There are not many who have matched Puri’s longevity at the crease (it’s unlikely to be bettered as a record). Joseph Neubauer led Aramark for 31 years; Ray Irani did so at Occidental Petroleum for 21 years. That’s if you were to look outside the list of promoter-bosses who helmed firms across the world -- Puri is our own in the Neubauer-Irani mould.
What has set HDFC Bank
apart is that it has eschewed risks. In its first decade, it had been tagged as a “boring bank” – to imply, it did not serve up “surprises”, pleasant or otherwise. This had a lot to do with Puri’s personality -- a no-nonsense, conservative banker. Basically, cut your coat according to your cloth; never chase the fashion of the day.
It was reflected in the way the bank rolled out its retail banking suite. In the mid-1990s when several of his peers chased market share, he refused to play the game. The bank first bought secured product lines into the market; credit-cards were hawked only in 2000. The strategy underlying this was that at a time when you had little by way of personal credit histories or credit bureaus, it made sense to first gauge the emerging trend from the secured retail portfolio before dabbling in the unsecured – read credit cards.
The bank took a leaf out of American Express’s book which had hawked a balance-transfer scheme when it went in to the mass retail cards business earlier. In a single fell swoop, HDFC Bank’s card business got both the eye-balls and wallet-share of some of the best customers who chose to opt for the bank’s plastic. This safe-and-steady approach helped weather the storms. Just how well he read the tea leaves became clear in the post-Lehman world when banks
had to go back to their drawing boards -- HDFC Bank
Let’s take the foray into digital. It began as early in 1999 with “NetBanking” and “SMS banking” a year later; then came a “mobile site”, an “app” (routine now, but Bannister-like for those times). He then launched 'Bank Aap Ki Muththi Mein' -- your smart-phone turned into a branch; it was tech-agnostic and worked on iOS, Android, and Windows. Puri ensured that the bank surfed every subsequent tech-wave – be it digital wallets, contactless payments, the options that opened up using near-field communications technology, and even flab was cut over processes.
A criticism is that he stayed at his desk for long. It is pertinent to note that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had extended the retirement age for chiefs of private banks
to 70 years in September 2014 from 65 years when the Companies Act (2013) replaced the earlier enacted in 1956. It had also overrode the P J Nayak Committee’s recommendation of 65 years. In the year before he steps down, a case was made for an alignment of tenures of private bank CEOs with the Companies Act. Incidentally, the age limit for CEOs and whole-time directors on banks is by way of RBI’s administrative fiat, and not under the proviso of an Act.
As for his leadership style, he had no patience for liars and the incompetent. “When the need arose, he would roll up his sleeves and get down to do the job on hand,” says an associate. He was not known to be one who clinked glasses to schmooze though in his early years at the bank, he perforce had to go through the “drill” as it were. But for the greater part, folks sought him out; and folklore or not, it was a set-routine -- in office at 8.30 am, and pack-up at about 6.00 pm (with a siesta in the noon, often-times). It’s said that despite Puri’s set-piece timings, he expected others to work late. Was it fair? “He has done what he has done. What are we talking about?” retorts a close aide. And his fashion statement remains the cell phone: he doesn’t carry one (and this is not the same as he doesn’t have one). So, rest assured Puri will remain connected with the financial world -- the network will follow!