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Rachel Idzerda/The Globe and Mail

Chanda Kochhar, the first woman to run a bank in India, is no stranger to tough situations.

She became chief executive officer and managing director of Mumbai-based ICICI Bank Ltd., India's largest private-sector lender, as the global financial crisis raged in 2009. Soon she was battling a run on retail deposits, fuelled by unfounded reports the bank had significant exposure to troubled U.S. banks.

With the quiet confidence that is her trademark, Ms. Kochhar ordered branches across India to stay open as long as customers wanted their money, made sure ATMs were constantly restocked and coached edgy branch managers late into the night.

The key, she explained, was doing everything possible to make customers and employees feel comfortable in the face of a crisis, and communicate clearly.

"If there is a challenge, make sure you overcome the challenge, rather than allowing the challenge to overcome you," said Ms. Kochhar, 52, outlining what has become the guiding motto of her life and career.

With similar resolve, she has pushed ICICI, a bank hitched to India's burgeoning middle class, into risky new markets – from the smallest of Indian villages to Canada's rugged oil sands. Under Ms. Kochhar's leadership, ICICI has followed India's far-flung diaspora of immigrants and businesses into 18 other countries, while nearly doubling the bank's return on equity.

And with clever use of technology, such as full-service branches in mobile vans and transactions via Facebook, she has brought millions of India's "unbanked" into the modern economy.

Ms. Kochhar was in Canada recently for a board meeting of the bank's Canadian subsidiary and to collect an honorary doctor of law degree from Ottawa's Carleton University, in part to recognize her "effective leadership" during the financial crisis. We met between meals at Ottawa's Château Laurier Hotel.

Dressed in a bright orange sari, she talked about the bank's Canadian aspirations, the transformation of the Indian economy, and her unlikely ascent to the top of the male-dominated world of global banking.

The determination she has shown as a banker was forged early in life. Her father died suddenly when she was 13, forcing her stay-at-home mother to return to work. With three high-school-aged children to support and no job, her mother moved the family to Mumbai from the small city of Jaipur to work as a clothing designer for a fashion house.

Her mother's struggles, and triumphs, taught Ms. Kochhar never to let life's ups and downs get the better of her.

"That was one of the biggest lessons in my life about tenacity and the strong willpower of taking life and dealing with it the way it comes," said Ms. Kochhar, who lives in Mumbai. "We had seen our mother being just a homemaker. Then, circumstances changed, and that same. soft woman you were used to seeing at home became a strong master of the whole house."

Ms. Kochhar always "liked numbers," taking accounting in university and later an MBA. That led her to a job as a management trainee at ICICI in 1984, when the bank was strictly a development project lender.

She would never work anywhere else. For the next 25 years, she rose through the ranks and was eventually groomed for the top job, often heading new businesses as the bank morphed from a development bank into a full-service financial institution. It is now involved in everything from retail banking, securities and insurance to asset management and private equity.

"The organization has grown and diversified, and I got involved in all of them," she said. "It's been an exciting journey, getting into all those business, setting them up and scaling them up."

And, uncharacteristically for India's often tradition-bound corporate culture, Ms. Kochhar reached the top without the benefit of a pedigreed name or the prestigious offshore university degrees favoured by many companies.

ICICI, which stands for Industrial Credit and Investment Corp. of India, is now the country's largest private bank, as well as its leading, private life and general insurer. It has more than 3,750 branches and 11,300 ATMs in India. With worldwide assets of $124.5-billion (U.S.), it is significantly smaller than National Bank of Canada, the smallest of Canada's Big Six banks (assets: $199-billion Canadian) and Toronto-Dominion Bank, the largest (assets: $922-billion).

Ms. Kochhar's goal is to grow ICICI into a top 20 global bank.

The bank was a "gender neutral" institution long before it gained favour in the banking industry, in India and elsewhere. It has evolved into an organization that doesn't give any special privileges to women, but also doesn't distinguish between the sexes, Ms. Kochhar said. She's now one of at least three female bank CEOs in India who rose through the ranks at ICICI, along with Axis Bank's Shikha Sharma and JPMorgan India's Kalpana Morparia.

