Pathbreakers 2
“I constantly ask myself what is the baggage of history and what are the lessons of history”

Uday Kotak recounts the amazing success story of the Kotak group—how he started, the breaks he got and where he is headed

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when non-banking financial services companies were mushrooming to take advantage of the huge gap between deposit and lending rates, Kotak Mahindra Finance was just one of the pack. A decade later, when a big shakeout forced almost every finance company to close down, Kotak battened down its hatches and survived. Along the way, it pulled off the impossible – got Goldman Sachs, the bluest of the blue Wall Street firms, into a joint venture and that too for a mere 25% stake. In 2007, the Kotak group was the only survivor among the finance companies that started up in the 1980s, having grown into a complete financial services business, offering insurance, broking, mutual funds, banking and other services. It is also the only one that has not sold out to a foreign partner, unlike older well-known finance and securities houses. The man behind this remarkable success story is Uday Kotak. Here is his story – how he started, the breaks he got and where he is headed

ML: Can you start by telling us a little about the early years of your life?

I was born in Mumbai in a family where 60 people lived together. It was one huge floor in a large house. My father had come back to India from Karachi after the Partition. He was from a large family; my grandfather had five brothers. When my father came to India, we joined the main branch of the family who were already living here.

ML: Was the family into trading?

Yes, the family was into trading. We had offices in Shanghai, Bombay and Karachi in those days. They were mainly into cotton and, later, other agricultural commodities. As the family grew, we moved to a place at Laburnum Road. That was supposed to be an independent family consisting of my grandfather, my father and my uncles. That was how you defined independent families in those days! One of my father’s uncles was a nationalist and a Gandhian. He was close to Morarji Desai. In 1963, a school called Hindi Vidya Bhavan was started at Marine Drive to promote Indian culture and all the boys of the family studied there. Interestingly, our joint family believed in capitalism at work and socialism at home. So it was a family decision that all boys had to go to that school.

ML: What are your earliest memories of business?

It is of my father waking up at 5:30 in the morning to make trunk calls because they used to cost half the rate before 6a.m. He would call far-flung places like Srigangnagar in Rajasthan and Sirsa in Haryana to get the cotton price and he called the textiles mills later to give them the prices. I learnt from my father and grandfather how business is done. They had totally different approaches. My grandfather was detailed in his approach while my father was good with the big picture. That was a very interesting part of my childhood.

ML: We gather you had offices even in countries as far as Poland?

Yes, my uncle had an office in Poland. He was into exports; Dhirubhai (Ambani) and he used to share a room when they both went to Poland. So life was like that. Since it was all part of growing up, learning from the family business was a process of imbibing and informal learning. Through this entire period, formal education was important too. I used to play the sitar and cricket. I joined Sydenham College, which was a turning point. I was an above-average student in school; I was usually among the top three or four. But in my first year at Sydenham, I stood second in Bombay University. That stunned me and acted as a big spur. After that, I topped the university at both Junior BCom and BCom. Doing well in education became a very important part of life. Thereafter, I debated between doing Chartered Accountancy and MBA. I almost joined Bansi Mehta to do my CA but then decided to join the Jamnalal Bajaj School of Management. I didn’t apply anywhere else and was fortunate to have got in. During my first year of MBA, I had a major accident. I got hit by a cricket ball on my head and had to undergo an emergency surgery. I lost a year.  I was bed-ridden for 3-4 months. It was a very close call. If the surgery had not been performed in an hour or so, it would have been a different story.

ML: What happened then?

I lost a whole year because of the accident, because, if you lost a semester, you lost a year. I had nothing to do for the rest of the year after I recovered, so I went to work in the joint family business of exporting cotton. We had 14 family members working in the same office in Navsari Building in Fort, I also went to the godown at Sewri. The most important learning experience was the art of dealing with different kinds of people including labour. I also learnt a lot about clearing and forwarding, shipping, etc. But in those few months, I got into serious differences of opinion with others from the family. It was a matter of perspective.

ML: Was it over the method of work?

That was one aspect. In the joint family system, who you are in the family dictates what is right. I realised that you may not necessarily have your way even if you are right. You have to take your team along, especially in situations where business decisions are not based on logic; I learnt to handle those situations. When I completed MBA, I was very clear that I would not work in the family business. I applied for a job at Hindustan Lever, was selected and had made up my mind to join. At that stage, my father and I had a serious talk. He asked, “Uday, what do you want to do in life?” I said, “I don’t know; but I will not join the family business. I don’t want to have this problem of working with 14 family members and being one of them.” He then said, “What if I convince the family to give you a small office space to work? What would you want to do then?” I said I would like to do financial consultancy. He asked the family and I took the bait. I was given a small office space to figure out what to do.

ML: What kind of financial consultancy did you have in mind? How old were you then?

: I was about 22-23. I told my father, you had a friend in college who is now a big name in the financial market; introduce me to him. Before that, I must mention that one of the very important influences in my life was Shivanand Mankekar who was our professor in the MBA course. (Mankekar is an extremely low-profile finance guru who has been stunningly successful in making large bets on fast-growing listed companies such as MCX and Pantaloon at a very early stage of their growth. He chooses to remain unknown outside a very small circle of large investors and businessmen. - Editor) I used to go with him to the stock market almost every day; it was a great learning experience.

ML: What did you learn from him?

I remember the first lecture of Prof Mankekar. He asked, “How do you value a company?” Someone said by net profit, somebody else said by assets. He said, “All wrong. You value a company on its cash flow.” He would explain how growth happens and how companies grow. I then started going to the stock market with him to the office of a particular broker in the stock exchange building and sit there. That is where the idea of financial consultancy started germinating in my mind along with reading a few books. My father had probably noticed it and made the offer. I started with 300 square feet of space in one of our godowns.

As I was saying, I asked my father to introduce me to his classmate Mukul Harkisondas who was a big player in the market. My father said, “No problem, I will take you to him.” (The Harkisondas family ran Harkisondas Lakhimdas a large institutional brokerage firm that later went bust and HL Ficom Consultants, probably the largest distributor of financial products at that time. The family also had interests in manufacturing - Editor) Mukul Harkisondas was running a company called Carbon Corporation of India. The financial services business was being run by Pradip Harkisondas. I started interacting with him and explored the possibility of jointly floating a company to do consulting for non-resident Indians.

ML: Which year was this?

This was in 1982. Just about then, HL went into problems. Chandubhai, one of the family members, over-speculated in the shares of Tata Ordinary (Tisco) and HL went under. Pradip was embroiled in the mess and our venture was put on the backburner. Around that time, I met a gentleman called Sidney Pinto in HL Ficom’s office. He was one of India’s earliest merchant bankers, having started the merchant banking division for Grindlays. When HL Ficom was in trouble, he offered to help sort things out because of his old association with the firm. One day, while walking back from Pradip’s office in Nariman Point to my office at Flora Fountain Sidney said, “Why don’t you set up your own firm? Pradip has his challenges and also has to look after Ficom Organics.” It sounded right and we started to work on it. It was supposed to be called Kotak Capital Management. Just before that, something interesting happened. One of my classmates from Bajaj joined a Tata company called Nelco. Nelco used to borrow money for 90 days at 17% through bill discounting. Basically, the suppliers would be paid 90 days later. Under the Credit Authorisation Scheme, there was a cap on the money that a large company like Nelco could raise. The cap was Rs5 crore. So suppliers used to be in distress. In those days, bank deposit rates (fixed deposit) were 6% and the lending rates were 17%, fixed by the Reserve Bank of India. I went to a few family friends and asked them, “What is the rate that you get on bank deposits?” They said 6%. I said, “What if you got 12% on a Tata risk?” They said, “This boy is crazy. How can you get that?” That’s how we got into bill discounting with money from individuals. We used to buy the bills, write the cheque, rediscount them and keep the spread. The banks were making 11%; we were making 5%. Because of a system where banks were working with the spread between 6% and 17%, we could intermediate and create a market. That’s how we started. Later all the foreign banks came - European Asian Bank and others. None of them had a deposit base here. But they were ready to take credit risk, so they would do what was known as co-acceptance. You also had another set of foreign banks and Indian banks who had surplus money like Standard Chartered, American Express and some of the Indian banks, in which case, it became an inter-bank risk. If a Nelco bill was co-accepted by a European Asian Bank, you could do an inter-bank risk transaction. We then moved beyond individuals - to buy bills and refinance them from Indian banks. That’s how the whole bill discounting saga played out. We made significant profits because the market was very imperfect and there was no concept of the private sector in the financial services.  

