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Arundhati Bhattacharya's new role: Can the former banker fast-track Salesforce’s India growth?

Heading an enterprise business is a totally different ballgame as the leader should be able to understand the product and position it right for its clients.

March 18, 2020 / 09:03 PM IST

Former State Bank of India chairman Arundhati Bhattacharya will now head the US-based tech firm Salesforce’s India operations starting April.

The San Francisco-based company offers customer relationship management services on cloud. The $17-billion firm competes with Indian companies such as Zoho and Freshworks.

This is an unexpected and surprising decision from Salesforce. For Bhattacharya is neither a techie nor does she have experience in enterprise sales. She has been a banker through and through.

“It is a little strange, as you would normally expect to have an executive with tech sales experience,” pointed out Peter Bendor-Samuel, CEO, Everest Group, a consulting and research firm.

Bhattacharya served as the chairman of India’s largest bank from 2013 till she retired in 2017. She joined SBI as a probationary officer in 1977 and donned at least half a dozen roles during her 40-year stint in the bank including foreign exchange, treasury, retail operations and even investment banking. She was instrumental in launching several new businesses such as SBI General Insurance. After her retirement in 2017, she served as an independent director for corporate houses such as Wipro and oversees financial services group SWIFT India.

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Salesforce India growth

The appointment comes at a time when Salesforce is looking to fast-track its Indian operations. Before Bhattarcharya, Salesforce did not have a dedicated India CEO. Sunil Jose, Senior Vice President and Country Leader, was overseeing India operations. Bhattacharya will now report to Ulrik Nehammer, General Manager of Salesforce in the APAC region.

For Salesforce, India is a key market. According to reports, Salesforce, its customers and partner ecosystem are expected to create over $67 billion in revenues and 548,400 new direct jobs by 2024 in the country. The company established its India office in Hyderabad in 2016 and aims to add 3,000 jobs, reports added.

Manoj Chandra Jha, Lead Research Analyst, Information Services Group, an analyst firm, said the appointment might be looked at in multiple dimensions.

Jha said, as Salesforce looks to build its India business, it needed someone how is deeply rooted in the country and influential. Bhattacharya is both. “There are not many people who has the kind of influence Bhattarcharya has. That is why she was chosen,” Jha added.

Pareekh Jain, the founder of Pareekh Consulting, a consultancy firm, said she is also a brand and the banker's stature can help Salesforce tap into the growing cloud opportunity in India.

India's cloud market will reach $7 billion by 2022, according to reports.

Bhattacharya will be responsible for overall operations, sales and will also need to build a larger partner ecosystem in India. This is where her connections with corporate and financial services during her SBI tenure will come in handy. During her stint, she had also dealt with small and medium enterprises, one of the most difficult segments to tackle. If Bhattacharya can leverage this, analysts added, Salesforce could grow 10 percent in the mid-size segment and 5 percent in the large segment.

But can she grow Salesforce’s India market? “It is too early to judge. We should give her at least 3-4 quarters,” he added.

'Her talent will be wasted'

However, not many are convinced that Bhattacharya was the right choice. “This is not her domain at all. Not clear how she will be able to take on the role given that she has been a banker all her life,” an industry source pointed out.

Heading an enterprise business is a totally different ballgame as the leader should be able to understand the product and position it right for its clients.

“She has no enterprise sales experience. Would she be able to position the product right for the market? Unless she was selected only as a figurehead and there is another team in place to carry out the operations,” the source added.

Many industry observers believe that a talent of her stature could be used in areas where it is required such as Yes Bank crisis, consultant in banking institutions at the time of mergers or a key role in the finance ministry.

“Given the kind of exposure she has towards the economy, it is a waste to use her talents for Salesforce India, which is really small,” they say.

Swathi Moorthy
first published: Mar 18, 2020 07:10 pm