Uday Kotak, executive vice chairman and managing director of Kotak Mahindra Bank
Uday Kotak, executive vice chairman and managing director of Kotak Mahindra Bank

The 61-year-old, world’s richest banker, Uday Kotak would have not reached this position if it weren't for a cricket accident that almost killed him. He had to abandon his dream of becoming a professional player after a ball hit him in the head that led to an emergency surgery when he was 20-year-old, said a Bloomberg report.

The banker then went on to pursue his MBA at the prestigious Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies in Mumbai, after a brief stint at the family's cotton-trading business. He started out in finance in 1985 at the age of 26. Mr Kotak, now 61, has a fortune estimated at $16 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

A native of the western state of Gujarat, Mr Kotak set up an investment company in 1985 with a Rs 3 million loan ($41,000) from family and friends and partnered with Mahindra the following year. The firm, which started off discounting bills, later expanded its loan portfolio, got into stock brokering, investment banking, insurance and mutual funds. It converted into a lender in 2003 after getting the RBI's nod.

When the coronavirus pandemic added to the industry's problems by eroding borrowers' ability to repay, the firm was one of the first to raise capital to fortify its balance sheet, helping boost investors' confidence that it will be among the biggest winners as the nation emerges from its Covid-induced recession.

The strategy paid off: As lenders have plunged globally, Kotak Mahindra Bank shares are up 17 per cent this year, the most among Indian peers, and Mr Kotak just gained an extension to his chief executive officer term for another three years.

"As far as I'm concerned, becoming the world's richest banker is only a proxy for Uday being one of the world's smartest bankers," said Anand Mahindra, the chairman of Mahindra Group in Mumbai, whose tie up with Kotak back in 1986 led to the firm's name.

Mr Kotak's company stands out in a country where lenders have some of the worst bad-loan ratios in the world. Trouble for the firms started brewing in 2015, when India's regulator initiated a massive audit that unearthed hidden souring loans. That led to a shadow-banking crisis that constrained the broader economy and further hurt asset-quality scores and profits.

Kotak Mahindra Bank, reduced lending to small and medium companies and unsecured individuals. Its shares rallied more than 24 per cent in each of the past three years.

While its bad-loan ratio has risen in 2020, it ranked as the second lowest among peers, with its capital-adequacy score being the highest. The nation's second-largest lender by market value reported an unexpected 27 per cent profit surge in the quarter ended September 30.

The firm got another boost last month, when the central bank proposed increasing the ownership limit for founders, effectively reducing the risk that Mr Kotak will be forced to dilute his 26 per cent stake in the lender as previously demanded by the Reserve Bank of India.

While the RBI just approved the extension of Mr Kotak's CEO term -- despite earlier proposing to put a cap on the tenure of top executives at private banks -- investors are starting to wonder what will happen after he hands over the reins.

For now, Mr Kotak is still very much at the helm. The firm is exploring a takeover of smaller rival IndusInd Bank, people familiar with the matter said in October, a move that would cement Kotak Mahindra Bank's position as one of India's leading private lenders and boost its assets by more than 80 per cent.

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