A sixth-floor corporate office in Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex prioritizes functionality over form. In other words, it’s rather plain and simple. This is the office of Vikram Limaye, chief executive officer (CEO) of Infrastructure Development Finance Corp. (IDFC) Ltd, one of the country’s largest infrastructure lenders and a diversified financial services firm. Limaye first occupied the space in 2009 as executive director, when the corporate headquarters moved from Ramon House in south Mumbai, and continues to work out of it after becoming the head of the firm in 2013.

Architecture for growth

His cabin has a pedestrian feel with the usual mix of furniture and furnishings

Yet something unusual catches my eye—the slanted walls that have been placed deliberately at an angle to the floor throughout the entire sixth-floor executive suite, perhaps to serve as a dynamic visual element. Although the design is an innovative and well-meaning concept, its execution is flawed, with visible imperfections in detailing and construction. “We’re not happy with it either. The finishing is not up to the mark," Limaye concurs with my observation.

The imperfect interior architecture could serve as a metaphor for the business of infrastructure itself: Despite being a sector that attracts highly intelligent and ambitious people (including policymakers, entrepreneurs and financiers), execution has often been flawed and inadequate, especially in recent times, as it has struggled to fulfil the growing demands of an emerging economy.

Limaye responds with candour to this bleak assessment. “Things have pretty much been at a standstill for the last 12-18 months, so they can’t get worse," he says. “We’re learning from our mistakes. There have to be appropriate risk-sharing mechanisms between government and private sector, enough capacity within government to be able to regulate and monitor what risks are being shared, and how the country’s resources are allocated," he says. Lower risk will allow a broader pool of infrastructure entrepreneurs to enter the sector, help financiers to diversify lending risks and increase asset creation, he explains.

The right building blocks

Limited artworks like this M.F. Husain print and a children’s poster dot Vikram Limaye’s workspace
Limited artworks like this M.F. Husain print and a children’s poster dot Vikram Limaye’s workspace

Institutional reform in itself is not a new suggestion to drive economic growth, but Limaye’s working style provides insight into how we might get there. First, he is patient and prepared to take the long-term view. For example, an industry insider tells me that Limaye prefers to wait and watch rather than participate in any very risky transaction.

“The infrastructure story is only a decade old," Limaye reminds me, emphasizing that the underlying factors that drive growth take time to mature. His substantial nine-year tenure at IDFC, since he first joined as an executive director in March 2005, appears to give him better perspective than most. Since 2005, Limaye has seen IDFC’s balance sheet grow 14 times, net worth nine times and profit after tax six times: a solid basis for a long-term view.

A children’s poster

“We’re obviously very actively engaged with government to move policy along, to make sure we revisit some of the risk-sharing, to see if we can expedite how infrastructure gets created. It’s a very rare situation where you’re involved in a meaningful way with policy; when you’re advising the government, it has ramifications on your business. We’ve been able to draw that line. We still are trusted and counted upon by the government to give objective policy advice," he says about the firm’s public policy unit.

This dexterity, of retaining the institution’s credibility while continuing to grow and serve multiple stakeholders, is key to institutional reform for any organization in the infrastructure space.

Values create value

Leader ship awards that Limaye has collected over the years
Leader ship awards that Limaye has collected over the years

“I would want IDFC to be a high-performing, gold-standard, respected and trusted institution and a magnet to attract talent, with a culture that is intellectual, tolerant, informal and open," Limaye says. It is a long wish list, and if IDFC is issued a banking licence in the near future, the wish list will only get longer. Limaye patiently acknowledges the challenges. “It’s a journey, it can’t happen overnight."

To some, Limaye’s earnestness and diligence might seem mundane. But in a world where capital is notoriously impatient, and where institutional failure has been responsible for stifling India’s economic growth, Limaye’s prescription could serve as a robust foundation for the future.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.