. Anything that has technical finesse, even films, attracts me.”
Throughout the half-hour that Kamath reminisces about his early life in the new India of the 1950s, he harks back to the role and importance of Nehru. “It was a time when the whole country worried about what would happen to the country after Nehru. He came with a vision and inspired faith in all of us. The excitement of a new nation was heightened in us because we had someone like him as a leader,” Kamath says.
But the banker’s faith in the Indian dream goes beyond the foundation that he believes Nehru, the role model of his youth, laid: “Several countries have transformed in the last 60 years. But our growth path is unique because we have a working democracy in place. That makes all the difference.”