The Hindu Business Line
‘I’m the no-loads CEO’
Story of the rise of A Balasubramanian in the Indian mutual fund industry
Few weeks back, when the chips were down for the headhoncho, thanks to volatile markets, A Balasubramanian quietly reached for his bag to pull out his earplugs. “Whenever I am in a sombre mood, I listen to pancharatna kriti”, he says. This is a set of five songs composed by the famous 18th century poet Tyagaraja. His favourite though is “Kurai Onrum Illai (No complaints have I)”, a Tamil devotional song expressing gratitude to God.
Every time he hears this song, tears well up in his eyes. “Have we not got everything in our life? Why are we still not satisfied?”, he asks. While this song keeps the man — who is at the helm of Birla Mutual Fund — grounded and contended during adverse times, his rise to the top was anything but a cake-walk.
In early 2009, A Balasubramanian remembers getting a call from his boss (Ajay Srinivasan) informing him that he was being considered for the post of CEO of Birla Sun Life Asset Management. “I was initially apprehensive about the new role”, he says. He was already at the helm of investing — as chief investment officer (CIO) of the asset management company — enjoying generating wealth for investors. As CEO, his role would have undergo a complete transformation — to the unexplored area of business development.
Moreover, it was also not-so-good times for the mutual fund industry, with SEBI cracking down on the malpractices of the distributors. While many of his friends were sceptical about the new role, he accepted the challenge against all odds.
Incidentally, the day he joined office as CEO (August 1, 2009) was when entry loads were banned by SEBI for all mutual fund schemes. “I am the no-loads CEO”. “Nobody can take this title away from me”, he says jokingly.
“Bala has broken the myth that it’s only the Gujarathis, Marwaris and Sindhis who have ‘equities’ in their DNA”, says CEO of another mutual fund house, who didn’t want to be named. Born in a humble Tamil family in a place called Mellatur in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, he managed to quickly rise up the corporate ladder.
Starting his career as a trader in Birla Sun Life AMC way back in 1995, Bala moved on to take the larger role of a debt portfolio manager. Slowly, he shifted focus to equities and was heading the entire investment management team before he was offered the role of CEO on a platter.
“The initial two to three years were challenging, especially with equity markets turning volatile”, he remembers. But then, he got a hand firmly on the steering. “Bala Bhai is brother for everyone”, says a distributor, who thinks that his best trait is his accessibility.
Bala is known in the industry as an extremely hard-working and hands-on person. More importantly, he does all this with a smile on his face, says a distributor. Even his exteam members wax eloquent about him, typecasting him as an “ideal boss”. While being non-intimidating, Bala is also known to push his team members to achieve more by setting an example himself; he was sincere and hardworking.
“Despite his amazing climb to success, he is disarmingly humble”, says another CEO of a mutual fund house.
“The level of passion and quotient for learning has to be continuous”, says Bala. His passion for learning is infectious; he completed the advanced management programme from IIM Bangalore and MBA from GlobalNxt University, Malaysia. He usually attends lectures or works on course assignments during the weekends. Some Sundays, he spends time at the office’s Bloomberg terminal browsing through global events . “I am going to Harvard University in September 2017 to attend the nine-week advanced management programme”, says Bala, in his usual disarming manner. In 2015, the Aditya Birla group chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla and the jury chose him as “outstanding CEO’ of the year’’ a title given every year only to three senior management executives in the group, which manages businesses from chemicals to cement. The Harvard stint is part of the group’s freebies doled out exclusively for its ‘outstanding CEOs’.
Moreover, Bala believes in putting learning to work. Way back in 2011-12, when he was heading investments, he introduced a unique structure in fund management. “I gave analysts the mandate to manage portfolio money to give them a sense of ownership for their ideas”. Usually, it’s the fund manager who takes buy or sell decisions.
However, proper risk controls were put in place along with veto power to the CIO. “We borrowed this concept from MFS (Massachusetts Financial Services) Investment Management, one of the oldest asset management companies in the US. The idea was to bring in passion for managing money”, he said.
Birla Asset management is currently the fourth largest asset manager in India with $25 billion worth of assets under management. Besides, the company has overseas assets worth more than $3 billion in Singapore and Dubai, where the company has a subsidiary. Many of Birla’s equity funds are currently rated the top by the rating agencies.
Watering the roots
For Bala, spirituality gives him the much-needed ‘balance’. He is a follower of “Satya Sai Baba” and participates in bhajans.
Moreover, social initiatives keep him grounded. “I started an elementary school along with my brother in my home town (Mellatur) with 160 students. I travel there once or twice a year and feel happy to witness the progress made by students, especially from backward classes and SC/ST”, he adds.
Rajnikant movies make a good recipe to unwind. “Rajnikant movies are Rajnikant movies. The last movie I watched was Kabali”, he remembers about the superstar. The successful journey from a trader to a CEO at country’s top asset management company has certainly not taken the smile quotient of this softspoken gentleman.