In contrast, none of Canada's Big Six banks has ever had a female CEO; nor have most of the top banks in the United States.

"ICICI has become a role model as an organization, creating gender diversity and proving to other organizations that it's possible to have a really great mix of talent and to be an inspiring example to a lot of women in India," she said.

"It's now fashionable to talk about gender diversity."

Ms. Kochhar regularly ranks on Forbes magazine's annual list of most powerful women (No. 42 in 2014) and is widely recognized as India's leading female CEO. She has earned every leading business prize in India as well as the Padma Bhushan, one of the country's top civilian honours.

Expanding ICICI's presence in Canada is a natural, given the extensive familial ties and growing economic relationship between the two countries, she said. She pointed out that roughly 30,000 Indian immigrants come to Canada every year, along with tens of thousands of students.

"It's about the two countries recognizing the complementary relationship they have," she explained. "As we've seen with all other countries, as the interests between the two countries grow, the diaspora always plays an important role."

There may be even greater potential helping Canadian companies eager to do business in India, particularly if the two countries reach a free-trade agreement now being negotiated.

The Indian economy is changing in ways that makes it much more attractive to Canadian companies, she said. India isn't just building basic rural infrastructure any more – roads, telecommunications and the like. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government is also investing heavily in urbanization, digital cities and smart trains.

India needs investments worth roughly a trillion dollars over the next five years, and Canadian companies are well placed to get a piece of that, according to Ms. Kochhar. Canada, she insisted, is an ideal partner as India moves up the development ladder. For example, the bank counts Bombardier Inc., which has a rail equipment plant in India's state of Gujarat, among its customers.

"With the renewed focus on the kind of development that India has now, Canada would have a large role to play," she said.

The bank has been exploiting its competitive strengths – including its technology and low-cost back-office services – to expand its mortgage business in Canada. On the corporate side, the bank has tapped Indian companies doing business here and Canadian companies looking to expand in India.

"That is a natural progression for us," Ms. Kochhar said.

India isn't just a place to set up a "competitive" production base. It is also a huge market with a massive talent pool, she argued.

"It is not really about taking jobs from one place to another. It's about creating the most competitive business models."

Her work has had the greatest influence on the banking industry at home, where the bank uses mobile technology to reach the nearly two-thirds of India's population that does not have a bank account. ICICI uses a combination of roaming bankers and mobile branches to get to customers in the tiniest of villages. Its banking vans have everything normal branches have, including a teller, money-counting machines, an ATM and a security guard.

"We have the ability to move around, almost with a branch in a suitcase," she said. "Banking has become mobile, with the bank moving everywhere."

A bank employee with a hand-held device can meet a customer, digitize their information, snap their photo and open an account on the spot.

But Ms. Kochhar said the goal is not just to gain customers and grow ICICI. With a government ID, a mobile phone and a bank account, villagers can get the best price for their grain, and eventually borrow money.

"It's bringing in a larger and larger part of India into the fold of economic development," she said. "It's enabling rural India to take part in every form of growth that takes place. It brings them into the economy."


Chanda Kochhar

Husband: Deepak Kochhar, a wind energy entrepreneur.

Children: Two, a daughter who has an engineering degree, and a son now studying engineering and playing competitive squash at a U.S. university.

Favourite leisure activity: "The very best way to use my spare time is to use it with family, whether it's going to a Bollywood movie late at night with my husband, going shopping with my daughter or watching my son's squash matches."

Career goal: Growing ICICI into a top 20 global bank.

ICICI Bank in Canada

Canadian operations: Does mainly residential mortgages and corporate lending.

Retail customers:185,000

Corporate customers:125

Branches: Nine, including seven in the greater Toronto area, one in Surrey, B.C., and one in Calgary.

Assets: $5.6-billion

Employees: 200

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