Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The one who walked away

There are enough examples of large, board-run firms where CEOs refuse to let go. K.V. Kamath could have done it too. But he didn't.

This issue’s big story is on K.V. Kamath, the man who has just been named chief of the new BRICS bank. It has been written by a person who probably knows Kamath as well as, if not better than, any other journalist, Tamal Bandyopadhyay. Tamal writes about why Kamath is the right man for the job, so I will not dwell on that.

I have met Kamath several times over the years and like him. I like him because he is a big man who likes his food. I like him because he (and Narayan Vaghul before him) created a culture in which women thrived. At one time, most of the top jobs in ICICI Bank and various other ICICI units were held by women. Indeed, ICICI Bank is still led by one. And I like him because he walked away from the CEO’s job when he was supposed to.

There are enough examples of large, board-run, non-family-owned companies where CEOs refuse to let go. Entire generations of putative successors come and go, but they carry on. Vaghul could have done this, but did not. Kamath could have done it too. The board would have likely changed the rules for him if any needed to be. But he didn’t.

Kamath has never really spoken about the mess at Infosys Ltd that Mint wrote about (What went down at Infosys?), but I believe the company he is leaving is better off than the one he became chairman of in 2011. He stepped down as chairman in mid-2013, but stayed on as lead independent director, when N.R. Narayana Murthy returned to the company as chairman to help turn around its flagging fortunes. And then he returned again as chairman in mid-2014.

When he stepped down as chairman in 2013, Kamath was criticized for giving into Murthy’s desire for one last shot at glory. If I were to hypothesize, I would venture that Kamath realized that Infosys needed to churn its senior management and realized that only Murthy could do this in a company where most people still looked up to him. His job done, Murthy left, and a new team took over.

It was widely reported in mid-2014, when Vishal Sikka took over as Infosys’s CEO, that he was Kamath’s choice. A person whom I can only identify as a small but significant shareholder in Infosys told me that he thought Sikka was a good choice because he has a “technology vision". That vision is still playing out and needs to be assessed, but that’s a different story.

Maybe you will read it here.

R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.

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