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The Indian banker who gifted shares worth $500,000 to his domestic help

Vembu Vaidyanathan has always been generous with gratitude towards those who have been part of his ride to success.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise when he gave away shares worth 3.95 crore rupees ($526,000) of IDFC First Bank to his driver, personal trainer, office support staff, and domestic workers on Feb. 21. The 54-year-old managing director and CEO of the company had done it earlier, too.

For instance, on May 14, 2021, he gave away 450,000 shares, then valued at Rs2.43 crore to three people, for them to buy homes.

Earlier, in October 2020, Vaidyanathan had pledged 100,000 shares in IDFC, then valued at close to Rs30 lakh, to Gurdial Saini, his maths teacher from school. About three decades ago, Saini had lent him Rs500 to travel from Chennai to Jharkhand for an interview at the Birla Institute of Technology.

Vaidyanathan never forgot that gesture. “Sir, it is only my gratitude, it is an expression of my gratitude and my respect for you. Please accept it,” the banker told his stunned former teacher.

Similar sentiments were expressed in a company filing to the Indian stock market regulator in November 2018. That was the first time he made headlines by gifting shares worth Rs20 crore. “Before the start of the new journey, he has expressed a desire to thank and honour those who have brought it to this strong position,” the company filing said.

These donations and gifts amount to nearly 38% of his stake in the company since before and after IDFC Bank’s merger with Capital First in December 2018.

The exact motivation for such philanthropy is unknown and Vaidyanathan is largely seen as being media-shy. But some of it may have to do with his roots.

Who is Vembu Vaidyanathan?

The banking executive traces his roots back to the southern Indian city of Chennai but he has studied across India at various Kendriya Vidyalayas, a chain of schools run by India’s central government.

Born in 1968 to middle-class parents, Vaidyanathan has three siblings. While his father and siblings worked with the Indian armed forces, he was the first from his family to join the private sector. In 1986, he finished schooling at Pathankot, Punjab, where Saini was posted.

Thanks to the veteran teacher’s timely help, Vaidyanathan went on to study at the Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, in the state of Jharkhand. He is also an alumnus of Harvard Business School.

The banker and marathoner

Vaidyanathan began his banking career in 1990 with Citibank, moving to ICICI Bank a decade later to set up its retail banking divisions. After being appointed to the board of ICICI Bank in 2006, he was named managing director and CEO of ICICI’s insurance business in 2009.

In 2010, Vaidyanathan became an entrepreneur, acquiring Capital First, a non-banking financial corporation. He led the company for about eight years, focusing on medium- and small enterprises.

His rise to the top may be grounded in his work ethic and work-life balance. “It is difficult to separate work and life. I pour over problems or ideas even at midnight, and family is on my mind even when I work,” he told the Economic Times newspaper.

As a banker, Vaidyanathan has viewed Indian policy moves like demonetisation largely favourably. “What has not happened in 50 years will happen in the next five,” he told the Mint newspaper in 2018 about the digital advances in the banking sector and the improvement in overall financial inclusion.

Eventually, in order for Capital First to have a full banking licence, the company merged with IDFC Bank in December 2018. Vaidyanathan has been at its helm ever since. In December 2021, the Reserve Bank of India extended his term as managing director and CEO of the company for a period of three years.

Banking aside, Vaidyanathan is an avid marathoner, often running for charity. He has participated in 23 half- and eight full marathons to date. “Running makes fitter employees and gives them discipline. It’s good for everybody,” he told the Mint newspaper.

Vaidyanathan is also fond of singing. In 2016, he performed songs of Stevie Wonder and Elvis Presley to raise money for the Genesis Foundation, which funds heart surgeries for poor children. He lives in Mumbai with his wife and three children.

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