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BW Businessworld

Lifetime Achievement Awards: Arundhati Bhattacharya

It’s no easy task to steer a state-run behemoth through tough times

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When Arundhati Bhattacharya moved into the corner office at the State Bank of India (SBI) on 7 October 2013 at the age of 57, she became the first woman to do so in the 206-year history of the bank. She took over the “Big Daddy” when the banking industry was going through a particularly painful phase with high dud-loans, poor credit offtake, policy paralysis and competition unleashed by nimbler rivals. But when she demits office on 7th October 2017, it will be a different bank from when took over the reigns.

What makes her journey to the top remarkable is that she never let not having a degree in finance or accounts come in the way. Bhattacharya, a post-graduate in English Literature, joined the bank as a probationary officer in September 1977; she went on to hold key positions in foreign exchange, treasury, retail operations, human resources and investment banking. She was chief executive of SBI Capital Markets; served at the bank’s New York office; and was involved in the launch of several new businesses — SBI General Insurance, SBI Custodial Services, SBI Pension Funds, and SBI Macquarie Infrastructure Fund.

Bhattacharya fine-tuned the bank’s credit policy given the stress levels in India Inc. In fiscal ’16, the bank cracked the whip on dud-loans. As part of the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) asset quality review (AQR), the bank was advised to reclassify and beef up its provisioning in respect to certain advances. But SBI on its own — beyond the RBI directive — also reviewed the loan book on an account-by-account basis. This resulted in an increase in non-performing assets (NPA) provision by Rs 9,076 crore in fiscal ’16 to

Rs 26,984 crore. Over and above the loan loss provisions held on NPAs, the bank also made Rs 3,383 crore as additional provision; and utilised the counter cyclical provisioning buffer of Rs 1,149 crore for making specific provisions for NPAs during the year. As a result, gross NPA went up by 225 bps at 6.50 per cent (4.25 per cent) with net NPA by 169 bps at 3.81 per cent (2.12 per cent).

On her watch, SBI turned more aggressive. It created a sub-brand Intouch, a digital branch; Incube (branches) for startups; and forayed into wealth management business — the first among the state-run banks to do so. Last year, it went in for the merger of its associate banks — State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur, State Bank of Mysore, State Bank of Travancore, State Bank of Hyderabad, and State Bank of Patiala (SBP) — with itself. The merger was particularly taxing given the state-run nature of the SBI Group — union’s sensitivities had to be handled with great care. That said, it will give SBI the much-needed heft in the face of the competition that will arise in the near future.

On the human resources front, she introduced a two-year sabbatical leave policy for bank’s female employees to use either for maternity or elder care. On Women’s Day, she announced free vaccination against cervical cancer to female employees of the bank.

For her contributions to SBI, the BW Businessworld Best Banks’ Survey conferred on her the ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award in banking.

DATE OF BIRTH:  18 March, 1956 (age 61), Kolkata
SCHOOL: St. Xavier’s School (Bokaro)
GRADUATION:  BA in English Literature from Lady Brabourne College, Kolkata
POST GRADUATION: MA in English Literature from Jadhavpur University, Kolkata
RECOGNITIONS:  In 2016, she was named the 25th most powerful woman in the world; and ranked among the FP Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy; and as the fourth most  powerful woman in Asia Pacific by Fortune