From Citibank to setting up HDFC Bank: Behind Aditya Puri's exceptional banking career – Business Today

Aditya Puri, the former CEO and MD of the country’s second-largest bank, HDFC Bank, has had a remarkable career spanning over three decades. While his professional success is well-documented as he rose in Citibank and built the private sector HDFC Bank from scratch, little is known about the man behind the banker. In her book “Adityanama”, Anita Puri,  whom he calls “Smiley”, provides readers with insights into her husband’s life. Here are six anecdotes, drawn from her book.
Role of Chitra Pamnani, the wife of Citigroup’s Nanoo Pamnani
Pamnani played a critical role in Aditya Puri’s move from Mahindra & Mahindra to the multinational bank.
Aditya Puri, who was working with M&M as a chartered accountant, knew he had to find his way into an interview room with the big bosses at Citibank. Anita Puri writes in her book that luckily for him, there was a team from the bank working with Mahindra & Mahindra on a joint project at the time. “And soon a meeting was set up with the renowned Nanoo Pamnani, who was the country head of Citibank at the time,” the book mentions. “I have to say here that Nanoo has played a big part in our lives. First as Aditya’s boss and mentor, and then as a friend and guardian to both of us,” Anita Puri noted.
When Aditya met the Citi boss, Nanoo, he grilled him very closely. He had come highly recommended from colleagues who had worked on the joint project. Still, Nanoo wanted to see for himself if all that he had heard about Aditya was really true. There was someone else batting in Aditya’s favour with Nanoo — his wife, Chitra. She also worked with Citibank and had watched Aditya very closely whenever he would go to the bank as a client (Mahindra & Mahindra). She dispelled any doubt Nanoo may have had about Aditya’s capabilities because she told him that he was able to understand both sides of the problem better than most. Satisfied that he had found the right person for the job, Nanoo made Aditya an offer.
Aditya Puri requested a transfer to work for Citigroup’s office in Saudi Arabia to ensure financial security for his family
“Send me to Saudi Arabia,” Aditya said, nearly throwing Victor Menezes, his boss and the country head of Citibank at the time, off his chair. “Aditya’s request had come after months of agonising and worrying about our future, “writes Anita. When Aditya approached Victor, money was on his mind. He had done his homework. Citibank had a small operation in Saudi Arabia in terms of the number of people employed, but it was large in terms of the revenue generated. Salaries were tax exempt in the Middle East at the time as the kingdoms were going all out to attract the best talent to their shores.
“Three years [at the most] is what Aditya had planned for us to live there, make enough money, and come back to India,” she says. On paper, the plan seemed perfect, but Victor threw a fit. He told Aditya that it was as good as signing his own death warrant. “You are a rising star. If you go, all your colleagues will be your bosses by the time you get back,” he thundered, as per the book. When that didn’t work, he offered more perquisites — a better apartment, a new refrigerator, and such other things. Aditya was unmoved. Victor had no idea, perhaps, of the determination of this young Citibanker.
“Once he had made up his mind, and unless you could rationally argue him out of it, he was not going to give up,” she writes.  Aditya reassured Victor, “That’s fine, I can soon outgrow them, but I need the financial security.” He was confident that he could make up for the lost years in terms of seniority as long as he had enough money in the bank. Victor finally relented. He signed off on a posting at Citibank, Al-Khobar, a port city that was built on the country’s vast oil riches.
Aditya offered the disgruntled employees of his Malaysian office the option to resign with a promise of prompt processing of their resignation letters
When Aditya moved to Malaysia as CEO, many people warned him about potential employee trouble. And sure enough, Aditya realised that it was quite a situation that he had inherited from his predecessor. The local employees were unhappy, and things got worse when they saw that they would have to report to an Indian CEO. They sent a representative to meet Aditya with a long list of demands.
Not willing to commit one way or another before he had spent some time with the issues raised, Aditya said, “Give me three months.” Eager to drive a hard bargain and under the impression that they could bully a new CEO, the employees said they were not sure that they could wait that long. Their tactic had worked in the past—several former CEOs had caved in to their demands when faced with the threat of an internal revolt. But Aditya, having dealt with similar tantrums in Hong Kong, was well prepared. In that case, he said, they could hand in their resignation letters, and he would be happy to process them without delay. With his blunt ultimatum, Aditya won their respect and, soon, their love too. “When we left, his team threw a massive party for him (which is a story by itself), and many have become our lifelong friends,” she writes.
Deepak Parekh suggested the name “Bank of Bombay,” while Deepak Satwalekar proposed “Bombay International,” as the original name for HDFC Bank
When Aditya Puri accepted the offer to head the new proposed bank, to be set up by mortgage lender HDFC Ltd, he had had several meetings with Deepak Parekh and with Deepak Satwalekar, who was the managing director of HDFC at the time, over the name of the bank. At one point, the discussion got really heated with them refusing to lend the HDFC brand name to the bank. One option was Bank of Bombay, as Parekh had suggested, and another was Bombay International, as Satwalekar proposed.  Aditya was very clear that he wanted the name HDFC for the bank. She notes in the book that Aditya made a statement to stay back in Kuala Lumpur and withdraw his resignation from Citibank if he didn’t get his way. It was only after they reassured him that the bank would get the HDFC brand, that he finally committed to the task.
At HDFC, Puri was known as a troubleshooter. For instance, Puri came up with a unique way to solve the problem when he found out that one of the bank’s teams had split into two groups that weren’t talking to each other.
This is what happened. Once Aditya had invited a group of 30-odd people from HDFC Bank to his Lonavala farmhouse, Aditya had been told that there was a problem in the team and that there were two factions that had formed and that neither was talking to the other. “Sometime in the evening, Aditya asked the heads of the warring teams to walk with him and our three dogs, Scooby, Pogo, and Bushka, she writes. It was quite hilarious. Neither had any idea how to leash and hold a dog, and while Aditya was there with them, he didn’t offer any help or advice. They were forced to talk to each other, and by the end of the walk, everyone was talking to everyone else. “That night, the party went on till the early hours of the morning,” she writes.
Aditya Puri once told a senior employee, who was trying to bargain, that he could leave after finishing his coffee, without having to wait for the notice period to end
As per the book, Aditya has an uncanny ability to understand people and his friends, and he will always do his best for them. But, if he does not see eye to eye with someone, he can be quite blunt, which can lead to a feeling of hostility. For example, there was a very senior colleague who was looking to change jobs but was also trying to see if he could negotiate a better deal within the bank. He came up to Aditya and said that he had an exciting offer and that they were pushing him to join immediately, but since the bank had a long notice period, there was a bit of an issue, and so on. Aditya said that he need not wait for the notice period to get over. He could leave after finishing the coffee.
Adityanama is written by Anita ‘Smiley’ Puri and is published by Jaico Books.
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