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Lunch With Jaspal Singh Bindra: Ceo - Asia, Standard Chartered Bank

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It's better to be boring in an exciting market like India than exciting in a boring market like the U.S., Stanchart's Asia CEO says, defending the bank's reputation for conservatism.

Whenever he visits Standard Chartered Bank's headquarters in London's Aldermanbury Square - and that's roughly once a month - Jaspal Singh Bindra meets "himself" on his way to the boardroom. That's because the bank has installed a life-size bronze statue of its Asia CEO on the eighth floor of the building.

It could be just a coincidence that Asia accounts for over two-thirds of the bank's profit and India alone contributes a quarter, and I ask Jaspal Singh whether the statue is Stanchart's unique way of recognising the contribution of a Sardar who is also at the helm of the bank's operations in the continent.

As we settle down in the dining room of Taj Chambers in Mumbai, Jaspal Singh takes great pains to explain that it has nothing to do with his position in the organisation (he took over as Asia head in 2007 and the statue was installed a year later) and that the initiative was a part of Stanchart's way of showing the diversity of its employee base. "I am a giveaway Indian with my turban and so was chosen. Two other colleagues - the heads of China and African operations - also have statues there," he hastens to add.

Did he like what he saw? "Well, I wish the face had a wider smile," he says, taking a deep sip of fresh lime soda. Incidentally, he is the only Asian director on the five-member executive board of the bank.

Recognition or diversity, the fact is Jaspal Singh, 50, is indeed an imposing personality in a bank where he has spent 12 years and has overseen many milestones - the acquisitions of ANZ Grindlay's India business, the American Express banking business, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation and UTI Securities. He is particularly proud of the fact that Stanchart was the first foreign company to launch India Depository Receipts or IDRs.

"We are lucky to have stuck to pretty boring jobs in exciting markets like India rather than exciting business in boring markets such as the U.S. We must be the only bank with no real business in the U.K., our home country, but our strategy for emerging markets was good enough to come up with great results even during the downturn," Jaspal Singh says.

I ask whether he was justifying what many say Stanchart's limited size because of its conservative approach. The answer is instant - it's better to be the best rather than big. Stanchart, he says, could easily go up the ladder on asset size by buying one of the big banks in the U.S. or Europe since they were available at almost zero valuation during the downturn. "But it's better to stay put in emerging markets which we understand," he says.

The strategy has certainly delivered results. When he joined in 1998, the bank was almost at the bottom of the top 200 global banks in terms of market cap. Jaspal Singh says the rise has been dramatic since then - Stanchart is now among the top 20.

The chicken soup that we had ordered (there is little variation on offer) comes fast enough but Jaspal Singh doesn't show much interest in it. He is reasonably pleased with the Reserve Bank of India's discussion paper on foreign banks released on Friday, which has suggested some incentives for prompting foreign banks to take the subsidiary route in India. He hasn't had the time to go through the full reports, but says although it is only a discussion paper, it provides banks an idea of RBI's thinking on the subject at the very least.

He is delighted that the thinking is around allowing foreign banks more freedom, subject to their showing commitment to the market. On that count Stanchart has never been shy anyway. During the recent crisis when others withdrew from the market, Stanchart stepped in to do more business with Indian clients.

In any case, Jaspal Singh says Stanchart is as foreign as several Indian private banks such as ICICI Bank or HDFC Bank where foreign shareholding is 74 per cent. "If their management is Indian, ours is the same. Except for one expat, everyone else in the top management of Stanchart in the country is Indian," he adds.

He, however, understands the regulator's dilemma fully and is willing to be patient in a country in which it has the largest number of branches (94) among foreign banks. "The next competitor has just 60-odd branches; so we are okay with what we have achieved so far," he says.

He asks for fish fillet for the main course and I settle for roast chicken. He talks about the enormous opportunity in India for bank finance even in greenfield areas like education and the marriage market. "India talks about $20 billion record FDI in 2010. Do you know that the marriage market is also a $20 billion opportunity?" he asks.

Without waiting for an answer, Jaspal Singh goes on to explain that as a rough estimate, there are about 10 million weddings in India every year - a number that will grow as the young population grows. If you take an average spend of $2,000 for a wedding, which is on the lower side, marriage is a $20 billion-a-year industry.

I ask him whether his representation on the executive board is a shape of things to come in a bank that is so focused on Asia for its business. He agrees and says it is part of the evolution process of a bank that had 32 foreigners in its Kolkata office alone in 1984 when he started his professional career in Bank of America.

"If you look at the pipeline, the board is going to get more diverse, which is a reflection of the power shift toward Asia in general," Jaspal Singh says. But in general, he thinks his elevation to the board is a recognition of the fact that one doesn't have to change his name (a Jas for Jaspal, for example) or looks (he points at his turban and beard), or pick up an Anglo-Saxon accent to get recognition in a foreign company.

"I am an Asian with Asian experience, more particularly Indian experience, and yet have been given my due," Jaspal Singh says with visible pride.

He spent most of the formative years of his life and the early part of his professional career in Kolkata, since his father, an I.P.S. officer of the Bengal cadre, moved from one district to another. His wife, Sumi, is also a Sikh but was based in West Bengal. After graduating from St Xavier's, Kolkata and chartered accountancy from the same city, Jaspal Singh chose XLRI, Jamshedpur (he had the option of joining IIM Bangalore) because he wanted to be near his parents. His first job at BankAm was also in Kolkata and he finally joined Stanchart, which was born in Kolkata 150 years ago.

Though he had to move out of the city for professional reasons, he is thankful for his decision to stay in Kolkata in the early years of his career. That's because both his parents died in an accident in 1991 and he finds solace in the fact that he found enough time to be in close contact with them when they were around.

His knowledge of Bengali, Jaspal Singh says, comes in handy when he has to communicate something to his wife in the presence of non-Bengalis. And there have been many occasions like that, he says, with a loud laugh.

It's time for dessert and he opts for his favourite - vanilla ice cream. I ask him whether the fraud at Citibank India is something that is a cause for alarm and whether Stanchart has strengthened its due diligence procedures. He says the incident was unfortunate but he would like to believe that it was a one-off case of individual greed.

"The bank you are talking about operates in 120 countries and it's not often that you find such frauds taking place. Having said that, I must say such incidents give every single bank an opportunity to ask the right questions about the systems they follow," he says on a cautious tone.

As we wait at the hotel foyer for his Mercedes to arrive, Jaspal Singh talks about his proudest moments, one of them being the honour of carrying the Beijing Olympics torch on Delhi's Rajpath. Not bad going for somebody whose favourite pastime once was to look at Stanchart's magnificent heritage building in Kolkata with awe.

[Courtesy: Business Standard]

January 25, 2011

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