N Vaghul, accidental banker and philanthropist, dies at 88

  • Vaghul, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2009, helped build ICICI Bank, mentoring many senior executives, including KV Kamath, who succeeded him and continued to build on his legacy

Krishna Yadav
Updated18 May 2024
N Vaghul, who died in Chennai, was 88.
N Vaghul, who died in Chennai, was 88.

Legendary Indian banker and former chairman of ICICI Bank Narayanan Vaghul passed away in Chennai on Saturday, according to a statement issued by his family. He was 88.

Vaghul, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2009, is survived by his wife, daughter, and son.

Vaghul, a civil services aspirant in college, would not have become a banker had he not been forced to wait for a few more years to take the test. Instead, he took one for the State Bank of India (SBI). 

In an interview with the Harvard Business School from 2017, Vaghul recollected how his father asked him “What’s the difference between civil service and State Bank?”.

After almost 19 years at SBI, he moved to the National Institute of Bank Management for a few years before joining the Central Bank of India as an executive director. Vaghul then joined another state-owned lender Bank of India as the chairman and managing director, and finally joined erstwhile development bank ICICI Ltd in 1985. He gave up his executive role after K.V. Kamath rejoined the lender in 1996.

During his tenure, Vaghul mentored many senior executives, including Kamath, who succeeded him and continued to build on his legacy.

Industry leaders pay tribute

Kamath, currently chairman of Jio Financial Services, in a note shared with Mint, wrote, “To me, I have always looked up to Vaghul as my mentor. He brought a freshness of doing something different, something innovative and at scale, and drove its implementation. This underpinned everything that happened thereafter when he led ICICI.” 

Kamath recalled his own recruitment to ICICI Ltd in 1996, while he was at the Asian Development Bank, noting Vaghul’s hands-off approach once he stepped down from his executive role.

“From the day he stepped down from his executive role, he did not involve himself in any day-to-day matters,” said Kamath. “He was always supportive and encouraging of all the bold moves that we wanted to execute, be it our foray into retail, the setting up of new businesses such as asset management, insurance, and the merger of the parent and the bank.”

Anand Mahindra, chairman of automotive major Mahindra Group, in a tweet remembered how Vaghul had agreed to be the chairman of Mahindra World City, Chennai, when it was just taking shape as the first private sector Special Economic Zone (SEZ). 

“At one point, I was told by consultants that we had created a white elephant and it would be wiser to shut it down or turn it into a CSR project. But he advised me never to lose conviction in something path-breaking,” Mahindra posted on social media platform X. 

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, a columnist at Mint and an executive director at policy organisation Artha Global called Vaghul a titan of Indian finance. 

“A titan of Indian finance, from an era that also saw HT Parekh, SS Nadkarni, RK Talwar, RH Patil build institutions to prepare India for its growth spurt after 1980. He also headed a committee that opened up Indian money market,” Rajadhyaksha tweeted.

RBI governor Shaktikanta Das tweeted, “Very sad to hear about the demise of N.Vaghul. A visionary. Made huge contribution to India’s financial sector. Every interaction with him was refreshing. May his soul rest in eternal peace.”

Madan Sabnavis, chief economist at Bank of Baroda, who worked at ICICI Ltd’s economics department between 1987 and 1999, said Vaghul was extremely approachable. So much so that even when employees significantly junior to him were having trouble finding a home in Mumbai, he would request the human resources personnel to step in and help.

“His doors were always open to us and he passed down a culture at the institution that discouraged seniors from berating subordinates. He was extremely accommodative of his colleagues,” said Sabnavis.

His kindness also tied in with his penchant for philanthropy. Vaghul believed that philanthropy was not about money and not about writing a cheque.

In an interview with Mint in 2014, Vaghul had said there are quite a lot of people who believe that they have written a cheque and fulfilled their duty to the society. 

“I would compare it to my generation, when we went to the temple and we gave some money to the beggars sitting outside the temple, and felt that we had done our punya (good deed) for the day. But that doesn’t add up to anything.”

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HomeNewsIndiaN Vaghul, accidental banker and philanthropist, dies at 88

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