The Boss

Uday Kotak

The Kotak Mahindra Bank MD is a promoter who merrily embraced maximum 'other promoters'

Photographs by Soumik Kar

Education: MBA from Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies 

Career: In 1985, set up Kotak Capital Management Finance which eventually transformed into Kotak Mahindra Finance, which then would become the first NBFC to convert into a bank. It is today the country’s fourth largest private sector bank and has a market cap of $20 billion.

First June, 1988. It was Shekhar Iyer’s first day of work at Kotak Capital Management Finance in Navsari building on Mumbai’s DN Road. As Shekhar came in at 9.30 am, his immediate boss Shivaji Dam took him to a room that had a long table and showed him his seat. The room was cramped with files. Udaybhai who was the big boss called him over and patiently explained the firm’s business and his role. Shekhar’s prime responsibility was to get bills stamped, deposit high-value cheques and maintain a filing record of all bills.

A few days passed and Shekhar mustered enough courage to go to the big boss to say: “Udaybhai, I have a lot of file work to do and I need an independent table.” To which Udaybhai said: “The table we have right now is quite long. We will cut it and you can have one portion for yourself.” Thereafter, every time someone new joined, the table was cut and a portion given. A few days later, Shekhar said: “Udaybhai, there is no light around my seat. Can we put a tube light closer to my seat?” Udaybhai responded: “Okay, let me see.” After a few days, Shekhar pointed out: “Udaybhai, we have too many files lying around here. I need a shelf so that everything is kept safely.” Udaybhai repeats: “Okay, let me think.” Nothing happens for days, so Shekhar approaches Udaybhai’s wife Pallavi, who works in the same office. Pallavi asks Udaybhai: “sukaam naa paade? (Why are you refusing?)” Udaybhai finally says, “Okay.”

While Shekhar settled down at work, his woes were not over. He was looking to get married but with not much luck. In those days without Facebook and Tinder or online matrimony, south Indian marriages were pre-dominantly ‘arranged’ and the girl’s parents would often validate the boy’s account. Several interested parties would visit the office for due diligence and reject Shekhar as his office made a poor impression on them. Shekhar was heart-broken: “Udaybhai, if we continue in this office, I don’t think I’ll ever get married.” Udaybhai smiled, and said in his inimitable mildly high-decibel tone with a ting of formality, “Shekhar, don’t worry. We are soon shifting to a large office. You’ll get married there.” 

Within a couple of months the office shifted to Nariman Bhavan. The office was large – about 4,000 sq feet – and the company did brisk business. Then one day, Udaybhai asked Shekhar to fetch a document from a banker friend. Shekhar picked up the document and read it on the way to office. The document talked about disallowing NBFCs from discounting bills. Shekhar was shocked as that was how Kotak Capital Management Finance earned its bread and butter. Shekhar reached the office, handed over the paper to Udaybhai, and stood quietly. Udaybhai asked, “Why are you so quiet?” Shekhar with a sense of despair said, “Udaybhai, apna company bandh to nahi ho jayega? (Our company won’t shut, will it?)Who will marry me then?” Udaybhai walks up to Shekhar and puts an arm around him, “It’s still six months away, and we will find a solution by then.”

Meanwhile, in 1991, appeared a piece that profiled Uday Kotak and said he was a guy to watch out over the next few years. Shekhar started to circulate a photocopy of that article along with his horoscope, and told Udaybhai whichever girl or her parents reads the article and approaches his family, he’ll marry her no questions asked. That girl happened to be Gita. Udaybhai and wife Pallavi attended Shekhar’s engagement at his sister’s house at Anushakti Nagar in Chembur, sat on the floor and ate off the plantain leaf as is the Tamilian tradition. Shekhar ki baraat (wedding procession) took off in Udaybhai’s 118NE, which he had lent for three days along with his driver. Despite an important RBI meeting on the evening of his wedding, Udaybhai made it before things were wound up, reminiscences Shekhar.

