Axis Bank Ltd., India\u2019s third-largest private-sector bank, has appointed headhunters to start the search for a new chief executive officer to succeed Shikha Sharma, who is set to step down next year, people familiar with the matter said. Executive search firm Egon Zehnder has been selected by the Axis Bank board to identify a new CEO, one of the people said, asking not to be identified as the information is private. On the bank\u2019s side, the process is being led by Prasad Menon, an independent director who is also chairman of the Axis Bank nomination committee, the people said. \u201cThere is a laid down process which the board undertakes at regular intervals but to conclude that there is going to be change of leadership is entirely premature and speculative,\u201d an Axis Bank spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. A representative for Egon Zehnder didn\u2019t immediately respond to requests for comment. The Mumbai-based bank had been battling a surge in soured debt that led to a slump in profit for five straight quarters through\u00a0March 31, exchange filings show. In April, Chief Financial Officer Jairam Sridharan expressed confidence that the worst of the bank\u2019s bad-loan issues are over. One way Sharma has attempted to address the problem has been to boost the proportion of consumer loans versus corporate debt. She increased consumer loans to 45 percent of the total, compared with 21 percent when she became CEO in 2009, filings show. Also watch: Shares of the bank more than tripled in the eight years under Sharma, in line with the Bankex index. They outperformed State Bank of India, the country\u2019s largest lender, which rose 56 percent during the period, and ICICI Bank Ltd., which added 126 percent. Book value per share, a key measure of profitability, rose steadily over the past five years ended\u00a0March 31\u00a0to touch 233 rupees. Axis is seeking to choose the new CEO by December, according to the people. They said it\u2019s still possible that Sharma, who was named to head the bank in April 2009, might get an extension to her term, which ends next June.