IT-bank matchmaker

C. PARVATHA VARDHINI N.S. VAGEESH | Updated on April 19, 2012

Shubhalakshmi Panse, ED, Vijaya Bank   -  G.R.N. SOMASHEKAR

A mix-up, and we were late by twenty minutes for the interview. But Shubhalakshmi Panse, Executive Director of Bangalore-based Vijaya Bank remains calm and collected and even allows us to overshoot the time allotted to us. Meeting us in her tidy chambers at the bank's headquarters on M.G. Road, the friendly banker fields our questions with aplomb. That easy self-assurance comes from 35 years in the banking industry. She had joined Bank of Maharashtra as a trainee officer in 1976.

Looking back with pride on her near three-year stint at Vijaya Bank, she says, “I joined when we were in the process of cleaning up the bank. We were among the first to implement system-based recognition of non-performing assets and ensured that we had a squeaky-clean balance sheet by April 1, 2011.” Changing the way things were done, through ‘business process re-engineering', is another of her achievements at Vijaya Bank. For instance, she was instrumental in implementing the HRM (Human Resources Management) software, freeing up a lot of manpower otherwise involved in calculating salaries at every branch and regional office. The bank also worked hard to bolster its alternative delivery channels such as Internet banking and ATMs during this period.

Field experience makes a manager

But her favourite assignments have always been on the field. Right at the beginning of her career, Bank of Maharashtra gave her plenty of opportunities to work in close contact with customers. And each role proved a learning experience. “When I became General Manager in 2003, my assignment as a Circle Head for the South gave me full insight into all the four southern States. Each State is different in terms of its banking behaviour and you have to deal with each differently. That matured me,” she recounts.

Present-day managers lack such field experiences, she rues. “Today, with quick promotions and lateral recruitment, managers don't get to see business cycles. We cannot simulate a situation like that. That will come only with experience on the field, when you are dealing with customers first-hand and when you are taking decisions. Unless you take a couple of knocks, you will not know the knack of reading a person. Secondly, when you are dealing with credit, that gut feeling you develop is very important. That only comes when you work in the field. Otherwise you become a failure or you are scared to take decisions,” she explains.

A student again at 45!

Besides conviction and clarity of thought, what comes across in her personality is the openness to learn. How else could an M.Sc in Embryology reach the top echelons of a bank? “For the first five or six years, I hadn't really thought of this job as a career. But once I decided I was going to be in it for the long haul, I realised I should get some basic qualifications. I knew these would be important at the time of promotion,” she says. That got her to do her CA IIB, followed by a Masters in Management with specialisation in finance from the University of Pune.

But the icing on the cake was the MBA she picked up from Drexel University, Philadelphia, in 1999, after going through the rigour of GMAT and TOEFL at 45! She went on a sabbatical and completed the two-year programme within a year, because the bank couldn't grant her more time than that. “It was good training,” she recalls. “The course was project-oriented and we had to work in groups. They don't teach you anything. They give you the 150-200 pages that you have to read on the topic. And then you are evaluated on the way you interact in the class. It prepares you for a career in which there is cut-throat competition and where you are always on your toes.”

But the coursework was not as much a challenge for her as being accepted by fellow students. “I was 45, greying and Indian. And, in the first semester nobody wanted me in their group. It was a big jolt to my ego. I had to step back and take a relook. Finally, when I explained the problem to my professor, he got hold of others who were in a similar position and we formed a group.” But that was only until she made her first presentations. Her experience as a practising banker and a faculty in the staff training college showed in her work, and the next semester saw other students queuing up to be in her team! “Even at that age, I had to prove myself. That was an interesting experience,” she laughs.

IT-banking marriage

This ability to move out of her comfort zone and do new things saw her handle IT (information technology) for Bank of Maharashtra in the years following her return from the US. Emphasising the need for bankers to be IT-savvy, she says, “Today, IT is the most important aspect of banking. You may handle a PC per se, but until your thinking becomes technology-oriented, you cannot be a good banker. All bankers moving to the top should have good knowledge of IT. They should be able to look at the strong points in IT that can be married to the business for the benefit of the customer.”

In the same breath, she concedes that the customer-centric aspect of banking has taken a beating with the arrival of technology. “We have a CRM (customer relationship management) solution that churns the data and tells you about the customer, whether he is profitable, how many products to up-sell or cross-sell. But the one-to-one relationship, which has been the core of banking, has been lost. The more the importance to technology, the more the alienation. In spite of the demands on time and the technological changes, managers should make time for this relationship. If the customer is not coming, managers have to move out and find the time to meet the customer,” she summarises.

The more things change, the more they remain the same, we realise, as we finish our tea and say goodbye.

Published on April 19, 2012

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