Taking off from there, Shekhar is now senior vice-president, branch operations at Kotak Life Insurance. Udaybhai or better known to the world as Uday Kotak has grown his tiny finance company into a full-fledged bank with a presence across securities broking, investment banking, asset management and insurance with a market value of $20 billion at last count. His personal networth is an estimated $7.5 billion. But his deep personal connect with the people working with him, his genuine concern for them, his charisma and the little things for which he puts in a lot of time and effort all remain intact. “It’s really so wonderful to see someone rise from scratch to such a level and yet be so sensitive to people around him,” says Shekhar of Udaybhai

KVS Manian, Kotak Mahindra bankUday’s partners in progress right from his oldest employees Shivaji Dam, C Jayaram, Dipak Gupta, Shanti Ekambaram, Jaimin Bhatt all echo the same sentiment. His exceptional qualities as a leader comes across when you realise that everyone in Uday’s top management cadre has been with the company for more than 20 years, almost starting off with him during his early years. “No one likes to quit Kotak. There is a premium attached to working with such an extraordinary person. It’s not something money can easily compensate,” says Dipak Gupta, joint managing director. “It’s like you are running your own business — you have the freedom to do what you want to and the way you want to,” says KVS Manian, president, corporate, institutional and investment banking.

Dipak Gupta, Kotak Mahindra BankAnother veteran, Narayan SA, president, commercial banking and capital markets, adds, “You are working with someone substantially superior to you, highly ethical. You can openly discuss and argue without any fear of being reprimanded.” But Arvind Kathpalia, president and group chief risk officer summaries it best. “He is like the karta of a large Hindu undivided family – always taking care of everyone’s interest, always doing the right thing at the right time and always being fair.” 

Narayan SA, Kotak Mahindra BankUday grew up in a joint family with 60 members living under one roof. After his initial experience in the family business, he found that in a family business setup, seniority and tradition trumped smarts and ingenuity. Uday decided to branch out on his own and build a company whose foundation would be laid on pure merit. “He has stayed totally true to that — no chacha, mama, bhatija in this firm in all these years,” says D Kannan, group head, commercial banking. Even with colleagues at work — however long you have been with him — there is no mixing personal equation with professional deliverables. That’s the language everyone understands and prefers. “It’s always better that way — you are very sure where you stand and never worry about souring personal equations,” says Gupta. That’s also how Uday has managed to keep the workplace completely apolitical.

Promoter equity

The year was 2000. The senior leaders at Kotak were attending an off-site workshop run by a Bengaluru-based HR consultant. The consultant stressed that an organisation has five types of people — the promoter, quasi-promoters, professionals, associate professionals and other employees. The promoter is the real owner and almost always acts in the best interest of the company. Quasi-promoters are those who over a period of time develop such a strong level of ownership that they put the interest of the organisation ahead of their own through thick and thin. Quasi-promoters cannot be created by granting stock options, which creates financial ownership but does not guarantee owner-like behaviour. Those in the professional category are highly talented but opportunistic. If the going is good, they will happily be on board, if not they will jump ship no matter what the demands of the company are at that time. 

Shivaji Dam,  Kotak Mahindra Old Mutual Life InsuranceUday was not present at the workshop, recalls Dam, but what struck him was that Uday was subconsciously practicing this without categorising it thus. “Intuitively, he was engaging with people in a manner that they would come in as professionals but graduate to being a quasi-promoter,” says Dam, who recalls having put in ₹5,000 lent by Uday to buy shares of the company during a private issue before the company went public. “That’s almost my retirement kitty. I did not have the money at the time and Uday asked me to pick up as many shares as I wanted, I was embarrassed to say I did not have the money, and he pulled out two bundles of ₹5,000 each and told me to buy the shares. I took one bundle. If I had taken both, I would have been doubly richer!,” he says with a teary smile. Dam quit as the head of Kotak Life Insurance because of health concerns. After an 18-month sabbatical, when he decided to quit his corporate career and switch to the development sector, Uday handed him Kotak Education Foundation.

Getting together

Dam was Kotak’s first employee. A chartered accountant, cost accountant and company secretary by qualification, Dam was in a cushy job at Nelco, a Tata company. Uday used to provide finance by discounting bills, and as they got to know each other, Uday asked Dam to join him but Dam had absolutely no reason to quit. “I was with a Tata company, had a great bunch of peers and a steady, visible career path but after Uday’s hard sell on what we could achieve together, I decided to take the plunge. He convinced me that I was a small cog in the wheel at Nelco, but could be the wheel itself at Kotak.” 

