Transitioning from IT leader to business head

Sanjay Sharma, the managing director and CEO of IDBI Intech Ltd., has been credited with the venture's turnaround into a profit-making organization. The erstwhile CIO of IDBI Bank shares his career's evolution path.

Sanjay Sharma
Sanjay Sharma

You are credited with bringing IDBI Intech back to life. How'd you get involved in this effort?
IDBI Intech was started in 2000, during the IT boom. IDBI was a development institution with many subsidiaries, and IDBI Intech was one of them. Then the downturn started, and IT was not doing so well. So we had some talent crunch at that time.

Around 2004, IDBI got the license to become a bank. Hence, IDBI decided to exit from IDBI Intech.

In 2004, IDBI decided to acquire IDBI Bank, the private-sector bank where I was working. IDBI Bank was a very technology-savvy bank with good people doing creative work. On the other hand, IDBI didn't require a strong technology platform by virtue of its business. When you become a commercial bank, you cannot survive without IT. So we were wondering how to motivate and take care of the team, since things were completely different at IDBI.

Since we already had IDBI Intech, we decided to revive it. It was in the process of getting closed, so we wrote to the government authorities and got the permission. It was decided that I should move to IDBI Intech. Now I act as the IT advisor for IDBI Bank, as well as head, IDBI Intech.

And how did IDBI Intech move from being IDBI Bank's IT team to a service provider for other organizations?
In 2006, we shifted the complete IT team from IDBI Bank to IDBI Intech. It was decided that we'll not have an IT outfit within the bank to avoid conflict of interest.Initially, Intech was treated as just an extension of IDBI Bank. Then we realized that there's a lot of unexploited potential, so we started providing services to group companies. We started with IDBI Capital, IDBI Fortis and IDBI Gilts.

Suddenly, it's all about business strategies, how to run the company, make it profitable, manage the attrition of an entire company rather than just a department and so on.

Since we were doing a good job with the group companies, our board suggested that we start providing services to external companies. So we started giving services to BFSI [banking, financial services and insurance] clients. Today we have more than 19 external clients and almost 500 employees, as well as international clients in Kenya and Oman.

How was the change for you personally?
Shifting to a company as the MD and CEO was a major challenge, since I was expected to do much more. It's very easy to be on the other side of the table, where you only have to execute the project. As a CIO, you should be good at project management and understand the business, but you don't have to seek business. Besides, you get very comfortable when you only have to interact with vendors and so on.

Suddenly, it's all about business strategies, how to run the company, make it profitable, manage the attrition of an entire company rather than just a department and so on. It was an experience where I had to change from a technology person to a manager. So this major shift was initially extremely difficult.

Also, it's easier to start a new company than to revive an existing one. There were many compliance requirements, and several other aspects which were new to me. So it was a fulfilling experience to move the company from, as they say, red to black. We have been a profit-making company for the past three years.

What would you put as the biggest challenges that you faced?
It's tough to build the confidence of people. First is that of your own employees, since you are trying to revive something which did not succeed earlier. It's also difficult to change from a department's mind-set to that of to a service provider.

Gaining confidence of other stakeholders was the second challenge. That's why I say that it's easier to start a new company than to revive one. The moment you are a separate company, expectations increase and service levels to parent organizations need to be very high. So the stakeholder's interest was a crucial aspect that we had to deal with.

2005-06 was a good year for IT, with people getting fat salaries and many offers. So it was difficult to source talent, especially since we were undergoing this transition.

The last challenge was to convince external entities that we can provide services in a bank-neutral manner. It was essential to demonstrate that we have the expertise, so please don't treat us like IDBI Bank's IT outfit.

Getting the first client was a challenge. Our first major client was the Centurion Bank of Punjab. It was a grand success. We haven't looked back since.

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