Ashok Vaswani: A Tech Evangelist Who Will Lead Kotak Mahindra Bank
An aspiring spin bowler who became a global banker, Vaswani believes in using AI for the greater good of the customer.
It has been 49 days since Uday Kotak announced his immediate resignation as the chief of the bank he founded. His premature exit from Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd. had led to questions on who will finally succeed him. While speculation indicated an internal candidate as successor, Kotak Mahindra Bank on Saturday announced that Ashok Vaswani will take the corner office.
This appointment is significant as the succession story at Kotak Mahindra Bank has seen many ups and downs. Kotak's reign was limited to Dec. 31, 2023, after the Reserve Bank of India introduced new rules which put a definitive ceiling on CEO tenures. These norms followed a very public legal battle between Kotak Mahindra Bank and the Reserve Bank of India.
As the new CEO comes in, Kotak's new role as a director on the private lender's board will also be closely watched.
Vaswani, who has spent almost all of his career working at international banks, will return home to oversee a lender in transition. While interim Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer Dipak Gupta stated it is unlikely that we will see senior-level exits at Kotak Mahindra Bank after this appointment, what happens will only get clearer in the next few months.
Shanti Ekambaram and KVS Manian, both whole-time directors and frontrunners for the CEO position, will continue to remain in their current roles.
Vaswani, in a statement after the RBI approved his appointment for three years, said he will work with the leadership team to take the bank to new heights.
"We will ensure that Kotak Mahindra Bank plays a meaningful role in India’s journey to being one of the top three economies in the world in the next five years, delivering shareholder value," Vaswani said.
Who Is Ashok Vaswani?
An aspiring spin bowler during his formative years in Mumbai (then Bombay), Vaswani lost his father at a young age. While his mother wanted him to pursue medicine, he chose a career in finance, according to a post he wrote in 2021.
Throughout his career spanning nearly four decades, Vaswani has had prominent stints as a retail banker at international lenders including Citibank and Barclays.
"I left India with $14 in my pocket and could have never dreamed of working in so many countries," Vaswani told leadership consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles in an interview. "I took my first flight when I was 21, and I didn’t think my career would permit me to travel and meet so many people."
He worked as the consumer banking CEO at Citibank's Asia Pacific division between 2004 and 2007. After the global financial crisis, he took over as chief of cards at Barclays in Europe, and then Africa.
In 2012, he took over as the CEO of Barclays' retail banking division in London. He later ascended to the CEO role for all of Barclays U.K., where he oversaw retail, business banking, cards and wealth businesses. Later, between 2021 and until his retirement in July 2022, Vaswani was appointed as chief digital officer of the British bank.
Since then, he has been a president at Pagaya, a U.S.-Israeli AI company.
A firm believer in the power of technology in financial services, Vaswani played a pivotal role in moving three-centuries-old Barclays Bank toward a tech-capable future.
"I’ve heard that financial services companies, when you add it up, spend more money on technology than technology companies do. I think the real secret is in moving the culture and mindset of the organisation—and that’s where the people question comes in," Vaswani said in a note in June 2019.
He also firmly believes is using artificial intelligence for the greater good of the customer. He has repeatedly highlighted the need for an AI charter which governs how banks use AI for business growth.
To be sure, the Indian banking system is at the forefront of cutting-edge digital payments ecosystem. However, they have lagged in spending enough to build a strong IT infrastructure to support this spurt in digital payments.
Compared to Barclays, Kotak Mahindra Bank is very young and tech-savvy. As Vaswani takes over in December, we will watch for what he has in store for the bank's various digital products, including the 811 app, and the way it looks at technology.