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Game Changer

After building India's second-largest bank, Aditya Puri is set to impact other sectors
twitter-logoNevin John | Print Edition: March 21, 2021
Game Changer
Aditya Puri, former MD of HDFC Bank - Photograph by Yasir Iqbal

Adecade ago, Aditya Puri, the former MD of HDFC Bank, tried to influence his daughter Amrita Puri to join advertising against her desire to pursue acting. Though he managed to convince her, she did not enjoy advertising and opted for acting. Puri's daughter , who acted in movies like Kai Po Che and Aisha is making a career in Bollywood and serials. Today, Aditya Puri brims with pride over her achievements.

This has parallels with Puri's life. In a banking career spanning 40 years, he never allowed himself to be influenced by anyone. Puri, who built HDFC Bank from scratch, opted to graduate in Commerce, though his father, an Indian Air Force officer, wanted him to study science. After completing his chartered accountancy in Delhi, he shifted to Mumbai in 1975 to work with Mahindra & Mahindra as an executive assistant to the finance director. But he was soon attracted by a flashy career in foreign banks. He got a job in Citibank. The training turned him from a finance professional to a generalist with knowledge of work culture, meritocracy and banking theories.

In Citibank's operations department, Puri realised that executives in marketing had better career prospects. Employees in operations used to get one or two grades higher that time. So, everyone wanted to stick with operations. But it was not enough to influence Puri, who realised that marketing executives have higher chances of moving up the career ladder. "I took one or two grades drop in designation to move from operations to marketing. But I was convinced that I was doing something right. The transition was seamless," he says.

At Citibank, career growth was fast, and he went on to become country head for wholesale banking in India. After Mumbai, he worked in Delhi, London, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. In 1992, he became CEO of Citibank Malaysia. His performance impressed the banks top bosses and he was in the race for more global responsibilities. But he decided to return to India and opted to join as the first employee of a start-up bank, HDFC Bank, in 1994. Some friends laughed at the move, while others joined him to build the bank. "When all of us took a 50 per cent cut in salary, shifted from south Mumbai's Malabar Hill to suburban Bandra, and from Mercedes to Maruti, everybody laughed," he says.

In his 26-year career with HDFC Bank, which ended in October 2020, Puri transformed it into India's second-largest bank. The banks revenues, profits and assets have been rising by 20-25 per cent CAGR over last three years. That was a period when Indias GDP growth contracted from 7 per cent in FY18 to 4.2 per cent in FY20. The bank is valued at Rs 8.6 lakh crore on stock markets.

Because of these reasons, the five-member Best Bank Award jury unanimously decided to confer Lifetime Achievement Award on 70-year-old Puri. Today, Puri is busy and has taken up advisory roles in Carlyle and Stelis Biopharma. "It's my life and I want to be happy," he says.

Perseverance Pays

When Puri started building HDFC Bank, there were only two types of banks in India - public sector banks and foreign banks. Public sector banks had high liquidity and strong distribution network, while foreign banks had attractive products. He focused on clubbing the best of both sets of banks. His plan was to create a world-class Indian bank.

An array of questions crowded his thinking in the initial phase. "When it is a start-up, you should be crystal clear. Which is the target market? Who are the customers? What are the products you want to create? What is the type of talent you need? What is the technology you require? Will you be able create the strengths that will differentiate you from the competitor?" he says.

Puri got the right people who knew their job. "All had egos as we were good in our job. I told them I don't want to know how brilliant you are. Your brilliance will be tested for the brilliant products that you deliver to the customer," says Puri. They delivered products which were cheaper compared to those offered by competitors.

Besides, Puri ensured transparent assessment culture and business practices. The bank started with corporate lending. With technology, operating and marketing talent and products, it gained traction in its nascent stage itself. Its first set of clients included Tata and Birla groups and engineering company Siemens. Once the bank found its feet, the focus shifted to retail lending.

Puri says he worked as first among equals. "Welfare of employees was the first priority. We were the first company which came out and said, whether it is Covid or no Covid, you fellows are working so hard and delivering results. So, we didn't cut increments and bonuses and instead offered promotions," he says. The team must be motivated for unrelenting customer focus, he adds.

Puri stayed focused through his career. "You should be able to build on your strength. We were focused on what we wanted out of the segments," he says. If any business performed below expectations, he never wished to continue it. "We never bet the bank till we completed pilot projects. It was not a one-man bank. We had so many healthy debates," he adds.

Puri believes technology is an enabler. Once, in a conversation with Nandan Nilekani, he said technology will not be the business which will be running every other business. "The fintechs and other tech platforms are not setting up basic infrastructure. They are working on top of banks' traditional network, customer base and merchants," he says.

Puri set a vision and made an action plan for the bank and it was for his senior executives to achieve those goals. He does not believe in putting in long hours at work. He used to reach office before everyone and leave before sunset. He takes regular evening walks at Mumbais Worli Sea Face. He is clear he wont disturb his work-life balance and spends his leisure time gardening, reading, listening to music, trekking and playing with his dogs.

Before retirement, Puri set the foundation for the bank's next phase of growth. He recognised semi-urban and rural expansion and digital as the new growth engines. Semi-urban and rural India are largely virgin markets for organised finance on both assets and liabilities side. In the last six-seven years, HDFC Bank has created a large distribution network, so much so that almost 55 per cent of its branches are now in non-urban centres.

In the last five years, HDFC Bank has transformed itself into a digital bank. In payments, it has built a strong base of cardholders and merchants. It is also lending digitally with 10-second personal loans. Under Digital 2.0, it is working on technologies like robotic process automation, machine learning, AI and blockchain.

"If I wouldn't have become a banker, I would have been a teacher or an agriculturist. If I had the money, I would have been a philanthropist at a much younger age itself," he says.

Puri calls himself an elder statesman and took banking to the length and breadth of the country. Now he is working in sectors like healthcare, financial services and digital. In January, he joined pharma company Strides Group as an advisor and serves as a director of its associate biopharmaceutical company Stelis Biopharma. Before that he joined global investment firm Carlyle as Senior Advisor in Asia.

It remains to be seen how he can impact these organisations.

@nevinjl

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