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The Big Thinker and Go-getter: Shanti Ekambaram, Whole Time Director, Kotak Mahindra Bank Ekambaram looks to drive company growth in alignment with the company's vision

By Deepa Vaidya

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Shanti Ekambaram, Whole Time Director, Kotak Mahindra Bank

A Chartered Accountant, Shanti Ekambaram, Whole Time Director, Kotak Mahindra Bank stating her reason for joining Kotak Mahindra Bank Limited (KMBL), says, "Kotak was actually quite a start-up in those days, an NBFC. I thought about it for 4-5 months and then I joined because they were hungry, they were thinking big and they wanted to create something different in the financial services sector."

Narrating about how under her leadership KMBL grew she says, "I joined Kotak to run the bill discounting desk, which was the largest product for Kotak at that point in time and we really did good business. We swept the market, we had a near 70% market share and then in '94, Reserve Bank of India brought out guidelines disallowing banks from rediscounting bills for NBFCs and that segment almost closed. I then went on to develop the capital markets. Capital markets at that time were just opening, CCI had been relaxed, and I started with a strategic relationship with Goldman Sachs who we met at one of the economists' conferences. We brought GDR to India and we swept the market again, had a very high market share and then the global markets collapsed. I then moved into domestic Investment Banking and we actually got into a joint venture with Goldman Sachs to form Kotak Mahindra Capital Company and Kotak Securities. We were a completely new entrant. There were giants in the field at that time. We were perhaps the 13th or the 14th investment banker. In 1999, we brought a completely new model of IPOs to the market which was globally called book-building. We spent nine months working with SEBI on the regulatory framework, with the brokers in the market who were really running the rules, changed all the rules, had a huge pull back, but that put us right from No. 13 to No. 1 on the league tables. Even today, Kotak Mahindra Capital Company is a number one investment bank in the country and all the leading companies who want to come to the capital markets come to us. In 2002-03, we got the banking license and I joined the bank to set up the corporate/wholesale bank. We really built a good franchise and actually we built a lot of franchises when Lehman Brothers happened because everybody got off the market and including very high quality companies were willing to borrow and get into a relationship at a very high cost. We started our custody business and today, we are the only player in custody business amongst the domestic banks, the others being foreign banks."

"In 2013-14, Mr. Kotak asked me to run the consumer bank, which I have never done in my life. But, I took it up as a challenge and in May 2014, I moved to the consumer banking and that time digital was just about starting. We launched the app. The ING Vysya merger with KMBL was announced the same year but we merged the consumer banks in 2016. Historically, the fastest merger, transition and the sinking of teams. From then till 2020 was a golden period for our business. In 2017, we launched the digital savings account called '811' based on a regulation that the government had brought about in December. A revolutionary positioning back then and even now. Last year I was promoted to the board as the Whole Time Director and I continue to handle '811'.

She adds, "The bulk of my career has been with Kotak, that is 31 years. Right from when it was an NBFC to the Investment Bank, then in the corporate bank, then the consumer bank, and now as a Whole Time Director, handling some of the corporate and some of the business functions."

What makes her succeed in everything that she does. This largely follows from her management style. Says Ekambaram, "I hate to lose and I always sort of ask, how do we win? I am very passionate and committed about what I like, and am very hard focussed on numbers and P&L. Adjusted tax return on equity is extremely important in any business, particularly the financial services business."

She adds about her management style, "First and foremost, hire the best person below you for their jobs. I have no qualms about hiring people better than me because only, if you have a really strong and good team, will you succeed. Your people's successes are your successes. Second, talent. I think it's very important and we underestimate the importance of good talent in business. People empowerment and talent management are important. Another important thing I have always believed in is, thinking big, market share and saying how can we break something differently? I go back to Investment Banking. We were number 13. Nobody was giving us business. I said, let's think, how can we do differently? What do we think differently?"

"I think the last six years have taught me to leverage technology. I am not an engineer by background nor have I done technology. But I made an attempt to learn to say how can you use technology. So, constantly learning is my leadership style and I also tell people, you must learn everyday. Even today, I am learning."

