How do you describe a generation-defining business leader who created a global technology corporation based out of India, became the country’s richest citizen, and gave away nearly all his billions during his lifetime? One who lives a simple, private life, with no airs, never in the public eye; and yet a role model to all?
Premji, as we fondly call him, is a true business legend and a compassionate capitalist always striving for business excellence. As the person who built Wipro into a global tech giant that helped transform India, he certainly stands out for his relentless focus on business outcomes in an ethical, sustainable manner. Though he started his tech venture in hardware by assembling computer systems, Premji developed a deep understanding of the software services business. He then ventured into deep tech by trying to build operating systems and products before succeeding in software services. Amongst the big three in India, Wipro was known as the tech leader.
Premji built a formidable team, many of whom went on to start their own companies at a later stage. For many years, Wipro was known for these leaders, but he was the man who kept the company together in an era of rapid growth. His attention to detail, monthly reviews of business, focus on sales and customers, and excellence on delivery was what built Wipro. Premji is extremely hardworking and reserved most times—self-effacing with a sharp sense of humour and a charming smile. Very compassionate, he treated his colleagues as family. Always leading by example, he never took a high compensation for himself and subjected himself to the same rigorous standards of performance as the rest.
A man of high ethical integrity, Premji never broke a rule or compromised on his ethics. He travelled across the globe, created his own network of global business leaders, and is a recognised global business leader himself. His ability to communicate is very impressive: the many speeches he has given at important events are worthy of study for their message by every person in business.
Premji has a keen eye as to what makes a successful conglomerate and balanced out a portfolio of businesses. He is always careful about the company’s funds, keeping a wide separation from his interest as a controlling shareholder, as a CEO of the business and as the chairman of a publicly listed company. A difficult task which he achieved with aplomb because this was natural to him. He started very young, giving up his studies at Stanford on the demise of his father and has been in business for more than 50 years. Very much later he went back to complete his degree—he is not one to leave a task unfinished.
On the personal front, Premji is warm, compassionate and friendly. His thrift is legendary, along the lines of Warren Buffet and N R Narayana Murthy. One often found him in the economy class of airlines, in smaller hotels, smaller cars, sharing the same facilities as his colleagues: a mark of one who respected capital.
As the richest Indian in a poor country, he was acutely aware of his responsibility towards his fellow citizens. In 2001, he set up the Azim Premji Foundation to direct his efforts at helping society. Today he has given away over $25 billion of his personal wealth to his foundation, and founded a university and many other institutions. Most of his holding in Wipro has been given away to his foundation. A man of principles, he has stepped down as chairman and CEO, with his son Rishad taking over as chairman along with professional management. As CEO, Premji led his great team but never behaved or acted as an owner. Very professional and data-based, he has an open, transparent, and collegial approach to running business. He is a man of solitude, very often preferring his monthly treks in the Nilgiris to the company of society. He finds deep solace in nature.He loves his food and is the ideal husband, father and family man.
As CFO of Infosys, I had the opportunity to meet Premji often. He treated me with great respect. Though Wipro and Infosys were competitors, we always shared best practices and challenged each other. For me, meeting Premji, matching wits, learning from him and challenging him was a highlight of our meetings. We argued many a time, but he always listened attentively. We also had wonderful conversations about the responsibilities of great wealth. I still cherish his signed testimonial on an article that featured me where he wrote ‘to the best CFO in India’. Suresh Senapathy, his great CFO, is a wonderful friend but Premji had respect for me too.
So how does one describe a great Indian who believes in his country, achieved so much, gave away the greatest quantum of wealth to society in his lifetime and lives an exemplary simple honest life? As a noble Indian, a patriot who loves his country, as a business leader par excellence, widely respected, as a high achiever who lives a simple austere life, as an ethical giant who lives by his principles and above all, a role model for all of us, our young people, our future generations and for India. A country, howsoever big or great, is defined by its leaders. Azim Hashim Premji is certainly amongst those Indians who defines India by example!
T V Mohandas Pai
Chairman, Aarin Capital Partners