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The Change Agent: Srikrishnan Harihara Sarma

With a century of successful banking behind it, Karnataka Bank is embarking on an ambitious new direction under new Managing Director & CEO Srikrishnan Harihara Sarma.

To make it to 100 years in business is no easy feat. But for Karnataka Bank, its centenary is more than just a cause for celebration – it marks a new beginning.

The bank is embarking on a holistic transformational journey that encompasses the entire business, from its technology right down to its culture.

It’s a significant undertaking, which is why the task has been put into the capable hands of its new Managing Director and CEO, Srikrishnan Harihara Sarma, who is a man with broad experience of every facet of the industry.

“This bank was a confluence of initiatives in the region from very knowledgeable entrepreneurs, advocates and freedom fighters.”

“The background I bring to the table is a combination of banking, fintechs and technology, and I think the bank has looked to me to see what I can do in a bank like this to transform it,” Srikrishnan tells The CEO Magazine.

“My singular goal is to be the change agent of Karnataka Bank. I’ve been telling my colleagues that all of us need to turn into entrepreneurs and I have declared in public that Karnataka Bank is turning entrepreneurial.

“Karnataka Bank is now a startup in its 100th year.”

Firm Foundations

But that’s not to say that Srikrishnan’s ambition is to rewrite the bank’s legacy. Rather, he sees its achievements over the course of its history as having an essential role to play in its future.

“In all the 99 years this bank has been profitable, it has also been paying dividends – that’s quite a reflection in terms of how well this bank has been run,” he says.

Huge developments have taken place across the country over the course of its 100-year history, which have dramatically impacted the economy, prompted the rise of a service economy and created a greater need for banking.

“India has galloped forward compared to any other economy in the world,” he says.

The Karnatakan capital of Mangalaru is considered by many to be the ‘cradle of banking’ in the region, however, of the many banks founded there over the years, today, just two banks have their headquarters in the city. Karnataka Bank is one of them.

“This bank was a confluence of initiatives in the region from very knowledgeable entrepreneurs, advocates and freedom fighters,” Srikrishnan says proudly. “The larger objective in those days was how to empower lives and also communities, making them all-inclusive.”

While these values remained strong, when Srikrishnan joined Karnataka Bank, it had been falling behind on several fronts and, despite still growing, it was failing to expand its market share.

But rather than perceiving this as a negative, Srikrishnan could only see the many possibilities.

Making Moves

On being appointed to the roles of Managing Director and CEO earlier this year, Srikrishnan took swift action, meeting with more than 1,000 colleagues in his first month and visiting branches across the region to get an in-depth understanding of the bank.

“One of the things that stands out is its excellence in customer service through the branches, which is something that’s reflected through various customer conversations I’ve had during these trips,” he says.

“All our customers swear by the bank, and they’ve all been customers for more than 30 years, 40 years and 50 years, to say the least. So that means that there is something the bank is doing right in terms of customer stickiness.”

“Our shared core values at Karnataka Bank and Bharti AXA Life Insurance have strengthened our relationship. We have financially secured 33,000+ clients, reaching a milestone of INR 150 crores (US$18 million). Together, we look forward to many more years of serving our customers.” – Sandeep Mishra, Chief Distribution Officer – Partnerships & Group Business, Bharti AXA Life Insurance


Where competition is concerned, Srikrishnan says that while Karnataka Bank isn’t currently in a leadership position, he sees plenty of opportunities for the bank to leap ahead.

“Right now, we have the people,” he explains. “We need to make them tech savvy to ensure we inculcate all of the new age techniques in terms of sales, and to make sure there are multiple ways to acquire business, including digital.”

New digital products are therefore on the cards to tap into demand, with Srikrishnan also highlighting the benefit of collaboration with third-party fintechs and partners, such as Bharti AXA Life Insurance, to drive innovation.

Although Karnataka Bank is a late adopter, Srikrishnan says this could work to Karnataka Bank’s advantage. “The last ones to adopt have the biggest advantage. Being a late entrant, we will be able to leapfrog to adopt the latest and best technology at a reduced price,” he says.

“The last ones to adopt have the biggest advantage. Being a late entrant, we will be able to leapfrog to adopt the latest and best technology at a reduced price.”

Once these areas have been addressed, he says Karnataka Bank will be perfectly primed for growth, ready to pursue a greater market share and expand its footprint.

Srikrishnan plans to leverage the bank’s deep penetration in Karnataka’s semi-urban and rural areas to build a national presence – and perhaps even a global one. Already, the bank is eyeing expansion into the Middle East and Singapore.

This new wave of energy, combined with Karnataka Bank’s rich legacy, will deliver a more dynamic and forward-thinking organization that is destined for success, according to Srikrishnan.

“This will be the most talked about turnaround story in due course,” he promises.

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