Prince of Poverty Leaves Behind Questionable Legacy
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Vikram Akula was the golden boy of microfinance when he launched his company SKS. How did things go so horribly wrong?.
The story of Vikram Akula is almost like a classic Greek tragedy with epic peaks, troughs and betrayals that could easily make up a Hollywood movie. Akula remains a controversial character, whose very name incites admiration and criticism in equal measure. Some say that he gave birth to the microfinance industry as we know it in India. Others say that his model of lending, pioneered by his company SKS Microfinance, gave birth to an almost unquenchable thirst for profit, driven by a business model that has no place in ameliorating the state of the poor in India. Regardless of how people feel, one thing remains clear: Microfinance will never be the same without him.
Around a week ago, SKS reported that Vikram Akula stepped down as Chairman of SKS in order to pursue a career in mobile banking. However, all indications suggest that there was something entirely different going on in the company. The seed of dissent at SKS became public, when last year Akula sacked CEO Suresh Gurumani, who was brought in SKS to give it a corporate identity. It is believed, Gurumani wanted to deviate from the traditional MFI model, and replicate a modern-day technology-driven retail banking structure in SKS.
To understand what was happening in SKS recently, one has to take a peek at data from Bombay Stock Exchange which reveals that as of September 2011, Indian promoters held just 11.55 per cent stake in the company, while foreign promoters held a 25.29 per cent stake. The public held 63.16 per cent. In other words, promoters have, in effect, little control over SKS on Monday. Data from SKS website shows that Akula has no shareholding as a promoter in SKS but still wanted to steer the ship that he had built from scratch. “The company was making huge losses, and investors were not getting returns as promised. They obviously didn’t like Akula’s intervention in running SKS, even when his stake was negligible, while he felt that the company’s achievements were to his credits and its failures were someone else’s fault,” said an industry insider who prefers to remain anonymous.
Ultimately, the institutional investors whom Akula inducted into SKS with much fanfare, proved to be the Frankenstein’s monster that ousted him. Sources say that Paresh Patel is the CEO of Sandstone Capital and Sumir Chadha, Managing Director of WestBridge formerly Sequoia Capital, both of whom are SKS board members, were the most vociferous against Akula in the last board meeting. (Both Patel and Chanda could not be reached for comments.) “The company needs a strategic redirection, and we will announce the plans soon,” said Dilli Raj, Chief finance officer, SKS, as an explanation.
But the most trenchant-indeed vicious-critic of Akula is his ex-wife and co-founder of SKS, Malini Byanna who has accused him of a whole host of unsavoury practices related to SKS. Akula refused to talk to Business Standard, except to say, “I am legally advised that I am not in a position to discuss, comment on, or respond to your queries. Consequently, I regret my inability to respond to your questions beyond saying “I am unable to comment.”
How could a ’golden boy’ of a promising industry purportedly offering succour to the masses in the form of loans that sidestepped usurious moneylenders who held rural India to ransom, fall from grace so quickly?