Story of a young management trainee in a British Bank in India in the eighties.
|Memoirs of a Management Trainee
Those early sepia tinted images of Grindlays from the early eighties when I joined as a management trainee are magical and wondrous. It perhaps did not dawn on us youngsters that we would go through a process of transition and transformation that would take the organization away from its colonial legacy into the rough and tumble of the new world of banking. The new world of banking and finance was affected by market factors like freely floating rates, new technology, competition and the need to meet changing customer expectations.
The organization that I joined was traditional, conservative, with respect for its history and its place in the country as the largest and oldest foreign bank in India. As a management trainee one was expected to conform and though some of the customs were strange, much of it was good. It was a composite culture that was inherited exposing us to a diverse set of people from all over the country and the wider world, but it also represented a unique lifestyle.
I joined the bank in Calcutta on the first of January and was shown into the office of the Chief Manager Mickey Chowdhury that was part of the intimidating sounding Office of the Regional Director South Asia or ORDSA as it was more commonly known. You could make out from Mickey's disheveled hair and loose hanging tie that he had probably come straight from a rollicking New Year's party, but his warm welcome and smile put a nervous trainee at ease. He would continue to guide and support our batch of trainees through a rigorous training program through all the different areas of banking, tests and the importance of getting one's hands dirty. He was the proverbial uncle guiding you through the dos and don'ts of navigating the work, traditions and culture of the venerable organization that had emerged after the mergers of the National Bank of India, Lloyd's Bank and Grindlays Bank in India.
If Mickey was the uncle figure, Meher Mehta was the patriarchal head of family. The General Manager Eastern India took an interest in us lowly management trainees that was a lesson in people management. We came to realize that this was in effect the environment of a large family and it was very unique. Meher and Mickey not only took an interest in each of us, but we were made to feel that we were part of a family. We were encouraged to participate in inter organizational sport known as Merchants Cup tournaments that was big in Calcutta and hosted by its various clubs. There were five-o-side tournaments for football and hockey that were hosted by the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club (CCFC). The Calcutta Rowing club hosted the annual Merchants Cup regatta and the Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC) hosted the Merchant cup golf tournament. Mickey would study and approve the budget for the kit and sports gear after meticulously reviewing the requirements put in by us. Yes to the hockey sticks, yes to the uniform, no to the jock straps. And, Meher was always there on the field encouraging us and goading us on. If we scored a goal, he would come running onto the field to congratulate us much like one sees the premier league coaches. All these tournaments would end with a gala dinner and dance which we all enjoyed with great gusto. At the RCGC dinner, Mickey gave me a little tip. "Make sure you tip the waiters in advance". It worked wonders. We got undivided attention and the best of service. And, it was a small lesson in human nature that has remained with me since.
Nani Javeri, then the Chief Manager Corporate Banking was the elder brother in the family you wish you always had. Always approachable, always ready to solve a problem, always ready with advice and guidance, he would listen to our bad jokes with a straight face and witness our triumphs and failures both in the shop floor, market place and on the sports field. Sometimes a program in corporate marketing would have him as a cheerleader, and sometimes we would disappoint him with our antics on the field.
We had practiced hard for the Merchants Cup rowing tournament and had reached the quarter finals of the Fours format at the Calcutta Rowing Club on the Lakes. Nani was expecting us to win. Now, there is a method to bringing out the rowing boat to the water. The Fours crew would have to go to the boathouse where the boats are stored at an elevation, get underneath and lift the boat overhead. The crew would then carry the boat to the water's edge and following the instructions of the cox would gently lower the boat into the water and then get into the boats and tighten the bootstraps and the oars on the side swivels. Venky was a newcomer to the team and 'understandably' a bit nervous. When the boat was being lowered into the water, the swivel (where the oar sits whilst rowing) caught Venky's shorts and ripped it apart. We had not realized that a ripped up short and underwear could be dangerous attire. We managed to row to the starting point at the head of the Lakes without incident.
Then the starter's gun went off and we were on our way in perfectly synchronized rhythm to the Cox's chant of In-Out-In-Out. It was a beautiful display and supporters on the banks were cheering us on. By the middle of the course we were two boat lengths ahead. We were surely going to win. And, then it happened. On the upswing, Venky's oar caught the tear in his pants and our boat caught a massive 'crab' and stopped. A 'crab' happens when the oar blade gets "caught" in the water and the rower is unable to timely remove or release the oar blade from the water and the oar blade acts as a brake on the boat. The force is such that one can easily get tossed into the water. In our case we stopped hard, got back into position and started in unison once again but we had lost time. "Take off your pants", ordered the Cox and Venky meekly undressed. By the time we restarted our rivals had gone well ahead. Try as we might, we never caught up with them. As we approached the end, we heard our supporters egging us on. "Come on Grindlays, Come on Grindlays", they chanted. Nani was waving our boat on as if we would make it through sheer will. As we approached the club our supporters who were wildly cheering us saw Venky without his pants. I have never seen supporters deserting and disappearing so fast. As we finished with an 'easy oars' command from the Cox, Nani was the only one still there, consoling us. The next day, the sports page of 'The Statesman' had a grim headline, "Grindlays loses by the seat of their pants". This episode was followed by a great win at the Singapore regatta on the single skulls event by ace oarsman Tristan Sutton an English colleague from Grindlays London who was then posted in Calcutta.
