The average age at the State Bank of India was around 47; here it’s 30,” says Arundhati Bhattacharya. “It probably went up with me joining.” It was light banter from the 64-year-old and, on the face of it, there’s nothing remarkable about her new role. After all, executives routinely switch jobs, and the average age of employees vary based on size, industry, history, etc. But, from the other side of a Zoom call, Bhattacharya has just revealed one tiny, but telling, part of a saga of reinvention, pluck, and audacity, the likes of which have rarely been seen.
In April, Bhattacharya stunned India Inc. by becoming the India head for Salesforce (the ‘here’ in the opening remarks), the American technology company that specialises in customer relationship management (CRM) software. She was no ordinary recruit. Two and a half years ago, she had retired as chairman, State Bank of India (SBI), after a four-year run (2013-2017). In that role she had helmed a behemoth, India’s largest bank (HDFC Bank, at No. 2, is less than 40% of SBI’s size by deposits). That automatically made her one of India’s top 10 CEOs, whichever way you cut it. (On Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women in Business lists, she was consistently ranked No. 1 between 2014 and 2017.)
Most people who superannuate from such positions rarely take up new, executive positions at smaller operations. Their typical post-retiral journey involves sitting on multiple boards (Bhattacharya ticks that box), or taking up advisory gigs. Some even start a fund, like Cognizant’s global CEO Francisco D’Souza has recently done. He did not retire but, having run the IT company for 12 years, stepped aside for a new CEO. In his very early fifties, D’Souza is also roughly a decade and a half younger than Bhattacharya.
While stories like John Sculley quitting Pepsi to join Apple or Alan Mulally quitting Boeing to join Ford is stuff of corporate folklore in the West, such high-profile shifts have been relatively rare in India. Around four decades ago, Ramesh Sarin, once a candidate for the ITC chairman’s job, famously quit the tobacco major to join home appliances company Voltas as president. Later, in the decades following liberalisation, there have been well-known CEOs making job switches that make news, like IndiGo Airlines’ Aditya Ghosh to OYO, or PepsiCo India’s D. Shivakumar to the Aditya Birla Group, but none are of Bhattacharya’s stature. More importantly, they didn’t do this post retirement.
It’s not about merely taking up a new challenge in one’s sixties. It’s equally about spending a lifetime in a public sector company and then joining one with its roots in Silicon Valley. Think Mozart playing Jimi Hendrix.
As Bhattacharya puts it, “The language of the tech world is not the same as the financial world, so initially it was difficult to even understand what was being talked about. In some ways, I am still learning on a daily basis and that’s what makes it fun.” Of course, she adds, “ultimately it’s about the customer at the centre: that basic sensibility doesn’t change though the cadence, the strategy, and the rest is entirely different for an American multinational versus an Indian public sector bank.”
Take media interactions. As Bhattacharya says, she had faced TV cameras and reporters a million times at SBI and rarely had a prep call or a briefing book. “But here you can’t even imagine doing that [meeting reporters] without it [a briefing book].
Then there are the even subtler shifts, with her persona for instance. She seems to smile a whole lot more than when she was at SBI, an observation she firmly disagrees with. Also, gone is the conservative saree, Bhattacharya’s trademark uniform from her SBI days; in its place is a bright, multi-coloured silk top with matching black trousers.
She would know, however, that her stature makes this assignment a gamble that will play out in the public eye. If she succeeds, she will be a legend; if she doesn’t, expect a chorus of ‘we told you so’.
For the moment, though, her peers are convinced she has the chops to succeed. As HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh says, Bhattacharya is quick on the uptake, and, in his opinion, “can take any job—private sector, public sector, domestic or multinational— and do just fine”. Zia Mody, co-founder of corporate law firm AZB & Partners, says Bhattacharya is highly driven and “willing to reinvent herself ”.
For a while, Bhattacharya’s journey happened along predictable, post-superannuated lines. She joined the boards of companies such as Piramal Enterprises, Reliance Industries, and Wipro, the International Advisory Council of Standard Chartered Bank, and also worked with AZB & Partners, Warburg Pincus, ChrysCapital, and Bain in various part-time and advisory capacities. There were days when not much happened—and others when she would start her work day after breakfast and work till 8 p.m.
But somewhere, she wanted to do more. “Being a non-executive [director] is great but you can’t see the results of your efforts; it’s even harder to gauge its impact,” she says. If someone had paid close attention to her last address to the press before demitting office, they may have cottoned on: there, she had said that while she would not continue in banking, she would not “hang up her boots”.
Enter Marc Benioff.
Bhattacharya first met Benioff over a video call.
The legendary founder of Salesforce—known not only for wearing custom-designed sneakers with clouds on them but also for his deep commitment to philanthropy—was looking for someone to scale the India business which had begun in 2010.
The second meeting was face to face, at Benioff’s San Francisco residence. He handed her a signed copy of his book Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change, and spoke about his life and beliefs: why he left Oracle, why he wanted to start up something, why businesses need a larger purpose, and the like. Significantly, no numbers were discussed.
Bhattacharya was impressed by Benioff’s drive, and his belief in “innovation, being nimble, and being agile”. Her being hired was, of course, “pure Marc”. Ask her what she means and she says that Benioff just “doesn’t think along established ways or established lines of doing things”.
In turn, in Bhattacharya, Benioff sees a fine leader. “As the world navigates an extraordinary health and economic crisis, Arundhati is guiding Salesforce India with incredible skill and vision,” he tells Fortune India. “Arundhati is a trailblazer in every sense—she inspires everyone around her, she mentors and empowers the next generation, and leads with courage and integrity, both within Salesforce and across the Indian business landscape.”
