JP Morgan's new chairman, Leo Puri, could be the Mr Dependable they need

“If JP Morgan were listed in India, I would buy the company’s shares after this news,” a wealth manager says. Illustration: Ajaya Mohanty
Leo Puri, 58, who will replace Kalpana Morparia as chairman of JP Morgan, South and Southeast Asia next year, is a financial sector veteran with over 30 years’ experience in consultancy  and finance. In India since the early nineties, he has worked at McKinsey, Warburg Pincus and UTI Asset Management Company. At McKinsey, he advised leading financial institutions and conglomerates in strategy and operational issues. At Warburg Pincus, he managed investments across sectors in India. He may have found his last stint as managing director of UTI Asset Management Company uniquely challenging,  but despite the odds, he was able to start the listing process of the fund houses, a long demand of its biggest investor T Rowe Price.


Born in Kolkata, where his father worked for Metal Box, then a British company, Puri has a dual Masters’ degree from Oxford and Cambridge University, including one in law. He worked for a few months in a law firm in India before realising that he couldn’t make a decent living out of it. However, he made a name for himself in the consultancy business, especially in the financial sector. Says a former private sector banker who interacted with him during his McKinsey days: “I, along with some others, had prepared a few proposals for the bank’s portfolio expansion. Though my proposal was rejected, he managed to convince our team that the other proposal was better. We didn’t feel too bad. Such are his consensus-building skills.”


Another investment manager said that one of Puri’s best qualities is to convey the message without offending anyone. As managing director of Warburg Pincus, Puri was part of a delegation that had been called by a prominent minister to attract investment in infrastructure. “While most did not say much during the meeting, Puri painstakingly pointed out all the problems in the sector, and told the minister the steps needed to attract infrastructure investment. In India, that is quite rare,” the investment manager admits.


These persuasive skills stood him in good stead during his UTI days when he managed to convince the finance ministry, then under the late Arun Jaitley, that listing the fund house was the best option. The fund house, which was set up after the US-64 fiasco, has five shareholders.


The Maryland, US global investment management firm T Rowe Price holds 26 per cent, the other four shareholders – Life Insurance Corporation of India, State Bank of India, Bank of Baroda and Punjab National Bank – hold 18.5 per cent each. It was no secret that State Bank of India and LIC wanted to take over the fund house through a negotiated deal, but Puri stood firm and, with the backing of the T Rowe Price, ensured that such a deal did not go through.


In an interview with Business Standard in 2015, Puri said, “We are flattered that there is so much interest...we must be doing something right at the moment.” “The process by which this expression is expressed or evaluated should not be in some dark corner of a room in Delhi or somewhere else. It needs to be under the open scrutiny of the market, where all stakeholders will have to present their case,” he added.


Of course, his resistance was not taken too kindly by some shareholders. And just before his term ended, they criticised the performance of the fund house since its market share had fallen during his tenure. However, Puri, even while resigning in 2018, maintained that the fund house’s profitability and the performance of other businesses showed that UTI was in good hands though it had ceded some market share.


In fact, both his entry and exit were quite dramatic. Before his appointment, the government wanted to have an Indian Administrative Service Officer in the position. However, T Rowe Price refused to play ball. So, the asset management company had no managing director for over two years. Interestingly, almost two years after his exit, no one has been selected to replace him.


His former colleagues say that he is a patient listener and participant, even if he does not agree with the views. For instance, when the Securities and Exchange Board of India asked fund houses to dedicate a certain percentage for investor education, he believed that the result would be sub-optimal for a big fund house.


Smaller houses who were dependent on contributions from big ones for such a fund to make an impact did not agree. But while UTI contributed to the fund, it also came out with the second series of Swatantra advertisements, which was widely appreciated. Puri joins JP Morgan at a time when the investment bank is going through a rough patch. With the Enforcement Directorate attaching accounts worth Rs 187 crore in the Amrapali case, this could be a long haul for the organisation.


However, as a wealth manager says, he has the necessary experience to deal with tough situations. “If JP Morgan were listed in India, I would buy the company’s shares after this news,” he says. That is high praise, indeed.


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