There have been two vital changes in Shanti Ekambaram's professional life in the last 18 months. First, after 23 years in investment and corporate banking at Kotak Mahindra Bank, the last 11 of them as head of the division, she was shifted to President of the consumer banking business in April 2014. "It needed a change in mindset and approach," she says. "In corporate banking, I spent time building client franchise, including coverage, being involved in large deals and credit. Consumer banking, on the other hand, is more of driving people, processes and products, and of course, deep analysis of channels, product and technology trends. Detailed management information systems and numbers are the key." But she has adjusted well with the division's earnings growing over 20 per cent - from Rs 793 crore in 2013/14 to Rs 957 crore in 2014/15. "It is an exciting role and I'm enjoying it," she adds. "Ultimately, both businesses are about people and customers."
The other was ING Vyasa Bank's merger with Kotak Bank on the first day of the current financial year, which expanded her portfolio size considerably. It made Kotak Bank the fourth largest private bank in the country - after ICICI Bank, HDFC Bank and Axis Bank - adding another 2 million customers to Kotak Bank's 8 million, another 573 branches to Kotak's 641, along with 635 ATMs to Kotak's existing 1,159. The integration process is still on - the retail asset business is expected to merge fully in the third or fourth quarter of the current financial year and the branches by April 2016. "The merger is leading to great benefits," says Ekambaram. "It has almost doubled our network and given us a balanced presence across the country. Earlier, we had wide presence in the West and North, while ING Vyasa was strong in the South. We now have an opportunity to leverage this larger network and customer base to cross-sell liability, investment and asset products." ING's strong presence in the SME segment and impressive array of multinational clients will also help Kotak. "ING has sound digital banking models which will be a good learning for us too," she adds.
Ekambaram knows digital banking is the future, and her stint as consumer banking head has seen the bank launch a series of innovative digital solutions - Social Commerce, KayPay, Kotak Bharat, etc. Social Commerce enables bank customers to make online purchases using Twitter, while through KayPay they can transfer funds to any of their contacts - be they on Facebook, Google+, email or telephone - even without knowing the latter's bank details. Kotak Bharat, a multilingual mobile app, allows customers to manage their accounts through SMSs, without any Internet connection.
Even when markets are volatile and the business environment difficult, she goes the extra mile to reassure her clients and think from their perspective.
Managing Partner, McKinseyMore solutions for areas with poor internet connectivity - Tier III towns and villages - are being worked out. "Traditionally, retail banking focused on affluent customer segments," she says. "But the digital channel gives us an opportunity to reach out to what is known as the 'long tail' or the mass customer base. This would normally be expensive, but cost economies become favourable using the digital platform." Around six to seven per cent of Kotak Mahindra Bank's new accounts are opened online, way ahead of the industry average of two to three per cent. Around 30 per cent of its customers use their mobiles for banking transactions, one of the highest in the banking industry.
Uday Kotak, founder, Executive Vice Chairman and Managing Director of the bank, knows he has picked a winner. "I invited Shanti to join us when we were a small and young team," he says. (Ekambaram began her career with a short stint at Bank of Nova Scotia.) "She had fire and commitment, which really impressed me. Her energy and passion have not reduced one bit over the years." Her clients are just as effusive. "She always has the customer in mind," says Joydeep Sengupta, Managing Partner and Head of Asia Pacific Banking, McKinsey & Co, who has known her for 15 years. "When she was in corporate banking, she made every effort to develop a good relationship with her clients on a consistent basis. Even when markets are volatile and the business environment difficult, she goes the extra mile to reassure her clients and think from their perspective."
Ekambaram has her interests outside banking too. She is deeply involved with the Society of Parents of Children with Autistic Disorders (SOPAN), on whose premises she spends most of her weekends. She is also a marathon runner, who has been running the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon for the last seven years, raising funds for charity. "It's better than just writing a cheque," she says. "It's important to give back to society in whatever small ways one can." A fitness and yoga enthusiast, she also finds time for trekking, movies and most of all, her family.