Excerpt: Roller Coaster: An Affair with Banking by Tamal Bandyopadhyay
Suspending senior officials for inane reasons and insisting on fancy cars and the finest whisky on outstation trips... This extract presents some true life incidents that highlight feudalism in the public sector banking industry
Not a Cool Car
What should the chairman of a public sector bank do if he’s locked out of the car sent to the airport to ferry him to the bank’s guest house? Take an air-conditioned or a regular taxi and leave it at that, right? Yes, a taxi would make sense.
Not to this bossman, though. He decided to vent his anger over the incident by suspending the general manager who had gone to receive him.
I am not cooking up this story. It happened in Mumbai in May 2011 before Uber and Ola hit the road.
This chairman-cum-managing director of a public sector bank had arrived at Mumbai airport from a southern city on a hot and muggy Thursday evening. The bank’s liaison officer and the general manager heading the bank’s Mumbai operations were there to receive him and accompany him to the bank’s guest house in the office car.
The driver was loading the CMD’s suitcase into the car’s boot when, somehow, the doors got locked with the key in the ignition.
As it was not possible to get another office car at a short notice late evening, the liaison officer first tried to arrange a “cool cab” for his boss, but there was a long queue. The flustered liaison officer then managed to get a Meru cab to take the CMD to the guest house in Cuffe Parade.
The CMD, who had been waiting for 45 minutes through all this, lost his cool.The general manager and the liaison officer ensured that the suitcase was delivered to the guest house later that night. The next morning, they apologised profusely, and the general manager even touched the CMD’s feet with both hands, seeking forgiveness.
The CMD, in turn, suspended the general manager.
However, the bank revoked the suspension order after a national daily narrated the story graphically.
This incident is symbolic of the culture in some public sector banks.
The chiefs here work under a lot of stress as they are answerable not only to their board but also to finance ministry officials and politicians. Admittedly, they are paid much less than their counterparts in private sector banks. Nevertheless, at least a few behave like feudal lords when it comes to managing the banks.
Incidentally, the CMD involved in the airport episode got a plum posting after his retirement.
The feudal mindset shows in daily life as well. Typically, public sector bank chiefs don’t allow their junior colleagues to sit beside them in the office car. Any deputy general manager or even a general manager accompanying a bank chief sits next to the driver. The executive directors are, of course, treated differently. They enjoy the chief ’s company in the back seat.
Stranded in a Lift
A bank chief suspending a general manager for getting locked out of his car is not the most unusual. Before this incident, another bank’s chief transferred a senior executive to a Northeastern state (traditionally a punishment posting for a banker) after the CMD and his wife got stuck in a guest house lift in Calcutta.
To pacify his wife, the CMD left the guest house in posh Alipore at midnight and moved to the guest house of an organisation that he had previously headed. The next morning, the general manager responsible for the CMD’s stay was handed his transfer letter.
For the record, the liftman had warned the CMD that the ancient lift would not be able to carry the chairman, his wife and the liftman together. The CMD ignored the liftman’s warning.
Before becoming the CMD, this man had been on a large public sector bank’s board in the 1990s as a government nominee. I heard a story about him from the boss of that bank too.
A Cardigan from Akbarallys
There was a board meeting in Mumbai in November. The weather was pleasant in Mumbai but chilly in Delhi, from where this man was coming.
Typically, along with the board meeting, a few sessions of different board committees are held. Between two such meetings, he wanted to check out Akbarallys, near Flora Fountain, the lone departmental store in Mumbai in those days. He wanted to buy a cardigan for his wife.
The CMD asked his secretary to fetch a few cardigans from Akbarallys so the board member could pick one without going out.
The assistant had half-a-dozen fancy cardigans fetched from Akbarallys. After the meetings ended, our man got a chance to look at the cardigans. Did he choose one? No — he asked the staff to pack the lot for him!
Bosses of public sector banks often use the guest houses for personal purposes, such as putting up relatives when their children get married. In the executive lunchroom of one public sector bank, I saw a table reserved for the CMD. No one other than the chairman was allowed to use that table. In yet another bank’s lunchroom, I saw something I will remember forever.
Mopping up Liquidity!
Occasionally, I would end up having lunch with this bank’s CMD. He would treat me to great food — fish curry and mutton curry with rosogolla and mishti doi as dessert. A menu that any Bengali will die for. This lunchroom too had a seat reserved for the CMD. A white hand towel was kept on his chair.
The first time I saw this, I thought it was a sign meaning that the chair was reserved. But it had other uses, as I soon discovered during my first lunch with the CMD in that room. The boss was very fond of green chillies. He would eat them till his baldpate started perspiring. A kitchen helper would be waiting respectfully at the back. When the CMD waved his left hand, the poor chap’s mandate was to mop the sweat with the white towel.
Over dessert, the banker made it a point to tell me that the sweets were from Sweet Bengal, known for Bengali sweets. And that the sole assignment for the man behind him was to mop up perspiration from his baldpate and serve the dessert. I could sense the pride in his voice.
The same gentleman wanted his Kolkata (by this time, the city had changed its name) office to arrange a Mercedes for his local travel when he would be in that city. The agency that supplied cars to the bank’s Kolkata operations did not have a Mercedes to spare that day. So the CMD’s office made it a point to fetch a Mercedes from Delhi. The cost of bringing the car together with the rental could be equal to the price of a small car.
After this, the bank chief became known as Mr Mercedes X in banking circles.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label
The story of another public sector banker is equally interesting. This chairman was on a trip to one of the southern cities. After a series of meetings with his colleagues, he expressed a desire to have a drink in the bank’s guest house.
Nothing wrong with that. Except for the fact that it was pretty late in the evening. More importantly, it was a dry day on account of Gandhi Jayanti.
But he would not accept any excuse. Yes, liquor shops were closed but didn’t any of his colleagues have a bottle at home? He had a point. But the problem was that he wouldn’t settle for anything less than Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky. The Blue Label is the costliest in the Johnnie Walker stable.
The chicken lollipops and fish fries were getting stone- cold, but he didn’t care. Finally, an enterprising junior banker managed a bottle at around 2 am. The chairman didn’t transfer anyone for the delay, but his senior colleagues had to stay back at the guest house and give him company till early morning.
Excerpted with permission from Tamal Bandyopadhyay’s Roller Coaster: An Affair with Banking published by Jaico Publishing House. The book is slated to be released on 10 January.