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HARDBOUND

The untold story
Financial analyst Anirudha Dutta reviews A Bank For The Buck 

Banking is boring but most bankers are not, and HDFC Bank and most of its key officials who have scripted the success of the bank live up to this credo. Tamal Bandyopadhyay, a well-known and well-networked financial journalist, does a very good job in telling the bank’s two-decade-old story in a manner that makes the book difficult to put down. His insights, association with and proximity to various personalities in the financial sector, be it in banks or regulators or the RBI, make this book rich. It is a celebration of reforms in times of crony capitalism and we need more such stories to be told and celebrated. The story is rich in anecdotes and makes the organisation come alive. The beginnings have been vividly described so that the reader can almost see the frenzied work atmosphere and energy that start-up organisations usually have. 

The book will be a must-read for any business school student for their case studies, but it would have been useful for the readers, particularly those from the post-reforms generation, to give the historical context in which HDFC Bank was set up and the Indian economy was opened up. A Bank for the Buck not only identifies the factors key to HDFC Bank’s success but also includes some corporate lessons that will stand in good stead to any corporate executive: empower your subordinates but remember, the buck finally stops at the boss’s table. For a start-up, stock and motivation to do something useful, different, challenging or less bureaucratic still remain the best currencies to attract top-notch talent. It is interesting to note that while HDFC gave “birth” to the bank, not one senior official from the parent moved to the bank. Other lessons: cost control has to be practised in good and bad times. Ethics and value systems have to be stressed upon and followed from day one.

Even though Bandyopadhyay’s work fills a small part of the large void of books on Indian corporate history, the book will leave any serious reader gasping for more. It would have been interesting if some discussion on competitors had been weaved in and some more numbers mentioned to give a sense of what the bank has achieved. I would personally have preferred a longer racy book that also discusses in detail initiatives that were less than successful! For example, the bank’s failure to establish itself as a serious player in institutional equities and investment banking has been glossed over. There is much discussion on micro-finance institutions, rural initiatives and anecdotes on how the bank won customers at the bottom of the pyramid. But are any of these business verticals today significant enough for the bank to merit lengthy discussions or are these the focus areas for Aditya Puri and his team over the next decade? If not, then why have they been discussed in so much detail? The reader is no wiser after reading this book. 

The advantage of the short chapters with not too many numbers and a riveting writing style is that  you don’t need to be a banker or financial services professional to be able to enjoy this book. In his book Boomerang, Michael Lewis quotes an Icelandic fisherman turned banker: “I never had any respect for bankers. To this day one of my favourite phrases is: never trust a banker.” However, after reading Bandyopadhyay’s book, readers could grudgingly end up admiring and trusting a team of bankers that ended up making a bank worth the buck.

The views expressed here are personal

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