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Chanda Kochhar: Of glass ceilings and dubious dealings
Hers is one of India's most well-recognized faces. No, she is not a Tinseltown star; nor is she a sports icon. She is, or used to be, a banker. It is a job that invariably finds a place in the list of the most boring/annoying jobs in the world. After all, having to balance an overwhelming number of accounts and juggle figures all day long is not an attractive proposition to many. The job is demanding and often stressful, and even a slight mistake in the numbers can leave many in the chain red-faced. But then, not everyone is Chanda Kochhar, who was till recently the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Managing Director (MD) of ICICI Bank, a leading private sector bank in India.

When the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) identified ICICI Bank as a Domestic Systemically Important Bank (D-SIB), along with the public sector banking giant State Bank of India (SBI), many sat up and took notice. And what they noticed was a brilliant woman behind the retail presence and rising fortunes of ICICI Bank. Chanda Kochhar had arrived, and how!

Self-made woman

Born on November 17, 1961 in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Chanda Kochhar had her schooling at St. Angela Sophia School in Jaipur and her Bachelor's Degree in Arts at Jai Hind College in Mumbai. While pursuing her degree, Kochhar also studied cost accountancy at ICWAI.

As Kochhar put it in an interview to rediff.com (January 11, 2012), "I had planned to do an MBA after finishing graduation. While I was doing my graduation, I realized I had too much time at hand. So instead of hanging around in college I thought I should do cost accountancy. That's how I came to enrol at ICWAI."

That the young Kochhar chose to spend the "too much time at hand" in studying cost accountancy, instead of idling it away as many youngsters tend to do, only goes to confirm the truth that the personality traits that one displays as an adult are formed in childhood. Unsurprisingly, when Kochhar was pursuing her MBA, after graduation, at Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai, she received the Wockhardt Gold Medal for Excellence in Management Studies, besides the JN Bose Gold Medal for securing the highest aggregate in her cost accountancy course.

After her Masters, in 1984, Kochhar joined the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI) as a management trainee and was asked to handle the basic core function of project appraisal and monitoring. And in 1993, when ICICI decided to enter commercial banking, Kochhar was deputed to ICICI Bank as a part of the core team to set up the bank, which involved conceptualizing the entire strategic direction for the new bank. It was early days in the newly liberalized economy, and not many would have thought that the bank in the making would go on to become India's leading private sector bank and the woman deputed as a member of the core team would one day be the boss of the bank, holding responsibility for its consolidated total assets worth Rs 11,242.81 billion and 4,867 branches spread over 19 countries with more than 80,000 employees.

Woman with a mission

Interestingly, the growth trajectory of ICICI Bank as a top private sector bank and Kochhar's stellar rise through the ranks to reach the corner office ran parallel. Kochhar was appointed as assistant general manager in 1994; deputy general manager in 1996; general manager and the head of the bank's Major Client Group in 1998; head of strategy and e-commerce divisions in 1999; executive director, heading the bank's retail business in 2001; deputy managing director in 2006; chief financial officer (CFO) and joint managing director in 2007; and MD and CEO of the bank in 2009.

As the brilliant and tenacious Kochhar was thus fast-tracking her way up the corporate ladder, ICICI Bank which she came to head too was going from strength to strength, notching up quite a few laurels along the way. Set up in 1994, ICICI Bank became: the first commercial bank from India to list its stock on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in 2000; India's second largest bank in terms of assets following the merger of ICICI Ltd with the bank in 2002; the market leader in retail credit in India in 2003; the largest bank in India in terms of market capitalization in 2005; the first Indian bank to issue hybrid Tier-1 perpetual debt in the international markets in 2006; and the first bank in India to launch a premium credit card (the Visa Signature Credit Card) in 2007.

After Kochhar took charge on May 1, 2009, the bank's net interest income rose to Rs 23,026 crore from Rs 8,367 crore; net profit to Rs 6,777 crore from Rs 3,758 crore; and the percentage of retail loans to 56.6 from 18.

While ICICI Bank achieved the distinction of "Best Retail Bank" in India under Kochhar's stewardship, Kochhar's inspirational leadership in taking the bank to great heights won her a slew of awards, including Padma Bhushan, India's third highest civilian award, in 2011 and the Woodrow Wilson Award for Global Corporate Citizenship from the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC in 2017. What's more, she invariably figured in lists such as "Top 50 Women in World Business," and "100 Most Influential People in the World" brought out by prestigious national and international publications.

And then, the fall 

In fact, Chanda Kochhar's remarkable journey from a corner of Jodhpur to ICICI Bank's corner office and to the heights of Indian banking sector is the stuff fairytales are made of. But then, not all fairytales have a fairytale ending. While Kochhar's tenacity (which, she says, she inherited from her mother), her hunger for learning, her business acumen, her ability to take quick decisions, her readiness to take a challenge head-on, and her ease with technology and intelligent innovations helped her break the glass ceiling, a rare lapse of judgment has all but shattered whatever she has painstakingly achieved.

A whistleblower, Arvind Gupta, alleged in 2016 that a Rs 3,250 crore loan granted by ICICI Bank to the Videocon Group in 2012 was a clear case of conflict of interest since Videocon's chairman Venugopal Dhoot had made an investment in NuPower Renewables, a company promoted by Deepak Kochhar, Chanda Kochhar's husband. According to media reports, Dhoot allegedly gave Rs 64 crore in 2010 through a fully-owned entity to NuPower Renewables, which he had set up with Deepak Kochhar and two of his kin. It is alleged that he transferred proprietorship of the firm to a trust owned by Deepak Kochhar for Rs 9 lakh, six months after he received the loan from ICICI Bank in what is seen as a quid-pro-quo arrangement.

Following this allegation, a multi-agency probe was initiated into the alleged nexus between Deepak Kochhar and Venugopal Dhoot. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered a preliminary enquiry in February 2018 into the alleged nepotism. The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) sent, on May 23, a show-cause notice to the bank and Chanda Kochhar over allegations of violating listing obligations and disclosure requirements. However, ICICI Bank issued a statement on May 28, 2018 reposing confidence in the integrity of Chanda Kochhar, only to, in a volte-face, ask Chanda Kochhar to go on indefinite leave the very next day till the completion of the independent enquiry instituted by the bank. When everyone was thinking that Chanda Kochhar would weather the Videocon storm and emerge unscathed, in a sudden development, she resigned, on October 4, 2018, from ICICI Bank and all its subsidiaries, thus bringing down the curtain on what could have been an illustrious banking career.

While ICICI Bank has euphemistically termed the resignation "early retirement" on Chanda Kochhar's request, it is seen as a face-saver, enabling a graceful exit for Kochhar. Does that mean we have heard the last of Chanda Kochhar? Not at all. Much depends on the outcome of the probes initiated into the Dhoot-Kochhars-ICICI Bank web of transactions.

If the probes exonerate Chanda Kochhar, she will surely use it to her advantage and turn the current setback into a phoenix-like comeback. And, all that can be said at this point of time is: the final word has not yet been said on the Chanda Kochhar saga.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of merinews.com. In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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Sowmya Bhargava
Brilliant!!!
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