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An elephant changes its spots

business Updated: Mar 04, 2011 21:08 IST
Dipankar Bhattacharyya

It's unsettling to hear the name of a management guru in connection with a public sector enterprise. So when the State Bank of India (SBI)- and India's banks don't get more public than that - undertakes something John Paul Kotter, change management evangelist at Harvard Business School, would broadly approve of, it becomes one for the books. Thus thinks Rajesh Chakrabarti, teacher of finance and writer of columns. Grit, Guts and Gumption is a tale of how chairman OP Bhatt has helped to keep India's oldest surviving bank its biggest.

Bhatt, a State Banker since 1972, became its boss in 2006 having seen the writing on the wall: if the SBI didn't change the way it did business, ICICI Bank, then not yet in its teens, would become India's largest before his term ran out. Three years and 225 pages later, Chakrabarti concludes the SBI has pretty much shrugged off an attitude that grew out of having business thrown at it for well on half a century.

Rajat Gupta, senior partner emeritus, McKinsey & Co, the consultants who shaped much of Bhatt's vision, isn't so sure. "…it remains to be seen whether the transformation process has truly crossed the point of no return," says Gupta of an institution where memories stretch beyond socialism and into a colonial past, being founded in 1806 by Henry St George Tucker.

The names are suggestive. SBI -and its earlier avatar Imperial Bank-grew to the behemoth it is because of state patronage: first company, then crown and finally the Indian government. Making this elephant dance to new tunes from the marketplace would need management skills beyond those expounded in Kotter's eight-fold path to corporate nirvana. Bhatt has, however, made a commendable beginning. His successor - the bank has begun interviewing candidates - will carry a big legacy.

As for Chakrabarti, Grit, Guts and Gumption would have served both the practitioners and preachers of the art of management if the SBI becomes "the change it wants to see in the world".