Arvind Kathpalia, Kotak Mahindra BankThis story kept repeating itself and Uday kept pulling his clients over to his side. C Jayaram, joint managing director joined from Overseas Sanmar where he was handling car finance. He set up the car finance division for Kotak in the early days. As for Narayan, he was recruited on the move, literally. Dam and Narayan would travel together in the 9.12 train from Chembur to VT in Mumbai. Narayan had just finished his chartered accountancy and started his own practice, and Dam introduced him to Uday and he started helping out with accounts. “I just loved spending time with Uday and Shivaji, I ended up joining them even though it was very tough for me to give up my own auditing practice. I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I probably stayed on because Uday allowed me to be an entrepreneur by setting up the securities business.”  

Shanti Ekambaram, president, consumer banking made the switch from a foreign bank. “If you were not made to feel this place was your own, you won’t stay here. Uday gives the space and opportunity to people to chart their own path and build how they want to build it,” says Ekambaram. Dam recalls how Uday placed his entire faith by handing him ₹150 crore in capital and asking him to set up the insurance business. Manian, again was with Nelco and was coaxed into joining Kotak when he went to tell Uday and Dam that he was quitting Nelco to take up an overseas assignment. 

Shanti Ekambaram, Kotak Mahindra BankAs Kotak ventured into new areas of financial services with each business being distinctly different with completely different dynamics, almost never did Uday have a perfect fit person. The choice was always whether you promote someone from inside or get someone with relevant experience from outside. “Uday invariably would choose the former. As long as the person is solid, he’ll give that opportunity to an insider and bring in experts from outside under him to accelerate the learning,” says Gaurang Shah, president, asset management, life insurance and international business.

To his quasi-promoters, Uday often does not have to say what needs to be accomplished. Ekambaram recalls a Monday morning when the RBI came up with a circular that NBFCs will not be allowed to re-discount bills. Ekambaram and her six member team at the time, started calling bankers frantically and managed to re-discount some ₹100 crore of bills and extracted the pay order. “That was an impossible task made possible because you know you just have to do it. Nobody needs to tell you.” says Ekambaram. The sense of ownership at Kotak is so high that many a times executives end up defying Uday. “He allows that level of independence,” says Jayaram. 

Gaurang Shah, Kotak Mahindra BankNarayan recalls avoiding taking exposure to certain clients who Uday had personally introduced. “I was uncomfortable with that exposure. We argued a lot but I was not convinced. He did not insist and went with my decision. If you are convinced with reasonable logic, he will allow you to take the decision,” Agrees SN Rajan, earlier CIO at Kotak Mutual Fund, who now manages his own money, “It could be his relatives or friends. If you did not approve something, he will not even come back to you to check why you rejected something. Whatever decision you take if it is in the interest of the company, whoever may have been affected or offended, he will not question or reprimand you.” That defines things very clearly and makes it easy for executives to take decisions, says Rajan. “Ultimately, he just wants you to take your decisions and own up to it,” group CFO, Jaimin Bhatt adds.

Jaimin Bhatt, Kotak Mahindra BankThat attitude of Uday also stems from his conservative approach — he’ll always choose to err on the side of caution. Manian recalls the Bombay-Pune drive with Uday the year Kotak turned into a bank.  Those days things were not easy — Kotak’s performance was not matching up to their expectations. For Uday, it was the first time in a business that required a really longer-term approach (apart from insurance, which was also a relatively new business for Kotak) — branch banking takes time to pay-off. “Uday and I used to agonise over our branch strategy all the time and we would often have differing points of view. He would be on the edge and I would be grappling with how to deal with it.” 

During that drive to Pune, Manian was on his lowest ebb and decided to invite a conversation that could boost his own morale: “Uday, would it have been better if we had brought in a banker — we would not have agonised so much.” Uday said, “Absolutely not. I am very happy you are running it.” Uday probably got the message, but the debate continued till they reached a common ground. Uday would never do something he was uncomfortable with and would always have a defense strategy. “He will show more confidence in you than you have in yourself,” but “at the same time, he can be an extreme micro-manager when he wants to be,” completes Dam.

For the people

It’s not just the quasi-promoters. Uday ensures he has an extraordinary rapport with a large number of people in the organisation. After he got the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneurs award, he got some 400 text messages from employees and he answered each one of them. “He has a great bandwidth for people. At least about 60-70 people in the organisation feel that they have a one-on-one relationship with him. Uday makes them feel that way,” says Jayaram. How? “Only he knows!” he smiles. “When you are sitting with Uday Kotak, he’ll make you feel like there is no world beyond you and him. He’ll be yours 100%,” adds Jayaram. 

