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It began as a slip of a girl in a blue sari. In a male bastion, the queen of Indian banking who took the helm of SBI at a time of financial gloom wears her crown well
One of the disarming questions posed to Arundhati Bhattacharya in an interview last year for the post of Managing Director and Chief Financial Officer of India’s largest bank was this: what would she have been, if not a banker? She did not rise to the bait. “A museologist,” Bhattacharya replied with exquisite tact, leaving her interviewers stumped. She got the job, and a few months later, found herself on a dizzy precipice as the first woman chairperson of the State Bank of India. The truth is, Bhattacharya, 58, could have been many things—a professor of English, a curator of ancient Indian art, a prolific columnist, a food critic. Even now, the arts creep over her banker’s persona like an impressionistic fog. “There is a science and an art to everything, even to credit risk analysis,” she says. “When you meet people, you have to understand why they are doing what they are doing.” As someone who wants to do everything, Bhattacharya has held over a dozen jobs across verticals—in retail, investment banking, treasury and even human resources—in her 36 years at SBI. “Every day, I learn something new and it keeps me grounded,” she says.

A Literature major, Bhattacharya had stumbled into the SBI— “a slip of a girl in a blue sari”, recalls a mentor—upon passing an all-India probationary officers’ examination in 1977. “The banking sector was just opening up and these exams were popular with people who did not want to use their connections to get a job,” Bhattacharya says. The training period had been dreamy—she remembers waiters in white jackets and gloves knocking on her door and pouring her tea—but it hadn’t prepared her for her debut at West Bengal’s busiest branch a day ahead of Pujo. “It was a total madhouse,” Bhattacharya says, her eyes going a little wide with remembered disbelief. She fought to keep her sanity and to think on her feet, with no inkling that she would one day take charge of the chaos that is the State Bank of India.

Bhattacharya’s corner office in SBI Bhavan enjoys spectacular views of Mumbai’s coastline. Looking out the window, past the traffic dribbling down Madame Cama Road 18 storeys below, her gaze snags on a tall building in the distance. She smiles at the symbolism. The towering presence is that of the Reserve Bank of India, the arbiter of the economy and the patriarch of a fractious household where the SBI is the eldest sibling. “A public sector banker has to manage various pressures today including regulation, which wasn’t as intrusive before 2008,” she says. She manages well enough. Bhattacharya assumed office in October 2013, when the Indian economy was reeling from exogenous shocks. Since then, the bank, the largest lender accounting for about a fourth of all bank deposits and loans in the country, has posted higher earnings and profits. Bad assets continue to remain a concern for SBI, but they have dropped from 5.64 per cent of its advances a year ago to 4.89 per cent now. “After the economy spiralled into a crisis, we are now seeing a turnaround. Though I am still not convinced this is the turnaround,” says Bhattacharya, who manages about $380 billion in assets.

While treading on a financial minefield, there were things she could do internally—“easy wins,” she calls them—to help the bank get its act together. “The chips were down and we had to rein in costs by identifying and doing away with wasteful expenditure,” she says. Disinclined to giving a hectoring speech, she wrote a blog post soliciting ideas from employees. In a 208-year-old, government-owned organisation, this was the equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, and suggestions poured in from all quarters. One in particular caught her eye. “Someone who had been driving home late in the night wrote in asking if we could turn off our glow signs in Mumbai after 11 pm since not many people were out on the streets at that hour. We were happy to implement this,” she says. The move spawned an inclusive culture within the bank and employees began reporting lights that had been left on at night. “Her democratic ways have inspired people across the board to cut costs of their own accord,” says NS Kujur, former SBI Chief General Manager, Human Resources, who worked closely with her for almost a decade before his retirement in October 2014. Having declined business class tickets to the company’s retirement programme in Coorg, Kujur was pleasantly surprised to find that most others, too, had opted to fly economy class.

Bhattacharya is vigorously invested in a participatory work culture even at top levels of decision-making. “She is the last person to throw hierarchy at you,” says Kujur. “She likes discussion in the boardroom, so there is never a monologue. If you disagree with her, she expects you to fight it out. I have worked with two other chairpersons and I found her the most remarkable in this respect.” While deliberating on a large, stressed account, Kujur had proposed something outlandish—what if the lenders got together to float a company and converted their debt into equity? “Although it eventually turned out to be unviable, she was open to trying it out,” Kujur says. “I am quite sure no other chairperson would have considered it, simply because it has never been attempted in India.”

She has none of the stiff air of a supply-side banker, says Rana Kapoor, Managing Director and CEO of Yes Bank. “On her official visits abroad, she is positioned as a statesman rather than a banker,” he says. On 11 December, when he strode into Rashtrapati Bhavan alongside Bhattacharya to attend a state dinner hosted in honour of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he found diplomats and politicians warming up to her easily.

