I never tried to manage my career....
If ascendance to the top position of one of the world's largest and pioneering financial organizations, that too in a country that would not accept anything less than the best, is what one is looking for some inspiration, then Vikram Pandit's career-graph would be one of the books that aspirants can take a leaf out of. Pandit may not have ever imagined that he would one day take over the reins of Citigroup when he left for the USA to pursue higher studies; the modest aim would have been to complete his education and then take up a career that would suit his skills and knowledge. But he was destined for greater and more significant things than settling down in an engineering job. So what he did after completing his engineering (B.S. & M.S.) was, to explore the world of business and finance (M.B.A. and Ph.D. in Finance). This step would enable him in the future to join Morgan Stanley and get acquainted with the world of financial services from close quarters, gain enough expertise and confidence to float a hedge-fund company (Old Lane LLC) with a couple of colleagues (from Morgan Stanley), creating value and then selling it to Citigroup as well joining it (Citigroup) in a leadership position, and ultimately moving to the top of the ladder.
Born on 14 January, 1957, in Nagpur (India) into an affluent Maharashtrian Brahmin family, Vikram Pandit was afforded the benefit of pursuing higher education outside India. He had inherited erudition and leadership from his father, Shankar B. Pandit, who was an executive director at Sarabhai Chemicals in Baroda (Gujarat, India). So, it wasn't any surprise when the young Vikram left for the US to pursue electrical engineering right after finishing his schooling from the Dadar Parsee Youths Assembly High School in Dadar, Mumbai (India). Choosing to go abroad, across the far-seas when he was only 16 years of age – a tender age when most Indians, with the exception of sportsmen and children of businessmen accompanying their fathers on business trips (yes, they do), even fret to venture out of their home-towns, was definitely path-breaking which would also, in some instances, go down as a freakish endeavour. This unique bent of mind was to lead to a few defining decisions in his later life. More astonishing than the fact that he completed his B.S. in a mere three years were the turn of events, rather his career interests.
After completing his graduation, it is said that he taught economics at Columbia, followed by a brief stint as a professor at the Brock University at St. Catharine's, Canada. What drew him towards the world of finances only he can tell; but one can safely assume that it were his professorial stints in economics that perhaps helped him make up his mind regarding the future course of his career. He joined Morgan Stanley as an associate in 1983. He moved up the ranks in due course and by 1990, he had become the managing director and head of US Equity Syndicate unit of Morgan Stanley.
His career progression at Morgan Stanley was so rapid that by 1994 he had become MD and head of its worldwide institutional securities division.
Apart from the fact that he was one of the first Indians to join Morgan Stanley, more significant were his efforts in setting up some new practices at the company. For instance, he was instrumental in building Morgan Stanley's electronic trading and prime brokerage division. The writing was on the wall that the time for his real ascendency had arrived in 2000, when he was elevated to the post of president and chief operating officer (COO) of the company's worldwide operations of the institutional securities and investment banking businesses.
It was the year 2005, and Vikram Pandit had been at Morgan Stanley for more than two decades, and it was only understandable that he contemplated moving on. Through the course of this eventful period he had got a closer and inquisitive look at how the financial markets worked in sync with the rest of the business world. It is here that the confidence, and, hence the thought of floating his own financial services firm sprouted in his mind. So, when he parted ways with Morgan Stanley (2005), he sounded out a couple of his close colleagues at Morgan Stanley on the same. The two colleagues who aspired for the fruition of, more or less, the same vision, and who almost always seemed to have worked at the same frequency that Pandit did, did not deliberate much before saying yes to the idea. It was an obvious choice.
The Journey Thereafter
Thus, the triumvirate of Vikram Pandit, John Havens, and Guru Ramakrishnan, established the hedge fund company, 'Old Lane LLC,' in March 2006. The fund was a richly rewarding one for the trio and, in not more than a year from its inception, the fund was bought by Citi for a whopping $800 million, with the deal also bringing leadership positions at Citi for both Pandit and Havens in 2007. Pandit was named chairman and CEO of Citi Alternative Investments (CAI) unit, and very shortly after this even led Citi's Institutional Clients Group.
Obviously the leadership qualities were there for all to see. If the longevity, the work that he put in, and the results of his efforts at Morgan Stanley under various capacities had already established his work ethics beyond any doubts, then his thought leadership was manifest in the success of the hedge fund he had floated (with colleagues). Admittedly, there were to be other crucial factors in Pandit's ultimate rise to the CEO's position at Citigroup in only six months after his joining at Citi. The company had reported some not so good results the previous quarter (Q3), resulting in the resignation of Chuck Prince as its CEO.