When we made a little money, we bought a card on the BSE (Bombay Stock Exchange). We bought the card in 1985 for about Rs2 lakh. Those days, you could not do stock broking through a company; it had to be a sole proprietorship or a partnership. The broking card was in my name. Until then, all that I was doing was as a division of the family. Then we decided to create a separate company called Kotak Capital Management. Just as we dealt with Nelco, we also started dealing with some Mahindra group companies like Mahindra Ugine and in the process, I was introduced to Anand Mahindra. There was a lot of talk about him being a bright boy who had come back from Harvard and was building his business. Anand used to be the general manager (commercial) at Mahindra Ugine. I told him, “I can raise money for you in bills of exchange in 48-72 hours.” That worked and I began to do business with the group. I got married around that time and at a pre-wedding function Sidney told Anand that “Uday is thinking of creating a separate company.” Anand said he would be keen on an equity stake in it. He didn’t want control, since he wasn’t keen on the financial services business himself.

ML: What interested you in the tie-up?

: In those days, we were not a name in the financial services. To my mind, this was an important drawback. I believe that financial services is about trust. So I said, “Can we call it Kotak Mahindra”? Anand agreed and that’s how Kotak Mahindra Finance came about.

ML: That was a significant move, getting the Mahindra family name with yours…

Obviously, he had got some comfort about us and what we were doing. There is a basis to my belief about using our names. When I visited the US, I saw Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, Lehman - all carrying family names. They were started by family members, but retained their names well after they became financial institutions of global scale and size. The logic at the initial stage is that you use your family name first because you put your reputation to risk to build trust. That was our logic too.

ML: When was this joint venture formed?

In April 1986. Then, as we made profits, we went into leasing. In 1989, we started car loans. Those days, only Citibank did car loans and the cost of money was 17%-18% and the lending rate was 27%. That was the kind of spread in the car loan business. There was no way we could compete against Citibank, but Citi had one constraint. They could lend against cars only when the vehicles were available and cars were in short supply. Having a ready car to sell was a differentiating factor. We started buying cars and booking cars in advance, because it took 6-8 months for delivery. Whenever a customer wanted a car we could give a car and the finance. We did not charge the customer a premium on the car, but he had to take a loan from us. That is where the spread was and we were able to compete with Citi.

ML: What else were you doing at that time apart from bills, car loans? Broking?

We were also doing a little equipment leasing business for tax purposes. We were not doing much in broking then. Coming back to the Pradip Harkisondas story (he died in an air crash in 1988), I met his son Rikeen Dalal at Anil Ambani’s wedding at Cooperage ground in 1989. Rikeen said he was planning to close down HL Ficom (which was in fixed deposits) and focus only on Ficom Organics. I said, “If you are closing it down, why don’t you give it to me?” He said, “Okay, you pay me for the office at Raja Bahadur Mansion at Dalal Street.” In April 1990, we bought HL Ficom.

ML: Buying means, primarily the property?

And also the franchise. We paid some Rs30 lakh in all and got into retail distribution of financial products. We kept the name for a while. Then, as we grew, in 1991, we decided to go public. I remember the incident because it was in November or December 1991 and Sucheta had come to our press conference for our public issue. At that time, the first problems of bill discounting were beginning to surface. Some Indian banks did not have the powers to issue Letters of Credit (LC). And one such LC was from UCO Bank, which had issued it for a company called Virgo Steel. It turned out that the manager who signed those LCs was not authorised. We had our first problem on that. But obviously the risk was not on us, as we had already sold down. So this was the beginning of the problems in the bill market. Sucheta had asked a question about the UCO Bank LC and whether there was any trouble. Fortunately, we didn’t lose too much money on that LC because the drawer of the bill was another steel company we knew. But the problems had started. In 1992 January (we went public in December 1991), I got a call from one Dr Thiagarajan in Chennai, whose family was in the textiles business. Our family used to supply cotton to them and he knew my father. Since he was focused on the textile business, he said, “Our family has a 20% stake in Bank of Madura. Why don’t you come in as a partner? We will hold 10% each.”

ML: What was your vision for Kotak Mahindra then?

As a broad-based financial services company, including banking.

ML: Even though banking was then absolutely closed to the private sector?

Therefore, there was no choice but to buy something. It was a bank controlled by the Chettiar community and since we could not own more than 1% as per the RBI rules, we had 10 legal entities, each with a separate name holding less than 1%. We acquired the 10% stake on 8 April 1992 and, at that stage, it was a pretty significant development from our point of view. Another very interesting connection is that my first son was born in 1989 and my second son was born on 23 April 1992.

ML: The day the scam broke out?

Yes. I still remember I went early in the morning to the hospital and I came back and I read Sucheta’s piece on the front page of The Times of India on 23 April 1992. It was a coincidence that we will not forget. We all knew that there was trouble in the market but nobody had come out and called a spade a spade. And then, all hell broke loose. Around the same time, I was beginning to believe that India was going to globalise and I had met a couple of Americans from Goldman Sachs at a Euromoney conference in New Delhi. I had latched on to them and said that I wanted to build a relationship. We all got to meet in New York in May 1992. I went to New York for this meeting with Goldman; and, at the same time, a big blow-up happened in India around Bank of Madura. And after we got into the Bank, we realised that there was a battle among the Chettairs and Mr A.C. Muthiah and Dr Thiagarajan for control of the Bank.

ML: Mr Muthiah was powerful and had S. Venkitaramanan, the then RBI Governor as a close friend.

: Yes. But before I had bought our stake I had met Mr Venkitaramanan and told him about the deal. He said, “Okay, go ahead.” The whole thing blew up on 29 May 1992 when I was in New York. There were stories in the papers that Uday Kotak had buzzed off to the US because he didn’t want to face issues. We were not even in control of the Bank. We had just appointed a couple of people on the board. It became a big issue. So we then said, let’s lie low. Let’s not focus on Bank of Madura. Let’s focus on our company. In fact, the biggest learning for me happened during 1992-94.

ML: What was that?

When something looks too good to be true, be careful. For instance, the way the whole Unit ‘64 scheme was being run. You could simply short units and it was money for jam. The second learning was ‘don’t be carried away by someone else making disproportionate money. Good luck to him’. Obviously, you look at how you can do better, but this game of relativity is a killer.

ML: At that time, there were so many new financial services companies in the market, but you were one of the few that survived and grew. What did you do right that others did not?

Yes. The 1990s was a period of agni pariksha. I learnt that unconnected events blow up in your face. This Bank of Madura thing and RBI coming to inspect our books, then Fairgrowth blowing up … it teaches you about controlling exuberance. Thereafter, when MS Shoes happened or the CR Bhansali episode happened, one was much better prepared. We started formulating some internal rules: you decide upon some lines that you will not cross, come what may. Nothing is worth it. The world is not perfect but you will say, “I don’t care. Beyond a point, let somebody else do it; I don’t want to do it.” That was the important learning from the 1990s -- I would like to call it a Trial by Fire. What worries me sometimes is when newer people come into the financial markets who do not have this experience you are playing an unequal game. You ask yourself: “How important is it to keep in mind the lessons of history versus how important is it to get rid of the baggage of history?” What is baggage and what is the lesson, is a constant debate. There is no easy answer. Anyone who has lived through the ‘90s has a perspective of how wrong things can go. I hope I am wrong, but I have that kind of worry about what is happening in the US right now with the sub-prime issue. I see a mindset of denial among financial institutions, that is a big problem. They are grappling with how wrong things can go. We have gone through that experience between 1996 and 1999.

Anyway, after the meeting with Goldman Sachs in New York, one of their partners in Hong Kong called to say, “I am getting some senior partners from New York who would like to figure out what India is and what is happening there. Can you come down?” I went there and the two senior partners were Hank Paulson (now the US Treasury Secretary) and John Corzine. Both eventually became chairmen of Goldman. It was a dinner meeting and they were completely jet lagged. I finally got Mark Evans, their partner in Hong Kong, to convince Hank Paulson to make a trip to India. He came here in 1994. In 1995, we signed up with Goldman to do investment banking and broking. The alliance was mainly driven by Hank. He was still not the chairman but was moving up the ranks. It happened to be Goldman’s first joint venture anywhere in the world and ran for 10 years. Then our joint ventures for car financing with Ford happened. All this helped us to build capital, but it was also a process of learning as to how international business gets done. We hardly knew what international investment banking or securities business was all about. We were at the early stages of foreign institutional investors coming into India.

