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Manisha Girotra: The boutique banker

The head of Moelis India on boutique banking, competing with her husband, and the pressures of 10-minute presentations

Manisha Girotra. Photo: Only Pix
Manisha Girotra. Photo: Only Pix

It turns out we are meeting for lunch on Valentine’s Day. Is that okay? I ask Manisha Girotra. After 23 years with (spouse) Sanjay Agarwal, meeting to discuss boutique banking sounds infinitely better, quips Girotra. So we meet at the Koko Asian Gastropub in Lower Parel, Mumbai.

Girotra looks as striking as she always does, in a black and pink silk sari, her long hair piled up in a bun. The 47-year-old investment banker has an impressive roster of deals and has been on practically every list of powerful executives, right from Forbes’ “15 Women to Watch in Asia" in 2008, the World Economic Forum’s list of young global leaders in 2010 and Fortune India’s “50 Most Powerful Women in Business" in 2014.

After we order jasmine tea, I ask Girotra to share the secret of her success. “It’s persistence more than anything else. I just keep going at it. Investment banking is a difficult career, you win or lose on a daily basis, and you lose more than you win. So you just have to brace yourself, say it’s another day and start all over again," she says.

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Starting all over again is what Girotra did when she joined Moelis and Co. as India chief executive officer (CEO) in 2012. With a private equity deal value last year of $386 million (around Rs2,580 crore), Moelis India ranks No.7 in the VCCEdge league table of investment banks, higher than banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Moelis India is also among the top 10 investment banks in the mergers and acquisitions list by deal value.

Girotra worked for 16 years at global financial services firm UBS, where she was CEO since 2003. “I had done 20 years of large banks, and at the time (in 2012) the big banks were going though so much turmoil that you really couldn’t focus on business, you became so internally focused that the external focus was lost," she says. It was around this time that she happened to meet Ken Moelis, an ex-UBS investment banker and a former boss, in London and decided to join him to set up the India operations for the New York-headquartered firm. Moelis had started his own boutique bank in 2007, dazzling the markets with a string of high-profile deals. Today, Moelis India has earned a name for itself, with its role as adviser in deals such as Bharti Airtel’s African towers sale as well as UltraTech Cement’s acquisitions of Jaiprakash Associates Ltd’s cement assets.

We talk about Girotra’s first job at ANZ Grindlays in 1992. I knew Girotra in those days, and remember her as a shy girl in her 20s with a gorgeous smile. Unlike many of the other trainees who joined ANZ Grindlays with us, she didn’t feel compelled to network in an aggressive manner. “That’s because I never thought I would be a banker. So I never felt the pressure to be a Type-A achieving kind. The job was only a stopgap. I was going to do my PhD (in economics) and change the world," she says.

Then she fell in love. With her job. And with a fellow banker. “When I first saw Sanjay, he was on a pair of crutches. He was this investment banker, you know, one of the cool guys. He told us he was a soldier, that he had fought the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), and he was there working only till his leg healed. Only much later, after I fell in love with him, did he tell me the injury was because a bike hit him when he was standing outside his house."

Now, they are competitors and even pitch for the same deal occasionally. Agarwal is currently the head of corporate finance at Deutsche Bank.

By now, the restaurant is full. Service is slow, and we spend a few minutes catching the waiter’s eye. Girotra recommends the sushi; we order two plates of salmon and avocado sushi. She tells me that though she manages a house, she has never been able to cook. Her husband cooks and, she adds, even her 13-year-old daughter Tara cooks better than she does. You can’t do everything, she rationalizes.

What Girotra does do exceptionally well are deals, and we talk about what goes into landing them. “It’s not so much the networking as the ideas you bring," says Girotra. She believes the best business is repeat business, which comes to you when you get the first transaction right and the client begins to trust you. Some of her most memorable and most stressful deals were the early ones. “Those were the days of government disinvestments. Because there were so many banks pitching for the same business, you had to ensure your presentation was not too heavy and onerous. And because the banks were called alphabetically, at UBS, we were always the last to go. There was a 40-minute time slot allotted, but timings would overrun. By the time our turn came, we were often told we had 10 minutes and, in that time, you had to convince the government you had domain knowledge, a global network, an India network." At one point, Girotra managed to convince the government to reverse the order of presentation occasionally, starting with the last. “They did that and those were the deals we lost. Maybe we just work better under pressure," she laughs.

Girotra grew up in Shimla, where she learnt to skate, ski and play golf. “My father would drag my younger brother and me to the golf course in Naldehra and teach us golf.” Years later, while at UBS, Girotra had the occasion to play with Tiger Woods. “It was really stressful to have the master of golf watch your swing. Of course, he was very sweet and said I had a good stroke.” She says she doesn’t really do deals while at golf, and plays for leisure—mainly at Mumbai’s Willingdon Sports Club.-

Women often ask her about the challenges of being a working woman. She tells them any career is a rat race for both men and women. It’s important then to have grit and hang in there. “Change the home mindset—that if you have kids, you must quit. Why should you quit when you have kids?" asks Girotra. “Workplaces have become conscious of the fact that diversity is also good economics. And that women make great employees—they change jobs less often; men change for a few dollars. And if you support women through their tough times, through her early years of having kids, they stay fiercely loyal with you," says Girotra, whose daughter is proud of her mother’s career.

The salmon and avocado sushi arrives in twin platters, drizzled with a pale orange sauce and garnished with dill. It tastes as good as it looks. We help ourselves before returning to the subject of women and the workplace.

Girotra is also an independent director on the boards of Mindtree, Ashok Leyland and French energy company TechnipFMC. “People often ask me whether I mind the fact that I have been nominated as an independent director because I am a woman, and whether I feel odd being the only woman on the board. I reply that this is a lot like the other part of my corporate life, where I am often the only woman in the room." Being on the board of a company is a lot of work in terms of the preparation required but Girotra says it has taught her a lot. “As a banker, you are outside, you are just sharing your view and going away. Here, you are actually sitting inside," she says.

It’s 2.30pm, time for Girotra to leave. She will work the rest of the day from home because her daughter is running a fever. “I feel a lot more guilty than my husband. He will go to work, but I feel the buck stops with me. Maybe because the ecosystem feels the buck stops with me—my mother does, my mother-in-law does. I feel maybe that’s why even I am programmed to think like that," she says.

Girotra says her women idols are PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi and German chancellor Angela Merkel. So does she aspire for a job like theirs? “This is a dream-come-true job. And when I’m done, I want to go back to Shimla, to the Himalayas, and run a school for the girl child," she declares.

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