Shubhalakshmi Panse, Managing Director, Allahabad Bank Photo: Shekhar Ghosh
Shubhalakshmi Panse was pursuing a doctorate in embryology at Pune University, researching cell death, when she stumbled across an advertisement seeking probationary officers for the state-owned Bank of Maharashtra. She took the qualifying exams "just for fun" - and sailed through. That marked the end of her cell research. She joined the Mumbai-based bank and climbed the professional ladder over the next 37 years. Last October, she stepped down as sole executive director at Vijaya Bank to take over as the head of Allahabad Bank.
In the process, she became the first woman to lead the 148-year-old institution, India's oldest bank. Panse insists on the term "chairman". To her, "it's just a designation", like executive director or probationary officer. "There's no gender involved, no sex, female or male," she says.
She is unfazed by the notion of the glass ceiling. "I don't look at it from that angle," she says about her career. She says that being a woman was not an issue for most of her professional life - until she became the general manager. "Women are [then] looked down upon, not much is expected of them," she says. "It's still there in the public sector."
|ON THE GLASS CEILING|
Being a woman was not an issue - until I became general manager. Women are then looked down upon. Not much is expected of them.
And then there is the networking. "Men do it so wonderfully well," she says with a laugh. "It's always been my handicap." But the mindset is changing, she adds. She points out that three of India's 26 public sector banks are headed by women (besides herself, there are Vijayalakshmi Iyer at Bank of India and Archana Bhargava at United Bank of India), and "another is in the wings" (Arundhati Bhattacharya, Managing Director of State Bank of India, tipped to be the next SBI chief).
Being a woman has its advantages, says Panse. When she was executive director of Vijaya Bank, she says, it came in handy after a politically connected client died owing the bank about `7 crore. His widow was unwilling to square off the debt. Panse met her and had a candid "woman-to-woman" conversation where she dwelt on the client's minor son, his future, and how the stigma of unpaid dues would hurt him. "The woman saw sense in my argument, paid us off, and today we are friends," she says.
"I believe in being transparent, it helps in the long run," she says. "When I work only for the organisation, people will respect me."
Panse, 59, credits her parents for her achievements. "We were raised as independent individuals," she says. "My mother would say, 'You can do it'." So Panse took her career seriously, and studied business management in the evenings, earning a master's in management and finance in 1993. In 1998, when work took her husband to the US for three years, Panse took a sabbatical and did three-year MBA in 12 months from Drexel University in Philadelphia. "My commitment has always been 200 per cent," she says.
That was evident soon after she took over at Allahabad Bank. She was injured in a terrible accident and advised two months' bed rest. She started working from home on the thirteenth day, and returned to her office less than a month later.
She would have led the bank for a little over a year when she retires in January. "One year is too short," she says. "It's a challenge, so I simply fast-forwarded everything." Like she did at Drexel 15 years ago.
"Challenge" is the right word. Allahabad Bank's net profit has contracted (-44.5 per cent in the third quarter of 2012/13, and -68.48 per cent and -19.64 per cent in the following quarters). Shrikanth S., Industry Manager, Business and Financial Services, at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, says one needs at least five years to see the results of new policies. "It would be unfair for a PSU bank with a wide customer base to expect a turnaround earlier."
Allahabad Bank's deposits grew 17.45 and 12 per cent in the last two quarters of 2012/13, and 14.86 per cent in the first quarter of this year. During Panse's tenure at Vijaya Bank, deposits grew 13.56 per cent in 2009/10 and 16.81 per cent in 2012/13 (she became CMD on October 1, 2012). She aims to leave behind a bank that will end the fiscal year with total business of `3.6 lakh crore, having ended the April-June quarter with `3.09 lakh crore. "I'm sure we'll achieve the target," she says.