For a man with no tech background, unlike all his rivals such as NR Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani, Shiv Nadar and S Ramadorai, all of whom were trained engineers, Azim Premji stayed on top of developments in the rapidly-changing IT industry thanks to an acute sense of curiosity
Azim Premji defies all our notions of what rich billionaires are like and how successful business leaders live. His modest lifestyle would put to shame most businessmen and even many corporate leaders, particularly when you set that against his achievements. Not too many men have built a $10 billion conglomerate in their lifetime; and run them profitably, which as we know now is even more difficult. Consider Vijay Mallya, for instance, who at 28 inherited a multi-million dollar business empire spanning industries as diverse as liquor, processed foods and pharmaceuticals in 1983. Over the next 30 years, he destroyed it all.
When 21-year-old Premji inherited Western India Vegetable Products after his father passed away, it was a tiny company with barely $2 million in revenue. Over the next 50 years, he built hugely successful businesses in software, consumer products, medical equipment and industrial engineering. The Wipro group, as we know it today, bears little resemblance to the fledgeling firm he had inherited in terms of scale and success.
As if that wasn’t enough, he then proceeded to build an impressive philanthropic organisation funded entirely by his own wealth and addressing the vital field of education. It wasn’t a sideshow, a conscience-cleaner as it were. It became the goal of his life, and so by 2020, he had transferred $21 billion, amounting to 90 percent of his wealth, to the philanthropic foundation.
Yet, we need to recognise this man not just for his success in business or even the mighty heart he has, but also for showing the way to achieve all this with grace and dignity while continuing to be reclusive and media-shy. In an era when even politicians have teams of flacks feeding excruciating details of their lives to the media, Premji positively abhors self-promotion of any kind.
But then he is an unusual man in most ways. Abdul Razzaq Ganj who joined the company’s vegetable oils business in 1975 and left five years later says that when he was leaving Premji told him: “You have no idea what this company will become.” Ganj says he should never have doubted the man.
That’s because there was never any doubt about where he was headed and the methods wouldn’t change no matter what. Always a workaholic, in the 1980s when he would take the train for regular visits to the company’s plant in Amalner, delays were common. Premji would use the time not to fret or fume but to catch up on reviews with colleagues travelling with him.
For a man with no tech background, unlike all his rivals such as NR Narayana Murthy, Nandan Nilekani, Shiv Nadar and S Ramadorai, all of whom were trained engineers, Premji stayed on top of developments in the rapidly-changing IT industry thanks to an acute sense of curiosity. People talk about the marathon interviews before he hired anyone. That’s how he was in the 1970s when it was just a 25-person single product company hiring a purchase manager who he kept asking “what else” and that’s how it continued even when he was hiring the CEO for the company’s US business.
That he could recruit people from bluechip companies such as Union Carbide and Hindustan Levers at a time when Western Indian Vegetable Oil Co was barely a speck, also shows his powers of persuasion and undoubted charisma.
Above all his ethical standards are inviolable. When a taxi driver refused to go by the meter to a particular destination claiming he wouldn’t get any customers for the way back, Premji told him he would pay double the amount if he went by the meter.
Former Nasscom chairman Som Mittal, who headed Wipro’s hardware business between 1988 and 1993 recalls a time in 1992 when he accompanied Premji to Japan for a meeting with officials from Seiko Epson. Once they were back in India, Mittal got a small hand-written note from Premji with a two-liner saying “Som, we went to Seiko Epson and they gave us a watch and it looks more expensive than $8. I have given mine to HR.” Needless to say, Mittal did the same.
There is also his now-legendary frugality which has given him the reputation of being an Uncle Scrooge. Mostly the image is justified because despite his billions he insists on leading a simple life with none of the trappings that serve as markers for most other billionaires. No private jets, no expensive cars, no chalets abroad and even though he likes good Indian non-vegetarian food, it is the quality of the dish rather than the star status of the restaurant that appeals to him.
Nearly 45 years ago, a food inspector told a young man considering a career with a then-unknown vegetable oils company: “Close your eyes and join it because it is a very honest company.” About the 28-year-old man who was running it, he warned: “He’s a very young man but don’t be fooled by his age.” You could say the same about Azim Premji at 75 as he plunges himself full time into his philanthropic foundation.
(Sundeep Khanna is the co-author of Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions which will hit the stands next week. Views are personal.)