Master of the house

David Watts talks to the new CEO of one of India’s ‘big four’ banks, and discovers a go-getting leader with some innovative ideas for taking the company forward.

Nine years after opening in London, Punjab National Bank (International) Ltd is on the launch pad for a new development phase under its newly-arrived Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director Antanu Das.

One of the ‘big beasts’ of the Indian banking industry, PNB is set to establish an even bigger footprint in Britain based on new products and a revolutionary approach to staffing.

Mr Das, whose office is only yards from the Bank of England, is an engaging and approachable man with a youthful enthusiasm for his new task just a month after taking over.

Already offering cash ISAs and better interest rates than the majority of domestic high street banks, PNB is breaking out of the mould of other Indian banks in Britain by offering a broader range of products and integrating local people into the staffing of the bank at all levels. In this he has broken away from the traditional Indian bank’s approach of ‘following its customers’ and essentially replicating what is available at home.

‘Now we’ve got a critical mass which I can develop. We’re on a launching pad so I can take that critical mass to the second level,’ Mr Das told Asian Affairs.

The bank already draws more than 60 per cent of its staffing roster from local people but has also hired its chief financial officer and chief operating officer locally, the first Indian bank in Britain to place local hires at such senior levels. The CEO is of Indian origin but has lived in Britain for                       16 years.

‘So we’re hiring a lot of local talent here. We should be seen as a bank which is working in the local environment which we can understand from local people.’

PNB is in third place as one of India’s ‘big four’ banks, along with the State Bank of India, ICICI Bank and the Bank of Baroda. It is a state-owned corporation that was founded in 1894 and it now boasts some 90 million customers. It has more than 6,300 branches and more than 7,900 ATMs throughout 764 cities. Its annual business is in the region of $150 billion.

As well as seven branches in Britain, PNB has branches in Hong Kong, Kowloon, Dubai and Kabul. It has representative offices in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Shanghai, Oslo and Sydney. In Bhutan it owns 51 per cent of Druk PNB Bank and 20 per cent of Everest Bank in Nepal.

But, alone among senior Indian bank staff in London, Mr Das runs a subsidiary that is owned 100 per cent by the parent in Delhi but has a status as a subsidiary, which means he is completely master of his own house with control of his own balance sheet.

‘It’s a different ball game all together. So although I have the support of the parent, the parent can say “You have to support yourself`. Please don’t bank on us, you have to fend for yourself. You have to manage your capital and your liquidity yourself”.’

With nine years of development under its belt, the London subsidiary has a substantial business of which to be proud, with 60,000 customers and some £1.5 billion in assets, with a similar figure deployed in loans. Its industrial portfolio is somewhat smaller at $280 million.

‘There are a lot of things we can do here in London. I’d like to go for some natural advances and certain niche products, perhaps in the small and medium interest space such as doctors, pharmacies, pharmacy companies and small services.

‘It’s a sector that can struggle for cash here and there are a lot of Indian businessmen out there. Indian business needs support here. I’d like to consider that and I know there are plenty of opportunities.’

Already Mr Das is thinking of expanding PNB’s footprint with more branches outside London and he has his sights on Cardiff and the Midlands as possible sites. But he is the first to admit that there are many things to learn. Ultimately, though, he wants his subsidiary to be known as a model of its kind.

He has been suitably impressed by the quality of his Indian compatriots since he arrived and was particularly struck by David Cameron’s gracious suggestion that one of them could become prime minister within five years. He picked out Virendra Sharma, MP for Ealing and Southall, and Seema Malhotra, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, as two high-fliers.

He is optimistic about the future of the Indian economy and feels that it has weathered the recent ups and downs of the global economy better than some of its rivals with solid and reliable growth figures based on services and agriculture. That’s why, he says, it’s the world’s fastest growing economy.

With 60 per cent of the population under the age of 35, his country ‘is sitting on a huge advantage’.

‘Despite the world’s economic problems—and we’re not isolated—the growth rate has been about seven per cent, which is very good in the present circumstances.’

After 31 years as a banker in India, Mr Das looks back on his slightly unexpected career and says: ‘It’s a huge opportunity. There are so many things I have learned and whatever I have to do, interacting with people is one of the key things.’

The PNB’s new man in London never actually set out to be a banker and studied entomology as a specialisation at university. But, having studied hard as a young man, he decided to attempt the highly competitive national banking examination and happily succeeded.

Sadly, there are not likely to be many insects to study around the Bank of England.

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