In 1969, the young Suma Chakrabarti returned to Kolkata after a short stint in Britain where his father was doing his doctorate. West Bengal was in the grip of Naxalite uprising and the school system had shut down. "After spending much of the year without schooling, my parents decided it was time to go back," said Chakrabarti.
He stayed on, went to Oxford, joined the British civil service, got knighted and is now president of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the only Indian to head a multilateral financial agency.
The EBRD was founded to help the ex-Soviet Union transition from communism to capitalism. Unlike other multilateral agencies, like the World Bank, the EBRD is designed to help the private sector and 80% of its funds go to this sector.
Chakrabarti is the first EBRD head to visit India since 2007.
"We looked at the figures over 20 years and noted we had only about one billion dollars in investment that included Indian firms," says Chakrabarti. "That seemed small beer given the size of the Indian private sector."
Chakrabarti has been talking to the Tata Group, Mahindra and Mahindra, Reliance Industries Ltd and other major business houses to see how EBRD can partner them in the areas that his bank operates.
This catchment now includes not only eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia, but also Turkey and Arab countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan. "These are markets India firms should be interested in," he said.
The EBRD does more than provide finance, it has offices in its 44 countries of operation and provides assistance to any investor in those countries.
Russia, for example, is seen as a difficult place to business. "If an Indian firm wants to invest in Russia, EBRD has a large diligence team there and can help it navigate the system," says Chakrabarti. The bank is expanding its operations in Egypt and is particularly enthusiastic about Turkey. "It is growing very fast, has systems that work, a professional business class and bureaucracy. Indian investors and EBRD could work together a lot more than the present one or two billion dollars that we put in there."
The EBRD operates in any number of sectors. "With Indian partners we've been working in petrochemicals, automotive, agricultural equipment, agribusiness, metal and steel," he says. The bank is also interested in working with small and medium Indian industries in these countries.
Chakrabarti notes that though the bank invests in areas that commercial banks are wary of, its non-performing assets are only 3%.