interviews · Money · Sunday Times

Fame and Fortune: Banking is a lot easier than teaching kids

WHEN Arundhati Bhattacharya took the helm at the State Bank of India (SBI), she set about modernising the 208-year-old publicly owned lender and has achieved remarkable results. In her eight months as head of India’s largest bank, she has increased income from fees and extended the product range for the British market to include children’s savings accounts.The latest annual profits were up 37% year-on-year.

She also aims to open tax-free Isas and savings-related mortgages in this country. The bank has 10 UK branches in places such as Manchester, Leicester and Southall, west London. In India it has 170m customers.

Bhattacharya, 58, grew up in the steel city of Bhilai, eastern central India, where her father was an engineer. When he retired without a pension, the family struggled and she worked at the local school to makes ends meet.

She joined SBI as a probationer in 1977 after university.

Last month she was listed 36th in Forbes’s top 100 most powerful women in the world.

Bhattacharya lives in Mumbai and is married to Pritimoy, a retired computer science professor. They have an 18-year-old daughter, Sukrita.

How much money do you have in your wallet?
If I am in India, something like 5,000 rupees [£50].

What credit cards do you use?
The one from my own bank.

Are you a saver or a spender?
All Indians are savers.

How much did you earn last year?
We get paid in line with public sector standards, so it’s very low, about $40,000 [£24,000]. This doesn’t factor in the many perks: a house, car and unlimited medical benefits.

My house in Mumbai has been with SBI since 1806, when the bank was set up in Calcutta by Scottish bankers. Our address at one point was The Thistle.

Have you ever been hard up?
Maybe when I started out, in view of the fact my father had already retired. He didn’t have a pension, so there wasn’t too much money around.

Do you own a property?
My husband and I own three apartments, a two-bed in Calcutta, a three-bed in Mumbai that we bought in 2009, and a tiny one-bedroom in Bangalore we’ve had since 2011. The flat in Calcutta we’ve had for many years. I would say collectively they’re worth maybe two crore [20m rupee, £200,000].

What was your first job?
I was an assistant to a teacher after I finished school at 16. I was waiting to get into St Xavier’s College in Calcutta. I didn’t enjoy it particularly; teaching wasn’t my calling. I found the younger children very difficult to control.

What’s been your most lucrative work?
The current job, definitely.

What are your plans to develop SBI in Britain?
Our commitment to Britain is quite deep; we came here in 1921 as the Imperial Bank of India — long before Indian independence in 1947. We have a very large Indian diaspora that is comfortable banking with us.

We started retail operations in 2011 alongside our wholesale banking. We are also looking at upgrading our technology, bringing in tax-free Isas and savings-related mortgage products.

What’s it like being a woman in India’s largest bank?
Frankly, it’s very challenging and also very satisfying. The bank has been in existence for 208 years and never had a chairwoman before me.

I think it’s a symbol of change and the path India is taking towards empowerment of women in general.

Are you better off than your parents?
Yes. I think that’s true of most Indians, because there is more income and economic activity for the current generation. People are migrating classes.

Do you invest in shares?
I used to but not in recent years, mainly because the bank has connections with most companies in India and it is way too complicated.

I still have some shares in consumer goods and financial services companies.

What’s better for retirement — property or pension?
I would say a pension — as long as it’s indexed for inflation. Otherwise you need to have something of all the asset classes in your investment.

You can’t just have property, because it isn’t liquid, so you wouldn’t be able to get your hands on the money in a crunch.

What’s been your best investment?
My family, and my daughter, who is still at college.

What about worst?
Probably a pair of high heels I bought for a ball and then wore only once. They were so painful. In those days they cost quite a lot — I think 7,000 rupees.

Do you manage your own financial affairs?
I manage most of them but I do have help from an accountant, especially these days when I can’t give it too much attention.

What’s the most extravagant thing you have ever bought?
Maybe a sari or two. I remember especially a sari I bought for 20,000 rupees, which I thought was beautiful in the shop window. When I brought it home it wasn’t that beautiful.

What’s your money weakness?
I eat out quite a lot. I come to London about once every three months, and the restaurants are very good. I particularly like Quilon at the Taj hotel and Hutong at the Shard.

What aspect of the tax system would you change?
One thing about the Indian tax system is the net is too small; it’s mainly salary earners. We need to spread the net wider in order to get more people in.

What’s your financial priority?
Saving. I don’t have anything else on my hands at the moment.

What’s the most important lesson you have learnt about money?
The power of compounding. I believe everybody should start saving early to harness it properly. By saving a small amount early enough, you can end up creating a large sum.

Link to article in the Sunday Times

PDF – Arundhati Bhattacharya

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