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The CFO whose career kicked off with two pounds sterling

Last updated on: April 25, 2013 09:11 IST

The CFO whose career kicked off with two pounds sterling

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Prasanna D Zore

HDFC Life's CFO and Executive Director Vibha Padalkar talks about her first job and the challenges she faced, and shares success mantras and advice for the Indian youth.

Imagine this: It's 1985 and your first day in London (you've travelled there from Chennai) and you are given just a couple of pounds sterling, a map of the subway and have an interview lined up to intern at a local company. A round ticket on the subway costs 60 pence; you have just 40 pence left for a meal and one pound as 'emergency money' (on a returnable basis!) just in case you get lost.

Vibha Padalkar, who was only 17 then, had left Class XI midway to join her father, a high-ranking official at the Indian High Commission in London, and took up this challenge. "Go figure out how you'll do it," was what her father told her. And she did.

"My parents taught me to be completely independent," Padalkar, currently Executive Director and Chief Financial Officer, HDFC Life, fondly recalls 28 years later. "I was always encouraged to concentrate on learning, be independent, go and find things out on my own."

While she was always quietly confident of her ability to excel, Padalkar's career journey began as an 'articled clerk' in London.

Humility, a commitment to hard work, an eye for detail, and an insatiable hunger to learn new things and accept new challenges have helped her achieve success, she says.

In the following pages, Padalkar takes us on a journey that traces her career back to her first job, how her family helped her face, fight and triumph over challenges and what today's youth need to do in order to see the same kind of success.


Image: Vibha Padalkar, ED and CFO, HDFC Life
Photographs: Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com

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'India in 1993 was a very different place than when I left in 1985'

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Life in London and her first job

When Padalkar went to England in 1985 midway through Class XI, she was told that her Class X certification exam did not carry any weight. She had to appear for her O Levels (equivalent to Class X in India) in London, but she went through the paces, completed her A Levels (equivalent to Class XII) and later enrolled to study accountancy at London South Bank University.

Once she completed the foundation course in accountancy, she knew she had to continue down the path that she had chosen and so applied to over 80 CA audit firms for a job as an 'articled clerk' (an apprentice in a professional firm). "Only two got back to me with calls for an interview," Padalkar states matter-of-factly. She cracked both interviews, but decided to work with Cohen Arnold & Co, an Anglo-Jewish company. "Who could teach me about money better than the Jewish?" she says of her choice.

Homecoming

It was post India's economic liberalisation in 1991 that Padalkar's brother got married in Mumbai and she returned to India for the occasion. It was this homecoming seven years later that changed the course of her career.

"India in 1993 was a very different place than when I left in 1985," she says. "I felt there were a lot of opportunities -- especially for women -- in a place like Mumbai and I didn't have to push myself every step of the way on account of my race or background," she adds, not trying to hide the fact that such a hurdle existed in the United Kingdom.

What experience has taught her

Ask Padalkar about the lessons she learned during her stints at top-notch companies and she gets laconic and precise: "When we stop learning, it's time to move," she says. That's the most important thing that her 27-year career in India has taught her. "Don't take yourself very seriously," she continues, "And always get into details."


Image: The Gateway of India in Mumbai (image for representational purposes only)
Photographs: Rhaessner/Wikimedia Commons

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'Rarely do I lose my cool at work'

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Learning from one's parents

Remember Padalkar's first day in London? "My father was confident I would find my way to the interview, even if it was my first day in a new country. He knew he had brought up my brother and me to be pretty self-reliant."

Her mother was also a career woman; she had an illustrious career in the Indian Administrative Service and after having held the post of Industries Secretary, she retired voluntarily in March 2001 as the Vigilance Commissioner in the rank of Chief Secretary in the Tamil Nadu government.

According to Padalkar, the most important trait she imbibed from her parents is commitment. "If I commit to something I will deliver," she says, emphasising the point. "The word that you give is all that you have. I would not be able to forgive myself if I said I would do something and didn't do it."

Both Padalkar's parents taught her to always be guided by the 'sleep test', that is, not to do anything that would disturb a good night's sleep! "If I goof up, I own up, regardless of the consequences," she says.

"My parents are very simple people. One cannot imagine that they held such influential positions of power and that attitude has seeped into me," she opens up about the reason behind her cool demeanour. "I hope it also percolates down to the teams I lead," she quickly adds. "I am very approachable, relatively soft-spoken; I am not dramatic and don't fling things across the room. It is more of an understatement, really, having to make your point in an aggressive manner."

In fact, Padalkar's bosses tell her that she is a good antidote to them because she is able to withstand a lot of pressure. "I am able to perform as that buffer between the boss and the subordinates. You can call me a punching bag; rarely do I lose my cool at work," she says good-humouredly.