C Jayaram, Kotak Mahindra BankEven more importantly, “if you did not agree with your immediate boss, you could go to Uday straight, no one will mind because everything is issue-based,” says Shah. The differences will often be around evaluating a credit or taking on a certain risk — people could have disagreements on that and Uday would take it up and ensure they went with the “right decision.”

“He is very accessible as a leader,” says Uday Sareen, the newest addition to the Kotak family from ING Vysya. He recalls his first meeting with Uday at the latter’s residence. The conversation over dinner went on till midnight starting off with his family, his career aspirations and ING. After the November 20th board meeting when the merger was announced, the news had spread and employees were anxious. Sareen called Uday with a request to meet key managers at the bank and talk about his vision for the merged entity. “He instantly scanned his calendar on his phone, freed up time and dates in the next three minutes and within five days had flown across three cities, and met over 200 managers at ING in person.”

Uday Sareen, Kotak Mahindra BankAt the Bengaluru office, 80-odd managers were anxiously waiting for his address. The first thing Uday said was that about 36% of the merged entity was in the south and therefore Bengaluru would be an important hub. “That pretty much put managers at ease and all anxieties to rest because that’s the most fundamental question people were worried about — will they be asked to relocate to Mumbai.” 

That Uday’s concern was not mere lip service comes across from what Gupta narrates on the day I meet him. That very morning at the end of a review, Gupta revealed to Uday: “By the way, about 250 employees of ING Vysya have not got their salaries for the month. Their accounts were frozen because KYC is not complete.” Uday was on loud-speaker mode: “How can that happen?” Gupta: “It’s a process issue.” Uday: “Process can go where ever it has to go, but employee can’t not get salaries.” Gupta goes quiet but Uday continues, “A new set of people are joining the company and we delay their salary the very first month!” The salaries were released immediately and the KYC accelerated on war-footing. “Uday has a great ability to read people’s concerns and he takes the pain to address them,” says Falguni Nayar, who was heading investment banking at Kotak before starting her own firm, Nykaa. 

Leading by example

In 2012, Uday had gone on holiday and visited Iguazu falls in Brazil. He was fascinated by the waterfall — the fall is so ferocious the water comes back up again. “He goes on a holiday, he gets time to dream, otherwise he is after everyone else!” jokes Gupta. Uday came back excited and told everyone about his experience, and his new punchline “defy gravity.” It essentially meant changing the status quo. “We managed to rally the bank for the next two years taking off from those steps,” says Gupta.

There is a joke that Uday confidantes share — he likes to go with his decision but would like to have a consensus on his decisions. “When Uday is convinced he will decide, when he is not convinced he will call for a poll,” says Nayar. That’s quintessential Uday Kotak. Never will he say “this is it.”  However hard pressed he may be for time, he will spend whatever time it takes to ensure every single person is on board with him in his decision. It’s extremely important to him. “We all say, ‘Uday if you want it done this way, we will do it, don’t waste time, but no, he will insist on consensus,” laughs Jayaram. 

Falguni Nayar, NykaaUday’s passion and energy is infectious and that really helps. Following the 2008 crisis, Uday called for a day-long meeting to discuss cost-cutting measures. There was no better way to survive than to run a tight ship. Sharp at 9 am, he was at the conference room, along with Jaimin Bhatt, and KG Subramanian, CFO, Nexus Venture Partners and at that time VP-Finance & Operations at Kotak Mahindra. Credit cards, personal loans, broking, banking, every single business vertical heads would come and present and he would be just as passionate about every vertical and on top of every single business. “The intricate knowledge that Uday displayed about each of those businesses was startling. He was just diving deep and asking tough questions. When we finished all the meetings by 11.30 at night, and I was almost dropping dead, Uday looked like he had just started the day. He is hugely inspiring,” says Subramanian.

It’s really not easy to keep pace with him. By 6.30 in the morning Uday has probably read four or five newspapers while others may still be groggy. Unsurprisingly, early morning calls are a particularly unpleasant feeling, but his confidantes happily laugh it off. Still, most of them stare at the screen a few seconds to wonder what possibly might have gone wrong before answering the call. “When I see Uday calling in the morning, the first thought is “ab to main mar gaya! (Now, I’m dead)” I must have missed one point in the previous day discussion and he might have come across that somewhere in the news,” is the common sentiment. 