ML: There was lot of debate then about whether or not to give away equity to foreigners.

Yes, but we gave it away in the subsidiaries - Kotak Securities, Kotak Capital, Kotak Mahindra Prime. We didn’t give equity in the parent company Kotak Mahindra Finance. The parent put very little money into the subsidiaries. So effectively, we capitalised those businesses with joint venture participation. The Goldman joint venture happened because Hank Paulson wanted it; otherwise it would never have happened. This was in 1996 and interest rates were sharply going up. But we got capital from Goldman and Ford just before the interest rates spiked; that gave us shock-absorbing capacity through the tougher times.

ML: But the business went down during the low-growth period?

By 1996, we were back to an interest rate scenario of 18%-20%; and people were raising money through 17% debentures for five and nine years. We were beginning to see initial pangs in our loan portfolio and our balance sheet. In mid-1997, just before the Asian crisis, we concluded that there was serious trouble ahead and we cut our balance sheet by 50%. Our loan book was Rs1,800 crore. We got out of Rs800 crore worth of loans and actually cut our limits because we felt that this couldn’t last. We went on to say that we saw serious defaults in the financial sector. This happened; but we were saved because we cut down our exposure. We still lost about 10% of our portfolio, which was large, but imagine the loss if we had expanded our portfolio from Rs1,800 crore, as others did. Nobody saw it coming, not even financial institutions like IDBI, IFCI, etc. We hunkered down on our lending book.

An interesting sideshow is that, in January 1996, Aveek Sarkar came to me and we raised a small amount of money for Business Standard. Aveek and his brother Arup came back a few months later saying “we are making significant losses in Business Standard and want to go back to running the other publications; get us a buyer.” We tried to sell it, but nobody wanted to buy a newspaper.  Nusli Wadia, Tatas, Reliance - everyone said no. We even went to industry associations and asked if they wanted to buy; they also said the same thing. It came to a stage when the Sarkars would have taken a tougher call. But before that, I said, add up whatever is the book value of your plant and machinery and we will make a financial investment, but we don’t want to run it. They were delighted. That’s how we got into Business Standard. I went to Ninan (T.N. Ninan is the editor of Business Standard) and said, “You want a piece of equity? I don’t want to have anything to do with running it, keep it independent. How much money will I lose?”

ML: What was the extent of losses then?

About Rs1.5 crore a month. We thought we could lose at the most Rs15-20 crore, but the losses turned out to be much larger. It did bother me to keep writing cheques every month so there came a time when we said we need equity from somebody else. One of the people writing in Business Standard was Sudhir Mulji (of Great Eastern Shipping) who said he was interested. That’s how GE Shipping got a third of the equity.

ML: Was Financial Times involved at that stage?

Financial Times was not involved. They didn’t know us. I had gone to T.Thomas because I knew that FT was comfortable with him. And they had comfort with Ninan; so that’s how FT came. It’s a little bit of a side story. It literally happened because we, as merchant bankers, tried our best to sell BS and came to a dead end.

ML: As a merchant banker, you would not buy and hold anything that you cannot sell. You are also not the kind to write cheques for a losing business.

You must keep in mind that we had got a serious amount of money from Ford and Goldman just a year earlier. The Ford deal was bringing in a very serious amount of cash flow every year. Besides, nobody knew how deep the downturn was when we bought the paper. Maybe there was a mystique in my mind about a paper that came from Kolkata one day later and people would still read it. There was also the belief that the brand was worth more than its book value. So that was the Business Standard part. We started a mutual fund in 1998 and in 2001 life insurance opened up and we had applied for a licence. And, in late 2001, we got out of Bank of Madura (BoM).

ML: You did not want to move forward with BoM?

I was not clear how to marry a regional bank with our brand. Dr Thiagarajan was very keen that we buy it, but I didn’t want to take 2,500 people, which seemed like a lot those days. The experience of the late 1990s had made us cautious. Finally, Dr Thiagarajan decided to do a deal with ICICI; we just wanted to ensure that we got the right value. Finally, it was a merger and we became ICICI Bank’s shareholders. Just about then, RBI released its guidelines for new private sector banks.

We applied in 2002, got the licence and debated whether to have a separate company. RBI said that the parent had to be converted, so Kotak Mahindra Finance became a bank. In 2003, it was clear that the joint ventures (JV), especially those with Ford, were not making much headway in India. One was Ford Credit and the other was for non-Ford cars (Primus). Ford was having trouble in the US and somebody in Detroit felt that the capital put into Primus was being used to finance competition. So we said, “Okay you buy our stake in the Ford Credit and we buy your stake in Primus.” Interestingly, after we sold our stake in Ford Credit, we separately bought the entire retail car portfolio of Ford cars. They wanted to get out of retail financing completely. That was in October 2005.

Around that time, our negotiation with Goldman also began. Hank Paulson had become the chairman and in September 2005, they said they wanted a bigger piece of India. They wanted their brand name on the company, which we were not using in India, unlike our two big competitors. They wanted to go from 25% to 49%. We were probably willing to accept that and change the firm’s name to Kotak Goldman or something. Around then, Merrill Lynch bought out the DSP stake in DSP Merrill Lynch. Just before that happened, Hank came back to us and said, “Our board feels that India is strategically too important and we would love to have this JV, but it must be 51% to us and 49% to you. We want to be in control of our destiny. We are ready to look at the valuation, but we want control.”

ML: This was for investment banking and broking?

Yes. In broking, they were ready to give us the retail part. That was the turning point. We decided that integrated financial services were the way to go and we would go alone. I had sleepless nights and intense negotiations with them on how to separate and at what price. We were dealing with guys who do this for a living every day and they put some of their toughest mergers & acquisitions guys to deal with us. We finally concluded the deal in March 2006. I debated the issue deeply in my mind. I was aware that there was a thin line between conviction and foolhardiness. I kept asking myself: am I doing this out of conviction or am I being foolish? Was Hemendra’s (Kothari) call to sell out, the right one? It’s not easy. While the market has responded well, it was a deep mental debate within our firm and myself. It’s not easy because it’s a globalised world.

ML: What were your thoughts when you broke up with Goldman, the world’s most powerful brand in investment banking and trading.

There are two or three things. One, we never had Goldman in our brand name, which worked to our disadvantage for a while, since two of our competitors had a global brand attached to them. But it made the separation easier. On the equities side, we had created our own subsidiaries overseas - Kotak UK and Kotak US. We have our own sales force for selling to institutions. We got access to some of those institutions because of the Goldman connection, but all the registrations and empanelments were with the joint venture, Kotak Securities.

ML: Do a lot of M&A deals now originate from India instead of originating overseas? Do you have an advantage there?

That is true; but Indian companies will ask: what value do you bring in getting the international deal? There are four aspects to the business. First, Indian customer, Indian product. Second, Indian customer, global product. Third, global customer, Indian product. Fourth, global customer, global product. The fourth is the toughest. You have to build the second and third through a network. For example, on convertibles, we now have a tie-up with a Belgian bank called KBC. We are doing selective tie-ups in different markets. Simultaneously, we built international presence. Kotak UK is an FII with a $1.8 billion investment in India. We started these initiatives because we were clear that joint ventures were not forever.

ML: Right from the beginning?

Very clearly, from the beginning. In a joint venture, you eventually sell or you buy. You are not going to have status quo forever.

ML: Until you parted, did you know if you would buy or sell?

The conviction got stronger over the years - that it makes sense to build an integrated financial institution from India. It was a difficult call but we made it. It was tense. We didn’t want to be a hero for a day and then gone forever. If we had sold, we would have got a lot of money, but if I am building an institution and my aspirations are broader, is money alone good enough?

ML: That is an important difference between you and Hemendra Kothari; you had a lot to look forward to.

Yes. In the case of Nimesh (Kampani), Morgan Stanley already had 51%  in the equity joint venture. In our case, Goldman had only 25% mainly because Goldman didn’t take India seriously. Hank Paulson was much more bullish on China than on India. He was in China recently, but as US Treasury Secretary, he has not visited India. Between 1996 and 2006, he came to India only once, but made a 100 trips to China. I know his psychology; he is much more pro-China. We were lucky that Goldman didn’t take India seriously; and, as a 25% partner allowed us access to all the institutional clients.

