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Aditya Puri - A banker with a difference

June 2, 2009 13:22 IST

Aditya Puri's management mantra

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Shyamal Majumdar and Sidhartha K

There is no management best-seller on how to optimise leisure, but we can claim to be experts on the subject after listening to Aditya Puri over a two-hour lunch at the ITC Grand Central's Kebabs & Kurries.

The man, who has just been voted India's best CEO in Finance Asia magazine's annual poll of investors and analysts, says his management mantra has been inspired by a cartoon he saw in one foreign newspaper.

One half of the cartoon showed the boss neck-deep in work while others outside were having a whale of a time. The other half showed the boss taking a nap while others were all glued to their computers.

"I am sure you know which half of the cartoon is my favourite," the HDFC Bank MD and CEO says, ordering a lassi.

Puri must be the only CEO in the world who doesn't carry a mobile or laptop; leaves office at 5:30 pm sharp; doesn't work on weekends, giving him enough time to grow exotic vegetables and fruits at his Lonavla farmhouse; takes at least one long annual leave; and skips networking dinners to pursue other interests such as listening to music and reading.

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Image: Aditya Puri, managing director, HDFC Bank

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Aditya Puri, a banker with a difference

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He has recently added one more must to his daily routine: Talking non-stop to his 10-month-old grandson whenever he is around. "Both of us understand each other's language perfectly," Puri says with a hearty laugh.

The 58-year old CEO started his drive to optimise leisure rather early in life. A brilliant student, he was deliberately lax in high school so that his father couldn't force him into an engineering degree, pursuing which required "extra hard work".  He preferred to graduate in commerce from Punjab University and later qualified as a chartered accountant.

He also recounts how his boss at Citi once asked him whether everything was all right since he had been leaving office a bit early. Puri was then posted in Kolkata.

"No sir, I am working very hard and am in office until it's dark," Puri told his boss, without realising that evening descends around 4:30 pm in the eastern part of the country during winter. His boss advised him to look at his watch also before leaving.

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Image: A Citibank sign is seen on the side of a branch in New York.
Photographs: Lucas Jackson/Reuters
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Aditya Puri, a banker with a difference

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Puri orders tandoori rotis, assorted kebabs and a chicken dish and says he is an excellent cook. Well, almost.

That's because he knows the recipes but never cooks himself as his idea of cooking is to issue instructions with a beer in hand.

"Giving ideas is my job; there are better people to execute it," he says. Not surprising, as that's roughly the same principle he follows rigorously in his work life as well.

However, one thing he has never lacked is his passion to make it big in life and to plan for it meticulously.

A young Puri quietly resented the fact that he did not have the 'pull' - an euphemism for contacts - that was necessary those days to get a good job.

His father, an Indian Air Force officer, didn't know anybody who could get him a good civilian job, but Puri was thrilled when his mother told him one day that he could easily count on the biggest 'pull' of them all.

Who is that, an eager Puri asked his mother. 'Uparwallah' (God) was the lady's answer.

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Image: An HDFC Bank branch in Mumbai.
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Aditya Puri, a banker with a difference

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His heart sank then, but Puri hasn't forgotten that conversation and feels that's what steeled him to the fact that he has to plan his career every step of the way.

He left his job as an accountant at Mahindra & Mahindra to join Citibank because he wanted to move around the world - and to stay in a flat that was as big and comfortable as his cousin's, who was a Citi banker.

The food is delicious and Puri looks pleased with his choice of the menu. He also remembers the stunned look on his boss' face when he chose Saudi Arabia over New York as his first foreign posting.

The reason was simple: There was a 60 per cent hardship allowance for Saudi Arabia which meant that he could save his entire salary.

Later in life, he decided to go down two notches in the hierarchy to take up a marketing job as he knew an operations job alone wouldn't take him too far in the bank. The meticulous planning paid off and he soon found himself as the country head of Citi Malaysia.

The job gave him many things, one of them being a one-and-a half-acre mansion in one of Kuala Lumpur's tony localities. He was also one of the top 50 in Citi to get stock options.

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Aditya Puri, a banker with a difference

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Life, however, changed in 1994 when he met HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh who offered him the job of heading HDFC Bank, which had just got a licence.

What sealed the deal was his father's illness ("As the eldest son, I didn't want to live with the guilt of enjoying the material comforts of a Citi job in Malaysia when my father needed me the most") and Parekh's assurance that he would get a free hand to run the bank.

Nothing else mattered; neither the stock options, nor the tiny Mumbai flat and the makeshift office that consisted of Puri, his table and the many rats that would often feast on the cables.

It's time for dessert and Puri opts for mango while ordering falooda for us.

We realise we haven't spoken a word about HDFC Bank as yet and that time is running out.

Puri, however, makes up for the lost time and gives a fascinating account of what he calls common-sense banking. HDFC Bank, he says, has never let a retail customer over-borrow and has not lent to companies that over-extended themselves.

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Image: HDFC Bank chairman Deepak Parekh.
Photographs: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters
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The bank gets most of its funding from retail depositors, sticks to its credit standards and pricing and follows plain conservative banking.'

HDFC Bank has been growing at over 30 per cent every year since its inception 15 years back.

Many other banks have done so, too, but unlike them, HDFC Bank has never given up its risk-reward balance. Its focus, says Puri, is neither entirely top-line nor bottom-line, but on its customer base.

The bank is also a major player in settlement of commodities and has launched a 'Kisan Gold Card' under which farmers who borrow money for buying seeds and fertilisers are required to deposit their produce in an accredited warehouse.

The bank, Puri says, is touching people's lives in rural areas in many other ways, one of them being the hugely successful jewellery loan scheme which monetises idle assets.

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Image: Aditya Puri (L), managing director of HDFC Bank, embrace Rana Talwar (R), chairman of Centurion Bank of Punjab.
Photographs: Arko Datta/Reuters
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The lunch is over, and Puri returns to his favourite topic of how he has enough time on his hands - always. But dig a little deeper, and the CEO in him takes over.

Despite the distance he keeps from back-breaking work, Puri says he knows exactly what is happening at each of the bank's 1,400-plus branches.

"If there is an over-withdrawal of cash at some branch, the information reaches me within an hour - wherever I am. For that, you don't need cell phones; you only need to put proper systems in place."

Though he doesn't attend networking dinners, he makes it a point to meet clients at their offices during office hours.

"Besides, I have reached a stage in life where I don't have to network any longer; people need to network with me," he says, as we wait at the portico for his BMW to come in.

Quickly realising this is contrary to his leisure optimisation theory, Puri says he doesn't need to plan for life after retirement as he has already "retired himself from work". For a change, he doesn't sound too convincing.

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