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Debt bed


A little over a year ago, he was the globally celebrated champion of the poor, steering India's largest microfinance company - SKS Microfinance - to a hugely successful IPO in August last year, raising Rs 1, 654 crore in the bargain.

Cut to November 23, 2011. Dr Vikram Akula made headlines yet again when he was forced to make an ignominious exit from the very company he founded in 1998. The god of Indian microfinance had fallen from grace and how.

Adding insult to injury was the thumbs up the stock markets gave to the departure of the poster boy of Indian microfinance. Hours before the company announced his resignation, the SKS scrip actually perked up for the first time in days after the company announced a staggering Rs 385-crore loss for the second quarter of the current fiscal and shot to its permissible upper limit on the bourses.

So how did the dream run of this Hyderabad boy, who became the global face of microfinance, go sour? Born in Ryakal village in Narayankhed mandal of Medak district in Andhra Pradesh, Akula got his BA in philosophy and English from Tufts, an MA in international relations from Yale and a PhD in political science from the University of Chicago.

He shot to international fame when Time magazine profiled him among the 100 most influential people of the year in 2006. Not only was he also featured on the front page of Wall Street Journal, he bagged several awards for his work including the Social Entrepreneur Award at the World Economic Forum and went on to pen his much acclaimed autobiography A Fistful of Rice: My unexpected quest to end poverty through profitability.

Soon, he was crossing swords with Nobel Laureate and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus, who is known as the father of microfinance and also referred to as his guru by Akula.

In a public debate with Akula, an upset Yunus had come down heavily on Akula's attempts to take SKS public and had warned him: "Microcredit should be about local money. When you get outside money, you get the risks, the volatility of it (too).

Microcredit is not about exciting people to make money off the poor. That's what you're doing. That's the wrong message completely. "

So was it Akula's decision to take SKS public that finally proved to be his undoing ? Or did other factors, like bad interpersonal relationships, conspire to come together to pull him down from his pedestal? How did the poster boy of Indian microfinance go from being Dr Akula to Drakula (as some media reports referred to him after the spate of borrower suicides in Andhra Pradesh caused by alleged strong arm tactics of MFI players, including SKS)?

Those from within the industry point out how in taking the company public Akula actually opened the front door big and wide to hardcore private equity investors who have certain expectations that have to be met and finally shunted it out when he could not keep his promises.

Those who have worked with Akula describe him as a "flawed genius". "SKS has in many ways been the pioneer in the country for a commercial MFI model. He took the company to altogether new heights. But there are some fundamental flaws in the man. How to get along with people and how to build relationships is something beyond him, " points out an industry source.

In fact, it was the sacking of SKS' managing director and CEO, Suresh Gurumani, on October 4, 2010, that is understood to have marked the beginning of the end for Akula. The news sent shockwaves through the industry and the company's scrip, which just a week before the Gurumani sacking had scaled a peak of Rs 1, 490, crashed.

However, many in the industry who had been witness to Akula's rise were not surprised by the unceremonious exit of Gurumani soon after Akula's return to the company as executive chairman.

They pointed out how the same story had been replayed on multiple occasions. People at the helm of SKS, like Praseeda Kunam and Raghunatha Reddy, too had to beat a hasty retreat within days of Akula's return to an active role in the company's affairs.
"Vikram is a very public-spirited person committed to the poor. But whenever he returned from the US after resolving his personal issues, it was followed by the departure of people who were steering the company at that time. This clearly points out to a history of personality clashes, " said an industry insider then.

His clashes with others, like Thermax's former chairperson Anu Aga and author Gurcharan Das, too saw them quit as trustees of the SKS mutual benefit trusts that represent the interests of SKS' women borrowers who are the primary promoters of SKS today.

His personal life, too, has been marked by bitter legal battles with his ex-wife Malini Byanna first over divorce and now over the custody of their son. It is not surprising then that Byanna, who was till recently camped in Hyderabad for a few months as part of their child custody battle, has been one of his most bitter critics.

Byanna, who has accused Akula of financial irregularities, says she is not surprised at Akula's ouster. "Vikram Akula stepped down from SKS Microfinance because he knew it was only a matter of time before the board of directors along with the investors, promoters, and shareholders would have forcefully voted him out, because he is neither capable of cooperating with others nor sharing power. "

The final nail in the coffin was delivered by the Andhra Pradesh government within days after it slammed the AP MFI Ordinance on October 15, 2010, to rein in MFIs after borrower suicides reared their ugly head. Understandably, SKS being the only listed MFI bore the brunt of this move on the bourses. Of course, like all the other MFIs, its finances too started slipping into the red as AP was the biggest market for most MFIs, accounting for one-third of their portfolio.

As an industry observer sums up, Akula's bid to chart ambitious growth for SKS was like trying to drive a Ferrari on potholed Indian roads. "What happens when you try to grow too fast and step on the gas too much? You end up in an accident. "

Another MFI industry stalwart termed Akula's reluctance to let go of SKS as the promoter syndrome. "If you have brought your child into the world, nurtured it, then to let it go is very difficult. This promoter syndrome problem was also in some ways the undoing of Prof Muhammad Yunus. "

"For Vikram things have come full circle. He began with zero and is back to pretty much zero. It's a case of what you have done to somebody else has been done to you, " points out an industry observer.

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