MUMBAI: Rajnish Kumar, who completes his term as chairman of the country’s largest bank SBI on Tuesday, has led the bank through one of the most eventful periods in its post-independence history. But more than all the headline-grabbing events that kept the bank management burning the midnight oil, Kumar’s lasting legacy is likely to be the digital transformation that he promoted both in a public forum and in behind-the-scenes technology implementation.
Kumar’s term in 2017 began with the challenge of on-the-ground integration of the merger of the SBI’s associate banks with itself. While the balance sheet merger was completed by his predecessor Arundhati Bhattacharya, Kumar had the task of actual integration. Hardly had SBI digested the merger, the RBI forced banks to initiate insolvency proceedings against some of the top corporates which were not able to repay their loans.
As a result, the bank had to provide for over Rs 1.5 lakh crore of loans in 2018. After emerging from the bad loan crisis, early this year SBI was roped in to rescue Yes Bank which, according to Kumar, was in ICU at that point. Within a week of the Yes Bank moratorium being lifted, the Covid lockdown was announced and banks were asked to remain operational and also distribute cash in rural areas.

Even as he tackled the back-to-back crises, Kumar aggressively pushed for digitisation. According to analysts, the 214-year-old bank with over 22,000 branches has built a digital capability that many nimbler private banks do not have. While most public sector banks treat IT as a department that provides services to the bank, Kumar has never shied away from aggressively marketing the lender’s digital banking app Yono at every public forum.
In a way, the foundation for digital technology was laid when in 2004, under chairmanship of A K Purwar, SBI decided to implement the world’s largest core banking platform. Considering the technology challenges then, there was a debate on whether the bank should go for centralised or distributed databases. SBI took a leap of faith and decided to go for a centralised database.
The shift to digital and use of analytics & artificial intelligence is no less transformational than the move towards core-banking. It is also a leap of faith as it shifts the servicing capability from humans to software systems, which could expose the bank to new risks.
But risk-taking is something Kumar never shied away from, whether it was taking up branch assignments in terrorist-infested areas early in his career or in taking bold decisions. When most public sector bankers expressed fear of the three Cs (Central Bureau of Investigation, Central Vigilance Commission and the Comptroller & Auditor General) passing judgments on commercial decisions with the wisdom of hindsight, Kumar took calculated risks, treating them as a matter of chance.

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