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A Tale of a Fallen Capitalist and a Tragic Blow to Global Finance

By Nick Kapur - Updated Apr 5, 2017 at 7:57PM

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Fool Nick Kapur honors a fallen hero of banking.

In recent years, I have watched as emerging markets turned into a final frontier for adventurous souls looking to strike it big. Prevalent thinking (my own included) has suggested that courageous investors willing to dive into these markets must accept the inherent risks within immature governance structures and questionable regulatory bodies, just to listen to that sweet siren song of unbridled growth.

That's the so-called risk/reward balance we have created.

At the same time, emerging-market investors have had to forgo the relative "safety" of their home markets and abandon the protection of well-developed systems and practices here in the West -- at least, that's how we assumed it would work.

Case studies on prudent corporate governance and "best-of-breed" management practices almost universally concentrate on Western companies -- in many cases, rightfully so. But my experience has been a bit different.

While we languish in the worst domestic economy of many, many decades thanks to the failures of many "best-in-breed" entities, you might want to hear a bit about it.

Three weeks ago today, as Islamic terrorists stormed several of Bombay's most heavily trafficked restaurants and hotels, Ashok Kapur found himself in the wrong place at precisely the wrong time.

Logic fails to explain how, in a city of nearly 20 million citizens, one of the several hundred struck down by these cowardly acts would be a close relative. Though he frequented the restaurants of the Oberoi and the Taj Hotels regularly, on this evening, my father's elder brother went at the insistence of a group of international clients whom he would entertain together with my aunt.

As fate would have it, my aunt -- Ashok's keen and able right-hand -- was able to escape the Kandahar restaurant in the Oberoi Hotel bearing only the intangible (but very real) emotional scars of witnessing the event firsthand. My uncle, on the other hand, sadly paid the consequences of this seemingly innocuous decision with his life.

It brings only limited comfort, but I have come to understand that Ashok Kapur was and will remain a celebrated name in India's fast-growing financial system -- a name sure to be respected for generations to come.

At the age of 65, with a happy marriage, two successful children, two more grandchildren and a third to come within a matter of weeks, my uncle stood at the forefront of his own, personal golden age.

Business was blossoming.

Ashok Kapur spent more than four decades of his life pulling himself up the ranks of the banking world by his own bootstraps. Starting as a junior clerk at Grindlays Bank in India, only fairly recently did he find himself a co-founder (together with his brother-in-law, Rana Kapoor) and chairman of the nation's third-largest, fastest-growing and award-winning retail bank, Yes Bank.

It couldn't have been a better time to be running a well-respected startup, with deposits galore and the highest standards of credit quality around.

As we wallow in the miseries of financial excess gone wrong (an object of our own completely shortsighted creation), I look east to a bank that was predicated on sound lending standards and conservative, controlled growth to remind myself that capitalism does, in fact, work -- when properly supervised.

Standing in the ashes of fallen giants (or soon to be) like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Wachovia, Washington Mutual, and countless others, I look forward to seeing one bank, Yes Bank, take its rightful place as a dominant name in a country expecting blistering growth for decades to come.

I will remember my uncle in my own way.

I will never forget a trip to India in the winter of my junior year in college, when he sat down with me over a pair of gin and tonics and intently asked me what I wanted to do with my life. At the time, I was eager to continue my studies via law school. With a warm and secretly devilish grin on his face, he responded saying only, "Lawyers do excellent work. And you would, no doubt, make a fine one. But there are only so many billable hours in a day. And you see, you can only scale your time so much from there. Entrepreneurs and businessmen, on the other hand, can scale as large as the underlying strength of the ideas they can create." He smiled as he took his last sip of the drink.

I want the world to remember the man slightly differently.

I want the world to take note of a man, a prominent man, who fought unnecessary risk, who raised (not lowered) the standards of lending quality at a time when the world was gorging itself on excessive liquidity, and an executive who never forgot that he could learn from others (including his juniors), and that pride and ignorance were killers.

I've been grateful for the dozens of stories that have emerged -- each of which will help shape the legacy of a truly wonderful man.

One of his employees explained to me both comically and sadly that he couldn't find a pair of athletic shoes in all of India for his 6'10" son (back then, one couldn't just log onto eBay for some freakishly large tennis shoes). On a later trip to Amsterdam, and on his own volition, my uncle carried back several pairs of Shaquille O'Neal-sized shoes and rolls of tube socks for the growing lad.

An avid sportsman and captain of his bank's cricket team, I was delighted (but not surprised) to learn how my uncle refused to travel ahead of his team by plane or in more posh conditions, instead choosing to travel second-class sleeper between cities across the tropical country with the rest of the team. (If you're unfamiliar with the conditions of the rail system in India, I highly encourage you to watch Gandhi, or the more recent The Darjeeling Limited.)

As successful as he was, my uncle never put himself on a pedestal. I believe some of our executive friends here in the United States (including the Detroit Big 3) could learn a thing or two from him, judging by recent their performances.

Like Warren Buffett, my uncle was a fanatical bridge player, enjoying the rapid mathematical permutations and orchestral strategy of the card game. He was a well-balanced man.

I had to write this article for myself and to help make sure that my uncle's legacy as a conservative and ethically good banker could begin to take shape without being lost in the halls of memory. But I find it equally important for the world to take note of an instance in which a member of the so-called developing world took the lead -- and not the reverse.

Say what you will about the specifics of the situation, but our financial system has failed, and failed miserably. But that doesn't mean everyone has failed.

It might be difficult to recognize these days, but good bankers do exist. Yes, we're inundated with financial horror stories like the recent Madoff scandal. But for every Long-Term Capital Management out there, there are many more humble, competent, and dedicated men and women like Ashok Kapur, who spend their careers trying to build something larger than themselves. They just may not be where you would expect to find them.

I close with the simple statement that we, as a nation, and even as a group of developed nations, need to properly incentivize our banking system to grow and flourish in a manner that is not only strategically smart, but also ethically right. Though the answer isn't so clear right now, I'm sure we can all say that the "right" thing to do just isn't what we've been doing for the past few decades. Evolving this system is a must -- and though it may require periods of pain and adjustment, I know my uncle would have it no other way.

Nick Kapur has no positions in any of the securities mentioned in the article above. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

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