The czar of the Indian IT industry, Azim Premji, has decided to hang up his boots 53 years after he started his entrepreneurial journey. He will step down from his position as executive chairman and managing director of Wipro on July 31, leaving behind a rich corporate legacy. The succession plan he quietly put in place stands out in India Inc., which is known for succession stories riddled with controversies, infighting and bruised egos.
But that’s not the only characteristic that makes him different from stiff-collared promoters and owners with whom one is familiar.
He is known for top-class business integrity, corporate governance, transparency and ethical values. He promoted openness and a non-hierarchical culture in his organisation, where speaking one’s mind was the way of life and the organisation listened to people seriously.
T.K. Kurien, managing partner and chief investment officer at Premji Invest, a venture capital company set up by Azim Premji, says: “You join a job for opportunity. But one stays with a company for its high standard of ethics and values. That company is Wipro.”
Mr. Premji gave philanthropy a different hue altogether. His passion and commitment towards philanthropy are unparalleled in India’s history of giving.
“Premji is not a cheque-writing philanthropist. He is deeply committed to difficult issues like primary education and enhancing quality of teaching. Whatever he does is completely black and white and he leaves no grey areas in anything,” says Krishnakumar Natarajan, one of the co-founders of Mindtree. Mr. Natarajan began his career in Wipro and held various key positions before founding Mindtree. Mr. Premji is the second-richest Indian with a wealth pool of $22.6 billion. The Premji family owns 74.3% of shares in Wipro.
Mr. Premji has pledged 67% of Wipro shares to charity and he is the first Indian to sign the Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffett’s ‘Giving Pledge’ initiative, donating 50% of his wealth.
Dileep Ranjekar, CEO, Azim Premji Foundation, who has worked with Mr. Premji in the last 43 years says: “To begin with, he is a good human being — everything emanates from there — he thought well, meant well and did well with no interest in promoting self. He engaged high quality professionals to man critical roles.
Mr. Premji was barely 21 years old when he joined his father’s company, Western Indian Vegetable Products.
1976 cooking oil crisis
The country witnessed a severe cooking oil shortage in 1976. Most players inflated the cost of their oils by multiple times and made a quick buck then, but Mr. Premji decided to continue to sell his Sunflower Vanaspati at the regular price.
“End of the day, his managers will go to sleep with peace and clean conscience. Because nobody can match Premji and his company when it comes ethical standards,” added Mr. Kurien.
Following his father's sudden demise he had to discontinue his studies at Stanford University. Since then he has been at it with great focus, transforming the cooking oil company to a global tech giant with revenues of over $ 8 billion. It was in 1977 Wipro got its name and it forayed into IT services business in 1982. Ashok Soota, who served as president of Wipro Infotech from 1984 to 1999, calls Mr. Premji a long-distance runner.
“He is someone who well understood the key parameters of success at a very early age. He was not hesitant to try new things. He is a man with no ego issues and he never overruled the decisions of any of his CEOs,” says Mr. Soota, who later co-founded Mindtree and Happiest Minds.
Pradeep Kar, CMD of Microland, who started his career at Wipro in 1983 said: “My learnings from Azim’s [he is fondly known as AHP] and Wipro’s journey are many — hardwork, fairness and an egalitarian approach and a vision for a better world, and a faith that anything can be achieved through education and equal opportunity.”
Co-founder of Infosys N.R. Narayana Murthy, in his media tribute to Mr. Premji on his completing 50 successful years in business three years ago wrote: “Azim is one of the finest exponents of good governance in India. He is the best example for separating management from control.”
“Premji will go down in the annals of history as one of the iconic pioneers of India’s IT sector. He has been a visionary entrepreneur, who has pursued his business with the highest values of good governance. His value system is reflected in his philanthropy,” said Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, CMD, Biocon.