Fall from Grace

I was picked by our Zonal Manager, Mr.Arondekar, to head our branch near the posh Malabar Hill area of Mumbai and took charge in the middle of May 1999. The branch, opened some 55 years ago, never fulfilled its potential. Its deposits when I took charge was less than Rs 50 crore. My Zonal Manager told me, ” Do something, Girish. The branch needs a shaking up.”

The branch had a very elite customer base of affluent Gujaratis and Parsis. The branch had 10 officers, 55 clerks and 7 or 8 Sepoys. We had the account of a major pharmaceutical company who had large borrowing limits. Branch had a full fledged Foreign Exchange Department, to cater to this company as well as a few others.

Initially, I went around, meeting our customers. The feed back I got was uniformly bad. To my surprise, few of the shops in that area had any dealings with us. On inquiry, I was told that the apathy and indifference of branch people had made them shift their accounts.

An elderly Parsi lady told me, ” Your Bank opens at 9 a.m, but your staff start attending to customers much later. I am fed up with your branch but since I am dealing with you for years, I do not wish to go to any other bank.” Another lady told me,” Tell your people to look up at our faces when we talk to them. They hardly ever lift their faces from their work; its so rude”

These were valuable lessons. I held regular staff meetings and used to tell the staff about such comments. I called for suggestions to improve our working and used to give a small gift for the best suggestion of the day.

At one meeting it was revealed that customers are made to run from pillar to post to get a Demand Draft. The draft issuing officer would sign the draft and if it is for a large amount, give it to the customer to get a second signature from another officer. The customer would go round the branch, pleading, begging each officer to sign it. Some would do it, some won’t. I was really annoyed and showed my displeasure. My senior officer, Mr.Shah, offered to sign all drafts. He was sitting very near the Draft Issue Dept. and the arrangement worked wonders.

I was very tough with late comers. Anyone coming after 9a.m had to report to me. Punctuality improved and with it, our customer service. Once I asked a lady officer, who had a habit of coming late, to go home. She made a tearful scene but I did not budge. It had a salutary effect on everyone.

People told me that no new advances or loans were given at the branch for years. I started looking for new customers to finance and requested our existing borrowers to introduce good people.

Someone suggested that we repaint the branch since it was was looking shabby, inside and out, with old and peeling paint. This was done and the flooring was relaid with linoleum. For a few days together, when the painting was going on, mostly at night, some of our staff members offered to spent the night in the branch.

Slowly, our business improved; deposits crossed Rs 65 crore. We added a couple of customers who had foreign exchange business. Our advances also grew.

Then, calamity. A Voluntary Retirement Scheme was introduced by our Bank in June 2000.Finally, when the dust settled and all those who had applied for VRS were relieved ,by middle of December 2000, my staff strength was reduced from over 70 to around 30. All my senior managers left. Our Loan Dept. which had 3 officers and 5 clerks was left with no officer or clerk. There was no officer in our Foreign Exchange Dept. One Mr.Nair, who was promoted as an officer just 6 months ago was persuaded by me to look after the Dept. The branch had to be managed by 3 or 4 junior officers who had little experience and even less knowledge.

Complaints started piling up; people complained in person, over telephone, through letters. There was a limit to what I could handle. For the first time in my life, I hated going to office. In one case, I declined to sanction a loan, purely on merit or rather, the lack of it. The applicant, who was quite influential made a big fuss about it. Complaints must have gone to our new Zonal Manager, and since it was Mumbai, even to our Chairman.

In July 2001, when I was attending a training course at an institute in Chandigarh, I got a call from my branch – my transfer order has come, to the Bihar Audit Dept, in Patna. It was a double whammy – transfer to Audit Dept. and that too, in Bihar!!

Someone advised me to approach our Chairman. I was reluctant, but prodded by my friends, I sought an appointment, which was promptly given for the next day. The meeting was brief. Chairman washed his hands off the whole thing saying, “I have nothing to do with your transfer. You should meet the General Manager, Personnel, who transferred you.” I went and met the General Manager, who seemed to know all about me. He said, “Girish, you are a good officer. It is just that we needed someone in Patna and your name came up.” I kept quiet. He asked, “What can I do for you?” I told him that my son was studying in his Final year M.Sc and I wished to remain in Mumbai for one more year. He said, “I will let you retain Bank’s flat for one year. Who knows, without you here, your son may do well in his examination!!”. (His words were prophetic; my son passed his final examination with distinction. )

I telephoned my friend Mr.Jagath Kumar, who was in Patna. He said,”Girish, Patna is a nice place; many people do not know it. Don’t worry, you come.”

Even before my transfer order came, I had started preparation for going to the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa. When I applied for one week’s leave to go there, the Zonal Manager declined it, thinking it was just a ploy to delay my going to Patna. My fall from grace was complete. From the blue eyed boy of the Zonal Manager, I had become an outcast. Luckily, the Deputy Zonal Manager, Mr.Sampath, who knew me well spoke to the Zonal Manager and my leave was sanctioned. I made a brief visit to Kerala and completed my pilgrimage to Sabarimala.

I came back to Mumbai, handed over charge of the branch to my successor and got ready to leave.On 23rd August 2001, it was with a heavy heart that I bid farewell to Mumabi and boarded my flight to Patna.

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