Flash boy, cash boy
High roller jailed Yes Bank founder, Rana Kapoor, had a penchant for glitterati, a sharp mind, hard ambition
Rana Kapoor may have become the flamboyant poster-boy of slick, foxy deal-making (a Pirates of the Caribbean style banker) but once upon a time he was the most charismatic brand in the fast-expanding foreign banking industry. In the 1990s, the big boys were ANZ Grindlays and Standard Chartered who commanded a vast retail network, but these were conservative Brit banks more interested in their lunch menu in the elegant dining halls and the ability to sniff good wine through discerning nostrils. Market share and profits could snooze for a bit. The wholesale banks that focused mostly on corporate business were many, but Citibank ( which would later be the most aggressive, innovative and technology-driven bank that would pioneer the era of personal banking), American Express and Bank of America were playing for high stakes.
Business school graduates were attracted to their fat cheques, suited-booted culture, overseas training, five-star expense accounts and a certain premium in the marriage industry. In 1992, I quit ANZ Grindlays to join Bank of America (Rana would do exactly the opposite a few years later). "So now you will get a chance to work with Rana Kapoor," said a former colleague. "He is quite a character, hard-nosed and hungry, and has a penchant for schmoozing even the thick-skinned."
Had a rep
Rana's reputation preceded him. At BankAm which had several floors in Express Towers, Mumbai, Rana was a towering colossus known for burning the midnight oil from his 16th floor sea-facing office. He loved a carefully selected crop of youthful energy, mostly over-ambitious cut-throat but bright characters who would make Rana feel perennially like a demi-god. Their allegiance to Rana superseded organisational fidelity. The San Francisco-based bank had several feudal warlords back in India, each fostering their own satraps and creating a tribal affinity. If you were an outsider you were essentially marginalised, but in all fairness Rana was known to, "take care of his boys".
I remember being initially intimidated by Rana but once we got to know each other it was smooth sailing. Once we had both left BankAm, I would meet him occasionally at banking fraternity shebangs (it is a close, almost incestuous community) and at a private club where we were both members. Invariably, Rana would be hobnobbing with the glitterati; in social networking he could author a masterpiece. Thus, when he started Rabo Bank and then launched Yes Bank, I was least surprised. He had a daring zealousness to him and a propensity to launch a pugilistic punch to anyone who thwarted his raging ambitions. But there was a disconcerting element that surfaced about him; Rana's deal-making could be unprincipled, unscrupulous.
It was hard to imagine Kapoor being a career banker all his life, being subjugated to an iron-clad system. India had opened up its doors to private banks and with the Indian economy accelerating at its highest GDP growth rates right till 2011 (average of over 8.4 per cent), Yes Bank grew manifold since its inception in 2004. The Rana Kapoor legend gathered whirlwind momentum. His officers would tell me that Yes Bank was to provide a mind-boggling luxury experience for retail customers, glitzy branches, exquisite paintings, spotless computer terminals, all amidst personalised customer service. But all this comes at a cost and there is always the pressure of quarterly results.
I was thus terribly saddened to see the catastrophic shipwreck that the Yes Bank loan books have become, albeit it was obvious to research analysts that it was gripped by more than irrational exuberance. While Kapoor will now be sandwiched in an ugly political slugfest (and expect several turncoats to hang him from the tallest tree with the thinnest thread), the fact is that he could not have become the fifth largest private bank with 18,000 employees and over Rs 300,000 crore in assets purely on jugaad transactions and dodgy deals. This piece is not about doing a forensic audit of Yes Bank's obvious problems, but to caution against the prime-time bloodlust that is likely to happen, which is akin to lynching by a violent mob. Arrested by the Enforcement Directorate, Rana is in jail as I write.
The NPAs are hugely high and the accusations of private profiteering at taxpayers' expense are grave. For the once irrepressible, flashy banker this must be tough. But as a good golfer himself, he could possibly take inspiration from what veteran Bobby Jones once said: "Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots...but you have to play the ball where it lies."
The columnist is National spokesperson of the Indian National Congress (INC).
He worked with Rana Kapoor in Bank of America. The views expressed are personal
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