ML: When the time came, you had the franchise, systems, capital and India…

India was looking better. But despite that, the decision was not easy. I believe that India’s time to build financial institutions has come. It shocks me to see that three out of 10 of the world’s largest banks are Chinese. What are we doing? The size of our aspirations has to be significant, and we have to do it smartly. Very large pieces of the Indian financial sector are completely globalised. Look at the securities market, the asset management market. Every known global player is here. Other than commercial banking and the life insurance market, the field is wide open. So you will have to be competitive.

ML: So what’s next from here?

Building of an Indian financial institution with a strong domestic presence and having a global footprint over time. We have 125 branches currently and by the middle of next year, we will have 200. The Net will undoubtedly be a major engine, but in India, you will still see significant physical branches as well. In my view, the right network would be 500 to 1,000 branches.

ML: How would you compete with the big banks?

Our platform is based on two simple principles. One is convenience and the other is solutions. We offer convenience by telling our customers they can use any bank’s ATM and we will pick up the tab and by providing a pretty significant home banking facility, where we pick up cheques or cash from a customer’s home. We have a small customer base and we bring a differentiation; the larger banks cannot compete because they cannot offer the same facility to millions of customers. The second platform is - solutions. Our entire branding is based on that - it is the origin of ‘Think Investments, Think Kotak’. In India, most banks don’t talk about investments, capital markets, etc. We offer solutions and advice. The challenge is: how do we integrate services while keeping the RBI regulations, as between banking and brokerage, in mind? More and more customers need both and it is not easy to integrate. Regulation is one issue, the other is that the nature of the brokerage customer is different from a bank customer; bundling them can bring powerful results.

ML: Large banks are indeed tying up with broking firms to bundle them.

Correct. Bundling will become more and more important as brokerage becomes commoditised; that is the next stage of business evolution.

ML: On a standalone basis, are you profitable in banking?

As a bank, we are profitable, but there are different segments of our business. We are clearly profitable on the wholesale side; we are profitable on the retail assets side, which is commercial lending, construction equipment, commercial vehicles, personal loans and all that. Each branch takes about 24 months to break-even and we account for branch profitability in a pretty distinct way. Most banks combine the retail assets and the retail liabilities in one pot. They don’t show the numbers separately. We do.

ML: But the branches are the ones that do retail asset lending…

Remember our model. We were in retail asset lending even before we became a bank. So the branches started by getting deposit customers, CASA (current accounts and saving accounts) customers. So, by design, in the early stages, the asset branches focused on the asset size and new branches focused on the liability side. At some point of time, we will integrate the two. In the initial stages, we didn’t have deposits. We needed the deposits.

ML: How do you account for the branch profitability?

We have an internal measure under which assets originated by a branch are credited for. We are now pushing the branches to get a certain percentage of assets from the retail side. So, sourcing will happen from there.

ML: What about insurance?

  When we started life insurance in 2000-01, we had no bank and our brand was still evolving  as compared to an HDFC or an ICICI. It is only in the past few years that we are beginning to get traction. You can build trust only over time and I think we are getting momentum on insurance. Also, how does a bank cross-sell insurance products without customers? As the pace of our customer acquisition increases, we will be able to gain momentum in all our businesses. Managing people is another interesting aspect. When we became a commercial bank in 2003 we had 1,500  in the group; at the end of June this year, we were 12,500. We will hire 2,000 MBAs this year. With that comes a huge challenge since they are all carrying the brand and represent the firm. The challenge is in managing scale at a certain quality.


“I am an organisation builder, and I want to bring that skill to my philanthropy”

Hemendra Kothari, who pioneered investment banking in India, has seen India’s financial sector evolve all the way from state control in the 1960s

Hemendra Kothari is one among the few in the Indian financial sector who has seen it all – from the earliest stages of state control in the late 1960s to free markets and the globally integrated eco-nomy of today. In between, he built the family brokerage business virtually from nothing to one of the best names in India. He soldiered through the frustrating 1970s, was one of the earliest to look abroad in the 1980s, stayed the course in the stagnant 1990s when many others fell by the wayside and was ready to reap the benefits once the Indian economy and markets took off after 2002. One of Kothari’s significant achievements has been to skilfully engage one of the largest financial firms in the world – Merrill Lynch – in a highly rewarding partnership in investment banking, broking and asset management. Now, it is his charities and the mission to save the tiger that are the new focus areas of his life

ML: We would like to start from the very beginning – you were born in Mumbai, weren’t you?

HK: Yes, born and brought up and also educated in Mumbai. I studied at Sydenham College. After my graduation my father advised me not to go to the stock exchange because it is not a very interesting place to be in.

ML: But wasn’t your family into stock-broking?

HK: Yes, my family has been in the stock exchange for nearly 140 years. In fact, when I entered the brokerage business, my family had been in it for over 100 years. My great grandfather was one of the founders of the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) and was involved in setting it up along with some others. It first started operating under a banyan tree and he was one of the first signatories to setting up the stock exchange association.

ML: What was his name?

HK: He was Purbhoodas Jeevandas Kothari. The stock exchange business wasn’t very attractive in 1967 when I completed my BCom. It was suggested that I must get trained for doing business. Textiles was big business those days. I had a friend called (late) Ashok Piramal whose family was in textiles. His father said, “Why don’t you come here and try your hand at this?” I joined Morarjee Mills and was there for a year. I went through the rut of going to work at 7.30am and learning spinning, weaving, processing and looking after sales. In less than a year, I was made assistant sales manager. Around then, the head of cotton purchase was appointed the CEO and the person who headed sales left for a better job. The CEO then asked me to takeover as the head of local sales, although I was relatively new to the business. I was only 22 then. But things went quite well. I used to work from 8am to 10pm. The job involved going to Mulji Jetha Market, learning what business was all about. It was a great experience and I thought if I am doing well in this, why can’t I do just as well in my own business in the stock market? So in 1969, I entered the stock market.

ML: Can we go back a little to your family background?

HK: Well, I was fortunate enough to come from a rich family; we always had money; but that doesn’t mean that the riches were liquid; they were in assets. My father was in the market, but he was never an active member. He usually operated on a no-profit no-loss basis. His income wasn’t generated from brokerage but from his personal investments. My father was a very liberal person and a philanthropist, like others in my family. My great grandfather started a boarding and lodging institution at Dadar (in central Mumbai) that allowed students from our native place to come to Mumbai for their college education. About 45 students could stay there and, apart from their food and accomodation, their tuition fees were taken care of. I won’t take names, but many famous people came out of that place. But now there is no need for such a place and we are looking at what to do next. My father also started a hospital in Mumbai.

ML: How many siblings do you have?

HK: We are two brothers and four sisters. My eldest sister is an art historian; she is a PhD and always got a first class first. The second one has passed away; my third sister is a doctor and settled in the US. My fourth sister is also a historian and a PhD, and then I; I was not as clever as them. My younger brother is an engineer and an MBA from the US. He worked in Germany, then came to India and, after spending a year or two in the stock market, started a chemical company called Alkyl Amines. I supported and helped in whatever way I could but he knew what he wanted to do; he didn’t want to be in the market. I studied at the New Era School in Mumbai.

ML: You were in Sydenham College and we believe you played cricket.

HK: Yes, I represented my college, made a lot of friends; I enjoyed cricket, although I wasn’t a great player. I was also the secretary of the students’ union. The objective then was to be active and be allowed to bunk classes. Deepak Parekh was my senior in college, but I knew him since my school days through a cousin of his. Nimesh Kampani (chairman of JM Financial) was in the cricket team, Shitin Desai (executive vice-chairman DSP Merrill Lynch – DSPML) was also there; Jimmy Billimoria, who went to Hindustan Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis), was also there. There were many others – some of whom I am in touch with. Apart from cricket, we played bridge, right until a fortnight before our exams. But the main thing that I remember about college is the long-lasting friendships that I made – many of them are not in business or industry but we still meet and remain good friends.

ML: Why did you get into textiles instead of getting into stock trading directly?

HK: Well, I was told that it didn’t have such a bright future. After I completed my BCom, I didn’t want to study further and wanted to get into business. At that time, somebody told my father, “Why don’t you partner us in a ball bearing company by investing a few lakh of rupees?” My father was willing to invest the money and asked me to take a look at the factory. But you know how much a fresh BCom graduate understands about factories; it looked exciting. I then met Gopikisan Piramal. He said, “Hemendra, you have only done your BCom but you seem to have a great deal of experience.” I said, “No, Sir, I have only just graduated.” Then he said, “But they are willing to take you as a partner; which means that whatever money you have will also go away.” That got into my head and I realised that they may be good people, but they wanted me only for the money. I had neither the experience nor the technical knowledge and was yet to prove myself. Mr Piramal then said, “Why don’t you come to the mill tomorrow and go to the spinning department?” So I started by spending half a day in the cotton mixing department and half a day in purchase; after a couple of months, it got very boring and I asked to be shifted to sales.