“People feel good meeting her. She is extremely intelligent and easy to chat with, as though she were a long-lost friend,” he says. “She is the torchbearer of PSUs and the superstar of Indian banking.”

By championing regulatory changes such as the recent review of refinancing norms for infrastructure companies, Bhattacharya has won the deserved approbation of fellow bankers. “She has energised the organisation, brought in transparency and a lot of clarity about what she wants to do,” says Shikha Sharma, MD and CEO of Axis Bank. “Indeed, she is a big plus for the SBI as a brand and for the banking sector as a whole.”

The queen of Indian public sector banking wears her crown well. Though eloquent of thought, she measures each word like a minimalist chef teasing your palate. Somewhere in the course of a Saturday afternoon conversation strewn with metaphors, she likens the treacherous world of corporate lending to a thriller. “Everyone is interested in reading it. But deposits are the non- fiction of the banking world,” she says. “We are working on enriching depositors’ experience with the help of technology and simple products. For instance, we introduced personal accident insurance that costs Rs 200—less than the price of an Inox movie ticket—and takes all of 30 seconds to activate.” As with her work, Bhattacharya comfortably juggles genres in her reading. She is leafing through Michael Wood’s The Story of India, a Deepak Chopra title, and an Alexander McCall Smith novel these days. “You have to be able to relax and stop agitating over the small things in life,” she says. Yoga thrice a week, a walk along Marine Drive with her daughter and watching plays at the National Centre for the Performing Arts are her way of escaping the “maelstrom of activity” that is her office.

In a Pink-and-grey Banarasi weave accessorised with a sleek gold chain, Bhattacharya looks younger than her years and exudes the confidence of someone comfortable in her skin. She lards the conversation with jokes about her looks when you least expect it. “The media used to publish my worst pictures which made me look uglier than I am,” she says, with a good-humoured smile. “They are kinder to me now.” In another instance, when asked if she is religious, she says, not really. “I don’t fast. Which would probably help me, but I don’t,” she says. Where there is wit, there is also great wisdom. Anuradha Gupta, a friend, former co-worker and two years her senior, had an epiphany about Bhattacharya when she addressed an incoming batch of officers at SBI’s New York office around the turn of the century. “I was posted to New York and her term there had come to an end. It was one of the best speeches by a banker I have ever heard. The level of detail about US rules and compliance, the nuances, the oratory—it all amazed me,” says Gupta, who settled in Kolkata after retiring in 2012 as SBI’s Chief General Manager, Financial Reporting, Compliance and Taxation. “At that moment, it struck me that she was destined for greatness,” she says. An all-rounder and a great generalist, Bhattacharya is known for “grabbing new things and getting on top of them very quickly”, as one colleague puts it. The SBI top management has known since 2004 that Bhattacharya would rise to the chairperson’s post, he says.

Earlier this year, Bhattacharya was ranked No 36, ahead of ICICI Bank CEO and MD Chanda Kochhar, by Forbes in its annual list of the 100 most powerful women in the world topped by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The banker was visiting London when the list was announced and she texted her husband, an entrepreneur, in Kolkata. What he texted back sums up her attitude towards celebrity: “He said, Queen Elizabeth II is at No 35, and she will be there forever, while you will be off the list in no time,” Bhattacharya says.

Family has been her rock throughout a career that took her across the country, from Kolkata, the city of her birth, to the dusty towns of eastern Uttar Pradesh. She now lives with her daughter, a student of business administration, at her Malabar Hill residence, and her husband visits every six months. “Often, women make too much of the challenges of a career. We don’t jump thinking the distance is too great, while in fact, it is eminently doable,” she says, with characteristic optimism.

Women constitute about a fourth of SBI’s workforce, most of them holding clerical positions that they will readily give up for the nobler cause of family. Bhattacharya, who has brought in HR initiatives to retain them, brightens at the mention of the women in SBI’s top management—about 10 of them, including two deputy managing directors. “Women are naturally good at multitasking, they have been doing it for millennia,” she says. “At any given time, there are several threads of thought running through my mind, and I think I am able to manage them better because I am a woman.”

All the women who have made it to the top in Indian banking have risen right from the ground up, says Kochhar, Bhattacharya’s contemporary and friend who exchanges notes with her through SMS on a daily basis. “It took us 30-35 years to get here, and I believe that the next generation will take over in 10 years from now,” she says. Bhattacharya’s experience is showing now, says Kochhar. “She took the bull by its horns at a challenging time and got a mammoth organisation moving in just a few months.” Kochhar and Bhattacharya share a warm relationship peppered with conversations about shopping and children. “I believe that the best friends a CEO can have are peer CEOs, because your issues are common,” she says.

