Romesh Sobti can never forget the day when as a probationer at a State Bank of India (SBI) branch in Motihari he was told to run into the branch manager’s chambers. His crime was a small one: While distributing the ledgers in the morning he had shuffled the duties. But the unions were furious— and powerful—and so he was asked by the ‘bada babu’ to hide in his office while tempers were calmed.
Given half a chance, Sobti wouldn’t mind going back to those times in the early seventies, even though there were no calculators and one couldn’t go home until the books had been balanced. It was a time when one knew what the back side of a letter of credit looked like.
Branch managers like DP Mukherjee and DP Srivastava inspired him: He learnt from them how to clear piles of cheques in matter of minutes, reading them in an S: The date, the name, the figures in words, then in numbers and lastly, the signature.
“In your spare time you familiarised yourself with the signatures and if you made a single mistake there would be a black mark against your name,” recalls the MD& CEO of IndusInd Bank.
It’s the rigour of SBI that prepared Sobti for bigger things in life; as Sobti says you came out of that probation feeling like a banker. He must also have inherited some sense of discipline from his father, an army officer. The IndusInd chief is in some ways a jack-of all-trades with the ability to take on any task and do it well. He is the quintessential all-rounder having started out in school cricket as a medium pacer, transforming into an opening batsman in college, reinventing himself as an off-spinner and then retiring as a wicket keeper.
A shoulder injury has kept Sobti away from the golf course for many months as has the gruelling travel schedule. But he doesn’t mind; he’s happy meeting investors across the globe because he has a good story to tell especially now that Bharat Financial is in his fold.
In many ways, life is coming full circle for Sobti. As a young banker in rural Bihar he went around in a jeep with a field officer working with small farmers giving them loans for crops, cattle tube-wells and tractors. “You made an impact,” says Sobti. Today, IndusInd is doing what Sobti calls impact lending—moving credit into interior India—thanks to the reach that Bharat Financial has brought the bank.
Essentially, the credit enables individuals to earn a livelihood. So, it’s the milkmen and plumbers who are getting 2-wheeler loans and the small guy—with one vehicle—who’s getting the truck loan. Sobti enchanted with the processes used to track loans and repayments across the hundreds of villages. “The business correspondents are tracked on Google Maps. If they stay longer than 45 minutes, there is a problem in the village. If they spent just 15 minutes, it means they did not hold the meeting of the borrowers. It’s a good system,” he says.
Sobti will turn 69 in March but you wouldn’t guess it. The studious engineer who opted to become a banker rather than a scientist or an IAS officer, has big plans for his bank. His approach: Test and then trust the people you work with. That’s the secret of his success.