ML: When you were with Morarjee Mills and going through different departments, what was in your mind? What was your objective?

HK: I was a novice, but just by using common sense, one could make a lot of improvements; people generally have a mindset of their own and are reluctant to change. If you are enthusiastic and take the initiative, you can make a difference. I did that and I used to go and tell the chief executive about changes that we could and ought to make. He was very happy about what I was doing; I even argued with him about things. He encouraged me to do so and I have to thank him for that. After about six months, he asked, “What is happening? You are not telling me what is wrong anymore.” I said, “Well, everything is fine.” He said, “No, things are not fine, you have just got used to the bad things.” One has to work continuously at improving things – this is one of the lessons about doing business that I learnt there and never forgot.

ML: Then, in 1969, you came back and joined the firm?

HK: Yes, I joined stock-broking in 1969. One of the first things that happened then was that the government imposed a ban on forward trading. The traders went on strike and there was a lot of turmoil. There were very good people like Maganlal T Vora, Champaklal Devidas Dalal, Hasmukhlal Shah and Vasant Dalal who helped me learn the trading process. Our firm was among the 12 brokers empanelled by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), but since nobody had visited them for over a decade, they had removed us from the list. So I had to work hard at getting more outside business and persuade them to re-empanel us. That happened after three years of hard work and it was very important for us in order to get any part of the government securities business, especially for switch deals where RBI was directly involved, or to buy securities from the central bank. An understanding of fixed-income securities, debentures and bonds was important to the business. I never took too much risk because my capital was limited. So I did a lot of agency business. In 1970, I started the equity brokerage segment for institutional business.

ML: Who was actually in charge of the firm at that time?

HK: In 1969, when I joined DSP (DS Purbhoodas), I was not a partner. My father was the proprietor. Until I joined, he ran the firm on a no-profit-no-loss basis. After I came in, the profit jumped to Rs1.5 lakh annually; he was so excited about it that he made me a 50% partner. At that time, it was difficult to attract even a BCom to this business, forget about chartered accountants or management graduates. So from 1969-71, I had a tough time finding the right people – that was the time when banks were nationalised, forward trading was banned. It was a period of great upheaval in the market, but was also a great learning experience – the workload was relatively lower. The main trading institutions were Unit Trust of India (UTI), Life Insurance Corporation (LIC), General Insurance Corporation (which used to be known as Reinsurance Corporation) and New India Assurance which was headed by GS Patel; MJ Pherwani also used to be there. RS Bhatt was then the chairman of UTI. I used to manage quite a few stocks in which institutions were interested but without taking positions. They were, by and large, interested in 40-50 stocks. Those days, we had the open outcry system and the jobbers would inform you of the number of shares available in a particular scrip and I could make offers – that is how trading took place. It was a very exciting time because in a very short time – by 1972 – we were among the top two or three firms on the BSE.

The competition those days was Harkisondass Lakshmidass (which went spectacularly bust), Jamnadas Morarjee (a stock-broking firm headed by the late Mahendra Kampani) to some extent and a few other brokers. As a young guy, competing with established players was a big thrill for me.

In 1971, Grindlays Bank began what was called the first merchant banking office in India. Those days, getting an underwriting proposal of Rs five lakh was a tough job; moreover Grindlays liked to do most of the underwriting themselves and pass only a little to others. So there was a craze to blindly underwrite anything you were offered. Today, you first create demand through marketing and only underwrite for the period of risk – that is the way it is done the world over. Those days, it was blind underwriting for X amount at a fixed price. It was a high-risk business. When I did underwriting, I used to sub-underwrite my exposure. I didn’t want to take risks – it was not my cup of tea.

But specialised merchant banking businesses became a fashion and most brokerage firms started separate entities, mainly as a way to attract good people to join the business. In 1974, I asked Shitin Desai to join me, at that time he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do. We started the merchant banking firm with a capital of Rs five lakh. At the same time, in 1971-72, we began to act as a deposit-collecting agent for Indian companies. That was also a major business those days. We used to distribute the business to hundreds and thousands of brokers all over the country and collect a management commission from the company. We were selective about the kind of companies that we raised deposits for. We learnt some good lessons from GS Patel (former UTI chairman) in particular. He had a very high level of integrity and he always said, “You should be prepared for a CBI inquiry if you are doing business with me and you must be prepared for investigation. So when I give orders, I will myself order an inquiry into it.” That created a different kind of discipline in us, compared to what was going on in the market. In 1973-74, my father began to reduce his work at the firm. He was always interested in philanthropy and I will always cherish his thoughts and ideas.

The years 1975-76 were again tough, because the government ordered a freeze on dividends (and it caused the market to tumble). In 1975, when oil prices began to rise, I began to dream about overseas operations. I took the help of a very nice gentleman called Sorab Pochkhanawala at the Central Bank of India, in charge of international operations. With his references, I met about 40 banks in London, France, Germany and the Middle East over a 20-day period.

ML: What was the idea in meeting them?

HK: I wasn’t quite sure. I knew there would be a link someday and I just went and told all of them that I wanted to represent them in India. Of the 40 banks that I met, only two showed interest. One was Midland Bank and the other was Dresdner Bank. Midland Bank agreed to work on a transaction basis and gave us some offers to fund shipping, etc., but it didn’t quite work out. Those days, Rs50,000 or Rs100,000 was a big sum, especially when there were no emails, and telephone calls and faxes were expensive. So I began to feel that I was ignoring the real bread-and-butter business and wasting my time. Then, in 1978, Air India wanted funding and Dresdner Bank participated in the consortium; we represented Dresdner Bank and were short-listed, but someone else beat us. But that transaction helped build a friendship. Then, in 1981-82, I convinced them that it would reduce their costs if they let me represent them in India instead of having a branch here. In 1983, they finally agreed to let me represent them and that is how our international business started. My relationship with Merrill Lynch began around the same time, but the story actually goes back to 1975. I had joined the board of Kirloskar Cummins as one of its youngest directors.
ML: How old were you then?

HK: I was 27 or 28 and the average age on the board was close to 80 years. Just before me, Sharad Pawar’s brother who runs Sakal newspaper also joined the board; both of us reduced the average age of the board significantly. Soon I was on the boards of Kirloskar Pneumatic, Kirloskar Oils and Kirloskar Cummins. I had met the great SL Kirloskar (SLK) only once in my life, when I went to watch a Davis Cup tennis match. I met him there and spoke about my ideas on various aspects of finance. In a fortnight, I received a call requesting me to join the board. I was excited because Kirloskar was a big name those days and I learnt a lot from SLK. Those days, he used to say that the Planning Commission should be dismantled – it was a very radical idea. He was extremely enterprising and it was great to learn from him; he also encouraged everybody on the board to speak freely about things. I also came in contact with people like Neelkanth Kalyani (of Bharat Forge) and listening to him and others on the board was a great learning experience.

That was the time when I began to travel all over India to meet people and companies. Then, in 1978-79, we created or invented a product called ‘Working Capital Debentures’ for companies who needed funds. We created a formula whereby debentures could be issued against 20% of corporate assets. A lot of companies raised money on that basis in 1978. On the other hand, UTI was getting a lot of money from investors and was hungry for good-quality debt. That was a turning point for us in merchant banking and we started getting a lot of business from known and unknown companies from all over India and also from multinationals. We also started opening representative offices in other cities. So we now had the deposit business, we had debentures and we also went into initial public offerings (IPOs). My first IPO was a complete failure – that was in 1973.

ML: Which one was this? And why did it fail?

HK: It is not really worth talking about. It was a Rs nine lakh issue for a company called Bhopal Toughened Glass, which made glass for car windscreens. We had seen the factory, but it was a new company and there were management problems. So the issue failed. I had underwritten a portion of the issue and had to pay Rs50,000, which was a lot of money those days. It was an important lesson for us to do more research and not get into situations based on hearsay. We learnt to do ‘due diligence’ when the concept was not even known.

