The Changemaker

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Text Syed Samreen

Photo Ajaz Khan

Back in 2004, a private bank, with the tempting tagline, ‘We understand your world’, made an unruffled entry in Jammu and Kashmir. As a banking alternative, it was quickly dismissed as a non-starter in the valley, where private sector was in deep slumber and the rat race for ‘safe and secure’ government jobs was still a way of life.

The bank’s Kashmir operations were headed by a man who as a high-profile employee was doing great in life. But it was the ‘hunger to contribute and help the society to grow’ which motivates Zubair Iqbal to lead HDFC bank from the front.

Revisiting the era, he credits his ‘dedicated team’—then included the ‘4 dreamers’ denounced as ‘deserters’ by their ex-colleagues—for their ability to take calculative risks and reap rewards.

15 years later, their sweat is shining, as HDFC has created its own name and niche in the market—where private sector is still struggling to come out of the enforced slumber.

But as the bank’s cluster head and senior vice president, Zubair Iqbal reckons, ‘we’ve just started.’

Much of this belief stems from the fact the bank is operating in the difficult terrain marred with uncertainty. But excelling in tough conditions, he believes, is what drives and determines the bank’s ability to contribute in the society.

In the fast changing dynamics, the financial institute is now eyeing to swell its customer base with the start of new scheme, designed according to the pocket strength of commoners.

To know more about HDFC’s 15 years of Kashmir journey, its future plans, and the rise of banking alternative in the state, The Indus Post gets in touch with Zubair Iqbal.

Edited excerpts:

  • Starting its journey at Bahu Plaza branch of Jammu in 2003, today, HDFC has completed 15 years in Jammu and Kashmir. Looking back, how do you remember the journey so far?

Well, it has been a fascinating one!

I still remember how I started with a small team of people with me. Everyone was raising eyebrows—whether we would be successful or not; because it was 2004, and private sector was little known in J&K.

But I had only one thing in mind: that we wanted to do something different for our society. And I took that initiative at a huge risk.

I was working in a government bank and was doing good by heading its marketing operations. I had also contributed well, but at the same time, I was thinking to do something for the society.

And when the opportunity came through HDFC bank, I took up the challenge and started a branch with a handful of people.

  • And certainly, given the odds, it wouldn’t have been a walk in a park for you?

Of course not!

Whenever you enter a market or a business, there’s always a risk involved. Even if someone is playing cricket and thinking of playing a big shot, he has to leave the crease and might even get out in the process. But there is a risk-to-reward ratio.

So, unless you take a risk, chances of taking a reward are less. We took that challenge and then studied the market. We found a clear monopoly in the banking system of the state at that time. People were heavily relying on few banks. We found that the service levels were very low. Customers were in real need to find some alternative.

  • So HDFC had done its homework well, before entering into the local market?

Certainly, yes. Our main focus was on the service. We never promised what we could not deliver.

And yes, the market study and analysis helped.

We were the first ones to get into the technology. No other banks had internet banking facility then—not even the small SMS was received by the customers after a transaction.

But in our bank, people were finding it very different when they received an SMS for every transaction they made.

Apart from leading a wonderful team, all these things made a difference. The customers reposed a lot of trust on us. And today, we’ve a trust of more than 3 lakh customers.

  • Today, when HDFC Bank has been named best bank in India by FinanceAsia, how much is Jammu and Kashmir’s contribution in that feat?

Any organisation is like a human body. Every part is important for its well being. We also contributed in the same way.

All medals and awards give a reassurance that we have also participated in the growth of HDFC bank. As you might have seen lately, we are among the top 100 brands in the world, and it’s been the fifth consecutive year of us being there. We are among big companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, among others. You can imagine the league we are into.

  • After RBI lately called HDFC ‘too big to fail’, is it the big fat bank in India now?

Indeed, when a regulator says, ‘you are too big to fail’, it gives a reassurance to the customers and all the stakeholders, who want the safely and security of their hard-earned money. And they want to grow, and want returns too.

Throughout the last decade, we were the best bank. Even today, Financial Express has given us the title of the best bank.

In this digital age, everyone can see our performance. Our financials are available online. We have more than Rs 15 lakh crores of business and our net profit last year was Rs 21,000 crores. Our NPAs are lowest in the industry, about less than 0.5 %, which tells people they are in safe hands.

For this, I congratulate my entire team and credit the work culture of the bank.

At HDFC, we conduct lot of ceremonies to reward our staff for good performance. We believe that ethics, integrity and honesty can never be compromised. In the history of 15 years, we have more than 1500 employees, direct and indirect. And it’s growing.

  • What special schemes and financial assistance HDFC offers to the people of Kashmir?

We have designed a special product for Kashmir.After our Managing Director visited the valley post-2014 floods, everyone asked for a special product — where we could give a hassle-free loan to small traders, artisans, craftsmen, carpet weavers, etc.

With the result, the scheme was started with minimal documentation. Under the scheme which offers the financial assistance upto Rs 5 lakh, the customers do not need to give any mortgage or guarantee. The scheme is very popular among masses in Kashmir.

Through net banking, you can get a loan in 10 seconds. And that’s very fast in banking industry.

  • How’s HDFC’s ‘social initiative’, Parivartan, relevant to Kashmir?

As a corporate-social bank, it’s our obligation to make a difference in the lives of people. And this is where the role of Parivartan comes.

We believe, if we earn profit, it’s our obligation to pay back to the society, in whatever form we do.

We have instituted scholarships for children whose families are facing a sudden loss of income due to the crisis. Last year we gave 400 scholarships to children.

We feel very proud to be part of small gestures for the society.

  • But running a top global brand for last 15 years in a politically-sensitive state must be a challenge at the same time?

I believe, places don’t matter, if you’ve a will to make changes in the society, or contribute to its growth.

We’ll never get a perfect situation in life, and will be always remembered if we do it under difficult situations. That is the only thing we keep in mind.

We’ve a support of more than 1500 committed, dedicated and honest staff members. They are all locals. We’re growing, generating employment in a big way, leading employers in the private sector in J&K.

We’re all trying to relate more and more with the people. And on 15th anniversary, we’ve launched a new product, where customers will get associated with us by opening an account by just depositing a sum of thousand rupees. It was launched recently on peoples’ demand. Earlier the deposition was of ten thousand rupees to open an account.

Having said that, we’ve just started. We’ll now explore and expand. We have promised J&K customers a world-class service and a different banking experience. We’re a leading bank in the state.Andwe will continue to seek trust and support of people to make it bigger.

This interview was published in the July Issue of The Indus Post

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