Sep 13, 2008

Business - Lunch with Kalpana Morparia, JP Morgan Country Head( G.Read)

From watching films on their opening weekend to shopping like there is no tomorrow, life is swinging at 60 for this former joint-MD of ICICI Bank.

She didn’t want to hang up her boots quite so soon; after all, she was used to 12-hour days in ICICI Bank. And she didn’t think she was cut out be an entrepreneur. So when the job came her way, Kalpana Morparia decided she would head JP Morgan in India. As a little girl, all she had really wanted was to get married, have lots of children and go to kitty party or two. But life turned out very differently for the lady who must catch a Hindi film on the very first weekend, whether in London or New York, writes Shobhana Subramanian.
We’re at the Trattoria in Mumbai which doesn’t quite have the ambience it did several years ago and completely lacks the kind of Mediterranean cheerfulness one would ideally have wanted. It’s well past one but there are very few people present, possibly because its pouring outside. This makes it easy to get a large corner table. Since she’s conscious about her weight and also has to battle a low metabolic rate, Kalpana’s very careful about what she eats. She’s already worried that her new job is going to throw her gym schedule out of gear because she has to be in by nine. So we skip the starters, settling for soup instead: a minestrone for her and a mushroom soup for me.
Life after 33 years in ICICI must be very different, I say. Yes, she admits, ICICI Bank was like a surname. “I could never complete an introduction without saying ‘Kalpana Morparia from ICICI’,” she says. But she believes retiring from ICICI would have probably affected her much more. The excitement of working with a big investment bank now is a big kick. “I wouldn’t mind being on the regulatory side but that isn’t really open to private sector bankers, so I decided I was going to get back to ‘deal-making’ which is what I really enjoy,” she says.
Kalpana says it was KV Kamath who helped her migrate from being a corporate lawyer to a corporate leader, when in 1996 she was asked to head ICICI’s treasury. What prompted her to study law in Government Law College, Bombay? “I did it for a lark, possibly because my sister did law,” she says. Incidentally, Kalpana had drafted the legal framework for the JP Morgan-ICICI Bank joint venture in 1991. That fell apart after five years, as have other JVs after that. A key reason why joint ventures in the investment banking space haven’t worked out, she says, is because the business isn’t as well-defined as it is, perhaps, in life insurance, where it’s clear what products are going to be sold. “Banking is all about cross-selling, much like a hypermarket where players are trying to get as much as possible from one customer,” she points out. “JP Morgan probably wanted to do much more than what the blueprint allowed and since many of the products were off-bounds, they decided to move on.” It’s unlikely that too many joint ventures will take off in this space, she feels, probably because home-grown investment banks, like Enam or Motilal Oswal, are not really looking to compete with foreign banks but are instead looking at a different market and a different set of clients. What Kalpana wants to do at JP Morgan is to customise as many of its global products as possible for the Indian corporate sector that’s raring to go global. “Ten years ago, the products may not have been so relevant but today, with the appetite that companies have to go global, there’s a lot of potential,” she says.
The pasta arrives — extra spicy penne arabiata for my guest while I eat lasagne. Kalpana loves Italian food and like most Gujaratis, she can’t resist South Indian cuisine. The other thing she can’t resist is shopping — for sarees and jewellery (she loves diamonds) — and she doesn’t mind spending her money. Since she doesn’t have children, she feels she might as well enjoy everything she’s earning in one lifetime. So, no trip to Hyderabad or Jaipur or Europe is ever wasted. She takes as many holidays as she can and has just returned from a holiday in Turkey; Istanbul, she says, is probably the best city in the world and is certainly her favourite.
It’s on long flights that she catches up with her reading. Kalpana’s a big Robert Ludlum fan — she’s read all his books — and being a banker, she hasn’t missed Alan Greenspan’s biography. One of her favourite authors is Richard NorthPatterson and she has the entire collection of Georgette Heyer. But what she enjoyed thoroughly is India after Gandhi — she says she’s been promoting it so much she must ask Ramchandra Guha, the book’s author, for a share of the royalty. On domestic flights, she catches up on all the gossip in Bollywood, reading Stardust and Filmfare from cover to cover. “My most embarrassing moment was when the editor of a business magazine told me he had been sitting next to me during a flight from Bombay to Delhi but hadn’t had the heart to disturb me because I had been so engrossed in some film magazines,” she recalls. and it’s not just gossip, Kalpana doesn’t miss out on Bollywood films either. “Even if I’m in London or New York, I try and see a film in the first few days. I also love TV shows like Koffee with Karan.” So it’s not surprising to learn that she was one of the strongest votaries of making Amitabh Bachchan ICICI Bank’s brand ambassador.
Kalpana doesn’t have a sweet tooth so prefers a cappucino while I indulge myself with a tiramisu. Will it be difficult for someone to step into Kamath’s shoes? She doesn’t want to talk about it but I persist. “When HT Parekh stepped down, we thought no one could replace him, but Mr Nadkarni came along. When he moved to IDBI in 1985, we felt bereaved and wondered what would happen to ICICI. But Vaghul completely reshaped the organisation. And then, when Vaghul stepped down, Kamath came back from Manila and once again re-jigged the bank. There are always leaders,” she says definitively.
Nachiket Mor, was tipped to be a favourite for the number one post at one time, I say. “Yes, he was brilliant, he topped every exam he took. But he was more drawn to development for the underprivileged people. That is his big passion. And the development of market linkages, microfinance and infant mortality. So, he’s working with the ICICI Foundation now,” she says.
What Kalpana will probably miss a lot now are the shopping sessions, while on tour, with colleagues Chanda Kochar, who’s also a compulsive shopper, and Shikha Sharma. Though she might still make it for holidays with Renuka Ramnath and Ramni Nirula. And she’s not about to give up “ladies’ night out” with the gang. “I always tell them to dress well for the occasion,” she chuckles, adding that “apart from talking about everyone else we know, we also gossip about media persons”. As we leave the restaurant, Kalpana gets an SMS from a friend wanting to know when she’ll be free to see Rock On. At 59, this lady sure is rocking.

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