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Newsmaker: Naina Lal Kidwai

Smart money vision

Tamal Bandyopadhyay  |  Mumbai 

Naina Lal Kidwai
If you don't find Naina Lal Kidwai, the new CEO of Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp (HSBC) in India at the bank's headquarters on Mahatma Gandhi Road in Mumbai, look for her at the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) office in Ahmedabad, or in the foothills of the Himalayas.

When she is not launching a new banking product or holding relationship meetings with high profile corporate clients, Kidwai is probably trekking in the Himalayas, chasing tigers in the Bandavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, or chalking out better employment plans at SEWA for India's poor working women. Banking is her profession; wildlife and working for women's causes are passions.

Kidwai is also India's most talked about banker, and word of her elegant sarees, pearls and pay packet is never too hard to pick up on the cocktail circuit.

The finance world swears by her business acumen, management skills and, above all, vision: the ability to see the big picture of the economy.

As the first ever woman to head the operations of a foreign bank in India, Kidwai draws attention with as little as a change of facial expression. Perhaps she's used to it. As the first Indian woman to graduate from Harvard Business School, her career was bound to be followed closely.

"When she joined as vice-chairman and managing director of HSBC Securities and Capital Markets India, we all knew she would eventually be the boss," says an HSBC insider who has seen Kidwai work from close quarters.

That was November 2002, and she'd joined after an eight-year stint with JM Morgan Stanley. "She is brilliant, very professional and knowledgeable," her cousin Gautam Thapar, vice-chairman and managing director of Ballarpur Industries, had told Business Standard then.

Others have been equally taken. Filmmaker Mira Nair, a school friend, was once quoted saying, "When I first met Naina (in school), she was formidable "" already something of a legend. She'd stand first every year, was a brilliant debater, represented the school in every sport."

A Delhi University alumni, Kidwai kicked off her professional life as an articled trainee in Price Waterhouse in 1977. She comes from a family of achievers too.

Her father was the CEO of an Indian insurance company, her sister one of India's top golfers, and her husband the chief of an NGO.

Kidwai joined ANZ Grindlays Bank in India in 1982 and rose to head the erstwhile ANZ Grindlays Investment Bank, the bank's global NRI services and the retail wing, before moving to Morgan Stanley's Indian operations in 1994.

She was instrumental in striking its joint venture (JV) with Nimesh Kampani's JM Financial.

As an investment banker, she oversaw the NYSE listing of Wipro, raised funds for Infosys and played a major role in forging the three-way JV between AT&T, Birla and Tata to create Idea Cellular (now just a two-way JV).

She also managed the famous initial public offerings (IPOs) of Maruti Udyog and Bharti Tele-Ventures.

At HSBC too, she has met challenges with characteristic aplomb, with HSBC Securities and Capital Markets' volume of business growing manifold under her stewardship. In 2004, when she was made Niall Booker's deputy, her focus shifted to commercial banking "" with an emphasis on retail operations.

"In her own way, along with Booker, she has transformed the bank. There is a change in the culture. We are more aggressive now and ready to fight every inch to grow our market share," says a colleague.

Kidwai finds frequent place in magazine lists of the world's most influential women in business, but Kidwai herself does not want to be described as a woman executive at all. "I take pride in being a leading professional," she says, "and not a 'woman executive'."

She also shrinks from such terms as "overwhelming success", and feels that a 100-per cent success record does not augur well at all.

For it means you are not taking enough risks. Your success ratio, if you are dynamic, should be in the region of 80-90 per cent "" so that you stay open to change. This is among the reasons HSBC insiders are convinced that she can change the bank. Not that this is the endgame.

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First Published: Fri, March 31 2006. 00:00 IST