THE FORCE IS WITH ARUNDHATI
Fortune India|November 2020
TWO AND A HALF YEARS AFTER RETIREMENT, THE FORMER SBI CHAIRMAN STUNNED EVERYONE BY JOINING SILICON VALLEY DARLING SALESFORCE AS ITS INDIA HEAD. NOW COMES THE TOUGH PART— ADAPTING TO A VERY DIFFERENT INDUSTRY AND CULTURE. SHE ALSO HAS A CELEBRITY SUPERBOSS.
PAVAN LAL

ARUNDHATI BHATTACHARYA

64, CHAIRPERSON AND CEO, SALESFORCE INDIA (7)

IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT TAKING UP A NEW CHALLENGE IN ONE’S SIXTIES. IT’S EQUALLYABOUT SPENDING A LIFETIME IN A PUBLIC SECTOR FIRM AND THEN JOINING ONE WITH ITS ROOTS IN SILICON VALLEY. THINK MOZART PLAYING JIMI HENDRIX.

THE AVERAGE AGE at the State Bank of India was around 47; here it’s 30,” says Arundhati Bhattacharya. “It probably went up with me joining.” It was light banter from the 64-year-old and, on the face of it, there’s nothing remarkable about her new role. After all, executives routinely switch jobs, and the average age of employees vary based on size, industry, history, etc. But, from the other side of a Zoom call, Bhattacharya has just revealed one tiny, but telling, part of a saga of reinvention, pluck, and audacity, the likes of which have rarely been seen.

In April, Bhattacharya stunned India Inc. by becoming the India head for Salesforce (the ‘here’ in the opening remarks), the American technology company that specialises in customer relationship management (CRM) software. She was no ordinary recruit. Two and a half years ago, she had retired as chairman, State Bank of India (SBI), after a four-year run (2013-2017).

In that role she had helmed a behemoth, India’s largest bank (HDFC Bank, at No. 2, is less than 40% of SBI’s size by deposits). That automatically made her one of India’s top 10 CEOs, whichever way you cut it. (On Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women in Business lists, she was consistently ranked No. 1 between 2014 and 2017.)

Most people who superannuate from such positions rarely take up new, executive positions at smaller operations. Their typical post-retiral journey involves sitting on multiple boards (Bhattacharya ticks that box), or taking up advisory gigs. Some even start a fund, like Cognizant’s global CEO Francisco D’Souza has recently done. He did not retire but, having run the IT company for 12 years, stepped aside for a new CEO. In his very early fifties, D’Souza is also roughly a decade and a half younger than Bhattacharya.

While stories like John Sculley quitting Pepsi to join Apple or Alan Mulally quitting Boeing to join Ford is stuff of corporate folklore in the West, such high-profile shifts have been relatively rare in India. Around four decades ago, Ramesh Sarin, once a candidate for the ITC chairman’s job, famously quit the tobacco major to join home appliances company Voltas as president. Later, in the decades following liberalisation, there have been well-known CEOs making job switches that make news, like IndiGo Airlines’ Aditya Ghosh to OYO, or PepsiCo India’s D. Shivakumar to the Aditya Birla Group, but none are of Bhattacharya’s stature. More importantly, they didn’t do this post retirement.

It’s not about merely taking up a new challenge in one’s sixties. It’s equally about spending a lifetime in a public sector company and then joining one with its roots in Silicon Valley. Think Mozart playing Jimi Hendrix.

As Bhattacharya puts it, “The language of the tech world is not the same as the financial world, so initially it was difficult to even understand what was being talked about. In some ways, I am still learning on a daily basis and that’s what makes it fun.” Of course, she adds, “ultimately it’s about the customer at the centre: that basic sensibility doesn’t change though the cadence, the strategy, and the rest is entirely different for an American multinational versus an Indian public sector bank.”

Take media interactions. As Bhattacharya says, she had faced TV cameras and reporters a million times at SBI and rarely had a prep call or a briefing book. “But here you can’t even imagine doing that [meeting reporters] without it [a briefing book].”

Then there are the even subtler shifts, with her persona for instance. She seems to smile a whole lot more than when she was at SBI, an observation she firmly disagrees with. Also, gone is the conservative saree, Bhattacharya’s trademark uniform from her SBI days; in its place is a bright, multi-coloured silk top with matching black trousers.

She would know, however, that her stature makes this assignment a gamble that will play out in the public eye. If she succeeds, she will be a legend; if she doesn’t, expect a chorus of ‘we told you so’.

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