Irrespective of wins and losses on the sports field, we made bonds and friendships and support that would last us throughout our careers and beyond through thick and thin. That's what families do, don't they? Is this taught in modern management education? Probably not. But, it was said that, "the battle of Waterloo was won on the fields of Eton", alluding to the character-building virtues of sports at elite British schools, said to be the source of British leadership, character, and competitiveness which prevailed at the battle of Waterloo. This was a tradition that we grew up with in Grindlays and the seniors inculcated in us the essentials of team functioning and leadership.
Those were also the days of militant trade unionism. Grindlays Bank was the pioneer in introducing computerization to the Banking industry in India. We live today in an interconnected digital world and it is hard to imagine that across the country in the eighties there was a movement in India, at times violent, against computers being introduced. Retail and branch banking was still based on manual ledgers, though Grindlays had an ancient electromechanical monster above the Shakespeare Sarani branch known as Hollerith. Vouchers that had been manually recorded in vouchers and ledgers through the working day would be reentered into the Hollerith 'computer'. The general joke was that Hollerith was being held together with rubber bands. As management trainees, we were tasked to manually check the machine output from the previous day's transactions that had been recorded manually.
This is the state of affairs that needed to be changed by introducing modern banking software and hardware. But, this would involve a total change of work processes and knowledge of new systems. The unions were vehemently against this as were the dominant leftist political parties. There was a strike by the Grindlays unions against computerization that lasted three months and there would be images of manhandled officers running down Dalhousie Square with a bloody nose. There would be days when clerical staff would call for flash strikes in the presence of customers and go away from their desks leaving cash counters open. As management trainees some of us would have their first experiences in maintaining cash counters with section officers standing by to assist so that customers would not be inconvenienced. Grindlays bank eventually would overcome the resistance and become the first bank to introduce full scale computerization with Kindle Corporation's Bank Master System. In these days of ubiquitous smartphones and laptops, it may be hard to believe that people were brought against their wishes, kicking and screaming into the computer age. There wouldn't be a silicon valley in Bangalore and a world dominant Indian software industry without those first baby steps.
I was posted to the 41 Chowringee Raod Branch in Calcutta to learn all about branch banking as a second officer. It was a branch that serviced retail customers and an impressive array of corporate customers like Hindustan Lever, Broke Bond and Britannia before the exodus of companies from West Bengal due to militant trade unionism. Nani sent me off to the Assam tea gardens for stock checking. That was my first experience of a major tea garden and I was highly excited about taking pictures with my Canon camera. The Manager of the tea garden was expecting a conservative bald 50 year old banker to drop by. He was extremely surprised and taken aback to see a young 22 year old. It was all very colonial with a large number of liveried servants, card parties of the wives of tea planter who had driven great distances to be there. I was given a huge room and a servant in attendance even though I didn't need one. The dinner gong went off and I saw a formal dinner table laid out with shining cutlery and delicious food. I was taking it all in till the Manager started asking me about personal investments. Even though he was living life big time, he had hardly saved. This was a familiar refrain I would hear over the years.
And then, 41 Chowringee Road had the seriously wealthy clients too. One such was Lady Ranu Mookherjee, wife of Sir Biren Mookherjee the great industrialist and Chairman of the Steel Corporation of Bengal that was to become IISCO at Burnpur the hub of the steel industry in Bengal. Lady Ranu Mookherjee was a socialite, founder of the Academy of Fine Arts, Calcutta, a close associate of Tagore and well known to my family. She would come into the branch and directly ask for me. She would first ask about my mother who was from the Tagore family and then get down to her personal work. These were the days before 'private banking' had become more specialized. She would sit down in regal splendor and hand over a cheque to me and tell me the amount. I would write the cheque out for her and hand it back for her signature. Once, she even asked me to sign her cheque till I gently reminded her that she had to sign her own cheques. Even beautiful women are prone to senility.