Although there appeared to be more than one contender for the vacant post, Pandit's candidature had the endorsement of some of the senior men at the company which tilted the decision in his favor. Consequently, Pandit was made the CEO of Citigroup in December 2007, which appointment also made him the youngest (at 51) CEO of Citigroup.
To be sure, the path from here on in was not rosy at all for Pandit. The company had slipped into a loss-making zone, resulting in making a dent into investor confidence as well as the morale of the employees – which can be expected when there is even a slight uncertainty as regards the leadership, and the implications thereof.
Braving such odds, Pandit scraped the first year of his rise to the top position, although the company was still to get back to making profits. Desperate circumstances require desperate, if not extraordinary, efforts. While Citi's position back in 2008-09 cannot exactly be said to be desperate, it was definitely in troubled waters. Pandit knew very well that a complete over-turn of the situation was not possible overnight. So, he thought could at least do things that can take some burden off the company's enormous financial burden. And thus came about his decision that, perhaps, was unparalleled in the modern industrial era, irrespective of whether it had any bearing on the overall performance of the company thereafter.
The company's position had become precarious, resulting in it receiving about $45 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds. Sometime in 2009, he had informed the company's board of directors that he should only be compensated with a salary of $1 per year, and no bonus until the company returned to profitability. This was done for two years during which period the company's efforts, and those of Pandit's as well, bore fruit, and it recorded five consecutive quarterly profits. In recognition of this progress made under Pandit, his annual salary base was raised to $1.78 million, after two years of work at only $1 per annum.
That little aspect taken care of, Pandit went about the accomplishing the more significant task of bringing the company onto the path of recovery and, ultimately, profitability. The strategy he adopted would rely heavily on Citi's historic strengths and unique competitive advantages i.e. its global franchise, unique emerging market footprint, innovative spirit and, the talented and diverse employee base.
Relying on the company's core strength areas, Pandit focused on the customer-centric services by embarking on the plank of 'Responsible Finance,' much of whose origins stemmed from the irresponsible and indiscriminate borrowing and lending in USA that had lead to the worst economic crisis since the great depression of late 1920s and early 1930s. This meant that Citi had to be extremely committed in providing choice, control and transparency to its clients, and managing risk responsibly - thereby contributing to the economic growth of the country.
The strategy paid off fantastically for Citi which (as recounted earlier) recorded profits for five consecutive quarters. From innovative foreclosure prevention programs that kept more than 1,000,000 Americans in their homes to a new and disciplined approach to risk management, 'Responsible Finance,' has truly been ingrained in the people through Citi's practices and culture.
So, what should be the reward for master-minding this turn-around in the company's fortunes? A hike in salary and compensation would have been the bare minimum for someone who had forsaken all but $2 of his salary for two years. It is one of the worst mock-realities of our times that someone whose commitment to the well-being of the company is unquestioned, and one who has had to give much more for the revival of the company's performance than just forsake his salary, finds that a proposal by its board -to hike his salary & compensation to $15 million as just rewards for his efforts- is met with opposition from the very share-holders whose investments and, in essence, wealth Pandit strove to protect and add-value to. That the revival did not spur on the market's confidence in the company, whose stock price took a beating since he assumed CEO responsibility, is another matter altogether that is best left to the speculators to explain.
As if that wasn't enough, there is also heaps of criticism, whether or not warranted is debatable, from many quarters, which Pandit either ignores and goes about his work or responds in the only way he can – by bringing in the results. In any case Pandit continued to put in his efforts to carry forward the company towards its goal of complete recovery, consolidation, and stability even in the face of market fluctuations and prolonged uncertainty vis-à-vis the world's political and economic scenarios that make the so-called 'Bubble,' ever-ready to burst. But then there is a limit to everything – and so it was with Pandit. However stoic a man is, when things start to boil over, and it appears that all he did made for counted for nothing, then perhaps it is time to move on. That is exactly what Pandit did and stepped down from the CEOs post recently.
Beyond his responsibilities at Citi, Vikram Pandit is also a part of the Board of Columbia University, Columbia Business School, the Indian School of Business, and Trinity School. He also serves as director of the Institute of International Finance, and was on the board of NASDAQ OMX, the New York City Investment Fund, from 2000 to 2003.
Pandit is married to Swati. The couple has two children: son Rahul and daughter Maya.
In 2008 the Government of India conferred on Vikram Pandit the 'Padma Bhushan'.
Euromoney magazine's Banker of the Year award,2010 for executing one of the biggest and most complex bank restructuring in history, which saw the troubled institution returning to profits.
The Economic Times Global Indian of the Year, 2011.
"I never thought about the future in any way. You couldn't write a novel connecting the dots saying, here's something you could have planned, ever."