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SPARK OF THE CORPORATE

When Shikha Sharma wasn’t handed a job appointment even after a week of campus placement exercise had elapsed at the much vaunted IIM (A), she felt, for a moment, as if life would condemn her to obscurity. Most foreign banks had given her a slip, so to say, and her confidence had started to sag a bit. But not one to be bogged down so easily, the feisty Shikha Sharma began her professional career when ICIC Bank offered her a job at its personal financial services in 1980. Encouraged and egged on by her superiors and peers alike, she set about chartering a new path for along with that of the company; setting goals and attaining them with sublime ease, while also proving wrong -so very inadvertently- all who had doubted her capacity, and becoming one of the most successful career-women in India or elsewhere. Her strategic thinking combined with strong execution and leadership skills saw her scale one success after another at ICICI. She went on to make ICICI Prudential (the insurance arm of ICICI) become the market leader among private competitors, a position which it still holds. Along the way, she also launched the groundbreaking “micro-insurance” product that offered life insurance at just $1 a month!

Many observers credit this success to her ability to lead large teams, motivate people and delegate coupled with a willingness to share the limelight. Her success at ICICI in building an entire new business and the company’s continued growth and standing under her leadership had caught the attention of all but one member of the Board (of Axis Bank) back in 2009. The board gave her the thumbs-up when it came to appointing the CEO of Axis Bank, which was the third largest lender by assets in the country. The rest, as you can imagine, is a string of successful endeavors, while also stamping her mark on the growth and success of the bank.

Early Days

The daughter of a military officer, Shikha Sharma saw her family move often to many parts of the country before finally settling down in Delhi where she did her schooling from Loreto Convent and then went on to graduate in economics from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Delhi. She completed her post-graduate studies in software technology from the National Institute of Software Technology, Mumbai before finally ending up at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (AIIM-A) - where she was to be jolted briefly, only for her to rise and succeed like very few had done before. As has been recounted here (above), Sharma found the going tough even as she was about to complete her masters in business administration. She may have been somewhat of an introvert which, perhaps, may not have helped her during the campus interviews. But, certainly, that could not be the end of it. This much she was very sure of and was, thus, not dejected nor did she doubt herself. She was able to pick up the stings and hold them together after ICICI bank recruited and inducted her into their investment banking wing.

The spark that set it off

Shikha Sharma started off as a project officer at ICICI, a recruitment which was not favored by many insiders who were skeptical of her ability. But she wasn’t going to allow such trivialities make a dent into her determination or spoil her chances and put a break to her just-now showing up career prospects. Moreover, she was encouraged by Mr. Narayanan Vaghul, former chairman of the bank, who was the very first ones to have spotted the spark in Sharma. Thus fired by both skepticism as well as support, her career took-off with ICICI, and she went about her work with all the determination and fervor she possessed, and in a mere 15 years she was able to set-up various businesses for the ICICI group including investment banking and retail finance.

Rest is ‘her-story’

When she joined the ICICI group, one of the most celebrated of mentors of our time, Mr. K.V. Kamat, had a profound influence in determining the path of success which Sharma was to take. It is the success and growth of Mr. Kamat’s protégés that ICICI is often referred to as one of the leadership schools and great pedestals for many aspiring business leaders. It is said that Mr. Kamat pushed every one of his protégés to the hilt, and made them realize their own potential by assigning them to tasks which were seemingly challenging to the core. It is in such progressive atmosphere that Sharma’s professional baptism took place, and from which she would ultimately come out with flying colors. That is why, she has always been thankful to ICICI Bank for giving her the much needed boost in a period of turmoil.

By 1992 she was shaking hands, and brushing shoulders even, with multinationals whose like had not found her to be worthy of their consideration during the campus placements at IIM (A). For she had by this time set-up ICICI Securities, which was a joint-venture comprising ICICI and JP Morgan, and by 1995 she had actually joined ICICI Securities (deputed to JPMorgan). She rejoined ICICI in 1997 as the General Manager in charge of the strategic planning and development department where she set up the structured products group. She took the Bank's financial and technology oriented services to new heights with her creative ideas and lateral thinking.

Her ascent at ICICI did not stop there. In 1998 she was entrusted with taking forward ICICI Personal Financial Services, by being elevated to the post of its Managing Director. It was complete in 2000 when she assumed responsibility as head of ICICI Prudential Life Insurance.

Soon after she joined ICICI Prudential, she set the ball of her soon-to-become accomplished career rolling by launching the product ‘micro-insurance.’ In a way, it acted as one of the catalysts in the growth of ICICI Prudential as it found takers by the lakhs in the country. The miniscule level of insurance cover amongst the populace of the country also helped accelerate the progress of the company. Under Sharma’s leadership, the ICICI Prudential has been the most successful insurance firms in India, with over 200,000 policies sold within the first two years of its operations, amounting to a (premium) income Rs. 280 crore. 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. She went on adding products and venturing into allied businesses and almost every time met with the desired success.

The progress made by every entity which Sharma took charge of did not go unnoticed. If she had a handful of detractors who, purely out of skepticism over her caliber, resisted her elevation and her appointment even, to some of the top positions, then she also had a good number of people who admired her work-ethics and, importantly, believed in her ability take up challenging tasks and successfully see that they obtain the object for which she was deputed for the role.

