Not many people reinvent themselves dramatically in their early to mid-Sixties. Especially if you have spent four decades of your working life as a staid banker and a bean counter. So, in March 2020, when Salesforce announced that the then 64-year-old Arundhati Bhattacharya would be the new CEO of its Indian operations, eyebrows went up in technology circles. While Bhattacharya had a stellar record at India’s largest public sector bank, State Bank of India – helping it turn around, as well as successfully integrating five of its associate banks — she was hardly known in technology circles.

Retired bankers usually wind up either as directors on boards or as advisors or mentors. Bhattacharya also initially followed the beaten path, joining as an independent director on the board of Reliance Industries, and later, also the board of ratings company CRISIL.

So, it was a surprise when Salesforce anointed her as the head of India operations. For a better understanding on how out-of-the-box this appointment was, it is important to understand Salesforce and its culture. The US-headquartered Salesforce, started by former Oracle employee, Marc Benioff, is one of the global leader’s in enterprise cloud software primarily in CRM. Salesforce was one of the early pioneers of the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model and provides its CRM software and applications for sales and marketing, analytics, automation, and customer service apart from other segments of the market.

Last year, Salesforce had revenues of $26.49 billion with nearly 73,500 employees across the world. While Salesforce continues to be one of the world’s fastest-growing enterprise cloud software company, it is also known for its aggressive, go-getting culture, where leaders are measured ruthlessly on results. This was one of the reasons why a lot of industry observers were surprised at the choice of Bhattacharya, who had worked in the more congenial but also constrained world of public sector banking. Salesforce in India till then did not even have a CEO and only a Senior Vice President level was in-charge of the Indian operations.

Employee and market growth

When Bhattacharya was onboarded as CEO of Salesforce India – a new position that the company created - it had about 2,500 people, primarily working for their global operations. Also, immediately after she took charge, Covid struck, essentially confining everybody to their homes. Most leaders would have despaired against such odds, but Bhattacharya persisted.

Even working from home, in a new sector, she took up the challenge and one metric of her success is today that within two years, the India headcount of Salesforce has tripled from 2,500 to 7,500 people – accounting for about 10 per cent of its global workforce. While Salesforce does not break up country-specific revenues, market analysts told BusinessLine that it has nearly doubled since she took over. Bhattacharya is more coy, about the revenue numbers just saying, “The India operations (contribution to global revenues) would be in low single digits but growing very well. One indication is that our sales team which was around 300 when I came in, is today 600 plus people.”

She also helped hire new senior talent including Arun Kumar Parameswaran as Sr VP and MD from VMWare and Sanket Atal in a similar role from Intuit. While Bhattacharya has played a stellar role in Salesforce India’s growth and success, the pandemic too aided it. Forecasting firm IDC estimates that between 2021-2026 the public cloud services market in India would grow at a CAGR of 24 per cent. “The pandemic made enterprises that were sitting on the fence realise that spends on digitisation was the key tool for survival and thus there has been no shortage of demand,” she admits.

Digital natives vs large traditional companies

Having earlier been at the helm of a large player in the finance industry, she quickly understood the reluctance and budget constraints of companies which already had existing technology investments. So along with her team, she started evangelising and reassuring prospective customers on how to adapt to changing market conditions. “We are not into ‘rip & replace.’ There are ways of putting layers on existing technology investments to make those enterprises nimble and competitive. While digitally native young companies took to digitisation like a duck to water, other sectors like traditional manufacturing took some selling to,” she explains.

Also, traditional large companies CXOs had some reservations surrounding issues of security, protecting their IP and the sunk costs in existing on-premise technology investments. Salesforce went about reassuring them on all counts by outlining the benefits of their offerings.

For instance, one of the most recent customers to sign up for Salesforce as a key technology partner is Asian Paints. As the paint company moved towards becoming a one-stop shop for all home décor needs, it leveraged Salesforce’s sales and service cloud, experience cloud, digital engagement and CRM analytics to expand its already robust direct-to-consumer business. What Salesforce brought in terms of technology was giving the company necessary analytics so that it could provide more personalised and tailored experiences to its customers.

Deepak Bhosale, GM, Systems, Asian Paints, says, “Salesforce is a crucial partner for us in this journey as we create seamless, contextual and consistent experiences across the physical and digital channels.” Similarly, Salesforce worked with companies across industry segments like pharma, textiles, automobiles, chemicals and others explaining the benefits of digitisation. “Surprisingly the government has been ahead of the curve on digitalisation. How many countries have a platform like UPI or the aggregator platform (like ONDC)? If the government can run on the public cloud, why can’t our large private enterprises be more open?” Bhattacharya asks.

Skilling and Investing

A recent IDC report said that the Salesforce economy – in terms of the economic impact of cloud computing by deploying its software – in India alone, would create an additional 1.3 million jobs and $66.4 billion in new business revenues by 2026. All major IT services companies in the world – including TCS, Infosys, and Wipro, - have large manpower which works around Salesforce deployment and implementation for their customers.

So, Salesforce offers training and certification to create the trained manpower required by the industry. Bhattacharya says that Salesforce in India has tied-up with more than 450 engineering colleges apart from various universities, industry bodies like AICTE, Nasscom, and NSDC to offer training and certification programs. “Our digital skills index showed that 72 per cent of respondents in India say that they are actively learning digital skills to prepare themselves for the future of work. All of our employees, including myself, regularly undergo skilling and certification programmes to keep ourselves at the cutting edge,” says the now 66-year-young chairperson of Salesforce India with a wry smile.

Also, Salesforce has a late-stage investment venture arm to scout for opportunities in the world’s third-largest startup ecosystem. While Bhattacharya says she is not actively involved in the venture investment programme, given her extensive network, she helps them identify and vet opportunities. Salesforce has invested in companies like Darwinbox, Hashnode, Yellow Messenger, Razorpay and Atlan. It also has a start-up programme where nearly 220 start-ups have registered and getting mentored and trained by their leaders.

While it is primarily the sales and distribution with which Bhattacharya works - with the development teams working in tandem with their global counterparts within the Salesforce ecosystem - few would deny the once-staid banker’s successful cross-over into the cutting-edge of the technology sector. “I am excited to be in one of the fastest-growing global markets. All I see is opportunity,” she says with a smile as she wraps up her first in-person media interaction since taking over her current role. Age after all is just a number.