That is why, even when we began to do correspondent banking with Dresdner Bank, I insisted that our people be sent for training to Frankfurt. The money that we got from Dresdner was not much, but the advantage was that we got to learn the business. I myself went first – I was in Frankfurt for a month to understand different kinds of banking. Then came our tie-up with the French bank BFCE (Banque de Franaise Commerce Exterieur), which had a completely different way of working. They drive a hard bargain; moreover one part of the business – the export credit business – was an arm of the government. In 1984, we tied up with Merrill Lynch. The issue at that time was whether I could have tie-ups with many different people. But long before that, when I had been to New York in 1976 for a board meeting of Kirloskar Cummins, I wanted to meet the three best brokerage houses in the US. Those days, brokerage firms did what was known as merchant banking but it was more of a lending business. Investment banking, as we know it today, began only in the late 1970s.

So I met Goldman Sachs, who clearly said that they had no interest in India. I then met John M Hennessey of First Boston – who later became chairman – he said he was interested. He asked when I planned to be in London. I said, ‘tomorrow’; so he arranged a meeting with the head of Europe. I said, “Let’s shake hands and start working together” and we established an equation. I was also supposed to meet Merrill Lynch during that visit, but it did not happen because the person I was supposed to meet never bothered to turn up. I often remind them of how our relationship almost never happened (laughs).

We started doing business with First Boston, but in less than a year, it was in serious trouble overseas and the people who I had interacted with left – it later became Credit Suisse First Boston. So I wondered if I would have to spend a few hundred thousand rupees again to build new relationships – so I just kept quiet for two or three years after 1978. After 1982, I began to re-explore tie-ups because I believed that India would open up someday – or at least that is what I hoped would happen. In the early 1980s, I saw countries like Argentina and Brazil opening up; in the East, even countries like Thailand and Korea opened up and I thought India will have no choice but to follow suit.

ML: So you seem to have had a long wait before India began to open up, right?

HK: No, even India did open up a little for the government sector. In fact, we were involved in many firsts in this opening-up process. For instance, IDBI (Industrial Development Bank of India, was the largest development finance institution then) raised its first bonds in Germany. Around 1987, Swiss Banking Corporation (SBC) also came to me and I began to represent it in the capital market business. Later, SBC merged with Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS). A year or two after I started doing business with them, SBC also bought over Warburg and acquired an investment bank.

Meanwhile, I had kept in touch with Merrill Lynch and in 1984 they started showing some interest in a partnership – so we shook hands and decided to work on a transaction basis and develop a partnership, subject to all approvals. The first transaction we did was the India Fund. That was a turning point for me. The India Fund was conceived as a show of strength during the time of Indira Gandhi, but it took two years and was finally launched in 1986. We raised $150 million of government-guaranteed money at some ridiculous spread of 25 basis points. We didn’t make any money, but it was successful and we could prove that India could raise money abroad even when everybody was sceptical about whether we could pull it off. We then did other work for ONGC. By then we ourselves had done nearly 60 international transactions with various overseas partners.

ML: Was this India Fund meant for UTI?

HK: Yes; it was an Indian fund listed in London for 65 million pound sterling, which was raised to 75 million pound sterling. MJ Pherwani was then the chairman and it was a very successful fund. In 1987 we did a US fund called the India Growth Fund for UTI. That gave us a lot of exposure both to international markets and domestically. We had to explain the meaning of things like price-earnings multiples, the advantage in raising equity instead of debt as well as the concept of LIBOR – all that was a laborious exercise. We were told that there would be no tax advantage to starting the fund, so we had to work at getting around that too. We met SS Thakur at the RBI; he was a very wise man of high integrity who pointed out that we could do it because it would fall under the tax exemption treaties since UTI’s payouts are called dividends.  

As for the overseas investors, they wanted a lot of research – not merely on India’s economic situation but on individual companies. At that time, it was very difficult even for me to understand the need to spend such a large amount of money on researching individual companies for one India Fund. But we did it and became the first brokerage house to start corporate research and economic research. All this was a quick learning exercise for us.

India began to open up in 1991 and, in 1992, I started talking to Merrill Lynch about the partnership. In 1993, we signed a MoU and it took another year to sign the agreement on what we hoped to acheive. In 1995 they came to India.

ML: Did Merrill Lynch see business potential in India after economic liberalisation?

HK: No, in fact, they were not very keen and weren’t sure how to work out the valuation for our partnership. They signed up mainly because of my friendship and association with them. Then they had a difficult time deciding whether to take a minority stake or whether they should start something on their own. I explained to them that it makes no sense to start competing with each other after having worked together for so many years. I told them that a 40% stake works in India – not more than that.

My partnership lasted because I operated on the logic that as long as I have financial interest and a majority holding under the Companies Act, the number of board memberships did not matter. We also agreed that all decisions have to be unanimous – if one of us did not agree about something, we will not do it. As for the board memberships – at one time, they had more directors and at another time we had more directors; after a while we did not bother about the numbers. In the intervening years, I have seen four changes in the chairmanship, but I am still around – it is an institutional relationship.

Then, when the time was right, I took a decision about what I wanted to do and I sold my stake – except in the asset management company. I have two daughters and there is a 9-year gap between them. The younger one was at Wharton but she doesn’t want to be in finance and is studying fashion merchandising in New York. The older one was also at Wharton, then worked for two years at Merrill Lynch; she enjoyed it and even saved some money, but said she doesn’t want to be in investment banking ever and that it was not for her. She worked for a while in the fund management business and likes it. She then went off to Harvard for her MBA and has now returned. She was interested in fund management and anyway I didn’t want to sell that part of the business. So Merrill Lynch and I divided our economic interest, which was roughly 40:60 in fund management. Although I told them that I want to exit from DSP Merrill Lynch investment banking, they wanted me to retain a small stake of 10% since they think I add value and want me to stay on. In any case, I have too many friends here, as well as long-term employees and clients so I think it makes sense to continue as we are.

ML: You have just announced the tie-up with Blackrock, so you are not really dissociating yourself entirely, right?

HK: Well, the Blackrock tie-up is mainly an extension of the merger between Merrill Lynch and Blackrock overseas. But I had to negotiate on what they are going to give me – the training, the revenue sharing, etc. In this business, you don’t get anything unless you ask for it. But it is taking time because I want a long-term successful partnership; they are great guys and Larry Fink is one of the gurus of risk management. The deal took place in a nice way, my people wanted me to do the tie-up and, in any case, if you are able to partner with the best, then why not? I have not been spending much time on the fund management business because I have been too involved in investment banking, I now intend to spend a little more time there. I am not very keen on the where-to-invest aspect. I am more interested in returns, professional management, compliance and high ethical standards. I am not interested in being number one in performance – it is enough if we are in the top quartile and giving good returns on a continuous basis. Blackrock’s presence will help us raise money abroad. In any case, we are managing over $2.5 to $3 billion on a sub-advisory basis; we are also managing over Rs22,000 crore in India today and we can grow to four or five times that level. For me, the question is: do I want to continue doing this all my life? May be not. A very wise man, Christopher Reeves, who was the chairman of Merrill Lynch Europe, Middle East and Africa, and unfortunately passed away just two months ago, told me, “What do you want from life at 60? Think about it. Do you want more money?” I said, no. He said, “The question you must ask is what is driving you.” 

ML: So what do you plan to do next?

HK: What is driving me today is the desire to create something different. I have a professionally managed fund and I think I have done my bit for the long-term health of the business. So I may remain the chairman and continue to guide DSPML, but as far as my time is concerned, I will spend equal, if not more, time on philanthropy. I am setting up a foundation – which is already almost in place; only some legal formalities need to be completed. I am particularly keen on two things. We run a hospital called the DS Kothari Hospital, which is not managed well. We also have an institute that I talked about earlier, which offers boarding and lodging to 45 students. I want to develop that into a college. There is also a school at Nashik, where over 2,000 poor girls are getting free education. It is run by an NGO and was started with help from my father. I visited it six months ago and talked to them about expanding it to 3,000 students and starting another co-ed school there. I am also keen on environment conservation. When I travel for my interest in wildlife, I find that people cut forests and kill animals because they are so poor and do not have jobs. So I am looking at creating jobs for them. You cannot create industry there, so I want to start a skills-training centre and link it to the cities.

I also have a sanatorium at Deolali near Nashik. There are 18 blocks on nearly 10 acres of land; it was built for patients of tuberculosis to go there to recuperate. Today, that is not required, so I want to convert that into holiday homes with proper modern bungalows for middle-class people. We plan to charge only Rs6,500 per month for middle-class families to be able to go there for a vacation. I also want to create old-age homes, especially for people whose children are not in India. My wife wanted me to do it and I would love to develop it in her memory.