One morning in December 1999 at 7 am, Uday called one of his quasi-promoters, “Have you read the news.” Quasi: “Hmm… which one.” Uday, with a sense of desperation: “How can you miss, the regulation requires you to have a networth of ₹500 crore to apply for a license. We got to show ₹500 crore in about three months.” Quasi: “What do we do?” Uday hurriedly called the executive team for a meeting that morning. The NBFC’s networth at the time was just about ₹400 crore — everyone agreed there was no way to shore up capital that much in three months. If at all, a rights issue could be tried, although three months was short even for that. A team of seven executives was constituted, they scratched their heads, and one of them found this outdated rule in the exchange bylaws which required companies to have a 42-day moratorium for the stock to go ex-rights after the record date. Realising that was irrelevant in the age of demat, Manian recalls kicking off work by going and meeting Anand Rathi and CB Bhave to get the rule relaxed and then doing the paperwork on a war footing to get the rights completed before the end of the fiscal. 

Uday Kotak

Such situations keep playing out over and over again at Kotak. And that’s how impossible tasks get accomplished. “Uday’s way is to make unreasonable demands and put it across in a reasonable way,” Ekambaram grins. “If he wants to get something important done, Uday will bring the roof down, and bring it so much centrestage that everyone will focus on that and we will find a solution to the problem somehow. He himself will bring immense energy to the table in dealing with the issue. It is always baptism by fire for Uday,” laughs Manian heartily.

But most of the time, Uday is the one who will come up with remarkable solutions. “There are several instances where the lawyers will be present, and everyone one of us will be around and we will say something can’t be done and he’ll bring out some Act and argue how something can be done,” points out Dam, hesitating to divulge specific instances. Uday’s eye for detail is exemplary and he thinks about every single thing that could go right or wrong depending on the situation. “He has an uncanny ability to spot the one missing thing in the 100 things presented to him. Essentially his thinking is that small things are as important as the big things. When I was his client, Uday would fight for every five basis points. He would spend half an hour arguing how small his margins were and how it was important to him. Essentially, his philosophy is while you need to crack the big things, you don’t lose focus of the small things – that’s also the success of the firm,” says Ekambaram.

After the Lehman collapse, Kathpalia recalls a brainstorming session with Uday, where they were discussing the plausible risks. “What happens if somebody has dumped 10 million dollars in Wachovia on Friday night (US time), how will we manage that risk?” Uday sensitised everyone. After the session, Kathpalia’s team sat through the night till 4 am next morning until the US banks closed moving all credits to JP Morgan the bank with the strongest balance sheet. That weekend while the rest of the bankers were losing sleep, Uday and his team slept like a log. Says Gupta, “If he is disturbed about something, he won’t sleep, he’ll think deeply till he finds the answer. He is the company’s biggest risk manager. You are a good manager if you are a good risk manager, Uday always says.”

Being paranoid

If Andy Grove ran a contest on which corporate team made the most of his book, Only the Paranoid  Survive, the winner would surely be the Kotak management team. It’s a trait all managers at Kotak have imbibed from Uday. But for his paranoia, Uday may not have even survived. Around mid-1996, after the CRB scam broke-out, things just became very difficult for non-banks. “99 per cent of the NBFC are going to die. Only 1% will survive. We should be that 1%.”  Uday had declared to the team. Uday has always been very cognisant of something very fundamental — especially when you are in the banking business. If there is red ink on your P&L, it can be cleaned up. But if your balance-sheet is destroyed you are done for ever. Almost everyone in the team recalls Uday totally being on the edge and making aggressive provisions that year. The  firm saw its profits fall for the first year since inception on the back of huge provisioning but KMFL survived to be the 1% of NBFCs that stayed-on.

Apart from his sixth sense, the secret of Uday’s ability to see the future is his informal network. “Uday will talk to everyone. He has a great ability to cultivate relations at all levels. In our earlier days, he knew the Lloyds Steel promoter Mukesh Gupta to the peon who would deliver the bills by name and would have a rapport with them. He will charm the peon and figure out where the other bills are going and then figure out a way to get that business,” says Dam. At the Nariman Bhavan office, you’ll often see him in corridor conversations. Even now, Uday will go into the dealing room once in a while, talk to people informally and soak up information bytes others may find innocuous. “Meetings with Uday start on time (not always though!) but most certainly never ends on time because Uday will always use the occasion to talk to someone junior in the team who he does not interact with that often or talk on some unrelated subject towards the end. He’ll always try to use the meeting to get something more than the agenda,” says Gupta.

