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Saturday June 16, 2012

Up Close and Personal with Sanjeev Nanavati

By LIZ LEE
lizlee@thestar.com.my


BORN: India and is now in his 40s
PERSONAL: Married with two children
HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: MBA from Syracuse University, US
CAREER: Diversified internationa l banking; Citibank Bhd CEO and AmCham president FAVOURITE FOOD: Indian and Italian
FAVOURITE PLACE: Right now, Malaysia
HOBBY: Golf, reading on business and more recently, neuro science
VALUES: Respect for all, helping others succeed

SPEAKING to the head of Citibank Bhd, one gets the impression that working on impulse is not in his character and that he approaches all matters in a composed, dignified manner.

Sanjeev Nanavati exudes an air of decorum, almost as though he is in a meeting but that is possibly a reflection of how he runs Citibank Malaysia.

He hails from India and has, for the last seven years, taken Malaysia to be home.

He started off as Citibank Malaysia country head in 2005, overseeing the institutional clients group. In 2007, he was appointed chief executive officer, expanding his scope of responsibility to consumer banking as well as corporate banking, global transaction services, equities, fixed income and treasury activities.

As an expatriate corporate leader, he never thought his stay in Malaysia would be this long, “but I'm not complaining.”

Global team

Since taking the helm, the local market has gone through several major developments that has challenged Sanjeev.

“Malaysia has been a very exciting market. There were two big milestones in the economy.

“First in 2006, when the peg to the US dollar was removed because there came opportunities and challenges for customers and the banks. Another was the elections that made changes in the equity flows and how investors viewed Malaysia,” he tells StarBizWeek.

On how he manoeuvred through the interesting times, he believes that two factors played a major role in keeping Citibank going.

“No two events are the same and the key to handling changes is to first have a very strong team. We have created a management team that is diverse in terms of product skills, experience and perspective.

“This has provided us with the intellectual capacity and the ability to respond effectively to changes,” he says,

“Also, because we are a global bank, we are always able to seek advice or assistance from different parts of the globe.

“We're connected to our counterparts so we are able to very quickly gather the expertise needed when the situation calls..”

Sanjeev believes that his role as a leader is to bring out the best in his staff.

“In my capacity, my value added is to make sure my colleagues in the different products and services operate to their fullest potential,” he says,

“My goal is to see around the corners and to try and take away the obstacles and challenges so that they can achieve their best.”

Solid foundation

Sanjeev points out that Citibank Malaysia already has a capable team. As the CEO, he just needs to help them rise in knowledge and morale and subsequently, that will lift the whole business.

He also notes that Citibank Malaysia is in a state of development to rediscover new strategies to determine where and with whom it needs to do business.

“The way we define our business is around target markets so we have very clear definitions of who our customers are and who we want to serve. The challenge on a day to day basis is how to execute the strategies.”

“This generation of Citi bankers are conscious of the fact that the people who came before us built this great company and it is our job to make sure we pass on this legacy intact,” he says, noting Citibank's 200-year history.

Sanjeev believes that to uphold the good work that Citi predecessors have accomplished, the current employers should to go back to the core principles of serving customers as they are essentially “through whom you are able to build a business.”

He says that if you serve customers and help them progress to meet their ambitions, you will be rewarded by customer loyalty and others will also engage in business with you.

“Once you anchor yourself to that relatively straightforward and simple concept, and recognise that you must do that in a responsible way, then a lot of other things begin to happen apart from customers staying loyal to you through difficult times.”

He notes that by treating customers well, there will be a positive chain reaction on the employees that come in.

“You will also attract employees who will give you their best. And a bank is only able to service customers through its people,” he says.

By putting people first, he says the bank will naturally develop a “virtual cycle that allows the company to function and flourish.”

When it comes to business, Sanjeev emphasises on giving before expecting anything in return.

“I think when it comes to business, the first order of the day is you seek to serve the customers' needs in the manner that makes business sense and that automatically leads to a sustainable business model,” he shares.

“It's an old expression, you have to give to get.' You have to give value, provide services, and on a personal level, provide friendship before you can even demand anything.”

With the weight of upholding a global image upon his shoulders, Sanjeev's motivation is to keep improving the bank.

“When you assume this position as CEO of Citibank, you assume a leadership position of a leading bank,” he says,

“What drives you is that you certainly don't want to hand it over in any worse shape than when you got it.”

What matters

To him, it was a priority to take the bank to a higher plane through improvements in terms of customer base, customer perception, branding, employee value proposition and business matrix.

Sanjeev also gives due consideration to the eventual succession to his position.

“You want to provide a foundation for someone to build upon, so that is clearly one thing that I take seriously.”

On what drives him personally, he says: “I think, it is no different from everyone else.”

“We all want to make sure our family does well, that our children do well. Those things are fairly universal,” he says in short, revealing only a sliver of his personal life.

For the most of his career, he has worked outside of India. He has lived in the US and Hong Kong before Malaysia.

He returned to India in the middle of his career to work in Mumbai for five years. He has experienced doing business across every country in Asia, a large part of Europe and also Latin America.

He says his family has always travelled with him and has had no problem adjusting to new environments.

As for his connections with the many other Indian expatriate corporate leaders, Sanjeev acknowledges that he is in touch with them.

“Yes, we have business relationships and obviously, social relationships too.”

He is also president of the American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce and a council member of the Association of Banks in Malaysia.

Deep-rooted beliefs

When asked to describe himself in three words, Sanjeev gave a chuckle.

“I haven't thought of myself that way,” he says, before a pensive pause.

“I would say I am very reflective. I believe in long-term success and as for the staff, maximising their potential is a very important priority for me.”

He reiterates the necessity of helping others progress professionally as much as one can.

“My view is that if you lift people around you, you lift yourself. It's not an either or' situation.”

On whether he had anyone groom him into the leader he is today, Sanjeev maintains that he learns from many people.

“There is not really one mentor. There are a lot of people who have influenced me in my life,” he says.

He acknowledges that over the span of a career, one will meet different people and admire them for different reasons. To him, it is important to try and simulate what one needs to or should.

“I actually believe that everyone has unique abilities and you can learn something from everyone. It doesn't have to be somebody from some exalted position.”

“Quite frankly, you can learn a lot from people who do relatively ordinary things. Everybody can do something extraordinarily well and you have to keep an eye out for that.”

When asked about what he thought of local Indian cuisine however, Sanjeev gave a split-second grimace. And of any restaurant that might have come close to serving authentic Indian cuisine, he says “seven years and still searching.”

While he continues to search for that kitchen that serves the briyani true to his homeland's palate, Sanjeev sees himself continuing his career in the banking industry, “at least in the near future.”

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