My idea in setting up a foundation is to create NGOs or help existing foundations to create sustainable models of working. I want to create the skill-training centres near the forest reserves. I enjoy going to the forests and you must give something back to what you enjoy. I am creating a nucleus of people to work on this without increasing administrative costs too much. But we will have a strong advisory board. I also don’t want to spread myself too thin, so I will focus on health, education and conservation. I have persuaded a former banker from Merrill Lynch, who wanted to start an NGO, to work for me. I am an organisation builder, and I want to bring that skill to my philanthropy and also work with other NGOs and corporates.

Giving is more difficult than earning; many people talk about giving, but it is not easy when you have worked hard to earn what you have. So I have earmarked Rs100 crore for specific projects and charities and have put this in my Will in case I am not able to do it in my lifetime or something happens to me suddenly.

ML: India has always had a tradition of giving; why do you think it has reduced or vanished in the past few decades?

HK: Well, I am now thinking aloud. If you look at our economic history, it is only in the past 10 years that people have started creating assets. They had no opportunities and were busy growing. In 1996-97, we again suffered a slow down – the real boom began only after 2000 and, for the past seven to eight years, we have seen real prosperity. So it will happen in India as well. The people who have made money are young and they are beginning to think about giving back to society. You have to touch their hearts at the right time. But the government also has to cooperate – especially in education. Politicians have turned it into a business – they must assist philanthropic investment in education by offering tax breaks.


“Morarji Desai was the only politician cross with me. Many others asked me why didn’t I do a cartoon on them”

RK Laxman, the cartoonist who gave India’s ‘common man’ a voice, recounts some unusual moments of a fascinating life

At the Times of India, RK Laxman was an enigmatic presence. He couldn’t be disturbed while at work and he chose who he would speak to. He would occasionally walk down the corridor, to sift through the rows of newspapers with his sharp eye for detail. He once beckoned Sucheta to see a picture on the front page of the Times of India. The caption read – report on page 3. Flipping to page 3, he pointed out that there was no report. Now, that is not unusual. But Laxman said, “Wait a minute, don’t give up so easily.” He opened the next day’s paper with a flourish and sure enough, the report was on page 3. “If you miss it once, you can always get it the next day,” he said with a wicked smile. Such eye for detail made him an excellent raconteur and mimic. He would regale colleagues with his imitations of politicians that he met around the world. Laxman never suffered fools gladly and does not suffer from any false modesty. When we asked who according to him is the best cartoonist, he answered, “I am.” Then added, “Every cartoonist thinks he is the best.” Laxman’s fondness for crows is only slightly less known than his Common Man. His fascination for black extends to his trademark attire of black trousers and white bushshirt and black ambassador car. Today, a stroke has affected him badly. But this reclusive genius recounted some unusual moments of a fascinating life for us

ML: You were born in Mysore?

RKL: Yes, I was born in Mysore. Ours was a big family and I was the youngest of five brothers and two sisters and they were all very talented. My father was the head master of a high school. In those days, that made him a very powerful and influential man; he was very stern about discipline and I was quite scared of him. I really loved my mother. She was always smiling and very cheerful; she was a great storyteller and would also read out mythological stories to us. My mother used to play tennis and she was a chess champion; nobody ever defeated her those days. She also played bridge and badminton. She was also a wonderful cook and, despite a number of servants, would love to experiment with a variety of recipes. But for all that, she didn’t know English. Even as a mother-in-law, she did not fit the traditional mould; she was just as friendly with her daughters-in-law and used to play cards with them.

ML: Were you also interested in sports as a child?

RKL: I used to play chess and tennis. Of course, every child plays cricket. I started what we called ‘The Rough & Tough & Jolly Team’; but that was when I was eleven (this team was immortalised by Laxman’s famous brother RK Narayan in the story called The Regal Cricket Team). I don’t like cricket. I stopped playing it as a boy; it is a boring and over-rated game. I prefer tennis.

ML: When did you know that you wanted to be a cartoonist?

RKL: No, I wanted to be an artist. I started drawing at a very young age and continued doing it through school and college. I failed in my SSC. Then I wanted to join the JJ School of Arts, but they wrote saying, “you show no talent, we can’t accept you.”

ML: Had they seen your drawings?

RKL: Yes, I had sent a couple of them with my application.

ML: What did you do after that rejection?

RKL: I went to the Maharaja College of Mysore and studied philosophy, economics and politics. I was very fond of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. I also began to cultivate my own talent. I used to go to the marketplace, sit there and draw all the people I used to see… bending down, carrying vegetables, doing everyday things… that helped me more than any school of arts. I was very fond of drawing even as a very young child of three. I used to draw on the floor, on the walls and around the house – fortunately parents were a lot more tolerant those days. I used to draw anything that caught my eye – from objects to people. Yesterday, somebody phoned and asked me ‘how does one become a cartoonist?’ I said, it is impossible to say how to become a cartoonist; you have to be born with the gift, just as you cannot tell someone how to sing. It has to come naturally. Similarly, the art of cartooning and drawing is inborn. It can be improved if you have the talent – for that you need a sense of humour, the talent to draw, and a sound education. If you don’t have all three, you can’t become a cartoonist.

ML: When did you start drawing for your brother’s stories?

RKL:  When my brother saw my drawings, he said why don’t you illustrate my stories? So I used to illustrate all his short stories for The Hindu from a very young age. Cartooning came from looking at things. There was My Magazine and another humour magazine in Kannada called Koravanji; they asked me to do some caricatures. That is how I started earning some money at a very young age. After a while, others also wanted my cartoons. This was while I was at Mysore.

When we were young, my father used to get a number of magazines such as Strand, Punch, Tit-bits, Bystander and others. I used to go through them and enjoyed the cartoons. I used to be very fond of Sir David Low, whose cartoons were published by The Hindu and The Evening Standard in India. He was a wonderful cartoonist and a very fine draftsman. For a long time, I used to think his surname was Cow, because of the way he signed his name. Later on in life, when I was sitting in my office in the Times of India, he just walked in. I was completely shocked. I told him…  I took it upon myself to show him around Mumbai.

He said, ‘why don’t you come to London’? I told my office that I wanted to go to London and they allowed me to go. I went there and continued to draw under the caption “Our Cartoonist Abroad” which was published in The Times of India. I took a flat which was very close to Piccadilly as well as the Times of India’s office in London. I used to walk down to the office every morning, work there, send my cartoon and return home. I travelled all over London, attended conferences of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. Clement Atlee and Churchill were there and I met them. I also meet JB Priestley, TS Eliot and Bertrand Russell. I don’t think anybody else had done it then.

I used to meet Sir David Low at his house. This must have been in 1947 or so, but I can’t remember these things. I was in London for six months; on the way back, I travelled to Italy, France, Germany and Spain. After coming here, a leading UK newspaper offered me a job in London. I thought about it and refused. Nothing like India for cartooning and drawing! The politics here give you plenty of ideas and there is a variety of characters. Over there, you have these dull politicians going up and down in their grey suits.

After that, as luck would have it, I was invited to America as a guest. I travelled around the country and met a lot of people – but they were boring people. Then I was invited to Russia – I have no idea why they called me. Then, of all places, I was invited to China. I was among the first persons invited to China. I enjoyed my visit to China very much. It has a lot of variety and the people are really very nice. I walked on the Great Wall of China for five kilometres.  I really loved that place. I have travelled around the world, but I love India, our art, our culture… if anything, I have a problem with Indians. But I love the country.

ML: Going back a little, did you come to Mumbai immediately after your graduation?

RKL: No. Immediately after my graduation, I went to Delhi for a job. I applied to The Hindustan Times. I was told: ‘you are too young and inexperienced – out!’ I must have been under 20. After Delhi, I was passing through Bombay. I got off the train, got myself a room and stayed there for a couple of days. I was walking down Dalal Street and saw the big board of The Free Press Journal. The friend who was with me said, “that is the editor going inside.” I immediately went up to him and asked him for a job. He gave it to me. I was made to sit next to Bal Thackarey (Balasaheb Thackarey). He had a lot of talent, but he later became a politician and a propagandist for his party. Trying to promote an ideology tends to ruin the talent that you have.

