The Boss

Azim Premji

The Wipro chairman is a frugal billionaire who doesn't compromise on his principles

In May 2014, Azim Premji was invited by the Michigan State University to be the commencement speaker at their undergraduate convocation where he was to receive an honorary doctorate. Anurag Behar who co-heads the Azim Premji Foundation along with Dileep Ranjekar was co-ordinating his travel arrangements. He has a rather amusing story to tell.

“They [the university authorities] asked me if they had to block any slots at the local airport. I told them that he was flying commercial and that one of our employees is driving him from the Detroit Airport. They were shocked that he was travelling commercial. Next, they asked me how many rooms needed to be booked and I told them two rooms since I was going to be there to help co-ordinate everything. ‘What about security?’ they asked. I told them that he doesn’t travel with security. They couldn’t believe that the CEO of a multi-billion dollar conglomerate was travelling without security or the usual frills and could be so simple. I think they must have gone back and secretly checked his net worth again,” he laughs.

But the icing on the cake was Premji’s horrified reaction when he saw the room assigned to him. “Why the hell did you book such a big room for me?” he asked Behar. “I had to explain to him that he was the guest of honour and hence, was given the presidential suite,” recollects Behar. Amusing as the story is, it tells us more about the person that Azim Hasham Premji really is. Behind the title of being one of the richest Indians or a tech czar is a man of frugal taste.

Azim Premji was studying electrical engineering at Stanford University in 1966 when his father’s sudden death meant that he had to return to India to run his family’s business, Western Indian Vegetables Products that was into manufacturing vanaspati, a type of thick hydrogenated vegetable oil. Till then, managing the family business had never crossed his mind, he was more interested in doing developmental work with the World Bank.

But after taking over the reins of the family business, the young Premji was clear he was going to professionalise the business. “He learnt everything on his own: accounting practices and reporting formats. His first priority was to bring in a culture built on strong values,” says Ranjekar, one of the earliest people to join the company in 1976. Ranjekar was 25 when he joined the company after completing his masters from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and was given the job of professionalising the factory and rationalising the work force.

Anurag Behar, Co-CEO, Azim Premji FoundationSo Premji began putting in processes in place, hiring professionals from the IIMs and gave them the freedom to fix prices and held staff meetings every Monday to drive weekly improvements long before it became fashionable to have conference calls. The factory was in Amalner, a small town about eight hours from Bombay. During summer, production would drop as the workers would complain of the withering heat and the company couldn’t afford air conditioning. This didn’t go down well with Premji, who decided to move to Amalner for one summer and the factory has not recorded a dip in productivity during the summer since.

Building up, branching out

While the business was back on track, Premji realised that with government restrictions, it would not be possible to scale the vanaspati business significantly. So he diversified, first into soaps and beauty products and then into manufacturing hydraulic components for construction equipment. But in the late 1970’s came the opportunity that changed the face of the company. During that time, IBM pulled out of India after government rules forced it to operate through Indian-owned affiliates. Premji sensing an opportunity handpicked Ashok Narasimhan, who was then with Tata Motors, to run the IT business.

Premji’s biggest strength was picking the right people. Ram Agarwal, managing director, WeP Peripherals, remembers his interview rather vividly, “I reached the Wipro office at seven in the morning. A young man raced past me to open the office. I thought he was part of the office administration. He asked me to wait in the reception and few minutes later came and introduced himself as Premji. He asked about my family and values I believed in. By the end of the twelve-hour interview, I felt he knew more about me than I did about myself,” he says.

Agarwal who was then with GlaxoSmithKline joined Wipro because he liked Premji and was told by a friend who was leading HR then that Wipro was a good place to be at. “I didn’t realise that he meant it was a good place to be in 24X7,” he smiles. It turned out to be such a good place that Agarwal who joined the company’s sales function in 1977 then moved into the business planning and finance function before heading the peripherals division during his stint, which has lasted for two decades.

