After T (the terminator) left, a new general manager (GM) arrived – David Moore. He was the total antithesis of T—short, thin, thick blond hair, no glasses and a mousy countenance. Rumour had it that the managing director (MD) had selected him because he had hated having a domineering GM who was also bigger and taller than him.
I met David frequently but kept my distance.
Four months after T had left, David summoned me to discuss the credit card department. I was surprised. I had nothing to do with credit cards—the unit reported directly to the GM. What did the GM have in mind, I wondered.
David showed me a preliminary report from internal audit which was most unusual because the report had been issued after the very first day of audit. The reason became apparent in minutes—there were big audit issues in credit cards, and the head of audit had decided to draw the GM’s attention to the lapses immediately instead of waiting to issue a full report.
The report mentioned a number of points which were technical, such as 'chargebacks were soaring' which I did not understand. But one point caught my eye—the ‘pay order’ account had a huge debit balance.
Bankers among you will grasp that this simply could not happen. The pay order account in any bank always had a credit balance because pay orders were continuously issued, at which times the account was credited, and only when a pay order came in through clearing was the account debited. Since there always would be a number of pay orders out there which were yet to come back through clearing, the account would always be in credit balance.
A debit balance in the pay order account meant that something was seriously wrong—perhaps even a fraud.
I glanced up to see a very worried look on David’s face. He said, “There’s something wrong here. I want you to go and take a look around and give me a report on what we need to do.”
“Why me?” I asked, “I know nothing about credit cards.”
“Never mind, just go and have a look. Just a couple of hours.”
I set off for the credit card department which had recently relocated to two full floors in a huge commercial building. I did not know what to expect. I had only a passing acquaintance with the department’s previous manager, whom T had enticed to move to the bank which T had joined. His replacement was one John Miles whom I had never met. The new GM had brought him in from a British ‘high street’ bank.
When I walked into the credit card office, a bizarre sight met my eye. Numerous tables lay higgledy-piggledy in a huge hall, each pointing in a different direction. It appeared that the intended layout had envisaged positioning the tables all facing the same way in orderly lines and rows, and electrical points had been installed on the floor accordingly. Now that the tables had been positioned in some random manner, electric cables lay everywhere. I nearly tripped over one.
The manager, John Miles, was sitting behind a large glass table cluttered with papers and files. After being seated opposite him I saw a memo, marked 'confidential', from the GM lying amongst them. It was dated three months earlier. Apparently, John had yet to deal with it and had kept it lying around for any visitor to see.
My first question to John was, “Why are all the tables placed in this wonky way?”
John replied “Well, I did want them to all point the same way, like it said in the plan, but the staff would not listen. They moved their tables as they liked. There was nothing I could do about it—I was so busy.”
This opener was a good indication about John’s management skills!
As our conversation proceeded, it became obvious that he did not have a clue about what was happening in his department. Every question of mine received a wooly reply: “I am not sure”, “I will have to check”, “I will come back to you on this one” and so on.
I realised that I was not going to get much joy from John. I had to talk to the chaps on the floor.
The pay order account was uppermost on my mind. I asked John, “Who looks after the pay order account?”
John scratched his head and said, “Rahim, I think. No, no, it must be Rajan…….yes, Rajan.”
I left John’s cabin and went in search of Rajan. He turned out to be a wispy looking guy who did not seem to have much of a clue either. I fired some questions at him, obvious ones from my banking experience, but his answers got me nowhere. He contradicted himself, gave me blank looks and dithered.
Finally, I lost my cool and told him, “Listen, Rajan, I don’t know anything about credit cards, but I do know all about pay orders. You have been handling pay orders, so you should know the answers to my questions.”
Rajan’s eyes lit up. “But, sir, I don’t handle pay orders. I am in sales. I am sitting here because Pradeep is on leave. He handles pay orders, not me.”
That put the lid on it as far as I was concerned. Far from knowing why the pay order account had a debit balance, John Miles did not even know who handled this bit of the business.
I decided that I had found out enough. Besides, my two hours were over and I had tons of work waiting on my own desk.
I returned to my office and prepared a terse three para report for the GM. Briefly, it said: 1. There are major problems in credit cards. 2. John Miles is incompetent and should be replaced immediately. 3. A task force should be set up to sort out the mess.
The next morning, the GM summoned me again. This time I found four other goras, all being heads of various departments, sitting around with grim looks on their faces. I said to myself, “Good, all hands on deck to clean up the mess.”
But that was not the reason why they were there.
David didn’t start the meeting with a discussion on the problem at hand. Instead he said, “You have written that John Miles should be removed. Why?”
“Because he has allowed his department to get into a big mess, and he doesn’t have a clue about what is going on and how to fix it.”
“But you spent just two hours there! How can you reach this conclusion in such a short time?” the GM asked peevishly.
“David,” I replied, “you asked me to go in there and report what I found. I have done exactly that.”
There was a pregnant pause. Then one gora said “We can’t fire John. His parents are visiting soon and Christmas is just round the corner.”
That got my goat. The goras had ganged up to save one of their own. I decided to let them have it.
“When Gopal Nawaney was fired last month, just before Diwali, did you pause to think that Diwali was around the corner? And when Bashir Ahmed was fired a month before Eid, did you say – Eid is just around the corner? Why think of Christmas when it comes to John Miles?”
There was a stunned silence.
I went on to say, “The level of incompetence that John has shown deserves instant dismissal. If you spare him, the whole bank will know that you are favouring him.”
“But you are an Indian, a very senior man. You can convince them, can’t you?” pleaded the GM.
“Yes, I can convince them that our management is fair, but only if you terminate John Miles,” I said, somewhat daringly.
I realised that all these goras, starting with the GM himself, were racists.
As you would expect, the meeting ended abruptly.
(To be continued……..)
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)
Would like to know what happened next.