Point in case being her appointment as CEO of Axis Bank in 2009. This proposition was also met with severe opposition from the then Chairman of the Board of Axis Bank, who had some reason to believe that Axis Bank, per se, did not need a CEO; and even if it did, then Sharma wasn’t the appropriate choice. The Chairman’s argument stemmed from the fact that instead of Sharma one of her compatriots at ICICI was elevated to the top post after the abdication of Mr. Kamat. Expectedly, the other Board members did not quite agree with the argument as they were more than convinced about Sharma’s credentials, which they thought were just right to help take forward Axis bank. Consequently, after she was chosen by the majority of the Board, she was formally appointed MD & CEO of Axis Bank in June 2009, despite the then Chairman relinquishing his post in protest and with more than one aspirant gunning for the same post.

Admittedly, at the time of her appointment Axis Bank in itself was a very healthy condition. So, the challenge of making sure that she protected and took it forward was what attracted her to the job. Sharma’s work on Axis Bank after just two years as chief executive of the Bank, has produced some impressive results.

Up until late 2010, Axis bank was strong on project finance, infrastructure and debt capital markets but didn't have much of a presence in equities. Therefore, seeking to expand its equity operations, Sharma successfully oversaw its merger with the investment banking, institutional and retail equities businesses of Enam Securities Pvt. Ltd., in a deal worth 20.67 billion rupees ($456 million). Many observers acknowledged this as a smart business move by the bank.

Axis Bank has added more than 400 branches and almost 2,000 ATMs to its network in the past financial year, and its daily average balance of savings deposits grew 36 per cent year on year. It’s Q3 (2011-12) results are as follows – it registered a rise of 23.5 percent in Net interest income, a year-on-year rise from 1,733 crore to 2,140 crore. Axis Bank now has a presence in more than 900 cities and towns across India while also stepping up its international business, mainly in corporate lending and finance. Earlier this year, Axis UK was incorporated as a new subsidiary. In recognition of her services and the astounding success they have brought Axis bank, the bank’s board approved the reappointment of Sharma as Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the bank for a further period of three years with effect from June 01, 2012 to May 31, 2015.

Being a thoroughbred and a fiercely competitive person -as most successful career-oriented women are- means that she gets very little time for her family and herself. Her time gets exhausted on various other responsibilities that she is often entrusted with, and which she accepts, as is her wont, with much glee. For the records, she has been an Additional Director of Axis Bank Ltd. since June 1, 2009, serves as a Director of ICICI Prudential Asset Management Company Limited as well as the Chairperson and Associate Director of Axis Asset Management Company Limited. Shikha Sharma also served as a Non-Executive and Non-Independent Director of FirstSource Solutions Ltd. until May 26, 2009. That besides, she served as a Director of ICICI Prudential Life Insurance Company Ltd. until her appointment as CEO & MD of Axis Bank, i.e. April 2009, and as an Independent Director of ACC Ltd. from December 13, 2006 to May 2009.

Family

Shikha Sharma is married to Sanjaya Sharma, her batchmate at IIM-A and currently Managing Director of Tata Interactive Systems. The couple has a son and a daughter.

Philanthropy

Like all entrepreneurs with noble leanings, Sharma made good of her position as the head of Axis Bank to do her bit for the society. Axis bank started the Axis Foundation to undertake corporate social responsibility activities. As part of the same, Axis bank plans to spend Rs. 100 crore over five years on skill development and vocational training of 50,000 people in West Bengal’s Murshidabad and South 24 Paraganas districts as part of the bank’s CSR initiatives.

The project--christened Axis Bank Bandhan Holistic Assistance (ABHA) program-- is a joint initiative of the Axis Bank Foundation and a local non-governmental organisation Bandhan-Konnagar.

In the next five years, Axis Foundation intends to work towards providing sustainable livelihoods in the most needy and excluded districts of our country, ensuring that at least 60% of the beneficiaries are women.

The project is aimed at providing sustainable livelihood options to beneficiaries by skill development training and donation of any two fixed assets.

ABHA was launched in the South 24 Parganas district by Reserve Bank Deputy Governor K C Chakrabarty, in the presence of Shikha Sharma and Bandhan’'s founder and mentor, Chandra Shekhar Ghosh.

AWARDS AND ACCOLADES
'Woman Business Leader' by CNBC TV18, 2007.
'Business Woman of the Year' by Economic Times, 2009.
Awarded the Asset Triple A Country Awards “Best Domestic Bank in India” in 2010.
Ranked 89th in the list of 'World's 100 Most Powerful Women' by Forbes magazine, 2010.
Features in the Forbes list of Asia’s 50 Most Powerful Businesswomen.
‘Transformational Business Leader of the Year’ at the AIMA Managing India Awards 2012.
‘Woman Leader of the Year’ award, 2012 by BloombergUTV.
Quotes by Shikha Sharma
“The opportunities I got at ICICI, I would have never got elsewhere. I think God has a design for each one of us.”
"I truly believe in egalitarianism, transparency, sharing and learning"
“Our goal is to be the preferred solution provider to our clients—corporate customers, SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and retail customers.”
“You will learn from wherever you have great experience; you go and learn from whoever does well.”

Hope viewers caught up the spark…

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