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‘Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions’ review: The making of an entrepreneur and a philanthropist

The story of a person can be inspiring. The authors have chosen their subject well, for, everyone knows of Azim Premji, but few truly know what makes the man.

A book about such a person, if well-written, may possibly inspire the reader into action. In this case, soon after you read the book, it’s difficult not to look up the Azim Premji Foundation website, to see if it had any volunteering opportunities, even if you have done nothing like it before!

In chronicling any life, it is easy to get mired down with mind-numbing detail that comes your way if you are sifting through 50-odd years’ worth of the protagonist’s hits and misses. The authors have done well to stick to the most interesting parts of Premji’s life. Two things stand out across events and across time: his integrity and a penchant for frugality.

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Zest for austerity

His insistence on paying for personal calls made on his office phone is legendary. His friends know of his love for cars but also about his unwillingness to spend fanciful amounts on one.

He once wanted to buy a Fiat that was registered in Wipro’s name. He got the finance department involved in the discussion as he wanted to play by the rules and pay for the purchase. But with depreciation, the car’s value was zero to the company. The transaction did not go through.

At one point, his friends were agog with excitement at his purchase of a Mercedes, but it was... hold your breath... a second-hand one!

At another time, when his team was preparing to welcome clients on a visit to headquarters, and took Premji over the arrangements that included meals from a five-star hotel, he quipped, “If our cafeteria is good enough for our employees, it should be good enough for clients too!”

It’s probably the same zest for austerity that had him pleased while on a U.S. visit, when two of his senior-most executives bought lunch for the three of them at a Burger King outlet for less than $7.50! And, this was a man who didn’t bat an eyelid when an employee of the vegetable oils business lost ₹25 lakh in a year in a trading position.

A long journey

The book chronicles the journey of Wipro from the time the Premjis put down roots in Mumbai. It throws light on the man’s spirit of entrepreneurship, as the company cautiously experimented with opportunities — expanding from vegetable oils to engineering products, computer hardware, tech services and consumer care and lighting. It also does not shy away from some of Wipro’s missteps such as the investment in financial services, a business which withered away despite the group’s entry into the space after much thought and preparation.

His management style

While doing justice to the man’s talent for perseverance, the authors have touched upon his management style that many say cramped some CEOs under his chairmanship. His taking over as CEO in 2005 after the abrupt exit of Vivek Paul, said to have been primed for the post, or his decision to have a joint CEO structure soon after, at a time when competitors were blazing ahead, had raised eyebrows in the world of IT services at the time.

The reader may get the sense that the authors occasionally sound deferential when talking about the man or his family. But, it’s difficult not to be overawed by someone who has never sold a single share in his company but who chose to give away $21 billion worth of wealth to his foundation, leaving his two sons with shares valued at about ₹65 crore. How can one give away so much wealth and still, on the morning the news about the latest transfer to the foundation breaks, irritably ask an employee — who speaks of congratulatory messages overwhelming social media — “What’s all the fuss about?” ?

This book is a must-read for anyone who can read English.

Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions; Sundeep Khanna, Varun Sood, HarperCollins, ₹699.

bharatkumar.k@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 2:17:32 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/azim-premji-the-man-beyond-the-billions-review-the-making-of-an-entrepreneur-and-a-philanthropist/article33578871.ece

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