41 Chowringhee Road had its share of excitement too. One day the Manager told us that the well-known burglars known as the Kepmari gang would be hitting the bank according to information from the police. A background about this gang is useful at this juncture. There is a village called Ramjinagar in Trichy district in Tamil Nadu that has a thief in every household. Investigators say there are 600 MO (modus operandi in police lingo) criminals in one particular area on Dindigal road. Almost all the men, their wives and children have inherited the art of thieving, with attention diversion being their forte. Entire families are involved in dacoity, robbery or theft and belong to the 'Kepmari' community who are descendants of Andhra migrants who had settled in Thogamalai in Karur and are the current residents of Ramji Nagar. According to police estimates, at least two members in each family at Ramji Nagar are burglars and lead a luxurious life. These masters of the art of attention diversion mostly choose to commit crimes in other states. Attempts have been made by the government to rehabilitate them by providing them with bank loans and urging them to take up other means of livelihood. However, all these efforts are in vain. When the group moved away from the profession and struggled to make both ends meet, the burglars in the village continued to live a luxurious life, prompting others to get back to burglary. Now there are more than 600 families living in Ramji Nagar, who have committed crimes across India.
So, this was the gang that was about to hit us at 41 Chowringhee Road. The cashiers were informed and secretly staff numbers were beefed up around the counters. Large amounts of cash were brought in to be deposited at the counters. Sure enough, the Kepmari gang descended on the bank with surreptitious ease. There were four of them. Once a customer was spotted with a big bundle of cash, one of the gang members dropped a few hundred rupee notes on the floor. Another gangster told the depositor from the other side that he had dropped his money on the floor. While our customer was bending over to pick up the cash from the floor, the third gangster smoothly removed his cash from the counter. They hadn't reckoned with the prowess of the Grindlays staff. Five of our guys gave them rugby tackle and managed to retrieve the money. Three of the gangsters were captured and one managed to escape. The Manager triumphantly handed them over to the police. Whoever said that banking was boring?
A management trainee was expected to work through all the basic areas of banking such as retail banking, customer service, trade finance, accounts, and money transfers and so on, but he/she was given exposure to both technical banking and managerial experience. I was chosen to attend the Bourse Course which was the entry point into Treasury and the Dealing room. The Bourse Course was one of the premier courses offered by the bank's training school, Grindlays International Training or GRIT as it was more commonly known. The course that I attended was held at the Sea Rock Hotel at Lands-End Bandra, Bombay where were ensconced in for weeks. Colleagues came in from Grindlays Greece, Africa, the Middle East and also from Dao Heng Bank, Hong Kong, which was then owned by Grindlays. Suddenly, we felt that we were part of a larger entity and culture. The days of globalization were still some time away but this was surely a precursor.
Arun Nangia was the chief instructor of this cutting edge simulated program on dealing and trading on the international foreign exchange markets in various currencies. It was also the first time that we would be exposed to uncertainty and risk taking in high finance. It was a simulated game where one would have customer trade positions as well as independent positions taken after analyzing economic and political news and the actions of the central bank. We were not only expected to form a 'view of the market' through analysis but take actual monetary positions within limits set in a simulated environment. Put your money where your mouth is. You could make profits or losses and you could sell and buy with other participants. But, the idea was to make paper losses and learn in a market that simulated the real world rather than make big strategic or tactical mistakes in the real world.
You operated within rules and regulations the violation of which would call for monetary fines that would affect your profits and losses. Something's were taken for granted, like the LIBOR or the London Interbank Offer Rate the international standard benchmark rates for interbank interest rates. It was unimaginable that twenty years later this benchmark itself would be subject to fraudulent manipulation. Based on the results of the Bourse course I was selected to join Treasury and the Dealing Room. It was this training in dealing market instruments that would stand me in good stead throughout my career dealing in different financial instruments whether it was in the Investment, corporate or capital markets as the Indian markets graduated from administrative pricing to market based pricing. As the Office of the Controller of Capital Issues was abolished and instrument pricing became market based and as new financial products came into the market, we would definitely be ahead of the curve. As a young 22 year old tyro, the responsibility was enormous. We would do deals in millions of dollars with dealers from different banks in the world and bring in real revenue to the Bank. It would also be the first area where satellite technology would be used through Reuter feeds and Bloomberg would follow. We would be, during those early days when there was no satellite television, at the cutting edge of the globalizing financial markets.
Back at the Sea Rock Hotel, we worked hard and played hard. While going for breakfast we would go past the film star Rekha in her leotards after her morning workout perfectly aware that a bunch of youngsters were ogling unashamedly at her. Then started the workday when Arun would give us economic, financial and political news from the wires and we would start trading. He would also inject an appropriate level of tension to replicate the real world. At the end of the day we would return to our rooms and account for our day's transactions, reconcile and balance our books and calculate the daily and cumulative profits and losses. This exercise could go on past midnight. We would have a relaxing swim and hit the dance floor and let our hair down in beer sloshed rhythm. One evening, after I had finished balancing my books, I got a phone call from a lady colleague. She was having trouble reconciling her accounts and needed help. It was well past midnight but with a damsel in distress who could say no! Those were the days when there still existed such a thing as male chivalry. So I went to her room and started working to check her transactions. I soon realized that her printer that was supposed to print debits in red and credits in black had malfunctioned and everything was being printed in black leading to wrong identification of relevant numbers. These days with Excel in hand, these things would never occur. But, in those days these things could lead to serious casting errors. Problem solved, we hit the dance floor and danced late into the night. When this incident was innocently mentioned to the head of HR at a party at the conclusion of the course, he was not amused and expressed his disapproval. How could I have entered a woman's room after midnight? It never entered his head that the simple objective was to address the lady's accounts and not anything else. But, it also demonstrated the generation gap that existed in the bank.
