When R Subramaniakumar was sent to Indian Overseas Bank (IOB) as an executive director in 2016, his colleagues felt bad for him. It was unfortunate, they thought, that a banker known for his technological chops was being transferred to a bank that had just been brought under the banking regulator’s restrictive prompt corrective action (PCA) framework for weak banks. This role was all about digging yourself out of a hole; it was hardly the place for a digital transformationist. What a waste of talent, they mourned.
A little over three years later, Subramaniakumar demitted office as chief executive of the same bank with a wholly different reputation. Although IOB was still under PCA, its chief was going out with a decent performance behind him in terms of most operating metrics, especially asset quality. Soon enough, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) picked him to clean up another troubled financial institution, Dewan Housing Financial Corporation (DHFL). It became official that Subramaniakumar was a turnaround specialist.
In the mid to late 90s, though, this career banker was focused on another journey of transformation, working to mechanise branches and systems at Punjab National Bank (PNB). As he rose through the ranks, his work at PNB mirrored the strides that financial technology was taking. In various managerial capacities, Subramaniakumar worked on PNB’s digitisation journey between 2006 and 2013. This was the period when PNB bagged a string of firsts to its name – first state-owned bank to launch RTGS online and implement an enterprise-wide data warehouse, the first to have the largest Finacle core banking system setup, the first to launch risk-based internal audit – the kind of stuff that PNB still likes to brag about in its investor presentations.
The high level of comfort with the latest in technology makes Subramaniakumar a good fit for his new assignment as RBL Bank’s CEO, say people who have worked closely with him. They speak of his impeccable track record and his reputation for integrity. They applaud the RBI’s choice in appointing him as administrator at DHFL, a stint which revealed a whole new dimension to his professional abilities.
A former top banker admitted to this reporter that DHFL’s balance sheet was a virtual “black hole” for its lenders. Subramaniakumar went to great lengths to unravel what the company’s convoluted statements were hiding. It is to him that some bankers attribute the unearthing of the infamous ‘Bandra book’, consisting of fictitious loans worth over Rs 11,000 crore seemingly given to 260,000 borrowers. Subramaniakumar worked closely not just with external consultants and auditors on the exercise, but also with some of DHFL’s own senior executives. “He worked there with the same set of people rather than bringing in new ones. He works by consensus and has very good clarity on what he is doing. Also, he has a good eye for detail,” said a banker who has worked with him in the past.
A penchant for detail is evident, too, in Subramaniakumar’s LinkedIn profile. It reveals a knack for a near-exhaustive description of professional experience as well as the man’s ambition, both of which are relative rarities among India’s public sector bankers. The markets may huff all they like, but Subramaniakumar is happy to wear his firefighting credentials on his sleeve; his LinkedIn bio leads with the words “administrator” and “turnaround specialist”.
Indeed, what miffed the markets about Subramaniakumar may have been exactly what endeared him to the regulator. People familiar with the RBI’s thinking harp on the point about his track record and his integrity. In a sense, Subramaniakumar has always been among the select club of top bankers. He was one among three honchos who were on the team that designed the Banks Board Bureau’s directors’ development programme, one of whom is now an RBI deputy governor. He has been anointed not once, but twice by the RBI in top management positions. Whether he can now propel RBL Bank into the elite club of India’s top banks remains to be seen.