The story of Paytm’s Renu Satti: How an HR executive became the CEO of India’s largest Payments Bank
It is six in the evening. As I make my way into Paytm’s five-storeyed grey building adorned with blue glass walls in a busy street of Noida, the company’s employees pass me by, towards the gate, having wrapped up their day’s work.
I am frisked once at the entry. However, before I could enter the reception area, another armed security guard stops me. It is unusual for a mobile wallet firm to have a second layer of security, I think.
However, it doesn’t take me too long to realise the reason behind the additional security check. The office of the country’s largest mobile payments firm One97 Communications Pvt Ltd now also houses Paytm Payments Bank, which was launched in November.
Soon, I get to meet Renu Satti – the Chief Executive Officer of Paytm Payments bank. Bespectacled and sporting short hair, Satti is clad in a printed shirt and a black cardigan. An executive, who spent a considerable time holding senior positions in the human resources departments of many firms in her previous assignments, Satti was appointed to the top post in May 2016, about six months before the actual launch of the bank.
Before this role, Satti was working as the Vice President, Business, at Paytm while heading its ticket booking segment. Under her helm, Paytm gave a tough fight to its bigger rival BookMyShow, which leads the ticket booking business in India.
Satti’s escalation to this role was preceded by an interesting turn of events. Two years ago, Paytm had announced Shinjini Kumar, a former banker, as CEO designate of their payments bank.However, fast forward to May 2016, and Satti was named the CEO, even as Kumar suddenly exited the company citing personal reasons.
There wasn’t a broader clarity on Kumar’s exit from the company. So how did she Satti feel when she was given the chance to lead?
“There was this opportunity that came in front of me. We had a discussion and that’s it,” Satti said, shrugging her shoulders and giving a convincing look.
Many see Satti as one of the closest aides of Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder of Paytm, and it probably explain her selection for the post following a possible misalignment with Kumar. On her Linkedin page, Sharma testifies Satti as someone who has never let him down. “It takes a lot to be Renu. I am yet to meet someone who is equally sincere and committed,” reads the note.
A commerce graduate from Shyama Prasad Mukherjee College situated in Punjabi Bagh area of West Delhi, Satti has been a part of Paytm since its inception.
She joined the company in 2006 to head the human resource department of One97 Communications, which barely had 70 employees at that time. The company was operating in the mobile valued added services space.
Satti had been hired on the back of her years of experience with companies such as Manpower Services and Mother Dairy as a human resource executive.
“The good part of working in a small set up is that even if you are in an HR role, you will get to know everything,” she says, adding that she would inadvertently be involved even in things like taking care of employees who face issues with the company’s servers.
However, after six years of working as an HR executive, Satti wanted to explore a new role.
“I didn’t want to limit myself to just being an HR. Broadly, there was a typical cycle – hire people, do their training, do performance appraisal for them… deal with the issues of salary grievances and so on and so forth,” she said.
While she was evaluating a few offers, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the founder of Paytm, was sure that he didn’t want to lose a diligent employee. Sharma suggested that she experimented within the company instead of moving out.
Soon, Satti was given a business role. It was 2012. Paytm, which would go on to become the country’s largest mobile wallet firm, saw its employee strength increase to around 4,000 people – all of them individually hired by Satti. This personal connect with every employee also helped Satti learn the nuances of her new role.
By this time, One97 Communications had raised at least USD 35 million from Sapphire Ventures, among others.
“Vijay said that you pick up any role and start with it – on the operations side … sales side,” she says.
However, according to Satti, it was easier said than done.
“I was apprehensive. How could I just start doing anything? I didn’t know anything about it,” she said.
Satti picked up the regional structure and was given a team of around 400 people to head. From heading a team of barely a couple of dozen people in the HR department, handling a new vertical that consisted of 400 people was a big task.
Despite the challenge, it didn’t take her long to fit into the shoes of a corporate executive. Perhaps, her commerce degree came in handy.
Even as all this was happening, Paytm was mulling something bigger.
It was 2014 and Paytm was planning to launch its marketplace business. The aim was not to compete directly with e-commerce firms like Flipkart but build a marketplace for unstructured categories as the rest were then focusing more on branded and structured segments such as electronics and books.
It was around that time that Sharma asked Satti to gear up for a new stint.
Paytm was looking for somebody to lead the marketplace business across every market it planned to expand in.
“There were lots of discussions going on and then one day Vijay said why don’t you only take it up,” she says.
Satti, who was by now a pro at switching roles, took up the challenge and headed the marketplace business development segment for one year.
She was given the target of achieving 100,000 merchants.
“The moment my target was achieved, I was like, I needed to get into some other role,” she said with a childlike excitement.
The marketplace was launched in November 2014 and it was soon followed by a strategic investment by Ant Financial Services Group – an affiliate of China’s biggest e-commerce firm Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
Ant Financial agreed to buy 25 percent stake in One97 Communications for about USD 600 million. This was seen as Alibaba’s foray into newer growth avenues as the Chinese market had started to slow down.
