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There is an interesting story behind [Arundhati Bhattacharya’s] decision to pursue her bachelor’s in literature. Bhattacharya had secured admission in medicine but there were problems — hostel accommodation was not available and the course would take eight years to complete as academic sessions were being disrupted due to the Naxalite movement in West Bengal. Her father was to retire in three years, which, too, was a concern. The family consulted her school principal Fr John Moore, the well-known educationist who started the St Xavier’s schools in Hazaribag and Bokaro. He said she was a brilliant writer and should pursue a career in writing and journalism. She settled on literature at Lady Brabourne College, which had a “conservative” hostel. We ask if she gets a chance to write; she says she doesn’t, but looks forward to doing it in her one-year cooling period when she retires in September.

Bhattacharya’s name keeps coming up for key appointments, whether it is the top job at the Securities and Exchange Board of India or the Reserve Bank of India. How does she feel when she sees these reports? “I take all of this with a big pinch of salt; these are a creation of the media.”

Our main course of rice, noodles with stir fried chicken, Thai curry, and tofu in Sichuan chilli bean paste arrives.

Bhattacharya says there has never been a dull moment in her career. The system of transfers within the bank ensures there is always something to learn every day. She has had 12 different “jobs” in the bank across retail, corporate, treasury, human resources, and investment banking. Her most challenging assignment was as branch manager at IIT, Kharagpur, where she faced resistance from an active union when the bank went for computerisation. The most exciting role, she says, was in new business development. There was no laid-down method of work and she had to take a lot of decisions on her own. She completed three joint ventures and worked on two technology platforms — net banking and financial planning. Of the lot, the only one that didn’t do well was financial planning. She says this would now be rectified with the launch of the SBI Exclusif wealth management service.

Even her private sector competitors are in awe of how she has transformed SBI into a smart bank with all the digital forays. SBI became the number one player in mobile banking in April 2015 and had nearly three million mobile wallet users in March 2016. It has bagged two Gartner Cool Business awards for innovation with its missed call banking app, SBI Quick, and digital branch SBI Intouch. Customer service is one area that has improved, but Bhattacharya is not satisfied. “We have put in a lot of effort to train them (the staff) but even then we find knowledge gaps.” These typically happen in transactions that are not done often; the people in charge are not able to handle them and give the wrong answer leading to complaints. “I am disturbed about these complaints and would like to not have them.”

How does she make the elephant dance, we ask. SBI has the ability and the DNA to change, she says. “At SBI, we say that if you need a project to be done, you need to be determined that it needs to be done, put a deadline and it will get done.”

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