IDFC Bank-Capital First merger: The making of V Vaidyanathan as a banker

Described by his peers as one of the more seasoned retail bankers on the landscape today, V Vaidyanathan’s earlier stints at Citibank and ICICI Bank, where he was on the board as well as the chief executive officer of its insurance business, have been the foundation that allowed him to grow into the banker he is today.

The proposed merger of IDFC Bank and Capital First will take Vaidyanthan, who heads the latter, to the corner office. His selection underscores the importance of the consumer boom in the country which has made retail banking skills critical for a bank’s CEO.

Vaidyanathan, 52, spearheaded ICICI Bank’s retail banking business from 2000 and also established the small and medium enterprises (SME) business. In 2010, Kishore Biyani gave him 10 per cent sweat equity and asked him to run Future Capital Holdings (which later became Capital First), making him the highest-paid non-promoter CEO in India. By 2012, Biyani’s Future Group, under pressure to reduce debt, wanted to sell its stake in the company. Vaidyanathan led a management buyout of the firm, roping in Warburg Pincus, and continued to head the firm. 

Vaidyanathan runs a tight ship and likes to remain involved in every business aspect of the firm. His philosophy is built on the belief that financing India's 50 million micro, medium and small enterprises and the emerging middle class can be a lucrative business if services for them are executed on the back of technology platforms. 

Predictably, he’s also a big believer in the value that can be harnessed by the Aadhaar card and its linkage to the banking system. He is bullish on the Indian economy as well as opportunities in the financial industry. 

The views of people who have worked with him vary on his management style. Being a self-made entrepreneur, he’s known to do a tremendous amount of homework before he makes decisions. The confidence can be mistaken for arrogance, say some. On occasion, insiders note he even refers to himself in the third person, but it’s not clear if that’s a style of language or a nod to his own leadership.

However, there’s broad agreement on his strong entrepreneurial streak and aggressive lending practices, which have worked at ICICI Bank and at Capital First. 

But the gap that he will have to focus on is retail liability, which he has not had experience in.

Part of Vaidyanathan’s leadership track record has been to exit businesses such as foreign exchange, wealth management, investment management, broking and real estate financing businesses — to turn around and transform Capital First into a financial operation with over 200 locations focused on retail financing. While, in hindsight, that may seem par for the course, it’s important to note that some of the key accounts that Future Capital Holdings had as clients were Kingfisher Airlines and Dunlop Tyres — both have gone insolvent. 

That said, his gumption cannot be underestimated, especially given that once he shaved off his moustache, donned an Elvis Presley costume, played the guitar and sang at a fundraiser for children.

The new role at the IDFC Bank-Capital First combine will also realise Vaidyanathan’s ambition to head a bank, a role he has coveted even at ICICI Bank, say industry insiders.

The avid long-distance runner will soon be running a bank.