Forbes India 30 Under 30 2023

Nachiket Mor: The Crossover Leader

Nachiket Mor opted out of the race for the corner office at ICICI Bank to link the world of ideas with the world of execution

Published: Dec 5, 2012 06:46:27 AM IST
Updated: Nov 29, 2012 05:01:25 PM IST
Nachiket Mor: The Crossover Leader
Image: Raju Patil for Forbes India
Nachiket Mor (centre) with his staff

Nachiket Mor
The Crossover Leader
Age: 48
Why He Won: For successfully making the transition from a thriving career in the corporate world to working for the social sector and for serving as an inspiration and role model for others.  
His Trigger: To make a substantial difference, to find a solution to poverty.
His Mission: Make financial services and health care accessible to everyone.
His Action Plan: Create institutions, design scalable models that recognise the role of the market.
His Next Move: Demonstrate that the models in financial services and health care are viable; convince the market to adopt them and scale up.

If you want to see a place that represents the average India—that’s neither too big nor too small, neither too rich, nor too poor, possessing nothing unique, except perhaps history—visit Thanjavur.

If you rank the districts in India according to economic and social indicators, Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu will be right in the middle. And within Thanjavur, the distinction of being in the centre would go to a village called Alakuddi.

It is set amidst acres of paddy fed by tributaries of the Cauvery. You will find women washing clothes at the river ghats and children plunging into its waters. At the village railway station, empty benches wait under trees that sway in the breeze. It could well be RK Narayan’s Malgudi.

On every weekday morning, Uma Priyadarshini arrives at this station and takes a dusty road to a clinic, called SughaVazhvu Health Centre, in the village centre. She receives about 30 patients every day, treats them herself or refers them to a government hospital. The clinic is clean, with a few benches, some medical and diagnostic equipment, and two computers.

For help, Uma has a nurse who does the initial screening, and who collects information about patients and feeds it into a computer. But what is of greater help to Uma is a software that guides her in examining patients. On a recent afternoon, there were three or four women waiting in the foyer, holding cards with barcodes. With these codes, Uma can access their medical history and treat a range of conditions: Screen patients for cervical cancer, fill a bad tooth, test eyesight and help patients with chronic ailments like diabetes.

Interestingly, Uma does not hold an MBBS degree. She studied ayurveda at a college in Kerala, and also underwent a year-long training in pharmacology, dental procedures and emergency care—subjects not covered by her syllabus but required for this job.  

Doctors with MBBS degrees seldom go to rural areas. There is an acute shortage of doctors in India; the government estimates we need at least 7 lakh more. The Alakuddi clinic, one of seven in the district, demonstrates how physicians with degrees in alternative medicine can fill this gap in primary health care.

Zeena Johar, president, IKP Centre for Technologies in Public Health, which runs the chain of clinics, says there are more than 7.5 lakh practitioners of alternative medicine in India and 70 percent of them are in legally permitted categories. There’s an 80 percent overlap between their course material and that of an MBBS degree.

The gap in education can be bridged with a combination of technology and training, as is the case with Uma. Dr Devi Shetty, who runs Narayana Hrudayalaya in Bangalore, believes this is the way forward in addressing India’s primary health care problems. “This will become the norm. The country has no other option,” he says.

Not far from the SughaVazhvu Health Centre is another well-appointed building: Brightly painted, the office within has a scale to weigh gold and silver items, a webcam to photograph customers, a burglar alarm and a safe. A board reads Pudhuaaru KGFS (Kshetriya Grameen Financial Services). KGFS is trying to solve a different problem—that of financial access.

On busy days, people wait to meet officials, get loans or insurance, and deposit their savings in a bank. The centre has been around longer than SughaVazhvu and is a part of a bigger network that includes five business units, three in Tamil Nadu, and one each in Orissa and Uttarakhand. KGFS has more than 100 branches and 2 lakh customers, and grew at a time when the government was struggling to find ways to implement financial inclusion—over 40 percent of India’s population does not have bank accounts—and the limitations of microfinance were becoming apparent.

KGFS steps away from many risks that are inherent in other models, and it can scale up. It has a very different business model, says Ganesh Rengaswamy of Lok Capital, one of its investors. It is based on branches, and on a complete understanding of its customers.

Despite all its ordinariness, Alakkudi could well be at the top of a list of places that point to the future, thanks to these two ventures.