Many of our seniors were extremely conservative and were quite staid and 'propah' in the traditional way and were not used to a world that was changing very fast. In the summer, I'd gone trekking with friends to the Kolahoi glacier along the Lidder river north in Pahalgam, Kashmir. This was just before the time the local herdsmen make their seasonal migration to the lower reaches of the valley. They were still there in the upper reaches when we crossed them on our way up. They invited us into their houses and treated us as revered guests. They grew vegetables on their rooftops which they brought and cooked. We had a sumptuous meal complete with Kashmiri kehava chai. It was a wonderful experience. When I narrated this to a Senior at a party in Bombay, he very seriously asked about which 5-Star hotel I had stayed in. Obviously there were no 5-star hotels at 16,000 feet. So when I told him about log cabins and herdsmen homes his raised eyebrows told me that he didn't quite approve. This was something apparently not acceptable in the antiseptic corporate world of those days.
There were some quaint traditions that were a blast from the past, which as management trainees we were expected to conform. It would teach us organizational skills. One of these was the practice of trainees being asked to receive seniors at the airport. The practice was abolished soon after directly recruited officers started protesting against it. But, I must admit I did it a few times. Refusal was not an option for a lowly management trainee. We would also be involved in arranging for the Advisory Board meetings. I remember that a map of the aircraft fuselage was provided with seat preferences of the wives and we had to make sure that each of the wives got their desired seats. A successful conference enhanced everyone's reputation including the trainees doing the planning and implementation on the ground. But, sometimes, things didn't go according to plans and it got serious. A group of senior executives from London were coming down to Calcutta and I was given the responsibility of arranging for a group of senior officers to take a car across the tarmac and receive our English guests at the aircraft itself. The airport authorities flatly refused. They insisted that we should wait at the designated area for arrivals. This was not acceptable to our side and I took, yes, no less a person than the Regional Director, to meet the officer who had refused to let us on the tarmac. While the negotiations were in progress, I realized that something was happening to the chair in which our Regional Director sat. It was slowly collapsing like a destroyer sinking into the sea. The government chair couldn't take the weight of our Regional Director. It broke. The official was so embarrassed that he immediately allowed the Grindlays welcoming team to go directly to the aircraft. The Regional Director was mightily pleased irrespective of the minor aches and pains that he might have suffered and one lucky management trainee was left to pursue a career in banking.
The trainee's life was based on a lot of hard work but there was a lot of fun to be had too; especially at the Chummery, the living quarters shared by bachelor chums. During the British Raj Chummeries were the residences in which unmarried British army officers were quartered. This is a tradition that was carried on in great style at Grindlays. There was a famous one at the terrace of 19 NS Road Calcutta as there were and Lyndewode House near Peddar Road in Bombay or at MG Road before ORDSA was born. Each young bachelor had their own well-appointed rooms and was free to invite whoever they wanted. There was a billiards room in the Calcutta chummery where residents would pick the cues on from the wall racks and play a game of snooker or billiards. Some became quite good at the game. But, the claim to fame for the chummeries were the wild parties thrown by its residents and young people all over the city would consider themselves privileged to receive an invitation. It was a melee of young professionals, aspiring starlets and stylish women about whom the back office would gossip incessantly. There are so many tales to tell about the chummeries that it might provide delightful material for a whole book. All the human emotions were on display, falling in love, breaking up, disputes, fights, betrayal and the remainders of particularly large hangovers. Once, an officer and his girlfriend oblivious to the prying eyes of the bearers threw themselves to gay abandon and made love on the billiard table. The billiard room was promptly closed down for a year. The reason apparently had nothing to do with the act of making love, which was eminently acceptable and admirable, but the fact that the cloth covering the billiard table, made from very expensive worsted wool called baize, had been damaged.
It was a moment in space and time that has passed on in the journey of transient history. They were moments to be savored by people who were lucky to have been around then. Those times will not return. We were in the front seats of a great show, a vantage point from where we witnessed the events of a changing era, an industry in transformation and a society in transition. Much water has flown down the Ganges since those halcyon days but those sepia tinted memories will remain in the free floating wrinkles and folds of time.