By Manojit Saha
“Now, you journalists won’t disturb me anymore,” says S Viswanathan, the new managing director of State Bank of India (SBI)’s associates and subsidiaries in a lighter vein.
Viswanathan has reasons to grow weary of the limelight as during his three-year stint as the head of SBI’s capital markets division, the media focus was firmly fixed on him.
SBI Caps — the merchant banking arm of the banking behemoth — besides helping Indian companies raise funds, also has a specialised function. This is to advise clients on how to approach banks for debt recast. Understandably so, its stature has risen manifold in recent years.
With the economy moving from bad to worse, the merchant banking division has seen a sharp rise in the number of people coming to it for advice. In recent years, both banks and companies have been making a beeline to its doors as they struggle to make money in a subdued environment.
Viswanathan, 58, has been closely involved in the debt restructuring plans of many companies, most famously Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines. This has earned him the nickname, “the Kingfisher man”.
So much so that at SBI he is better known as the “Kingfisher man” than his own name. Over the years, his expertise on the airline has made him the go-to man for any query on it and even the bank’s chairman, Pratip Chaudhuri, turns to him when he has a question on Kingfisher.
However, his debt recast plans also ran into some trouble when Kingfisher’s share price plunged and banks, which had taken equity exposure based on his blueprint, had to make marked-to-market losses. By the end of 2011, as lenders started categorising Kingfisher as a non-performing asset, many felt that Viswanathan’s plan did not give them a good deal.
In September 2012, Viswanathan was appointed as deputy managing director at SBI. He was given the charge of mid-corporate portfolio, which included Kingfisher. His job was to recover the dues from the cash-strapped airline. After joining, he had said he would do whatever was required to recover the dues.
Viswanathan, one of the four managing directors at SBI, is a hands-on man with experience in all aspects of banking from wholesale to retail, treasury operations and international banking.
He joined SBI as a probationary officer in 1976. In his current role, Viswanathan will be overseeing the merger of SBI’s associate banks. The first merger, between SBI and State Bank of Saurashtra, took place in 2007-08, followed by that of State Bank of Indore in 2009-10. With the finance minister emphasising that consolidation among Indian banks is inevitable, the spotlight is unlikely to go away from Viswanathan.