Nachiket Mor: The Crossover Leader
Image: Raju Patil for Forbes India
Health care is a closely regulated industry. But Nachiket Mor has spent a lot of time decoding the legality of using alternative medicine physicians to dispense allopathic drugs and he has successfully done it, says Dr Devi Shetty of Narayana Hrudayalaya

The Mastermind
The man behind both these ventures is Nachiket Mor.

Some years ago, Mor looked poised to enter ICICI Bank’s corner office. He belonged to the bank’s inner circle, saw the balance sheet multiply several times over, built the bank’s treasury department, shaped its corporate banking business, and established SME and rural businesses.

His influence spread beyond the bank too, with India’s fixed income and derivative markets still carrying his imprint. He seemed all set to succeed KV Kamath as ICICI Bank’s CEO.

And then, in 2007, he stepped down and took charge of the bank’s social service arm.

His move sparked discussions about the trappings of position and the liberating power of doing good for society. But Mor says he doesn’t feel like he made a transition. He is still dressed in formal attire, as if he never left the bank.

And he works as hard as ever.

When the projects were taking root in Thanjavur, Mor rented a house there. He spent most of his time travelling in the district, speaking to people, trying to get a sense of what will work, and holding strategy sessions with his team.

Once the idea took some shape, he shifted from Thanjavur to Chennai, where he works from the office of the IFMR Trust, of which he was chairman for a long time. The Trust office is inside the IIT-Madras Research Park, close to the city’s sprawling IT campuses and to academic and research institutions such as the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Central Leather Research Institute and, of course, IIT-Madras.

The Trust office gets some elements of both environments: The professional, process-driven air of the IT firms, and the collegiate atmosphere of a research institute.

SG Anil Kumar, who has been working with him since 2005, first in ICICI Bank and then in KGFS, recalls a visit to a village near Belgaum by the team that was setting up KGFS. On the day of travel from Bangalore, Kumar and Mor opted for the 10-hour journey by road, during which Mor kept working, either on his laptop, or talking on the phone, or having discussions with Kumar. When they reached Belgaum, Kumar was exhausted, but Mor was raring to go.

“Even after a decade of working with him, I continue to be amazed by his energy,” says Bindu Ananth, who worked with Mor in ICICI Bank, and now heads IFMR Trust. “I look forward greatly to KGFS branch visits with him where we start at the break of dawn and by the end of a very long day Nachiket is still bursting with ideas and enthusiasm about how we can serve our clients better while the rest of us are ready to drop dead! His energy and enthusiasm are so contagious.”

Mor’s views on finance and banking are much sought-after even today. When Nandan Nilekani, soon after taking on the Unique Identification project, wanted to get a sense of how it would impact various sectors, Mor was at a meeting talking about it. He is on the board of credit rating agency Crisil and is a member of the Financial Inclusion Advisory Committee of the Central Board of the Reserve Bank of India.

Mor has a PhD in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and was a Global Fellow at Yale University looking at public health. He tends to speak with the authority of a professor and his colleagues say he usually brings academic rigour and depth to everything he looks at.

He is very open to ideas and has a high tolerance for failure, says Zeena Johar.

“Health care is a closely regulated industry. But Nachiket has spent a lot of time decoding the legality of using alternative medicine physicians to dispense allopathic drugs and he has successfully done it,” says Shetty.

Despite his credentials, Mor faced his share of scepticism when he started KGFS. He was primarily seen as a man of ideas, someone who can come up with concepts but would struggle when the rubber hit the road. This criticism was especially loud at a time when micro credit was dominating the financial inclusion landscape. KGFS was thought to be too expensive and too complicated to scale up.

And then the microfinance crisis unfolded in Andhra Pradesh, while KGFS continued to scale up. This silenced some of the critics.

More importantly, there is increasing recognition that Mor’s initiatives have lessons for both the corporate and the social sectors.

Mor’s Mantras
1. Don’t aim for profit, solve a problem

When senior managers visit the KGFS branches, the first question is never about profitabilty, but about customers. The idea is to reinforce the message that a branch exists to solve the customers’ problems. KGFS defines its goal as achieving the financial well-being of customers, says KV Ganesh, head of Pudhuaaru KGFS.

