Anyone remotely connected with India’s corporate and banking sector knows Aditya Puri. The 70-year-old iconic banker, arguably one of the world’s best, recently retired from HDFC Bank after a 26-year-long career which saw him build the bank from scratch to making it the country’s most valued banking institution.
Puri, who joined private equity major The Carlyle Group as senior advisor just days after he retired from the bank (an indication of how sought after he would be post retirement), has been known as a leader who is driven, focussed, and someone who knows how to get his team to execute his vision.
From the time Puri was approached by HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh in Kuala Lumpur (where he was working in Citibank), to the time he hung up his boots at the bank, Puri has been synonymous with the successes HDFC Bank has seen over the years. The bank is valued at close to ₹8 lakh crore.
In an exclusive, freewheeling interview with Fortune India just days after his retirement on October 26, Puri said he leaves the bank an extremely satisfied man, having built a world-class institution, and having earned the respect of 120,000 colleagues.
“I have positioned the bank for the future, and got Sashi Jagdishan [Sashidhar Jagdishan, the new MD & CEO] who is ingrained in the bank as an excellent successor, tying up with him and easing him into the role… I also carry many fond memories. Obviously, I’m not going to be sitting at home because my wife doesn’t allow that. So I have a few things in the works,” Puri said.
One of the “few things in the works”, of course, has turned out to be the gig at Carlyle, where he will help the PE firm with new investment opportunities, and provide guidance on the evolving market landscape. And Puri knows a thing or two about evolving landscapes. When he returned to India from Malaysia to set up HDFC Bank, the banking landscape was dominated by Indian public sector banks, and a few major foreign banks with good talent providing the only competition to them. Puri said his idea was to combine the best of the public sector banks and the foreign banks in the new private sector banking institution he was building.
“When we looked at the landscape, what I saw was the public sector banks had the brand, the distribution, and the deposits. The foreign banks had the product and the service and excellent talent. I said, if we can bring these two together in an institution and also take advantage of changing telecommunications… then we should be able to come up with an institution that can be world class in terms of standards, whether it is in profitability, governance, or satisfaction for employees,” Puri said about the early days.
Puri emphasised that a brand cannot be built by the CEO alone. It has to have the buy-in of employees at all levels, and that is what he sought to do at HDFC Bank, with all employees across the country and at all levels aligned to the vision he and the top management set out for the bank.
Speaking about competition, Puri said a trusted brand can withstand competition if it is open to change and that change is then overlaid by the trust which the brand has enjoyed from customers over time. If that combination is achieved, the customers would not be inclined to shift from the existing brand to a new entrant.
Recognised and celebrated as an institution-builder, Puri knows he will be in demand from various quarters. When asked whether he saw a role for himself in the government, he said: “Honestly, this is a hypothetical question. In any case, my health would not allow anything strenuous.”
His successor Jagdishan, who is already battling his first challenge with the recent RBI action on the bank for its digital outages, earns high praise from Puri.
When told that Jagdishan, himself an HDFC Bank veteran of several years, is a very different in personality from him, Puri said: “There’s place for everyone. Angelina Jolie survived, and so did Shirley Maclaine! You have to be good at your job. Like I told someone the other day, there is tandoori chicken and there is thayir saadam…[curd rice, a popular dish in South India]. I can tell you, don’t underestimate Sashi. There’s no need for a clone of mine to come in. [But] in a way all 120,000 of us are clones. We think of the bank, we are a relentless execution team. When the HDFC Bank army goes, the end result will be achieved.”
“I think Sashi is well positioned. Just because he is from one part of the country and I am from another, doesn’t mean anything. Is he competent to do the job? Absolutely!” he said, adding: “People ask, 'but what about the profile?'. On that, Mr [K.V.] Kamath [former ICICI Bank CEO] once put it very nicely. He said Mr Puri never sought the limelight. He got the limelight consequent to the performance of HDFC Bank. I think that’ll happen with Sashi also as the results keep coming in. The media made me a hero because of the performance of the bank, and I am sure the same thing will happen with him.”
(The full interview with Aditya Puri appears in the December 2020 [Fortune India 500] issue of the magazine, which is now on stands.)