Bhattacharya is the most approachable SBI chair in many decades, says the chairman of a small, embattled public sector bank. “SBI chairmen have always been a little aloof and condescending towards smaller and private banks. They were never approachable in the way Mrs Bhattacharya is,” he says. “We were worried when she took over because she hadn’t spent enough time in Mumbai or gone deep into any vertical, but she has turned out to be an epitome of maturity. You can walk up to her and she will listen to your concerns no matter who you are. But she is also bold and frank about her own views.”

While she is a reluctant raconteur, Kujur talks of a meeting with a client from a prominent business family where she disapproved of his obscenely expensive shoes. “Joote toh dekho (look at his shoes),” she told Kujur. “You cannot trust a man who indulges in luxury when his business is in trouble.” Her own indulgences are unpretentious: handcrafted saris, a lasting love since she collected her first paycheck of about Rs 800 at SBI, artefacts foraged from flea markets—“I am a home-crowder,” she says—and books, which she has come to regard as “unopened gifts”. She is an adventurous foodie, but shuns fish and roshogolla, to the chagrin of hosts who often go to great lengths to procure the Bengali staples.

Money has never been a great motivator, Bhattacharya says. “Had I joined a private bank, I may have been paid much more, but I traded that for the comfort of growing with the SBI and imbibing some of its DNA. When you spend so much time in an organisation, you work with the same people in various capacities, and this contributes to a feeling of kinship,” she says. These PSU values are a throwback to a childhood in Bhilai, where her father worked at the steel plant. She has luminous memories of playing in the sun in the company of children who spoke strange languages. But is she a socialist at heart? “I believe in balance. I am for any ‘ism’ that will provide opportunities to people,” she says.

How does she feel about extending a billion-dollar loan to the Adani Group’s coal project in Australia? “It has attracted unwarranted media attention. But if you fear criticism, you will never get anything done,” she says. “A lot is made of government pressure on public sector banks. The Government does not tell us what to do. If it did, how would I be able to speak my mind the way I do now?” One of the most communicative chairpersons in the history of the bank, Bhattacharya’s is a familiar face, but adulation is something she is yet to come to terms with. On one occasion when a ‘fan’ recognised her on the streets of Crawford Market and insisted on taking a selfie with her, she reluctantly obliged so as not to appear churlish. “Frankly, I haven’t done anything special. It is like looking at a family album, the same thing over and over, and it can be boring, but if people are asking for it, then I’m okay with talking about my life,” she says, with a chuckle.

The SBI logo is a blue circle with a keyhole, depicting its promise of financial safety for the common man; the heart of the bank’s business. To Bhattacharya, the symbol is everything she wants the bank to stand for, the circle made up of over 220,000 employees and 15,000 branches coming together in service of every customer. She is grooming an army of personal bankers who can market SBI products and guide customers much as a family physician would. “A huge number of people are into over-the-counter transaction banking today. I want to change this,” she says. “In banking, it is very important to keep meeting your customers periodically.”

She doesn’t duck questions about her mistakes because the lessons from them, she says, need to be institutionalised. She delves into an embarrassing case where the bank had backed a company that had two things going for it: a novel technology and a government tender. In the end, both the pluses turned out to be handicaps. “The technology was too nascent and could not find applications in the market. And the Government, which was the only buyer, kept postponing the purchase,” she says. “Since then, at SBI, new techno- logies are red-flagged as possible risks and diverse portfolios are preferred.”

Learning has remained a lifelong leitmotif for Bhattacharya. She had wanted to pursue a PhD in Finance from the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur, but when she was told she had to attend classes, she dropped out. “I was already working then. Professor Damodar Acharya had agreed to be my guide,” she says. “I would like to get that PhD some day.” Her bucket list overflows with dreams that had no place in an all-consuming career. For starters, she wants to learn Sanskrit to be able to read the Gita in its original. “Perhaps I should not have said that, considering the controversy about Sanskrit. A language cannot be imposed, but it can be promoted,” she hastens to add. Travel features prominently on her retirement agenda and she gushes at the thought of lounging in a houseboat in Kerala or at Ananda in the Himalayas. She will not miss her newly-done-up office, with its chairs upholstered in pristine white and the brass idols in classical Indian poses occupying well-lit cornices. “I have always believed that you should not make yourself indispensable, at work or at home. When you leave, don’t leave a big vacuum behind,” she says. On her table are an iPad, a large monitor and several phones. An abstract swirl of peacock feathers in green, painted by a colleague’s wife, hangs behind her. She has led a fulfilled life at SBI, and it isn’t time to hang up the gloves yet, not for two more years. “There is no point in mistaking the chair for yourself,” Bhattacharya says. “When the chair is gone, you will still remain you.”