One of Pratip Chaudhuri’s obsessions is to remain low profile — work quietly behind the scenes, as far away from the arc lights as possible. But the 56-year-old post-graduate in management will suddenly find himself at centre stage if his appointment as State Bank of India’s (SBI’s) next chairman is cleared by the appointments committee of the Cabinet.
Chaudhuri is the finance ministry’s candidate to occupy the corner office on the 18th floor of the sprawling SBI headquarters in Mumbai when the incumbent O P Bhatt retires in March next year. The ministry followed the advice of a selection committee headed by Reserve bank of India Governor D Subbarao.
Known among SBI insiders to be a people’s man — a quality that came in more than handy while dealing with trade unions while overseeing the merger of State Bank of Saurashtra — the selection committee was obviously impressed by the work done by the bank’s international banking division, which Chaudhuri has headed as deputy managing director & group executive (international banking) since April 2009.
SBI has a presence in 32 countries through 151 offices, a majority of which are branches, while six of them are in the form of subsidiaries and some are representative offices. In the quarter ended September 2010, the bank posted a higher return on average assets on its international books to 1.31 per cent, from 0.95 per cent a year earlier.
This followed a change in the international banking strategy, focusing on creating long-term loan assets — a move initiated by Chaudhuri. The country’s largest lender has now started providing loans for an average maturity of three-and-a-half years, against one year in the past. Besides, the bank provides foreign currency loans only if the parent company guarantees the loan availed by its overseas subsidiary.
Giving the rationale for a change in the policy, Chaudhuri had earlier said since the bank has long-term foreign currency liabilities (deposits and bonds raised by SBI) on its books, financing long-term assets helps to reduce asset-liability mismatches. Secondly, returns on long-term assets are much higher, compared with short-term loans.
Under Chaudhuri, advances given by SBI’s overseas offices crossed Rs 1 lakh crore for the first time. He has been instrumental in raising billions of dollars in the global market and colleagues say his astute negotiating skills were on full display to get the best rate for SBI overseas bond offerings.
Just last month, SBI raised euro 750 million (about Rs 4,650 crore) through a five-year bond issue in a day, making it the country’s first of the kind in the past three years and the first ever Asian issue for 2010.
Sources said he is working on plans to acquire a second bank in Indonesia. SBI already has a controlling stake in one small bank in this Asean country. The state-owned bank is, in fact, looking to expand its international branch network from the current 150, by adding 40 more branches shortly.
Immediately prior to his present assignment, Chaudhuri was chief general manager (foreign offices) at the Mumbai Corporate Centre.
His colleagues also remember Chaudhuri for the thrust he gave to growing the gold-loans business in a highly competitive landscape in Tamil Nadu. He headed the Chennai circle as chief general manager, a stint that is often seen as a laboratory for nurturing future chief executives.
Colleagues also remember the softer side in the man when a tsunami struck Tamil Nadu in December 2005. Going beyond the call of a commercial banker, Chaudhuri led efforts to galvanise relief and support work in association with the Red Cross Society.
Later, he moved to take up an assignment as managing director of State Bank of Saurashtra, an associate bank, and oversaw the merger of the bank with its parent.
A career SBI officer who joined the bank in 1974, Chaudhuri has also gone through the grind that every probationary officer does. In the early part of decade, he had a stint at SBI Mutual Fund, an experience that would help him push capital market products to corporates as well retail customers.
As he waits for his turn at the helm, Chaudhuri obviously has several challenges ahead: One of them being to step into the rather large shoes of current SBI Chairman O P Bhatt. There is no doubt that the SBI elephant learnt to dance under Bhatt, who made every other private bank run for their money.
But those who know Chaudhuri well say the elephant will continue to hone its dancing skills under this low-profile banker’s tune.