Steady climb to the top

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By SAMYABRATA RAY GOSWAMI
  • Published 9.10.13
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Mumbai, Oct. 8: The first woman ever to become the chief of India’s largest lending institution feels a karmic connect with Durga Puja.

Arundhati Bhattacharya (57), who will head the State Bank of India for the next three years, joined the mammoth institution as a tiny cog in the wheel on the Panchami day of the festival in September 1977.

With two days to go for Panchami this year, the cog — then a regular trainee probationary officer — took over as the driver of the wheel on October 7.

Bhattacharya also has the badge of the youngest managing director and chief financial officer of the SBI to her credit.

Bhattacharya’s elevation as the bank’s chief was a given — she was the only eligible candidate because of her residual age in service. The other three of four managing directors did not have the required years of service left.

But last minute changes to the rulebook by the finance ministry (seeking more candidates to chose from) allowed all managing directors to stand up and be counted for the top job.

Finally, a personal intervention by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tipped the scale in favour of the woman whose DNA is at odds with the genetics of the banking elite — her quiet tenacity and no-nonsense sensible approach is highly respected.

Neither an economist, nor a chartered accountant or a management graduate, Arundhati wears her badge as a student of English Literature at Calcutta’s iconic Lady Brabourne College and Jadavpur University with quiet pride. She remembers stanzas from Tennyson and Keats when she looks out to the Arabian Sea from her 18th floor room at the SBI headquarters in Mumbai.

She did not take an elevator to reach here.

Baptism by fire

She climbed every step of her rise — right from that September day of 1977 when as a young probationary officer out of SBI’s Hyderabad training school, she found herself surrounded by hundreds of customers, jostling to collect money before the bank closed for Durga Puja.

“It was my first day at work — and beginning my training on the job, I was given the job of writing cheques and entering their details. The branch was surrounded by hordes of people…soon they had to close the gates to manage the crowds and they started pushing in. I remember every bit of the day and my aching hands as I kept writing the cheques in a daze, ensuring there were no mistakes. I remember the pressing crowds and their urgency to withdraw money before the bank closed for the festive season. It was a day of baptism by fire,” she says.

The baptism has stood her in good stead. Especially, when it came to managing trade unions. Last year, as deputy managing director and corporate development officer in charge of human resources she had successfully negotiated with the bank’s officers’ federation on the eve of a massive strike call against the bank’s plan to go in for a seven-day banking operation.

No short-cuts

But trade unions may be least of her worries. With the SBI’s gross non-performing assets rising and profits floundering, the bank is in a bit of bad patch. Bhattacharya says short-sighted “QSQT” reactions will not help.

“I mean the ‘quarter se quarter tak’ mindset. I am not going to opt for a short-term view for a 206-year-old institution like the SBI. I will try to improve my asset book — I will not look over my shoulder to see whether it improves the credit cost this quarter — but I know for sure that it will make a difference in four to six quarters,” she says.

Her colleagues and ex-bosses agree she is taking over in a difficult period — and she will have her hands full.

“And to think I took a bank probationary officer’s exam just for a lark — goaded by friends from Jadavpur University who were preparing for the test,” she sighs. None of her friends took up the job.

Her husband, an ex-professor of IIT Kharagpur, lives in Calcutta and the two have made their largely long-distance relationship work marvellously. A mother of a teenager, Bhattacharya has made all the sacrifices that every change-agent who has made it to the top makes.

Daughter of an electrical engineer, Bhattacharya grew up loving the orderliness of the steel towns of Bokaro and Bhilai. She is nostalgic about the Durga Pujas of her childhood in Bokaro and Bhilai and the carefree college days of Calcutta. “And it is to Calcutta that I will return to settle down when I retire,” she says disarmingly.