A. Balasubramanian: A Journey From Melattur to Mumbai

Work is worship and the office is like a temple, the Aditya Birla Sun Life Mutual Fund MD and CEO believes. He says he spends around 85% of his time on work and the rest on social engagements. Classical music plays in his office at the beginning of the workday to spread positive vibrations

A fund manager’s job is never easy, and if one must manage investments in debt, one must be extra cautious. It becomes very difficult when bond prices go up and down. The job becomes more challenging when you manage a fund house, not just one. As a fund manager, your primary focus is on the performance of the fund. However, when you are the head of a Mutual Fund house, you not only need to deliver on fund performance but also have to earn the trust of all stakeholders, including trustees, investors, fund managers, distributors, and all your employees, with paramount emphasis on business growth. Mutual fund industry veteran A. Balasubramanian checks all the boxes. In his present capacity, Balasubramanian spearheads the Aditya Birla Sun Life Mutual Fund as managing director and chief executive officer.

Science to Finance

Incidentally, the veteran had never planned a career in fund management. His entry into mutual funds was by chance. He was born in the village of Melattur, situated in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. There, he pursued his studies until the tenth standard before attending a nearby school for higher education.

He comes from a middle-class family, where, like typical middle-class parents, they prioritised their child’s education for a better future. His parents always supported him in pursuing his studies and getting a good education. After completing his school education, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and then delved into computer programming, simultaneously learning languages like COBOL and C++. Like many other parents in small villages, his parents encouraged him to explore opportunities outside of the village after completing his bachelor’s degree, which led him to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1988. He came to Mumbai to pursue a career in computer science. However, destiny had other plans for him. “At the start, I worked for a few software companies, but destiny had different plans as I was always interested in learning about capital markets,” says Balasubramanian.

The Turning Point

On the advice of one of his cousins, He joined CanBank Financial Services and simultaneously pursued an MBA. CanBank was close to the BSE, and being around that area, and observing the activities further fuelled his curiosity and interest in financial markets.

The turning point in his career was joining GIC Mutual Fund as a dealer in 1992. At that time, India’s mutual fund industry was in its nascent stage and had an Asset Under Management (AUM) of less than one trillion, compared to the current AUM of 55 trillion (as of March 2024).

He has been associated with Birla Sun Life Mutual Fund since 1994 and has worked in various capacities, ranging from dealer to portfolio manager, deputy chief investment officer to chief investment officer. For a brief period, he also took up the challenge of being the country sales head for Aditya Birla Sun Life AMC to drive business growth, before transitioning back to investments as 
the chief investment officer in 2005.

The Corner Office

In the Indian mutual fund industry, CEOs often come from either the sales side or the fund management side. However, the number from the fund management side is lower. Balasubramanian had the advantage of having worked on both sides: fund management as well as sales. “Having worked in both investments and sales, it gave me a well-rounded idea of the business, and I have had the good fortune of leading the organisation as the CEO since 2009,” he says. The five-fold increase in AUM during his leadership is a testament to his advantage of working on both sides. In August 2009, when he was elevated to the role of CEO, the AUM was Rs 62,862 crore, and as of March, it stands at Rs 3.29 lakh crore.

He believes that saving is a fundamental habit for every household. For those from middle-class families, ensuring the protection of their future and savings is crucial. Balasubramanian draws motivation from his parents, who instilled this mindset in him. “My parents always planned for all of us,” he recalls. “So, the source of my motivation has been my parents and observing their investments 
in listed open-ended equity mutual fund schemes.”

He credits the growth trajectory of his career to the fund house as he says it is his honour to be a part of a prestigious group such as the Aditya Birla Group and it is inspiring to work with Kumar Mangalam Birla. “I am grateful to him for seeing the potential in me and allowing me to serve for three decades. I give full credit to the Group’s philosophy of nurturing talent,” he says.

Work is Worship

For him the office is like a temple, and work is worship. He believes that work and life go hand in hand. Other social activities are embedded as part of his overall activities. “I like to allocate 85% of my time to work and the remaining 15% to other activities like social gatherings, networking, playing golf, chanting, meditation and participating in Satsang,” says Balasubramanian.

If you have been to the Birla Mutual Fund office either early in the morning or late in the evening, you may hear the soothing strains of classical music. He believes that the office is akin to a temple; hence, creating a positive atmosphere at work is essential. “Classical music plays throughout the office every morning before the start of the day’s work and at the end of the day, creating a soothing effect and spreading positive vibrations,” he says. “This practice, which I initiated several years ago, fosters a calming and composed atmosphere, promoting mindfulness and harmony.”

The Roots Connect

Despite being away from his native place, he remains deeply connected to his roots. Agriculture holds a special place in his heart. “I am keenly interested in monitoring agricultural activities in my village,” he shares. “Additionally, I enjoy spending time with young professionals, offering advice for their careers or discussing topics related to the economy and markets.”

The Growth Path
He believes that there is huge scope for providing solutions going forward. In his opinion, the mutual fund industry will eventually evolve into a solutions-based industry, curating the relevant solution as per one’s goals. “As mutual funds become the primary investment vehicle for every saver in the country, the size of the industry can become as large as the banking industry in the next 10 years,” he adds.

His journey is an inspiration for countless youths, particularly those from small towns and villages.