Engagement with a customer begins by knowing his financial needs: His income, expenses and goals. A software then suggests relevant products. This is how corporate banking works—tailoring solutions for customers—and is quite the opposite of how retail banking works—presenting a bunch of standardised products to the customer, assuming he knows what’s best for him. KGFS is trying to make the corporate banking method work for the rural poor, by using a mix of design, technology and training.

If you stare at a problem long enough, Mor likes to say, a solution will present itself. And if you are providing something as basic as finance, profit must follow. It’s merely an indicator that you are doing something right. The best companies in the corporate world don’t have profits as their aim. Their goal is to solve a customer’s problems. And that’s how they stay relevant over a period of time.

2. Think big, collaborate
When Mor started at ICICI Foundation, he brought a refreshing approach to the development sector: He did not aim to build a large organisation that would do everything; instead, he looked for the best way to maximise impact. If that meant he would have to work with the government, that’s what he would do. If markets were the best way to achieve scale, he tried tapping that.

“He is a big fan of small changes that shift equilibriums, whether in finance or health care. He has relentlessly championed the role of markets and market infrastructure in accelerating scale in these domains,” says Ananth.

 3. Fill in the gaps
Complementing the two earlier principles is the endeavour to find out what’s missing in the market, and either providing a solution to fill the gap, or demonstrate how it can be done.

This is best exemplified by the different paths that have been adopted for finance and health care.

In case of primary health care, the approach demonstrates how a health centre can make use of a well-trained physician who does not have an MBBS degree. In the case of finance, the IFMR Trust has built a range of institutions to support rural finance, including IFMR Capital and IFMR Mezzanine, to connect microfinance institutions with long-term lenders; IFMR Rural Channels run KGFS and IFMR Rural Finance to help others replicate the model. The word that best describes these initiatives is ‘bridge’—one that connects demand and supply.

It’s a word that defines Mor as well. “When I started my academic journey, my original dream was to be a physicist. I decided that that’s not what I was going to do. I started with an NGO, then I did an MBA, and I joined ICICI and did a PhD. A lot of people thought that meant I moved from the social sector to the corporate sector, and now I am moving from the corporate sector to the social sector. I somehow don’t see it like that. For me, it is about where I can make a substantial difference. It was clear to me from the very beginning that I am not a frontline soldier. I don’t see myself as a ‘new ideas’ person. I see myself more as a bridge between the ideas that people have and the need for something to happen on ground.”

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(This story appears in the 07 December, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Mph

    As a person who worked closely with Nachiket Mor for several yrs in Thanjavore, this is not an accurate profile. The man is not the savior made out to be. He is barely involved in these projects, most of which are based on weak science and poor understanding of public health. Most of the PhD\'s working for him have little background in medicine or health. Nachiket\'s understanding of finance is valid. He has degrees from great institutions. But his understanding of health is deeply superficial and dangerous in the role he has jumped into. Forbes India would have done a better job if they had done their proper background search. During the past several yrs, KGFS and ICTPH has lost more than 100 people who read the writing on the wall and got out as soon as possible. Please check the rate of decay in their employees, check the benefits or lack thereof in the health and financial programmes and check the number of days this man spends in Thanjavore (where he has never lived; the man resides in Bombay). Most importantly, Nachiket was driven to Thanjavore because he was asked to leave the bank as he wasn\'t good for its long term prospects. Well, as it turns out he hasn\'t been all that good for development of these local communities either.

    on Jan 18, 2013
  • Amarendrasahoo

    May I know more about Khetriya Grameen (KGFS) \'s Orissa, Uttarakhand operations as I had woked there!

    on Dec 9, 2012
  • Shivendra Sharma

    Hahahahahhaha...this one is funny! We all know, didn\'t opt out of anything...but did find himself on the burnt end of the stick! He is a great guy despite that...not because of that! But this is the sensationalist Forbes magazine...hence this is all justified even if it isn\'t anywhere near the truth!

    on Dec 9, 2012
    • Sn

      Hi, How does one conclude this and what type of substantiated evidence is needed to arrive at such a discouraging conclusion? Shouldn\'t we be asking the publisher to produce some substantial evidence to support the nobility of their program toward the benefit of society and the community in Tanjur? Once we have this, we can help and inspire others to execute challenging assignments.

      on Dec 9, 2012
      • Sn

        My apologies as I posted the wrong text into this article and discussion. Please withdraw this post and thanks as there is everything positive about this real story.

        on Dec 10, 2012