All those nuggets of information add to his intuitive abilities but nothing is left to the last minute. Says Mohan Shenoi, president, group treasury & global markets who also heads the integration committee that oversees the merger of ING Vysya with Kotak Bank, “We have weekly meetings of the integration committee, and he is present in every single call and meeting. If the next date is not scheduled, he will follow-up and quiz about the next meeting so he can block his time,” adds Shenoi. 

Driving home the point

Uday often tells his people a simple story — the story of lion and deer. Both lion and deer wake up in the morning and start to run. If the deer outruns the lion, it gets a lease of life and the lion has to go hungry. If the deer gets caught, it’s dead and the lion gets its food. The moral of the story is to stay focused on the consequences and make decisions based on that; never get into win or lose. Life is not about winning and losing but about outcomes you have to live with. It’s about sensitising the executive team to the outcomes of situations or consequences of certain decisions or actions that really makes them address the situation effectively. “Uday chairs the ALCO (asset-liability committee) meeting personally, and everyone is expected to be on top of the situation. He has no inflated ego like most other accomplished businessmen,” says Jayaram. “He will ask for opinions and will not hesitate to point out instantaneously if something was flawed. He is equally brutal on himself – and would admit, ‘I did not see it coming.’” says Shenoi. 

Mohan Shenoi, Kotak Mahindra BankWhether it is about contracting the balance-sheet when business was slipping or raising capital or speeding up a project, what gets people’s buy-in is driving home the point on outcome. “Uday wanted to lose no time and wanted to apply for the insurance license in the first round itself. None of us knew anything about insurance — we didn’t know how to project an insurance company; we didn’t hire a consultant because we couldn’t afford to; but Uday wanted the application done in 15 days. Somehow, we managed to do it because we knew there was merit in his point. If we missed the first round, we would be playing catch up later,” says Manian.

By now, everyone is familiar with Uday’s approach, says Gupta. Whether it’s here and now, deadlines or budget figures, everyone knows how to play their cards. “Uday will always say — your budget is too conservative — why don’t you reduce 10% from expenditure, increase the revenue target at least another 15%!”, says Dam. “Everyone calibrates and presents a picture that can accommodate Uday’s stretch,” adds Gupta. “And Uday knows that too,” he laughs. 

The boss-management strategy does not end at budgets alone. Usually, in any presentation made to Uday, he will see something that the presenter would not have observed. “If you aren’t good with numbers, you are dead.  And if a presentation gets stuck on numbers, then the whole day can go on debating, analysing, overanalysing the number and the presentation will never move beyond the numbers,” says Shah.  But presenters have smartened up — they usually compel him to sit through the presentation, reassuring him at every stage that the numbers are coming, and present it at the end. 

For all the math skills, Dam says, both Uday and he continued to calculate IRR incorrectly till Gupta came in and corrected them. “We both had different ways of calculating and our numbers were different somewhat but we never argued too much over it. It was only after Dipak joined and pointed out with the use of a computer, did we realise that the rate we were charging was much more than the rate we were quoting!” For the longest time, Uday used a tiny pocket calculator; now the iPad has replaced that. For everything that a gadget can’t accomplish, his brain cells are super active. “He has a very sharp memory. You got to be very careful with Uday because he remembers everything you ever said and he’ll quote it back to you!” says Kathpalia.

Notwithstanding his elephantine memory, Uday and Dam had their share of Seeta-Geeta comedy when they were interviewing two candidates Anita and Shilpa back in 1988. Both agreed on Anita, and after that Dam went to Pune and came back to find that Shilpa was sitting in the office. Dam asked Uday but the latter insisted that she was Anita indeed; he continued to call her Anita. Uday realised only when the first pay cheque was to be made that she was actually Shilpa. Uday and Dam stared at each other before bursting out in laughter. “But Shilpa turned out to be a great hire,” says Dam. 

K for clarity

The ease of working with Uday is the clarity of action and purpose. The instructions are very clear – “nothing to be hidden, no asset restructuring, no off-balance sheet items, no breaking the law, be sure about the math, err on the side of caution,” says Bhatt. He will always take the long, hard, correct way and that’s the path he expects people to follow. The end objectives are also equally clear: “If you spot a transaction where you buy an asset for 50 crore and therefore you will take a hit of 50 crore on day one, but if you recover 100 crore in two years, we will do it,” says Bhatt. “The emphasis is always on substance over form. If something looked too good to be true, we would avoid,” emphasises Narayan. 