Paytm, by now a mobile wallet and a marketplace firm, was planning to build more use cases by now. The idea was to ensure that the customers kept coming back on the platform. It decided to launch travel and movie ticket booking segments.
Satti was again given the mandate to head the new vertical. “When we offered recharge a customer used to come to us once or twice a month. The idea was to build multiple use cases to ensure that the customers kept coming back to the platform. We added utility bills, bus tickets, movie tickets… So the philosophy of the organisation was that we really wanted to cover every use case,” she says.
Born and brought up in Delhi, Satti has three married sisters who stay with their families. Satti lives with her parents in Delhi.
How is Payments Bank different from the other roles? I asked.
According to Satti, a lot of compliance issues have come into play now.
Earlier when CEO Sharma used to ask about a deliverable, she would say yes that will be done.
Now she candidly tells me that she has been asked to say – ‘yes I will check with the compliance’.
The year 2017 was spent by Paytm Payments Bank on building the core structure and putting control and systems in place.
The year 2018 will focus on expansion.
“We have a target to have 100,000 banking outlets deployed across the country,” she says referring to ‘Paytm ka ATM’ offline kiosks.
These ATMs are basically partner outlets where customers can open bank accounts, deposit cash and withdraw money.
The company has plans to invest Rs 3,000 crore over the next three years to expand this offline distribution network.
Talking about improving digital banking in the rural areas, Satti said, “We really want to bring every banking service closer to people. Whatever they want to do in terms of depositing money, withdrawing money, buying financial products, that is where our 2018 focus is going to be.”
She declined to share the amount of deposits made at the bank so far, citing compliance issues. However, she added that it is ‘an impressive’ figure which is reporting growth every month.
“For us, that is not the metric we are choosing right now. Most of our customers are currently wallet customers so we really want to first move them to a savings account,” she said.
Interestingly, all Paytm employees, about 4,500 of them now, have an account in the Paytm Payments Bank where they get their salaries.
Currently, Paytm Payments Bank offers wallet, current and savings account.
Paytm Payments Bank deposits that money in government securities to earn interests as it cannot lend money to customers.
The interest earned from these securities and bonds are to the tune of 5-6 percent while Paytm offers four percent interest on its savings account offering.
It is also in the process of enhancing offerings such as fixed deposits.
“Whenever a customer will have more than Rs 1,00,000 in his savings account, the excess money will automatically get converted into fixed deposit wherein he will earn over 6 percent interest,” she says.
The company did not disclose the target it had in terms of deposit for the coming financial year.
“Our first target was to set up the foundation, second is to increase the number of accounts and then there will be other things. As of now we really want to reach out to all those 500 million customers,” she said.
Speaking more about the planned Rs 3,000 crore investment, Satti said that the money will primarily be used to creating a robust network to reach customers. “It will be a CAPEX investment from our side, plus the cost of KYC is big,” she says, adding that earlier it used to come up to about Rs 120 per person which has now reduced to about Rs 60-80.
As of now the company has received about Rs 400-500 crore as investment.
“This is the fund that has been infused in the entity as of now,” she says.
“As far as more investment is concerned, whenever we will need it we will get it,” she added.
Talking about profitability Satti says that it is a futuristic vision. “We will have to become profitable but whether it will be a matter of two years or three years we will see. We will be working towards it, right now this is a growth phase,” she said.
But Satti is coy when talking about Paytm’s expansion plans.
“We believe that we should build up things rather than buy. That is our core philosophy, however we can always explore an option and can see whenever there is a synergy,” she says.
Amidst cold relations between India and China and a gradual rise in the feeling of nationalism in the country, Paytm’s rival, Mobikwik had tried to pitch itself as the country’s wallet with its campaign “Desh ka wallet” against Paytm which is funded by Alibaba. Additionally, last year Japanese conglomerate Softbank also invested USD 1.4 billion in One97 Communications.
Satti, however, refuses to believe that the firm suffered due to the cold relations between the two countries.
“I hear you but I don’t believe it. Besides, this is absolutely wrong. In fact I can also say that Paytm is a Japanese company because of the recent investment by Softbank. Whenever I go to the market, especially to the village level and the kind of feedback we get from the people is amazing. They love Paytm as a brand because we have solved some of their basic problems,” she said, adding that rural areas and tier 3-4 cities saw great demand for physical debit cards that it launched in January.
“Conventionally we presume that a technology is first adopted by India’s urban population and that the villages are happy just with feature phones. But if you ask me, they are the ones who are really more curious and have rising aspirations.
“The fact that you really have to go to 650 districts and create that kind of a network to build things up. These are the challenges, but I see them more as opportunities,” she said.
Are you scared of a foreign firm entering the Indian market after you have invested so much of time and capital prepping the ground? I ask referring to the entry of WhatsApp into India’s digital payments market.
“Are we scared of it? Not at all. Rather it is good to have competition as it helps you keep challenging yourself,” Satti signs off.