The world knows him as one of the richest persons on the planet. But, 73-year-old Azim Premji is a self-proclaimed ‘scrooge’ and unlike others, he’s rather detached from the billions he has accumulated during his 53-year stint at Wipro Ltd. Come July, Premji will bid adieu to his illustrious corporate career to pursue full-time philanthropy, towards which he has already pledged an eye-popping $21 billion or two-thirds of his wealth.
His entrepreneurial streak and business acumen were discovered at a tender age of 21, when he took over the family business following the untimely demise of his father in 1966.Premji was probably unprepared for the task, but that opportunity eventually saw him evolving into an accidental, but highly successful businessman, and Wipro, from a mere $2 million entity into the $11 billion business that the venture is today.
While he nurtured the company (then making vegetable oil) with all he had, what turned around its fortunes was Premji’s bet on information technology. In 1980, just when the world was embarking on computerisation, Wipro caught the IT-bug early by foraying into the production of personal computers.
Gradually, Wipro expanded into IT services and a decade later emerged as the country’s first entity to receive an ISO certification.
Even as the company made rapid strides in the burgeoning IT sector, Premji neither ignored nor gave up on its traditional consumer business. In fact, it continued to excel here, with some of its brands like Santoor soaps and Wipro baby care products raking in handsome revenue. This prompted the unstoppable Premji to further diversify Wipro into other businesses like energy, launching compact fluorescent lamps, and medical devices in partnership with GE Healthcare.
But, the journey was not without its ups and downs. Just when the going was getting good for the IT business, with the TCS-Infosys-Wipro-Satyam quartet jostling for contracts to crack into the $1-billion revenue club, Premji had to weather a storm of senior-level exits.
Several key executives like Krishnakumar Natarajan, Ashok Soota, Rostow Ravanan and Subroto Bagchi, and Suresh Vasawani quit the company, either to start new ventures (like Mindtree) or to join competitors.
The biggest blow came from the exit of Vivek Paul, creating a leadership vacuum and compelling Premji to get into the driver seat as Wipro’s CEO.But, the IT czar managed to steady the ship and, perhaps learning a lesson or two, has built a robust second-rung management to handle tough times.
Premji’s son, Rishad Premji, will now take over the mantle as executive chairman for five years once his father steps down, while the firm’s CEO Abidali Z Neemuchwala will double up as its MD, subject to shareholders’ approval.
The transition may have been in the making for nearly a decade, but the timing will be challenging for the new captain at the helm. Recently, HCL Technologies dethroned Wipro as the third largest Indian IT services firm, while the gap between its other formidable peers TCS and Infosys is widening rapidly.
Wipro is not only growing slower than others but has also given bleak future growth projections, perhaps the most disappointing among the top five. Clearly, Premji’s exit marks the end of an era for Wipro and its employees and investors will look up to Rishad to chart a new beginning.