Posted by: John Elliott | October 22, 2007

Kochhar of ICICI leads Indian women bankers to the top

kochhar.jpgChanda Kochhar, India’s leading female private sector banker, emerged at the weekend as the front-runner to become ICICI Bank’s chief executive officer in 2009 when the current CEO and Managing Director, K.V.Kamath, retires. Kochhar, who is speaking at Fortune’s Global Forum in Delhi on October 30, was made the bank’s joint managing director on Saturday (Oct 20). That, says an insider, makes her “first among equals” to take the top job and become India’s first woman CEO of a private sector bank.  (See Kochhar’s bio here.)  

Kochhar, aged 45, has been in Fortune’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Global Business for the past three years. At the start she was in charge of ICICI’s booming retail business, and last year replaced that with corporate banking and international operations. Now, in the latest change of portfolios, she takes over as chief financial officer and is responsible for what is called the “corporate centre,” and will be the bank’s official spokesperson.

At the Global Forum, she will be speaking on Indian Corporates Going Global, along with other Indian executives, some of whom are no doubt her customers and clients. When I talked to her for the top 50 women list a few weeks ago, she said that ICICI had been involved in 79% (by value) of the $17 billion worth of company acquisitions made overseas by Indian companies in the first half of this year.

The bank had a presence in 18 countries. That is now 19 because it announced at the weekend that it is about to open its first branch in America – in New York – after a three year wait for Federal Reserve Board approval. (Though Kochhar is too diplomatic to complain, that waiting period sounds like the sort of grief that India’s central bank, the Reserve Bank of India, metes out to foreign banks trying to open branches here).

The other “equals” who could challenge Kochhar in 2009 include another woman banker. Shikha Sharma, managing director of ICICI Prudential, a leading life insurance joint venture with the British “Pru” that Sharma has led since it was set up in 2000. Some observers had expected Sharma to return to a mainstream banking job, as a more direct challenger to Kochhar, but she is staying at ICICI Prudential till it has an IPO, possibly next year.

Women are playing an increasingly prominent role in India’s business life. Although there so far only a few powerful enough to qualify for the Fortune 50 list, there are dozens playing leading roles at or near the top of medium sized companies, and at various levels in large corporations.

But ICICI is unique for the number of women at the top. A year ago I wrote in a Fortune article– “The Women of ICICI Bank” – (issue dated Nov 27, 2006) – that women had 13 of the 40 top management posts, holding three out of five executive board seats and running two out of five subsidiaries.  Those numbers have changed slightly with the retirement of two top women executives, but the trend is unchanged.

Most of the women are in charge of market leaders, and most knew nothing, or virtually nothing, about the businesses when they were appointed, often when relatively young. “Almost all the leaders we have picked have succeeded and most have been women,” Kamath told me. He said he valued women’s “ability to think in a much more detached manner than men,” adding, “only if male bosses have a closed mind does gender rear its head.”

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