SBI chief

Instant rapport

Print edition : November 15, 2013

SBI Chairperson Arundhati Bhattacharya has instilled confidence in the bank's workforce with her employee-friendly approach. Photo: RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Arundhati Bhattacharya’s takeover as the Chairperson of State Bank of India infuses a positive energy into the 206-year-old institution.

“WE are not Mohun Bagan and East Bengal [rival teams in Indian football]. We are the same team, and we have to work together as one, not as adversaries.” With these opening words, the new Chairperson of State Bank of India, Arundhati Bhattacharya, established an instant rapport with her family of three lakh-odd members. There was an instant warmth, a perceptible positivity, in the industrial relations in the country’s largest public-sector lender.

A welcome change from the icy industrial relations of the past two years when SBI employees were at loggerheads with the bank’s management, so much so that they dragged former Chairman Pratip Chaudhary to court on a contempt of court petition; he had denied them the check-off facility, thus choking the funding route for union activities.

Winds of change are literally blowing through the SBI with the arrival of this native of Bokaro (in Jharkhand) at the helm of affairs. Not that she is the first woman to head a banking organisation in India. There is Shubhalakshmi Panse, Vijaylakshmi R. Iyer and Archana Bhargav, who are heading Allahabad Bank, Bank of India and United Bank of India, respectively, in the public sector. In the private sector, Chanda Kochhar and Shikha Sharma head ICICI Bank and Axis Bank respectively.

At the Reserve Bank of India too, women have been in leading roles—Shyamala Gopinath, K.J. Udeshi and Usha Thorat have been Deputy Governors.

But what makes Arundhati Bhattacharya’s appointment unique is the fact that she heads a 206-year-old institution which is on the cusp of a major overhauling as banking practices are churning not only in India, but globally.

As the head of the country’s largest banking organisation—SBI along with its subsidiaries controls more than one fifth of all banking assets in India—she has to strike a balance between the government’s larger vision for the economy and the bank’s vision for its own growth, simultaneously ensuring that the employees remain happy and contented and become a partner in the growth process.

A big challenge no doubt, but since she has proven human resource (HR) management skills, she is expected to come up with something innovative and creative. “She is known to be an innovative and creative lady, so we are looking forward to some really exciting and positive times in SBI,” said Y. Sudarshan, general secretary of the All India State Bank Officers’ Federation.

Her 36-year experience in almost all banking branches, including information technology, corporate communications, HR and new product innovation, inspires confidence among the staff. “She has hands-on knowledge of almost all branches of banking. Besides, her HR and communication skills are known to be good, so we are looking forward to some positive changes in the work ethos in the bank,” said Sudarshan. He noted that she chose to address the employees directly over intranet, instead of first speaking to a select few and then letting that trickle down. That way, she has already established direct contact with the workforce.

“The last two years were the worst in terms of banking relations as we employees spent all our time fighting with the management even for the smallest of things. The management and employees had become like adversaries, and concepts like growth and improvement had gone for a toss. With her addressing us as a person from the same team, suddenly our vocabulary has changed. We are now discussing ways to reduce NPA [non-performing assets] and improve business,” said Federation President B.K. Awasthi.

Arundhati Bhattacharya, who took over from Pratip Chaudhary on October 7, is a 1977 batch probationary officer. She has served in various areas like retail, treasury and corporate finance in positions such as Deputy Managing Director and Corporate Development Officer, and Chief General Manager of Bangalore circle. She took over as the head of SBI Caps from S. Viswanathan last year at a time when it was facing a lot of flak from the Ministry of Finance for its recommendations on restructuring the debt of Air India and Kingfisher Airlines. If its recommendations had been accepted, all the banks in the consortium would have taken a big hit. By successfully steering SBI Caps out of that crisis, she established her credentials as a firefighter. This will now come in handy because she has taken over at a time when SBI’s asset quality is in steady decline, loan recovery is poor, credit demand is sluggish, and profit figures remain a problem. To top it all, management-employee relations are at an all-time low. “The beginning has been good and we are certainly looking forward to good times ahead,” said Awasthi.

Arundhati Bhattacharya will serve a three-year term. Of the four Managing Directors interviewed for the post along with her, she was the youngest. The others were Hemant G. Contractor, A. Krishnakumar and S. Viswanathan.

It is worth mentioning here that some of her announcements have already boosted the morale of SBI employees, especially women. She has rejected the present practice of entertaining only two transfer requests from employees on spousal transfer. She has also announced two more sabbaticals—of two years each—for women employees who need to devote attention to their children taking Class X/XII examinations, or to take care of ageing parents or very young children. At present its women employees get one sabbatical only, of one year duration, immediately after childbirth, and without pay. The check-off facility—by which a small amount from the employees’ salary is deducted by the employer every month and sent directly to the account of their unions/associations—which was withdrawn by the previous Chairman, has been restored, thus reopening the funding routes for union activities.

Employees are also hopeful that a soft transfer policy, especially for women employees, and flexible timings, like in the software industry, will become a reality. But these are matters in the initial stages of discussion and the Central government too has to approve of these measures. But with her employee-friendly approach, Arundhati Bhattacharya has instilled enough confidence already. “She has a lot of positivity about her and the employees see her as a compassionate woman who would handle issues from a humane perspective, not as a cold and robotic boss,” said a senior officer.

But that does not mean Arundhati Bhattacharya will let business suffer. “She has spelt out her priorities in the very beginning: risk, delivery and collaboration. These are the three guiding principles in gearing the organisation towards growth, and each and every employee is a stakeholder, she says. This has given us a lot of motivation,” said Awasthi.

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