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Banking on design

Banking on design
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First Published: Sun, Sep 26 2010. 09 18 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Sep 26 2010. 09 18 PM IST
What a difference a century makes. Two Mumbai office buildings, constructed nearly 100 years apart, and occupied by the same global investment firm, Deutsche Bank, seem to be polar opposites. The first, DB House in Mumbai’s heritage Fort precinct, was built in 1912, and served as the official Tata residence until 1992. An urban heirloom, it exudes a historic, almost palatial character. The second, the Deutsche Bank office in Nirlon Knowledge Park at Goregaon, is an entirely modern facility, completed in January and located at the city’s northern commercial periphery. Seven times larger than DB House, it boasts cutting-edge computing technology, and a gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating.
DB House is the bank’s resplendent calling card, its front office and corporate headquarters. But the Nirlon facility is the bank’s backbone, the back office that houses its critical operational resources. Both buildings perform entirely different roles.
And, yet, what little difference a century makes.
Both buildings, although dramatically different in style and substance, illustrate the same philosophy: of leveraging architecture and office design to position Deutsche Bank as an upstanding corporate citizen.
This approach is a sophisticated way to differentiate itself from peers, particularly given the intangible nature of the financial services industry, where firms trade on goodwill and reputation. While the bank occupies several offices in India, these Mumbai properties best illustrate its real estate strategy.
Front foot and backbone
Deutsche Bank acquired Tata Palace, as DB House was earlier known, in 1992 and converted its residential interiors into corporate headquarters for senior management and certain business units. In 2004, conservation architect Abha Narain Lambha was engaged to enhance the building’s architectural beauty, including restoring its expansive courtyard, statue-lined terrace and stone Baroque façade. Paintings by masters such as S.H. Raza decorate its walls—Deutsche Bank’s Indian arm owns 320 pieces of Indian and German artworks, echoing the bank’s global policy of collecting art.
The gleaming ivory structure is today a local landmark, visibly identified with its owner, as Gunit Chadha, CEO, Deutsche Bank, India, affirms. “The corporate and institutional client recollection of Deutsche is very clearly around our investment bank, how we built such a large equity and bond franchise, or around this lovely white building,” he says, adding, “we use it extensively as an advertorial with our retail and private banking clientele as well.”
A different set of concerns motivated Deutsche Bank to occupy a dedicated building at the Nirlon Knowledge Park. About 1,200 employees in the bank’s infrastructure, retail banking and custody units were previously scattered among multiple sites in Mumbai and needed aggregation. The performance metrics for the new facility were clearly specified during planning and construction. It had to be safe, secure and resilient given the data-intensive nature of its operations. Cost concerns and employee comfort were balanced, as chief operating officer Shrinath Bolluju describes, “We met our objective of providing a good working environment for our staff, better productivity and keeping running costs flat.”
Most importantly, compliance with the parent company’s stated aspiration of being a carbon-neutral business by 2013 was mandatory. The Nirlon facility ticks all the requisite boxes of a gold LEED–rated interior fitout, with better daylight strategy and building management systems to reduce energy consumption, shared dedicated bins, rather than individual dustbins at desks, to recycle waste and measures to decrease water consumption.
Brand values
Art and cultural heritage, and the environment, are two distinct domains. In the realm of architecture, however, both can be underpinned by a common purpose: They function as excellent vehicles for a company such as Deutsche Bank to subtly express its individual character and brand values.
DB House reinforces the company’s European origins in its customers’ minds. “We have deep respect, as a firm, for the roots in which it all started, which is Germany, which is where the spirit of the arts and culture of this building comes from,” says Chadha. The heritage building augments employee pride and is a magnet for clients, with its intriguing legacy, vintage chandeliers, sweeping staircase and priceless art collection. Chadha testifies that although “investment banking is a business where 99.9% of the time the bankers sit in the clients’ offices”, clients are drawn to DB House, and “the amount of client pitches we have in this building is pretty unusual for our industry”. The financial returns go beyond client appreciation—artistic masterpieces are lucrative investments in themselves for the bank.
Just as art and cultural heritage provide the perfect gambit for closer client relations in the front office, an environment-friendly back-office facility can boost a company’s credentials. Such buildings reap financial returns in the long term by delivering cost savings, and allow the company to communicate its noble business intentions to external stakeholders. Given LEED’s emphasis on maximizing natural light and indoor air quality, they are usually more pleasant work environments for employees too.
The bottom line of design
Although both vehicles are attractive design tools to articulate brand values, they have their challenges. DB House’s limited size constrains headcount expansion and collaborative working, especially between trading desks which require vast, unbroken floor plates. “Banking today demands an agile and responsive infrastructure which is best provided in a modern, state-of-the-art building like Nirlon,” says Bolluju.
Relying on LEED as a defining design feature for a new building can limit imagination in other respects. The Nirlon facility suffers from the “global airport lounge” syndrome, where office design is determined by standardized templates, lacking contextual relevance. Its interiors are well-lit and spacious, but the furniture layout and colour palette are monotonous. “We had evolved a more contemporary, Indian-inspired, customized solution but the client decided to adhere to their global standards,” says Ravi Sarangan, executive director of Edifice Consultants, the architects engaged for the interior fitout.
These flaws are overshadowed, however, by Deutsche Bank’s competence in positioning, maintaining and operating its properties. The multinational bank’s ability to strategically maximize returns from its real estate investments is an accounting trick that many Indian companies have yet to acquire.
Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Sep 26 2010. 09 18 PM IST