Image: Vibha Padalkar, ED and CFO, HDFC Life


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'We were working seven days a week, 24x7 for six months'

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Juggling career challenges...

Reminiscing about the biggest challenge of her career to date, Padalkar says, "The IPO (Initial Public Offering) of (BPO) WNS was my biggest professional test so far. Hopefully, I will work on an IPO twice in my life. That would be some record -- but after doing it once I must be crazy to want to do it again!"

"It was the first Indian headquartered BPO getting listed and it was getting listed on NYSE, the toughest regulator you can have," she continues. "We were trying to do it in six months, when typically it takes nine. Just motivating the team (was a huge challenge in itself); we were working seven days a week, 24x7 for six months, and my son was relatively small at that point in time."

Padalkar would work all through the day at the WNS office in suburban Mumbai, till late at night. At dinnertime she would drive down to her home (9 kms away), see that her five-year-old was fed properly and go back to the office after putting him to bed, only to come home in the wee hours of the morning.

...and parenthood

Padalkar knows a lot of women who, when faced with a similar situation, have thrown up their hands because of the difficulties involved. "But it is typically during that period. If you can somehow get through that period, then you'll be happy that you hung in there," she says from her own experience. "It's easy to throw in the towel at that point in time. I think I was able to find solutions because my husband is that extremely neo (liberal) man. He is far ahead in terms of women's lib than I am in my mind. So he'd also help me find solutions, encourage me to realise my dreams."

Padalkar believes there is no set formula when it comes to juggling parenthood and one's career. "It could be your parents or in-laws or spouse (who help you cope). I can only talk about what helped in my case," she offers.

She and her husband decided that they wouldn't take help from either of their parents to bring up their son. "My husband is far ahead in his thinking. We would mutually agree on when my career could take a backseat and when his could. There were times in my career when I was handling relatively mundane portfolios after my son was born and I knew that. But I was okay with lying low for some time -- it was a conscious decision," she says.

"One needs to talk it out; one needs to anticipate what is going to happen in one's career," Padalkar continues. She is of the opinion that couples who support each other shine in their respective careers. "There needs to be a lot of dialogue and give and take."

Her son also did his bit when it came to helping her focus on work. "As a child, he never even cried a day asking me to skip the office. In fact, I still joke that my son predictably fell ill on Fridays and got better on Sunday nights. Consistently. Really. Because he probably knew that's the time mom is home," Padalkar recalls with amusement. However, she and her husband did ensure that they spent all their free time with their son.


Image: NYSE Euronext (image for representational purposes only)
Photographs: Reuters
Tags: Padalkar , BPO , IPO , WNS , NYSE

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'I know that I need to keep learning for me to continue to be interested'

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Success mantras

When asked to share her success mantras, Padalkar pauses for a minute, gathering her thoughts. Not that she is short of words, but she wants to be structured in her response.

"I am very meticulous," she says, adding that her family thinks of this trait as a disadvantage. They remind her sometimes that she needs to loosen up at home (and on holidays!) and that they are not part of her corporate set-up. "I am very structured, as a result of which I am able to get a lot done in a day, because most of it is planned. The detailing is there."

"I am also a control freak," Padalkar has no qualms admitting. "That has helped me remain grounded and get a sense of the basics of problems."

Of late, she has started expanding her horizons. She managed to persuade her boss to give her more responsibility and nine months ago, she took on all the back office operations. That's something new for somebody who has a solid grounding in finance, but Padalkar says she is enjoying every minute of it.

"I know that I need to keep learning in order for me to continue to be interested. I need that cerebral adrenaline to tell myself that there is so much of this work area that I don't know and that's why I want to come to work. I hate that jaded feeling of having been there, done that. Especially in finance, there is the same cycle year after year. I found a way of getting out of that by taking on more responsibilities unrelated to finance," she explains why she loves taking on new roles.

Advice to India's youth

"Be passionate," Padalkar is quick on the take. "I firmly believe -- and I tell my son this as well -- one has to be fervent about something."

She thinks that the generation today is spoilt for choice and get what they want too easily, unlike when she was growing up in a socialist set up that created artificial scarcity.

"The generation today is oblivious to what we went through. All that they need is to be charged up about something -- it can be advertising, software for games, wedding planning, animation, fixing cars...You will make it big if you are ardent about doing what you are doing in life," she says.

However, what worries Padalkar most is seeing a disinterested child or youth, because that implies that s/he enjoys all manner of comforts and has nothing to look forward to. "That's when they can start drifting in life," she warns. "That really scares me, rather than somebody not doing well in academics. Study hard, but finally marks mila toh badhiya hai, nahi mila toh it's not the end of your world."


Image: Vibha Padalkar, ED and CFO, HDFC Life
Photographs: Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com
Tags: Padalkar , India

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