June 20, 2024
Business Featured

A CFO and a Trailblazer

The inspiring tale of Mrs Bindu A.L. who braved odds to reach the

top of the corporate ladder at Manappuram Finance

The story of Mrs Bindu A.L., the self-made CFO and President of Manappuram Finance, is awe-inspiring, to put it mildly. Born in Potta near Chalakudy in Kerala’s Thrissur, she was the second of peasant couple Lonappan and Rosily’s three children.

Education was not a priority for her dad, especially when it came to his girl child. He was trying to save enough to marry her off once she turned 18. “Luckily for me, there were a few teachers in our neighbourhood and I used to play with their children, so I drew inspiration to study by watching them,” she says. She surprised her teachers and neighbours by becoming the topper in her class in the lower divisions. “During harvest, my brother and I would take leave from school to help out mom. So, I knew that the choice was to study well and get a job or work in the paddy field,” she says.

Her lucky break came in the form of an Air Force job for her elder brother who assured her that she could go on studying to her heart’s content. Thus, she enrolled for pre-degree at the St Joseph’s College in the nearby town of Irinjalakuda.

She may have been one of the best performing students in her school but St Joseph’s attracted the cream of students from the district. “I could manage only the fourth group (commerce) with my marks. My wish was for the second group so that I could take up nursing later,” she says. Little did she know that inadvertently, she had made the best career choice of her life! Sister Rose Bastin, one of the teachers, assured the students that the fourth group was gaining in prominence and that they could later try for ‘CA’, a magical acronym that she was hearing for the first time. After clearing pre-degree in first class, she joined the Panampilly Memorial College nearer home for her BCom.
By the time she cleared the degree with a respectable 73%, she was determined to pursue CA even though there were many naysayers. “They said it was impossible to clear that exam but I wanted to take it up nevertheless. I told myself that even if I failed, I would still get enough practical training to land an accountant’s job. As ever, my brother was supportive,” she says.

One day, she and her dad went to the office of Mohandas & Associates in Thrissur. “Mohandas sir was impressed with my grades and took me in,” she says. “The firm was in its 10th year but till then, no trainee had been able to qualify in the exam.”

What happened next could perhaps be explained as divine providence, says the deeply religious Bindu. Mohandas deputed her to handle the accounts of Manappuram Finance, a listed company of the region. Even as she gained valuable experience during the articleship, she also went on clearing the various papers of her course, surprising those in the office as well as herself. In fact, she had cleared all but one group in the final exam when a job offer came from Manappuram. “MD sir (Mr V.P. Nandakumar) was impressed with my resume,” she recalls. She joined as assistant manager in June 1998 in the Thrissur office, which was then the headquarters and bagged her CA degree too not long afterwards.

The following year proved to be momentous for more reasons than one. All of a sudden, Manappuram, shifted its focus from vehicle finance to gold loan. Bindu was deputed to the Valapad office and along with her seniors, they had to frame policies from scratch and prepare documentation. It was the same year that she got married to Mr Benny, an NRI. The gold loan business took off fast and more branches were opened. Soon, Valapad became the head office and the nerve centre of the operations. At the centre of it all was Bindu who grew along with the company. “Those days were hard as we had to put systems in place. I used to stay in the hostel and it was very challenging when I conceived.”

What helped was the constant support from Mr Nandakumar, the visionary leader of Manappuram. Even as the company grew, the main challenge was to get funds as banks were not comfortable lending money to gold loan companies. But first ICICI, then Fullerton and subsequently SBI sanctioned big amounts to support Manappuram’s expansion plans. Achievements were also accompanied by stiff challenges like the liquidity crisis that the company faced in 2012. After a lot of restructuring and rebuilding, the company was again back on track and Bindu was made the CFO in January 2019. “Rating upgrade was another milestone and that helped in getting the needed credit,” says Bindu. “MD sir and I went and presented our credentials before the rating agency and we got the AA rating.” It was in the same year that she was sent to Harvard Business School for a course. “Our MD is a great believer is continuing education and upskilling. I did a course at IIM Ahmedabad and then the one at Harvard, which was a tremendous learning experience,” she says.

The company reached its peak in the pre-Covid years and is now pursuing a path of vigorous diversification. “It is the trust reposed in me by Nandakumar sir that helped me during this journey of a quarter century,” says the CFO who would complete 25 years in Manappuram in June this year. The dollar bond that the company launched in 2020 and the road show that followed in countries like Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK is another milestone that she cherishes.

Never did she ever feel disadvantaged because of her gender, she says. “There was a time when I had two little kids at home and had to travel by bus late in the evenings every day. MD sir would allow me to leave early but I always made it a point to lead from the front. I think in our dealings with investors and external stakeholders, being a lady was actually an advantage because people treated one with respect.” In February this year, the CII chose her as a ‘Leading Woman CFO of the Year’, an award that followed on the heels of her being designated President by her company. Within days of that recognition, the Thrissur Management Association presented her with the ‘Best Woman Manager’ award.

Awards, for her, are unexpected byproducts of her sustained efforts to pitchfork the company to a trajectory of high growth. “The journey of diversification that we started in 2014 hit some roadblocks because of Covid-19 but now we are back. Every year, we have been coming up with new products, each of which hold a lot of promise. As the fundamentals are very strong, there is no doubt that we can achieve greater heights in the years to come,” she concludes

Pic Courtesy: pegasus photography/ images are subject to copyright

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