I was there for a short while after Independence. I didn’t know that Thackarey was an Indian name, I thought it came from something like William Makepeace Thackarey. Then Sadanand (Swaminath Sadanand, was the legendary proprietor-editor of The Free Press Journal which played a major role in India’s freedom movement) started interfering with my work and saying ‘you can’t draw this and you can’t draw that, because they are my friends’ and that kind of thing. I couldn’t stand that and decided to walk out. There was a bus strike that day, so I literally walked to the Times of India opposite the Victoria Terminus and went up to the art director and asked to see him. His name was Walter Langhammer; he was a German. I said “I am Laxman and I am looking for a job.” He said, “Oh you are from The Free Press Journal; you show great talent.” He asked me to wait for a while, went out and came back with an appointment order. Since then, I have been with the Times of India -- for over 60 years. In fact, it is 50 years since the Common Man was created.

ML: How did the Common Man come about? How did you think about it? Did it happen only after you came to the Times?

RKL: Yes, only after I came to the Times. You see, there is so much variety among Indians – there are people with beards, turbans, moustaches – south Indians are different from north Indians, etc, etc. There is no single attribute that is common to all Indians.  So I created a mythical character in a striped coat, with a bushy moustache, a bald head with a white wisp of hair at the back, a bulbous nose on which is perched a pair of glasses, and he has thick black eyebrows permanently raised, expressing bewilderment. He stands for all Indians and goes through life without uttering a word, but watches with amusement the ironies, paradoxes and contradictions of the human situation.

ML: Your career has spanned every political leader from Pandit Nehru. What phase did you enjoy the most? Was it the Jawaharlal Nehru phase when there was a lot of idealism?

No, that was not interesting. A cartoonist enjoys not a great man but a ridiculous man. Or maybe someone like Morarji Desai and his various habits and idiosyncrasies. I used to go and meet Pandit Nehru and he really liked me. I was once given five minutes to meet him and he spent more than an hour with me. With Indira Gandhi, of course, I had problems during the Emergency.

ML: What happened?

I had drawn a cartoon of DK Barooah (who infamously said ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’) in a perambulator and she said, ‘this is very insulting.’ I said: ‘cartooning is the art of insult and ridicule.’ But she said, ‘no, you shouldn’t do it.’

ML: Did she call you to object to your cartoons?

No, I went to see her, because the Emergency affected my work. I went to tell her that I must have the freedom to draw what I want. But she said, ‘No, no, the law applies to everyone’. So I went away to Mauritius for a while. Then, we got the news that India was going to have elections. Indira was in a shaky position, so I came back. She lost and I got back to my work. Throughout the Emergency, there were no cartoons. After Indira, Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister and I enjoyed my freedom again. I found him very difficult to caricature, because he was so handsome. I then made his face more round and tilted his nose. Of course, I got plenty of inspiration for my cartoons from his actions. I later met him when he launched my book Brush with Politics. He said, “You make me look very fat.” I said, “I will look into the matter.” (laughs). That’s because he used to react to every issue saying, “I will look into the matter.”

I met Margaret Thatcher when she came to India. She started telling me how to draw cartoons. She said, “one must have this, one must have that, etc.” So I said, “You should have been a cartoonist rather than a prime minister.”

ML: Well, you have another political friend who started as a cartoonist. Are you still in touch with Bal Thackarey?

RKL: I used to be, until recently. Even when I got my stroke (in 2003), he had come here to see me. He presented me with this (pointing to a blue back support). But now I don’t meet too many people. President Abdul Kalam came and saw me when I had a stroke. I have known him for some time; he is a very nice man, I like him very much -- he is very cultured. He had even invited all of us to the Rashtrapati Bhavan when he was the President and we enjoyed that visit a lot.

ML: Which political leader gave you the best ideas for your cartoons?

RKL: HD Devegowda. He had the habit of falling asleep all the time and that gave plenty of opportunity. He once invited me to see him and fell asleep at that meeting also. Morarji Desai gave me a lot of ideas. I am anti-prohibition and he didn’t like it. He sent word through someone that he doesn’t like me poking fun at him and his ideas. He was unhappy with me as well as my cartoons. He was the only exception. All others were very fond of me. Many of them used to ask why I hadn’t depicted them in a cartoon. It became a kind of status symbol.

ML: What do you think of the cartooning and the media today?

RKL: I don’t see much talent today; people don’t want to apply themselves and there is no originality. It goes for the entire media. The film magazines and television have ruined the culture of the country; there is no political news in the papers anymore. All you get to read is some suicide or some murder – or cricket and films. Earlier, politics provided much of the material; today, there is no political news at all. Newspapers themselves have lost their relevance and there is no punch in editorials either.

ML: Your Common Man is the most enduring of your creations; what about the crows?

RKL: Yes, the Common Man is my favourite. He is….  There is a 10-foot statue of the Common Man at Symbiosis College at Pune (there is another on the promenade at Worli as well). Deccan Airways uses the Common Man as their mascot; they bought the rights from me.

I am also very fond of crows and have painted hundreds of them – singly and in groups. I have been fascinated with the crow from my childhood. I like its colours and how it contrasts with everything. It is a very intelligent bird and has tremendous character; in fact, the common crow is a very uncommon bird. (Laxman’s crows are a lot less known to the public, but those who know him know about his passion for drawing crows and to a lesser extent cats. Laxman’s crows are unique, because of the intelligence, personality, expression and character that he projects in every image of his favourite bird.) Lord Ganesha is another source of inspiration. Every one of my drawings is my favourite.

ML: You also created Gattu and other characters.

RKL: Yes, Asian Paints came to me and asked me to create a character. I created ‘Gattu’. For several decades, they used to have huge posters with Gattu, but they don’t use it any more. I also drew several wood land creatures such as Thama, the baby elephant and the little bird Gumchikki who was his best friend. My wife Kamala wrote stories about their adventures in the jungle. (While Laxman is completely vague about dates and has never worn a watch, his vivacious wife Kamala is very organised and maintains a daily diary. She has written several children’s stories and travelogues. “She remembers everything,” says Laxman.)

ML: What do you think is your most memorable moment?

RKL: It is the time when JRD Tata called to me to say that I had won the Magsaysay Award. (When we asked why this was more significant, he said, “It is an international recognition and I have no idea why they decided to give it to me.” At that time, Laxman was one of the rare Indians to receive the Magsaysay.)

ML: What has been the toughest situation you have faced?

When I was arrested and taken to Nashik. I wasn’t actually arrested, but I was taken away for having drawn a cartoon where a boy is trying to set fire to a motorcycle, while others have set fire to buses and trains. So somebody shouts, “What kind of Ram Bhakt are you, if you can’t even set fire to a motorcycle?” Someone in Nashik went to court saying that I had insulted Hinduism. So I was dragged to court and had to go to Nashik.  

ML: What happened to the case?

RKL: The hearing went on and on and on. The opposition lawyer kept saying how the cartoon was very insulting; the defence lawyer argued on my behalf in Marathi. Then the court adjourned and we went outside. People came up to me for autographs. A lady who was arguing against me also came over and took my autograph. I think everybody enjoys it when our mighty politicians are exposed in a comical and often ludicrous light. It is a vicarious thrill.  

ML: Did you ever require police protection? Wasn’t there something about a letter bomb once?

RKL: There have been threats; I don’t remember these things; they are mere trivialities in life. Someone would call and say they know where I go and would kill me. No, I don’t believe in police protection; people only do that for publicity and hype. Yes, there was something about a letter bomb, but nothing really happened. The security took care of it; I was told not to touch my mail.

ML: What is your routine these days?

RKL: I start my day around 8.30am and I finish my cartoon by around 3pm at which time they come and take it.

ML: Who are the editors that you enjoyed working with?

RKL: Sham Lal and (NJ) Nanporia. Their analysis and understanding was much better. Girilal Jain too was very good.

The Common Man

The Common Man has featured in the Times of India for 50 years. Originally, Laxman used to try and depict Indians from different regions – a Bengali, a Tamilian or a Punjabi, with typical regional traits as background characters -- and capture the ordinary Indian. Over time, these characters faded away and gradually the Common Man was born with his checked jacket, bulbous nose, and a wisp of white hair with a perpetually bewildered expression and forever silent.

Interestingly, the Common Man and his wife have neither aged nor changed over the past half century even as lifestyles and sartorial tastes have changed dramatically. But neither Laxman nor his fans would want it any other way. The Indian Postal Service featured the Common Man in a commemorative stamp released in 1988 to mark 150 years of The Times of India. A 10-feet high bronze statue of the Common Man has been erected at the Symbiosis Institute, Pune. Another bronze leans on the railing and looks out at the sea at the Worli promenade in Mumbai. He has also turned into a mascot for Air Deccan, India’s low-cost airline, since 2005.



ramchandran vishwanathan

2 years ago

An epitome of simple living & High Thinking . We will miss you Sir!!!

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