"So, if I look at my journey, it has been different things, different businesses, scaling, growing, taking it to a leadership position and thinking differently. This is how I have been involved in the businesses under my leadership."

On breaking barriers and shattering glass ceilings, says Ekambaram "I had never perceived myself as one to break barriers or shatter the glass ceiling. I took up opportunities that came my way, despite not knowing anything. I took the risk and went in deep to understand. I failed, but you have to sort of keep at it and you must succeed in what you are doing. For me, success is gender-agnostic. It is about taking risks, moving out of your comfort zone, learning and trying to be different."

For somebody who hates to lose, success to Ekambaram means, "Being able to influence the ecosystem that I operate in, that impacts either the way of working or behaviours for one's own benefit or that of the organisation. It is empowerment to make a change, empowerment to make a difference and empowerment to transform. I also believe success is a great way to give back to society. I have been doing that all my life and I continue to do that."

On the ING Vysya and Kotak Mahindra Bank merger, she says, "The biggest challenge in any M&A is, the cultural and human resource integration. Every organisation has a deep specific DNA and cultures and ING Vysya was no different, Kotak of course, has a very strong culture. But to ensure that you successfully integrate two teams, two companies, two banks and bring them into a common culture and make sure that they learn how to operate as one team, I think has been the biggest successful factor in the merger."

"You know, there's always apprehensions in a team that's coming in. We went out of our way to make sure that we chose the best man or woman for the job, and it did not matter if they were from Kotak or ING Vysya. Second, we ensured that they were comfortable. We did a lot of harmonisation. Third thing, I think, which was very important is Kotak was very strong in asset product while ING Vysya did not have too many Retail Asset products. The ability for us to go into the customer base, into the branches, train them, make them learn the processes and sell those products and in the next two years really ramp up leveraging their network, was another factor that I think was extremely good and we really enjoyed ourselves in the process and sort of, you know, ensure that we were able to leverage the opportunity that was presented to us. So, it is people harmonisation, making people comfortable, leveraging the network, seeing the opportunity and just ensuring that things go well."

On the number of women employed at KMBL she says, "We have been driving the diversity agenda and I have been chairing it for the last 10 years. I think about 8-9 years ago, we were about 10% in the bank and today, the diversity ratio in the bank is closer to 28%. Our aim is to reach a third. We are doing a lot in terms of the inputs that are required to increase diversity whether, it's an entry level, the middle level or the leadership level. Each of these levels required different inputs, different solutions, and different mindsets and that's what it is. It has been a constant endeavour, and I have personally been promoting the cause both in Kotak and outside of Kotak, because I believe in the balance between the Yin and the Yang, the Indian concept of Ardhanareeshwar which is very powerful because of Shakti and Shiva. It is something I believe in. I think we must do it because it makes a difference and it brings about a much more powerful and balanced outcome."

On dealing with challenges she says, "So I believe most businesses are common sense and banking is no exception. So, the first and the most important thing that you have to do is go to logic and common sense. So, when faced with an issue or a problem or a situation, I first say, let's think first principles, meaning what is the right thing to do? Then you get to where the conflicts are and then keeping the first principle in mind, try to get the resolution. So, it is very simple, apply your mind, use common sense and if you think you have run into a problem, ask someone for advice. Third, always take the team along with you. Remember the team is closer to the ground than what you think. Listening to them, understanding their point of view and then arriving at a solution is a way I think to tackle stuff."

"There are three things that are non-negotiable, regulation is non-negotiable at Kotak, credit, is non-negotiable and anything that will hurt anybody is non-negotiable. Keeping this framework. I have tried to address any situation, any issue any resolution."

On her plans for the bank growth she says, "I am only a part of Kotak. We have our vision set out, of which I am a part, the part of that vision to execute, what the organisation has set out as a plan for the next three years. Our business is about customers. Three key things will change the future, technology, talent and customer experience. So, I am a part of the firm and I am driving along with the leaders of the firm to make sure that Kotak's position in the top echelons of the financial services sector remains with focus on some of these key aspects. I am a soldier, will always remain a soldier."

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