While neither Benioff nor Bhattacharya is willing to discuss what made Bhattacharya the perfect fit, outsiders point to how she used technology to transform SBI. (Her other qualifications—leadership, ability to lead a very large organisation, connections, and relationships—would be a given for anyone in her position.)
She started SBI Buddy (a prepaid wallet), kicked off a fund that invests in startups, started fully digitised branches, built alliances with e-commerce heavyweights, etc. Many believe that she was able to see clearly the opportunities as well as threats of a digital-heavy future and reposition the bank accordingly.
Wipro chairman Rishad Premji, on whose board Bhattacharya served briefly, says her appetite for learning new stuff is tremendous. “Salesforce is a smart company looking to make a step change in the Indian market and grow disruptively, so bringing in Bhattacharya would be a huge value-add.”
That doesn’t underplay the challenges for Bhattacharya. As Shalini Lal, former director of human resources at Deutsche Bank, and co-founder of Unqbe, a leadership advisory, points out, despite its primacy in India, SBI never really faced the global competition that Salesforce has. She also says that while SBI is rated highly as a dependable and safe workplace, where employees get a decent salary and perks, its culture is still seen as bureaucratic.
“On the other hand, Salesforce consistently features as a place regarded for its work culture, which is high energy. And, as the India CEO of Salesforce, she [Bhattacharya] will very likely be expected to be an upholder of that culture,” says Lal.
The stodginess of an Indian PSU (public sector undertaking) isn’t just a stereotype. But even if some of those attributes are overstated, PSUs tend to be culturally very different from their counterparts in the private sector. They tend to be far more hierarchical and rules-bound with far fewer opportunities to express individualism. They also provide less space for innovation and experimentation. Add to that, senior executives at PSUs often have to acknowledge the overarching presence of their political and bureaucratic masters, including mechanisms such as the Central Vigilance Commission, or the Reserve Bank of India in the case of banks.
Silicon Valley is a world apart. Marc Zuckerberg’s pithy encapsulation of Facebook’s culture, ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ or Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s ‘Fear is a disease, Hustle is the antidote’ may seem a bit of an exaggeration, but they do somewhat capture the Valley spirit. A spirit of dare that breathes life force into Salesforce.
Founded in 1999, Salesforce has grown to be one of the Silicon Valley legends. Stories about the company and its founder are central to myth-making in the Bay Area. In his teens, Benioff made games for the Atari 800 computer and then spent many years working at Oracle. A Larry Ellison favourite, he later quit to start Salesforce. He did so with Ellison’s blessings and even got funding from his former boss. But later they had a bad falling out, so much so that Benioff removed Ellison from the Salesforce board. By the numbers, Salesforce stands at $20 billion by revenue, with a valuation at $250 billion or 10 times SBI’s market cap.
Even as Bhattacharya rolls up her sleeves, there are these not-so-obvious differences she’ll have to contend with. Indeed, much of what Bhattacharya will have to do will be different. Banking is predictable, software is not. State Bank was stately, Salesforce still sees itself as a scrappy startup. As chairman SBI, when Bhattacharya entered a room, she was, well, chairman SBI! Now she will be just another vendor. (One reason why retired senior executives traditionally stay away from executive roles is that they may have to humour those who were once obsequious.)
In her last job, Bhattacharya’s entourage comprised armed bodyguards, PR support staff, and executive assistants. Sometimes, people would even carry her cellphone. (SBI has 270,000 employees, while Salesforce has 54,000, with 2,500 of them in India.) Now, she reports into an Asia Pacific head, and other C-suite members before she even gets to brief Benioff. Her voice was once the loudest and most dominant, but now no more.
Such ground realities aren’t lost on Bhattacharya, who now carries her own backpack. “It’s a transition,” she says. “But I am comfortable with it and have no hang-ups about a few layers above me. That’s a part of the job and I thought through it very clearly.”
She adds: “I like reaching out to people below me just as I do [with people] above. I have a lot to learn from either side. If you stand on [a] position, you lock yourself in unnecessarily. If you’re comfortable in your skin then these things don’t matter.”
It helps that Bhattacharya has never particularly liked standing on ceremony. Premji, around two decades younger, recalls his uncertainty over how to address her when he first met her: “I was thinking if I should call her Ms. Bhattacharya, or ma’am.” She solved his dilemma without any hesitation. While remembering that particular story, she says, “I tell everyone to call me Arundhati. It’s my given name, and it’s a lovely name, so use it!”
Zia Mody says Bhattacharya is a very “high EQ [emotional quotient] person”.
That said, Bhattacharya feels there are similarities between Salesforce and SBI. It’s driven by ohana, an idea central to the Salesforce way. Ohana is a Hawaiian word which means family, not just in the narrow sense of blood ties, but the wider ties of humanity. It means mutual respect, support, an obligation to help each other, and so on. (Benioff is an ardent fan of the Hawaiian way and it governs many of his beliefs.) Ohana also has echoes of the Hindu idea of vasudhaiva kutumbakam, or the world is one family. Bhattacharya says that in a “wider sense,” SBI was also about ohana.
It’s still very early days for Bhattacharya, so there are no big moves on her part just yet. She has been working from home, particularly given that some elderly relatives stay with her. But some of her statements to the media elsewhere indicate where she is headed.
She speaks of how trends in digitisation will further accelerate, how small and medium-sized businesses could benefit from Salesforce products, how banks and insurance companies represent a big opportunity, and how her company will also hire in very large numbers. Taken together, it shows that Bhattacharya is just about warming up.
On a shelf behind her desk at SBI used to sit a plaque with a Swami Vivekananda quote that stated a leader ‘must accommodate a thousand minds’. For her, that mantra has never been more apt.
(This story appeared in the November 2020 issue of Fortune India magazine)