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Ashish Chauhan: The man with the Midas touch

In this week's #IndiaPositive, Newsd uncovers the person hailed as the father of modern financial derivatives in India

By Newsd
Updated on :

In January 2013, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi visited the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) and was deeply impressed by the work being carried out at Dalal Street. The Chief Minister could not help but instantly extend an invitation to Ashish Kumar Chauhan, the MD and CEO of BSE, to set up a similar trading centre in Gujarat. That was the genesis of the idea behind BSE’s International Exchange centre that was inaugurated a few months ago by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a yet unprecedented manner, Chauhan set up the exchange from scratch within a period of three months; a record in the industry. This fateful visit from PM Modi is captured in a picture that hangs on his office wall along with other pleasant pictorial reminders.

This is not the first time the 49-year old soft-spoken man from Gujarat has pushed the boundaries of excellence. In 1993, Chauhan co-founded the National Stock Exchange (NSE), currently the arch-rival of BSE. After changing the face of trading with the NSE, he quit in 1999 to start a company of his own to keep up with the dot-com boom. When the bubble burst, he joined the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and briskly moved to the post of President of Reliance Communications. Chauhan was an integral part of Reliance’s leadership team during the extremely crucial phase of India’s mobile phone revolution.

A mechanical engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay and PGDM holder from Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Calcutta, Chauhan’s fascination with communications technology goes back to his NSE days. He fondly reminiscences, “I had set up the first commercial satellite telecom network in 1993-1994 when I was 25”.

During his stint at Reliance, Chauhan was able to revel in his passion for his favourite sport, cricket. While serving as the CEO of the Mumbai Indians IPL team, he closely monitored the sport and his team’s performance. “I love cricket. I can watch any form of cricket”, he says. As a memorabilia of those days, there’s a photograph in the waiting area of his BSE office of three men playing snooker in different coloured wigs, they are Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh, and Ashish Chauhan. He beams, “I do not know snooker but they were trying to teach me”. Talking about Tendulkar brings a smile on his face and he goes on to narrate a heartwarming memory, “Sachin has been very down to earth. When the team was playing in South Africa, an Indian family came to the hotel to meet him. As he had gone out, they had to wait for a couple of hours. They had a 16 or 18 year-old daughter who was in a wheelchair as she was paralysed. She was insistent on meeting Sachin at any cost, so the family waited. When he returned, he happily chatted with her for a good 15-20 minutes. After that whenever the team was playing in that town, he ensured that front row tickets were sent to her. While he was on the field, he would go to the boundary and wave at her in every match. That is how humane our cricketing legends are, especially Sachin”.

When Chauhan left Reliance and joined the decaying BSE as Deputy CEO in 2009 it was not his choice. It was a condition set down by Asia’s oldest stock exchange as it acquired Chauhan’s family-run firm that developed software for brokers. The Exchange wanted Chauhan on board for a year to integrate the software firm. As the year ended, the challenge that BSE posed excited him and he decided to stay on, and turn things around. In 2012, when Madhu Kannan stepped down as CEO, Chauhan took his place. He repaired the “brokers’ club” image of the BSE making it professional and CEO-driven like its rival. It was Chauhan’s dogged tenacity that revived the 141 year-old stock exchange that had long been written off.
More than 5500 companies are currently listed on BSE making it command a total market capitalization of USD 1.64 trillion as of 2015. It is also one of the world’s leading exchanges for Index options trading.

After years of bureaucratic delays, Chauhan has finally pulled off BSE’s own listing. Earlier this year, the BSE raised $185 million in its initial public offering (IPO), enriching more than 250 shareholders. The BSE’s SME Exchange serves as the trading platform for 164 thriving Indian companies. On the basis of trading volume, it is roughly four times larger than the NSE’s platform, which hosts the shares of 37 smaller firms.

With the India International Exchange (INX) in Gujarat, Chauhan has overtaken the NSE; the rival now intends to set up its own exchange. He proudly says, “It will trade in US dollars like a foreign securities market, but within the boundaries of India”. Recalling the regulatory challenges faced by the venture, Chauhan is grateful to the “tremendous support from all levels in the government for this particular framework which is coming to India for the first time”.

When not busy with the BSE, Chauhan is an avid reader with books everywhere in his house. But he enjoys the convenience, access to a wider collection, and cost effectiveness offered by e-books as he is always on the go. He calls himself “an indiscriminate reader” when it comes to genres and is currently reading ‘The Innovators’ and ‘End of Alchemy’ on the Kindle app on his phone. A startup incubator runs under his aegis on one of the floors of the BSE building. A mentor to young minds, Chauhan is ever encouraging.

With absolutely no airs about his achievements in life, he says, “I was at the right place and time, I didn’t plan for any of it. Coming from a middle-class family, I had to do whatever was coming my way for survival”. And what a survival it has been!

#IndiaPositive is an exclusive weekly series that celebrates achievements and groundbreaking disruptions to status quo caused by prominent change agents.