The camaraderie among Kotak’s top executives is palpable. “We are fond of each other, we are connected, we have grown up together, we think highly of each other,” says Nayar, who took almost two years to muster the courage to quit Kotak even as she was sure she wanted to be a full-fledged entrepreneur herself. “He has created a team of homogeneous set of people, with middle class values and a high level of personal integrity,” says Ekambaram. He’ll have no qualms about standing in the queue and having lunch at the kitchen hall, something every one of the executive team does fairly regularly.

Nayar recalls Uday happily going with her when she used to self-drive to meet customers when she was working in London. “He has no airs about himself,” she says. The only hint of Uday being self-conscious was when he was hitching an auto rickshaw ride to Blue Diamond hotel in Pune. Since Dam forgot to book a car, they took a taxi which broke down. As Uday got off the auto rickshaw, he quipped, “What if Baba Kalyani saw me here” with a hint of embarrassment.

Bhatt recalls travelling with Uday soon after he joined him in Singapore where they had only two hours before a meeting at the Goldman office. Uday said to Bhatt, instead of two rooms that Goldman had booked, they could manage with just one. Bhatt agreed, the two took turns, got ready and left for the meeting. Later Uday told Bhatt, “they charged us for both rooms as the rooms were booked and not cancelled!” 

Don’t lose money

Losing money must not have been a good feeling for Uday. In normal course, Uday will take losses in his stride if a calculated decision went wrong or you made a strategic error, but would be livid if it was because of callousness or not having thought through things. Dam attests that view, “The biggest financial mistake we made was probably our decision to exit Mahindra & Mahindra Finance.” The company started off as a joint venture between Kotak, M&M and some dealers. But the company went through a rough patch and bad loans piled up and Dam decided to pull the plug without understanding the dynamics. “We came from a background of urban customers and did not understand that the payment patterns for rural customers, which is seasonal and lumpy but the money comes back,” he says. As was the rule at Kotak, the conservative approach will always prevail. Uday went by that decision. “If we had that stake today, we would be sitting on some ₹4,000 crore. We exited at under ₹100 crore in 1999. Uday loves to remind me every once in a while.” Seconds Narayan, “He’ll take the pleasure of pulling your leg once in a while — that’s his right. But equally we take a dig at him too, and he is perfectly okay with that.” says Narayan. 

Bhatt recalls when his nightmare moment came true. Sometime in 2013, MSCI dropped Kotak Bank from the index as there was nearly no headroom for foreign investment. That meant a damage to the stock and sentiment that could have been eminently avoided if the timing of the board approval for foreign investment limit was managed better. Obviously, Uday was livid. “He is very direct and issue-based,” Bhatt says. Nayar adds, “If a client is upset because we did not execute something on time or well enough, he’ll be extremely upset. He takes such things very personally and you’ll see flashes of anger.” Unless, there is an integrity issue, Uday will forgive but not forget. “He will tolerate if you don’t perform as well, but integrity cannot be compromised at any cost,” says Kannan.“But he’ll never hold your mistakes against you or puncture your confidence,” adds Narayan.

D Kannan, Kotak Mahindra BankShekhar Iyer has a sob story too — something that drove him to tears and got him to the verge of quitting. During his early days, Shekhar forgot to stamp a hundi adequately and when Udaybhai asked him to get it for re-discounting and noticed the same, he threw a fit. “Udaybhai just got mad at me. He said, “Shekhar, I just don’t know and I don’t care what you are going to do, but I just need it stamped.” Shekhar finally went through old files and somehow found stamps for those dates and handed it to Udaybhai. “Shekhar, now you know how to get out of a problem if you land in one.” Udaybhai said in response. 

Shekhar didn’t sleep for days and one day told Dam he wanted to quit as he could not take that kind of pressure. That day Udaybhai called him in to say, “Shekhar, we deal in lakhs and lakhs of rupees. If you are distracted for a few seconds, it can lead to large losses for us. You have to understand this is the nature of our job and you have to be very careful.” That stuck on. “That’s a lesson I learnt for life and it’s a lesson you surely need to know when you work with Udaybhai.”