Muralidhara Kadaba in conversation with Ashutosh Garg

Murlidhara Kadaba talks to Ashutosh Garg about his experience spanning over 30 years in banking, real estate, payments, loyalty, travel, entertainment, wealth management, Private Equity, Family Office and digital services. Murli was also the Country Manager for India at American Express.

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In the internet world, market leader takes a lot including the premium.

Muralidhara Kadaba

My view as an entrepreneur was that I wanted to learn every day and I wanted to be relevant.

Muralidhara Kadaba

For an entrepreneur, conviction backed by a lot of passion is crucial. You should be solving a real world problem.

Muralidhara Kadaba

It is very essential to find yourself a mentor who can guide you and counsel you.

Muralidhara Kadaba


How was your life as a student?

I graduated as an engineer from Mysore. My first job was with TVS Suzuki as a young engineer. The company built two-stroke engine motorcycles. My experience with Suzuki was invaluable. I was working in the trenches and was lucky enough to be able to assemble the first bike by hand. Besides, I was also dealing with union workers who all spoke Tamil. Since I was not very fluent in Tamil, I am sure I ended up offending a few of them. I always looked up to the well-turned out gang of management trainees who travelled in the same bus as us to work. I figured that the only way to be one of them is to do an MBA. Soon after, I joined XLRI for my MBA. I took a sabbatical from TVS Suzuki to pursue my MBA. Even though I got some amount of scholarship, I was still falling short of money to pay my tuition fee at. So, I took a loan from the bank, sold my most precious motorcycle, and my transistor to make sure that I had enough.

What was your early career like?

Right after my MBA, I joined Citibank and went to Singapore as part of a batch of new hires who where hand-picked from various premiere colleges. I realised that one trait that was common between all of us was that even though we were the brightest minds in the country, we were lousy at social skills. After my training, I joined the operations team in Mumbai and managed technology and operations. I worked very long hours and ended up learning a lot. My confidence skyrocketed, my technical skills got sharper, my ability to analyse business problems became much better, and my presentation skills too improved dramatically. Citibank moved me quite a bit across functions and my understanding of the banking sector became very good over time. I also learnt how to prioritise my tasks, deliver as per the priorities that were set, and creating a good impression as a doer. I slowly moved into product development and distributions where I brought in some innovation solutions like friction-free lending. I moved to Amex in 1997 as Country Head for Financial Services. This was a great move for me as it gave me the opportunity to build Financial services for Amex. I could put all my learnings in lending, wealth management, premiere banking, etc. to practice. I could also bring the best of talent to work with me and so I built a fabulous team. Within a few years we reached profitability very quickly with some innovative lending programs in the market. By 2001, I was heading the bank, card business, and consumer businesses in India. In my years with Amex, my ability to deal with the environment and the people, my ability to manage capital, and my ability to communicate improved considerably. A friend and I had been contemplating getting into insurance. Before we could begin, I was called in by Mukesh Ambani for a conversation. He spoke to me about Reliance’s retail business. I wanted to learn how to work in an Indian company before starting my new venture and so, I agreed to work with him for a period of time before I went on to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams.

How was working with Mukesh Ambani like?

Working with Mr. Mukesh Ambani was a fantastic experience. He is extremely humble. His commitment to the country is unparalleled. Moreover, he is never interested in doing what has already been done. He is always looking for new ideas and new ways of doing things so that he has a considerable competitive advantage. He also is capable of thinking ten steps ahead. Working with him was a great learning experience as I was able to learn and think big as part of his company. I was able to exercise my intellect to do big things in a setup which had an appetite to do big things and which could also challenge you continuously. I continue to contribute to Reliance. I work hard to make sure that I repay the faith that the senior leadership has had in me. I am the mentor for financial services in Reliance, I have had first view of everything that has happened in this segment. I have seen how 300 million customers were brought in in just a year and a half. I have seen how the strategy was built, how we got the payment bank license, recruited the senior leadership in Jio Money and Jio Pay, and put point of sale terminal in retail network. I learnt about what is happening globally in the area of Fintech during this time. I also got involved in some digital businesses like BookMyShow. I learnt about the entertainment industry and the ticketing business through this stint. Yatra was another one of these businesses through which I learnt how to drive growth when you are not number 1 in the business.

How has your entrepreneurial journey been so far?

My business orientation as an entrepreneur was towards the wealthy segment, a space that I was comfortable with. This segment required customer services, concierge services, family office etc. We put the first family office in India and then established one in Singapore and one in London. The concierge business is doing well too. Magic is a business that fulfils a certain need that most people have after the age of 50. At this stage you have made enough wealth. You are now worried about a few things – how do you make sure that your wealth is maintained, managed, and grown if possible, how do you stretch your work life as much as you can, and how do you stay relevant for as long as possible. The answer is diversification. People need to diversify currency, asset category and diversify as much as possible into different stable countries. The entire concept of Magic is collective bargaining. You can build systems, technologies, compliances, processes, relationships, and alliances across the globe on the basis of this idea. My view as an entrepreneur is that I want to learn every day and I want to be relevant.

What is your learning from your biggest failure?

It is important to learn from all your mistakes or errors. For instance, when I just started working at TVS Suzuki, I was told that I was being offensive to others because of my lack of fluency in Tamil. Instead of trying to defend myself, I chose to learn how to rectify my mistake. One of my biggest mistakes was that for the longest time I attributed my success to my ability to work hard. Over time I have learnt that there are always a bunch of people behind you who may not expect anything in return but will have your back under all circumstances. Success is not about a single individual, it is always a result of good team work. Staying humble is core to eventually achieving what you want to achieve. You also have to think before you jump into any new venture.

What advise will you give young entrepreneurs?

For an entrepreneur, conviction backed by a lot of passion is crucial. You should be solving a real world problem. Failure is inherent to entrepreneurship. If you are afraid of failure, you shouldn’t take the plunge. Moreover, it is very essential to find yourself a mentor who can guide you and counsel you.

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