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Rediff.com  » Business » Why Shikha Sharma should lead Axis Bank

Why Shikha Sharma should lead Axis Bank

April 24, 2009 11:40 IST

Shikha Sharma wears beautiful saris, loves romantic novels, is an amateur classical singer and rarely looks pressured by the heavy schedule that has become almost mandatory for the contemporary CEO.

It is easy, therefore, to underestimate the hard-nosed business-person under the grace and charm. Yet, ICICI Prudential, the company she headed, has been the leading private sector player in the supra-competitive life insurance business for the eight years it's been in business.

Sharma's ability to keep ICICI Prudential a market leader among private competitors with its reputation intact must have played a big part in encouraging seven of eight Axis Bank board members to vote against the formidable and respected Chairman P J Nayak's dissent to her appointment as CEO and managing director on Monday.

Nayak's opposition was partly driven by the fact that Sharma was among those who 'lost out; in the race to succeed K V Kamath -- she is among his many proteges groomed for leadership -- as head of ICICI Bank, India's second-largest lender, to its CFO Chanda Kochhar. (Nayak also thought good banks like Axis did not need external CEOs.)

Even her critics acknowledge that this is an unfair disqualifier.

Sharma, 50, may not have made it to the top slot at ICICI Bank, but that doesn't make her any less qualified to head Axis Bank, the country's third largest private lender.

In her 28 years with the ICICI group, the unassuming Sharma is widely credited with setting the foundation for the bank's personal financial services business. She was appointed managing director of ICICI Personal Financial Services in August 1998 and if ICICI is a retail behemoth today, much of the credit goes to her.

As a senior insider said, "We did not even know how to spell retail. It was Shikha who was responsible for the success of the business."

Her record at ICICI Prudential, which she headed from inception (the company received its licence in December 2000), has her industry peers envious of the quality of the business and the speed with which it has been built.

At the end of December 2008, ICICI Prudential commanded a market share of around 13 per cent (new business, annual premium equivalent) with the number two private sector player coming in at a distant 9.4 per cent.

The strength of this number lies in the fact that it is built almost entirely from individual money rather than corporate policies. Moreover, unlike some competitors, ICICI Prudential has never been asked to discontinue products for not conforming to regulations.

With a countrywide network of 2,000 branches, it's not surprising that ICICI Prudential earned a total premium of Rs 13,563 crore (Rs 135.63 billion) in the year to March 2008 and Rs 9,918 crore (Rs 99.18 billion) in the nine months to December 2008.

"Some people say she cuts corners, but I don't agree. I think she's done a commendable job," said the head of a competing life insurance firm.

"She's a great strategic thinker and what she does, which is rare among leaders, is to combine this strategic vision with strong execution skills," said a colleague in the ICICI group.

Her colleagues also point to her ability to lead large teams, motivate people and delegate --  and she's more than willing to share the limelight.

An MBA from IIM Ahmedabad (she graduated from there in1980), Sharma's overloaded schedule leaves her little time to read her favourite romantic novels though she does manage to spend time with the family and catch the odd film.

Her new role at Axis Bank means she can give up hopes of getting back to her much-loved Hindustani classical music lessons that she took up because she wanted to encourage her two children, a teenaged daughter and a son, to sing.

All the same, and despite all the controversy she can't help but look forward to her new assignment. "People say it's a wonderful bank and it should be exciting," she said. That might mean a lot of excitement for the banking world, too.

Shobhana Subramanian in Mumbai
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