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Can Nandita Bakhshi Turn Bank of the West into a Growth Story?

If Nandita Bakhshi's resume were a suitcase, it would be covered with travel stickers.

Bakhshi has made a number of stops in a wide-ranging, 28-year banking career. They include managing director of mobile solutions at First Data in the U.K. and Germany, head of consumer deposits and payments at Washington Mutual in Seattle, and her most recent job as North American head of direct channels at TD Bank in Toronto.

But now she has really arrived.

Bank of the West in San Francisco announced last week that it had selected Bakhshi, 57, to replace Michael Shepherd as its next president and chief executive. She is expected to join Bank of the West, a unit of French banking giant BNP Paribas, as a CEO-in-training on April 1 and will take the helm officially on June 1, when Shepherd transitions to a new role as chairman of BNP Paribas' U.S. holding company.

Bakhshi received word of her hiring while she was out celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary with her husband earlier this month. It capped a months-long courtship that began in the fall when Shepherd, 60, first told his board and his bosses at BNP Paribas that he was ready to scale back his responsibilities. In Bakhshi, the $75.7 billion-asset Bank of the West is getting a proven leader with a strong record of innovation and reputation for getting the most out of her teams, Shepherd said in an interview Friday.

"Our bank is performing well and it has a strong foundation, and it's now time for a dynamic, execution-oriented business leader to propel us to stronger performance in the future," Shepherd said.

Bakhshi would become just the fourth woman to head a top-40 bank, joining KeyCorp's Beth Mooney, Ally Bank's Diane Morais and CIT Bank's Ellen Alemany. But while Bakhshi said she is "proud" to join such select company, she rebuffed any efforts to attach historical significance to her hiring.

"I am delighted to be the CEO of Bank of the West … and I know that in my position I will help women and men reach their career goals," she said in an interview. "I know our industry is evolving [but] I really hope we get to a place where we talk about a CEO without calling them a female CEO."

Bakhshi, who was born and raised in India, began her banking career in the U.S. working as a part-time teller. She worked her way up to many high-ranking positions since then, including running TD Bank's entire retail banking operation, but observers says the experience of working one-on-one with customers has always stuck with her.

"The fact that she started on the front lines gives her not only credibility, but perspective on what it takes to best serve customers," said Deborah Bianucci, the president and chief executive officer at BAI. "I think that, along with her strong communication skills and her track record, gives her great influence with the people who are in her organization."

Bakhshi also has a track record of innovation. At FleetBoston, where she served as executive vice president of products and channels, she was credited with implementing the first talking ATMs for the visually impaired. At Washington Mutual, she was instrumental in helping to build an online account-opening platform that was among the first of its kind in the industry.

Bakhshi will be joining a company that has a lot going for it but also faces its share of challenges. On the plus side, Bank of the West posted record profits in 2015 and enjoys a strong reputation with customers in its markets. It ranked No. 3 out of 32 banks in American Banker's annual bank reputation survey in 2015 and was ranked No. 3 in California in J.D. Power's annual customer satisfaction rankings last year. It's also one of the nation's fastest-growing small-business lenders.

Its big challenge is improving its returns on assets and equity, which lag those of its regional-bank peers. Shepherd said key to that effort is diversifying its revenue streams so that fee income accounts for a higher percentage of overall revenues. Bank of the West has more than 560 branches in 19 states. More than half of its branches are in California.

Bakhshi said she plans to spend roughly the first three months visiting with employees across the organization, particularly with those on the front lines, to learn what's working well and what's not.

"While I know retail banking, commercial banking, small-business banking, cash management, I'm going to be in a mode where I'm listening to my colleagues describe how things work at Bank of the West," she said. The aim, she added, is to figure out what Bank of the West could be doing better and, "importantly, keep, cherish and sustain what is working."

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