Arundhati Bhattacharya leaves behind a rich legacy at the State Bank of India. As her four-year term comes to an end today, it is worth while to take stock of what she has achieved.
She was the first chief of the state-owned bank who handled the biggest merger to date with its subsidiaries. She rolled out a wider digital platform on which the bank operations could be synchronized. She made the bank a woman-friendly organisation. That is not all, she leaves SBI after making the bank find a mention in the list of top 50 banks in the world.
Bhattacharya draws inspiration from her mother and aunt who helped her during her overseas postings. She superseded three male colleagues to occupy the 18th floor corner room in Nariman Point headquarters of the bank in Mumbai, handling over 20 percent of the country’s deposits and loans.
As she took charge as the first woman “Chairman” in October 2013, Bhattacharya set up six strategic goals – digital, technology, improving delivery standards, cost reduction, NPA (non-performing asset) reduction and risk management.
She ensured the bank made progress on all fronts. One of the biggest tasks towards the end of her term was the merger of SBI with its associates and Bharatiya Mahila Bank that happened on April 1 this year, for which Bhattacharya also got a year’s extension so that she could complete the process smoothly.
Here’s how an English literature graduate from Kolkata’s Lady Brabourne College and postgraduation at Jadavpur University made it to the head of a financial behemoth.
40 years at SBI
Bhattacharya joined SBI in September 1977 and went on to lead the bank as the first woman to lead an India-based Fortune India 500 company. she was the only woman banker on that list of giants anywhere in the world.
Joined as a probationary officer at the age of 22 years, Bhattacharya worked across various departments from corporate banking to treasury to retail to human resources to investment banking and others.
Bhattacharya, who completed 40 years in the same bank, once said, “Different roles at different locations was as good as moving to a new job every three years. This keeps me going.”
In one of her interactions after becoming the SBI chief, Bhattacharya mentioned her former boss and mentor MS Verma, who convinced her to not quit the bank even when she was worried about her child’s education.
Verma also headed the bank in 1997.
Bhattacharya has held various roles in the bank: She headed the bank’s merchant banking arm – State Bank of India Capital Markets; the chief general manager in charge of new projects. She launched new businesses including SBI General Insurance, SBI Custodial Services, SBI Pension Funds and the SBI Macquarie Infrastructure Fund.
She became the Deputy Managing Director in November 2010 and two years later, she was posted as MD & CEO of SBI Capital Markets, a subsidiary of the bank.
For two months, she became the CFO & MD of the bank in August 2013 before becoming the Chairman.
Banking and Digital Services
Despite being the largest bank, SBI, was nevertheless, a public sector lender which is known to be a laggard in its services and digital space. Bhattacharya kickstarted the digital focus with its offerings of e-wallet SBI Buddy to digital branches, improved its internet banking service and mobile website and apps for all types of customers.
Under her stewardship, a customer experience excellence project (CEEP) was also rolled out in 3,000-plus branches for better crowd management and faster processing time for transactions.
SBI also pushed innovation in the fintech ecosystem as it created a Rs 200-crore fund to invest in fintech start-ups. This puts SBI in the league of private sector banks that churn out solutions out of the investment fund to give an edge to the bank for the future.
Bhattacharya’s hands-on approach with digital initiatives was well received and so were her efforts to promote digital-only branches – a one-of-its-kind initiative in the Indian banking industry – and artificial intelligence and robotics for credit analysis, risk management and better customer service. She is positioning the bank as ‘the banker to digital India’.
In order to encourage meritocracy in the bank, SBI developed a new system under Bhattacharya’s leadership, to allot 65 percent marks for performance, which will include specific targets, 5 percent marks for successfully completing a set training programme and remaining 30 percent markings to be reviewed by the supervisor.
She also initiated many lateral hirings and batted for campus recruitments for public sector banks from esteemed institutions such as IITs and IIMs.
Unlike her predecessor, Pratip Chaudhuri, who clamped down on union activities and strained relations with the Reserve Bank of India and Finance Ministry, Bhattacharya was known to share a good rapport with the trade unions as well as the RBI and Ministry.
As per reports, State Bank officials who had worked closely with Bhattacharya cite her successful negotiations with the officer’s federation when unions planned a major strike against the management’s plan to move to a seven-day working arrangement in 2012 (this meant keeping banking operations on all seven days of the week, not making everyone work seven days a week). Bhattacharya was the corporate development officer for Human Resources at that time.
For the merger too, she had to bring all employees including those of associate banks on board and convince them to patiently to accept it without any effective strikes. She let the managing directors of the associates work independently and took care of the transfers taking into account the sensitivity of employees’ concerns.
She also initiated work from home facility for women employees if they had dependent elders/ailing parents or children to take care during their exams.
A polite and humble Bhattacharya is also known to be a task master.
Prior to the merger, Bhattacharya got her men and women to do a lot of groundwork, especially in 2016-17 in terms of cleaning up the corporate loan book of associates, integration of information technology systems, and bringing senior management on the same page to ensure smooth transition.
The merger, however, crimped SBI’s financials with a rise in slippages both in corporate and retail loan portfolio.
SBI’s financials improved right from the second quarter of Bhattacharya taking over as the Chief with a rise in profits in six quarters followed by a decline in NPAs.
In her first two years, gross NPAs as a percentage of total advances reduced from 5.6 percent in September 2013 quarter to 4.2 percent in the September 2015 quarter.
However, the steady improvement phase was ruptured by the central bank’s asset quality review, applicable from December 2015 quarter that led to gross NPAs spiking up. The June 2017 quarter showed the impact of poor asset quality in associate banks as gross NPAs touched 10 percent.
Despite the NPAs in the first quarter post merger, SBI’s consolidated profit rose over 250 percent.
With the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code in place, Bhattacharya got more vocal about taking action against recalcitrant managements and defaulting company promoters.
She also strongly voiced her opinions against the adverse effect of farm debt-waivers on credit discipline.
As she makes way for her successor Rajnish Kumar, even though Bhattacharya may not have pumped up the required credit growth or addressed asset quality concerns, but has definitely managed to make a mark as a go-to and hands-on person when dealing with troubles.