Chanda Kochhar era over at ICICI Bank: Why the timing of CEO's 'early retirement' raises more questions

On Thursday, ICICI Bank shareholders appeared to be more than happy with Chanda Kochhar announcing her resignation from the bank. The private bank’s shares spiked by more than 4 percent on bourses in afternoon trade the moment the news of Kochhar’s resignation hit the trading terminals. This was not the kind of farewell Kochhar would have hoped for after a 34-year long career with the bank.

Kochhar had joined ICICI back in 1984 as a management trainee when the bank was still a non-banking financial company (NBFC) called the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India which later became the ICICI bank.

Over the years, Kochhar’s growth in ICICI Bank was steady and a model for any aspiring banker; she rose through the ranks and played an instrumental role in building the entity to one of the biggest banks in the country, particularly its retail portfolio.

Videocon controversy

Everything changed for Kochhar and her image took a big hit when the Videocon loan controversy broke out raising questions after questions about her role in it. A probe on this is not yet concluded.

It is no secret as to why the investors cheered the resignation of one of the longest-serving executives at ICICI bank. The Kochhar issue was heavily weighing on the bank’s shares and no one who had put their money on the table liked the brewing controversy.

From its recent peak , ICICI Bank shares have lost 12.73 percent from Rs 362 to Rs 316 while BSE Sensex is down by 2.69 percent. Investors desperately wanted the uncertainty to vanish and clarity to emerge on a succession plan. This was the reason why large investors such as the mutual funds met ICICI non-executive chairman M K Sharma in April to discuss the CEO succession plan.

Chanda Kochhar era over at ICICI Bank: Why the timing of CEOs early retirement raises more questions

File image of ICICI Bank MD and CEO Chanda Kochhar.

The ICICI board loved Kochhar with its whole heart, till the last moment. Even when the world questioned the logic of her continuation and raised questions on the corporate governance standards of the bank, they stood by their beloved CEO. Even an independent enquiry was pushed to the last moment after the board was pushed to a corner by regulators and investors.

Timing of Kochhar's resignation

The timing of Kochhar's early exit is interesting because the outcome of a major internal probe by a panel headed by former supreme court judge Justice Srikrishna is pending. This is with respect to the alleged connection and conflict of interest regarding a Rs 3,250 crore loan given to the Videocon group and the business dealings of Deepak Kochhar, Chanda's husband with Videocon’s Venugopal Dhoot.

In a media release, ICICI Bank said Kochhar's exit will not impact the ongoing investigation and certain benefits to Kochhar will be subjected to the probe outcome.

But the question is, Why did the board accept her resignation before the probe was over? Couldn't it have waited till the issue to be cleared? After all, it is the same board which gave a clean chit to Kochhar immediately after the allegations became known to the public. Or does her quitting before the probe is complete give an indication that the board is pre-empting the outcome of the probe and wants to avoid an embarrassing situation if the probe indicts Kochhar?

ICICI Bank Board’s handling of the Kochhar issue

The Board of ICICI Bank could have handled the Kochhar issue better. The writing was on the wall for Kochhar ever since the allegations first came to light. The charges against her and her family members pertaining to the misuse of the CEO’s office were serious in nature. Whether there is truth in the charges or not; the board and Kochhar should have tread cautiously considering that the bank's first commitment is to its depositors and shareholders, not to one of its top management employee.

As mentioned above, the probe announcement happened with many delays. This complicated the whole issue given that the allegations pointed out fingers at big names such as the Videocon group, the Essar Group, Chanda's husband Deepak and her brother-in-law Rajiv Kochhar. Secondly, it didn’t ask Kochhar to step down from the beginning pending the probe.

Anyone could have alleged that her continuance at the powerful office could influence any internal probe in some way.  Kochhar was finally sent on leave in June but this decision was too late; the image of the bank, with respect to safeguarding the corporate governance standards it represented at one point had by then suffered much damage.

Throughout the episode, the bank board was supportive of Kochhar and an independent probe was ordered after pressure mounted from regulators and the media.

At this stage, Kochhar's 'early retirement’ appears to be nothing but a face-saving exercise for the bank to avoid an embarrassing situation should the probe lead to an indictment of Kochhar in the the Videocon case.

 

 

 

 

 

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Updated Date: Oct 04, 2018 17:58:58 IST

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