The proud seam of independence that runs through Indian companies of a certain vintage is as strong as ever. Throughout the nation’s struggle to extricate itself from British rule during the first half of the 20th century, many businesses and initiatives emerged promoting an India-centric agenda designed to inspire the idea of independence among the people.
The peak of this upswell was the Quit India movement of 1942. Spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi, Quit India was a call for the end of British rule and a boycott of British institutions within India. Industrialist GD Birla saw an opportunity among the upheaval to create a truly Indian bank, free from ties to the British Empire.
UCO had earned a reputation for being customer-friendly, efficient and socially committed.
The fruit of his dream was the United Commercial Bank, which was established in 1943. The all-Indian character of the Bank played an important role four years later when India finally achieved its independence from the United Kingdom.
By the late 1960s, the United Commercial Bank had thousands of branches in India, and had expanded into Singapore, Hong Kong, London and Malaysia. Despite the growth, United Commercial had not compromised its Indian heritage. Such a defining factor was this that in 1969, the Indian government nationalized the Bank, shifting its approach to business in the process.
A Democratic Foundation
That year brought about a seismic shift for Indian banking in several ways. Until that time, India’s private banks conducted business solely in the nation’s biggest cities. When the Indian government nationalized United Commercial Bank and 13 of its private competitors, it allowed the banks to expand beyond the cities and into rural India.
Years of British rule and so-called ‘class banking’ had led to an erosion of trust in banks among the people, particularly in these rural areas. From 1969, the newly nationalized banks went on the offensive to regain this trust, a team effort made easier by the sharp reduction in competition the mass nationalization had brought about.
Through restructuring, funding programs for areas in need and extensive promotion of food security, the banks were able to win back the people’s trust, leading to a boom in gross domestic savings throughout the 1970s.
For United Commercial Bank, this led to an organizational restructure and, in 1985, a change of name to UCO Bank. By this time, UCO had earned a reputation for being customer-friendly, efficient and socially committed, and had come to treasure the public trust it had earned during those turbulent, formative years.
Today, UCO retains that reputation across more than 3,000 branches and an employee pool of more than 21,000 people. UCO’s profits, north of US$216 million annually, reflect the expertise and respect it has garnered in the sector.
At the head of UCO Bank’s operations is Managing Director and CEO Ashwani Kumar. Appointed by the Indian government to the role in June of 2023 on the recommendation of the Financial Services Institutions Bureau, Kumar took over from Soma Sankara Prasad upon his resignation.
Prior to joining UCO Bank, Kumar was Chief General Manager of Punjab National Bank, and had previously worked at the Bank of Baroda, Oriental Bank of Commerce, Corporation Bank and Indian Bank.
A chartered accountant and certified member of the Indian Institute of Banking and Finance, Kumar’s two decades of experience has centered around wholesale banking and industrial finance. It’s believed the diversity of his experience and the industry understanding he has been imbued with will drive UCO Bank’s growth and enhance its market presence.
His experience and the industry understanding he has been imbued with will drive UCO Bank’s growth.
Upon stepping into the role, Kumar began a recovery program designed to claw back non-performing assets worth US$96.2 million. “We are expecting to recover around 400 crore [US$48.1 million] from two large National Company Law Tribunal resolutions already in place,” he told Moneycontrol.com in November.
“Overall, we are expecting a recovery of 800 crore [US$96.2 million] in Q3 FY24.”
Kumar has also overseen the expansion of UCO Bank’s digital banking offerings. UCO branches are being asked to actively promote the adoption among customers of the Bank’s mBanking Plus mobile app, which allows for a variety of banking needs to be carried out remotely.
Kumar said the bank is closely monitoring daily logins and new customer registrations as the app continues to grow.
UCO Bank’s digital development is closely tied to its involvement in the Reserve Bank of India’s central bank digital currency initiative, which is currently in the pilot stage. Under the program, which seeks to bring about the prominence of the e-rupee, instant real-time payments and transfers would be made possible across multiple banks without the dissemination of account details.
Kumar has stated UCO Bank will participate in the retail version of the pilot program. “We are very excited and looking at all dimensions of it,” he told Moneycontrol. “Currently we are in talks with the National Payments Corporation of India, and some more work needs to be done.”
As the new year unfolds, Kumar says UCO Bank is looking to expand its IT and risk management skill sets through aggressive recruitment as the bank’s bottom line continues to grow. “Credit will be growing on a year-on-year basis at 12-to-13 percent,” he said. “And we’ll work on reducing our gross NPAs [net performing assets] and net NPAs.”
It’s believed UCO Bank’s mobile banking will have reached 39 percent saturation in a year’s time.
The seasoned professionalism of Kumar is also expected to make an impact on UCO Bank’s Current Account and Savings Account (CASA) levels.
Kumar’s experience and dedication have won the trust of his staff.
“On the deposit front, our focus will be on CASA, where we intend to grow our saving account and current account portfolios,” he told CNBC TV18 in July. “Internally, we’ve kept a target to reach 40 percent level, though in the current environment when the differential in the savings and fixed deposit rate is high, it will be a challenge for the team to bring it to 40.”
UCO Bank’s endeavor is to at least maintain its percentage, he said. “If you’ve seen some banks, there is a reduction in the percentage of CASA deposits over the last quarter.”
The bank is also looking to bring additional products to its savings portfolio in order to maintain that percentage. UCO has already launched several new products to that end, including a new online death claim settlement system and a positive pay system designed to instill a greater sense of security in check payments.
‘Honours Your Trust’
As UCO Bank’s staff adjust to the change in management, they have looked to Kumar’s wealth of leadership experience for reassurance. They’ve found it: Kumar is a graduate of Indian Institute of Management Bangalore’s Leadership Development Programme, which is curated by the Banks Board Bureau in consultation with Indian Banks Association and Egon Zehnder International.
He’s also attended various training programs in premier institutes both at home and overseas, including IIM and Centre for Advanced Financial Research and Learning.
If Kumar’s experience and dedication have won the trust of his staff, then it stands to reason that will trickle down and help UCO Bank continue to earn the trust of the public.
UCO Bank’s corporate slogan is ‘Honours Your Trust’, and there’s a good reason why. UCO highly treasures its long and momentous history, and the prizes that were won along the way.
One of the most coveted of these was and continues to be the public’s trust. In this spirit, UCO Bank values the public interest above its own.
“We are not chasing corporate loan growth merely for the sake of expansion,” Kumar told Republic. “Our focus is on sustainable and profitable growth.”