Azim Premji: Tech Titan, Leader & The Man Who Had To Abort Stanford Midway
No Ordinary Man
After leading Wipro for 53 years, Azim Premji called it a day on June 6. And with that, the curtain fell on a long and illustrious journey. The 74-year-old, who had to cut short an engineering course in Stanford and return to India to pick up the family baton after his father’s death in 1966, has guided the cooking oil company through the decades, leading its transition into a successful IT major. And it was under his stewardship that Wipro listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2000, and became the fastest wealth creator in five years (1997-2002).
Not Just Tech
Azim Premji has made headlines beyond IT, and beyond staggering numbers. His leadership skills - high on integrity and corporate governance - have been cited as an example for the tech (and non-tech, too) industry to follow. Add to that his intensity, ethics and never-say-die attitude, and there emerges a leader-mentor-motivator, who has left an impression on millions of Wipro employees, past and present.
In Pic: BJP leader Pramod Mahajan (left) with industrialist Rahul Bajaj, Wipro chief Azim Premji, NASSCOM boss Dewang Mehta and Infosys chief N R Narayana Murthy during the first meeting of the advisory committee on information technology (IT) in New Delhi on February 21, 2000.
In his last letter to shareholders, the Wipro doyen reiterated that the company will continually adapt to scale new heights as the world changes while remaining firmly committed to its values. The ever-pragmatic Premji, always a step ahead of time, is known to be a keen observer of trends. And it comes as no surprise that some of the keywords in the IT veteran’s last note to shareholders included Digital, Cloud, Engineering Services and Cyber Security. In sync with a changed world, Premji emphasised that the group will “step up investments significantly in these four big bets”.
Another cause close to the septuagenarian’s heart that found a mention in his note is environment. He minced no words as he wrote that “much of the economic progress in the world has come at the cost of climate change and therefore we have a responsibility towards creating a sustainable community”. He reaffirmed Wipro’s renewed focus on the green cause, highlighting the fact that renewable energy is used majorly in operations and “contributes to 40% of total consumption”.
In Pic: Premji flags off the 13th edition of Spirit of Wipro run - an annual event organised by Wipro that sees participation of employees, family, friends and customers - in Bengaluru, on September 23, 2018.
A Heart Of Gold
It’s not just his pioneering leadership and steering Wipro into a successful business entity while staying committed to integrity that define this tech titan who was ranked 755th on the Forbes Global 2000 List in 2016. The quintessential Premji is the man known for having a heart of gold. And it reflects in the fact that he has committed earnings from approximately 34 per cent shares of Wipro that would be transferred to his eponymous philanthropic initiative. Earlier this year in March, when he had pledged over Rs 50,000 crore - one of the biggest endowments in Asia - to the Azim Premji Foundation, he ended up joining the big league of magnanimous “givers” like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates.
In Pic: Former governor of Maharashtra Mohammad Fazal (left) gives the 'Eminent Businessman of the Year' award to Azim H Premji, in Mumbai on December 2, 2002.
Wisdom & Wealth
But being in such august company has not affected the way he views material wealth. For Premji, wealth remains a trusteeship, and should not be used as ownership under any circumstance. In 2017, when he was conferred the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy during a ceremony held at the New York Public Library, he invoked Gandhi’s teachings and posed: When one is showered [with] wealth beyond what one deserves, I think the question really arises, what does one really do with this wealth?
In Pic: Robin Saxby, chairman, ARM Technologies, UK, presents the prestigious 'Faraday Medal, 2005' to Azim Premji (left) in Bangalore on November 12, 2005.
An Eye For Detail
Magnanimity apart, he is also known for his simple living. Those close to him, and who have worked with him, swear by the fact that this billionaire does not believe in flamboyance and extravagance. Instead, for him attention lies in the (minutest) detail. Ashok Soota (Executive Chairman, Happiest Minds) recalls an episode from 1984 when he was interviewing for the position of President for IT Business in Wipro. And while Premji interacted with the aspirant over several days, he also made it a point to meet all the references whom Soota had listed and took detailed notes.
In Pic: (Seated from left) Wipro chairman, Azim Premji, PepsiCo chairman, Indra Nooyi, HDFC chairman, Deepak Parekh; (standing from left) Bharti chairman and group CEO, Sunil Mittal, Unilever Asia and Africa head, Harish Manwani, AV Birla Group chairman, Kumar Mangalam Birla, StanChart group chief executive, Peter Sands, and Deutsche Bank global markets head, Anshu Jain - the jury for the 10th Economic Times Awards for Corporate Excellence on September 24, 2008.
Keeping It Simple!
Premji may have amassed wealth, and become a tech titan but he remains moored in his middle-class values. A fiercely private man, he has rarely made headlines for a lavish lifestyle. Stories abound of him still taking the economy class while flying. And it is probably this set of ingrained values that has helped him navigate Wipro with a professional touch, despite being a proprietor. Dilip Ranjekar, CEO of Azim Premji Foundation, has worked with Premji for over 43 years and seen him from close quarters. He says that “there is no flashiness, no flaunting” which helped him run a tight ship at Wipro. In Pic: Azim Premji (c) with son Rishad and wife Yasmeen.
No Substitute For Hard Work
Premji has always believed that hard work reaps dividends and has himself acknowledged on multiple occasions that he does “work very hard”. As the world becomes competitive, and people become bright and effective, he feels that “the person who works harder, generally tends to win in terms of peer group”. And that goes on to explain why, after a gap of almost 30 years, India’s tech titan himself signed up for correspondence classes in 1995 to complete his engineering degree from Stanford that he had to abandon midway.
In Pic: Azim Premji, Anil Ambani and Cyrus Mistry during the launching of 'DIGITAL INDIA' week in Delhi.