I started my career with ICICI in 1971, and it is in the initial years that I learnt the most. I had two great teachers. The first was SS Nadkarni, who taught me the basics of banking and virtually everything I know about looking at projects and companies. Another stalwart, HD Parekh, stressed the need to focus more on the character of people you are working with than a company’s business or financials. Say, we met in the elevator, he would ask: “What are you doing?”. I would reply and his next question invariably would be, “Who are the people behind this?” And the moment you gave a name — and he would recognise most people unless they were very new entrepreneurs — you could see on his face how comfortable or not he was with the idea. So, your willingness to do business with people has to factor in their credibility, how they have dealt with you earlier and how they have dealt with the system.
My next round of learning came when Nadkarni became chairman and made me his executive assistant. He would invite me to sit in client meetings. Observing what he tried to understand from clients, taught me much and stood me in great stead later on. It was Nadkarni again who gave me my next push: out of the blue, one day he asked me to go to London. “We should start leasing, so go and spend few months there, understand the business and come back,” he said, adding that he had already spoken with Lazard. So I went to London with no idea what leasing was, picked up the basics, and came back.
Besides leasing, that stint gave me exposure to technology. For the first time, I saw a company use technology for decision making. When I came back, I told Nadkarni that we were ready for leasing, but I needed a computer. He asked why and I said I wanted it for pricing and other stuff. He said okay and added — I remember this distinctly — “You pick two people, find space for yourself, and then come and talk to me when you have your first Rs.1 crore deal done.” He virtually set me free. I then built the business and we did very well. That was a great lesson in leadership — when you want to test people, give them tasks and set them free, and you will know what they are capable of. I adopted his style in several businesses we set up later. In fact, when we first went into corporate finance, I gave Chanda [Kochhar, Kamath’s successor as CEO a