Sridhar Mitta who was with Electronics Corporation of India was wooed by Narasimhan to work for Wipro. Like most people who came for an interview then, he didn’t know who Premji was. “I was asked to come to Bombay for an interview and found the top management waiting for me. Among them was a striking man who quietly observed while the others asked questions,” he says. When Narasimhan convinced him that he was better off taking risks with someone else’s money than his own, Mitta went on to spearhead Wipro’s R&D efforts leading to its first minicomputer, set up its global R&D and its US subsidiary EnThink.

Ram Agarwal, managing director, WeP PeripheralsDuring the interviews, a lot of the questions would revolve around the ethics of selling, how one would react in a particular situation, their value systems because Premji – driven by the idea of building Wipro into an organisation deeply committed to values – wanted to ensure that he picked the right kind of people. “He engages with you with a high level of intensity and sincerity. He had a long-term vision for the company, which he took a lot of effort to articulate about so you open up during the interview. There are no right answers, he just wants to know how you will apply yourself,” says Suresh Senapaty, the former CFO who thought Wipro would be a stop-gap arrangement for six months before he moved abroad. That was in 1980 and 34 years later he was still with Wipro playing a critical role in its transformation and leading its business planning and finance function.

Choosing the best

The Wipro interviews were legendary and played a crucial role in winning over those who were unaware of the then fledgling company. It involved a preliminary round of information gathering, case study analysis, role play and the final round of interview with Premji sometimes would go on the entire day. “Premji had an animal sense about who would fit in and who wouldn’t. Even in cases where we thought the candidate was a good fit and he felt otherwise, 90% of the time he would be right,” says Krishnakumar Natarajan, CEO, Mindtree. During his decade-long stint at Wipro, Natarajan headed the marketing and HR departments.

Premji hired people who could not only come up with new business ideas but also implement them and lead a team. He brought in PS Pai, who helped in developing the consumer business with brands such as Santoor, Sunflower and Wipro Baby Soft soap. For the IT business, attracting the right people was more critical. “If you love the idea but don’t have the competence then you hire people who are smarter than you in that area. You need to give them independence but must also demonstrate a high degree of critical questioning capability. Very few people have the critical questioning ability of Premji,” says Subroto Bagchi, chairman, Mindtree.

Sridhar Mitta, MD, NextWealth EntrepreneursBagchi spent a decade at Wipro setting up its US operations and was the CEO of its global R&D division. “He clearly did not understand technology so he gave me a lot of freedom on technology matters. In fact, I had the last word when it came to technology. In addition to the freedom, you are also allowed to make mistakes,” says Mitta who has since founded NextWealth Entrepreneurs. Premji would always say, “It is okay to make a mistake as long as you are not making the same mistake. If you are a bright guy who is given a lot of freedom, you will go and find solutions and you will get in more such people.” And that’s exactly what Mitta did, earning the nickname ‘God’ in Wipro because he had all the answers when it came to technology. He hired a lot of engineering graduates and great talent from existing public sector companies. The team would go on to build a minicomputer and soon Wipro became a leading manufacturer of PCs.

In the 1990’s post liberalisation, when a lot of multinational players started coming back, Wipro realised that it didn’t have the financial muscle to take on the big guys. So it decided to sell its R&D expertise to other technology companies across the world. “We saw that while the door was open for others to come into India, it was also open for us to go out. So we decided to turn our R&D cost centre into a lab for hire,” says Mitta.

Inclusive leadership

A great leader need not know everything but needs to get the best people and provide them an environment where they can thrive while constantly challenging them. Bagchi recalls an incident early on when he had just joined Wipro. “He walked into my cubicle and asked me how my time was being divided. So I told him 40% of my time goes in sales co-ordination, 40% of my time goes in customer relations and 20% in training. After a few seconds, he told me, ‘Spend another 20% of your time in debtor management.’ I told him, ‘but Mr Premji, it doesn’t add up.’ He said, ‘That is the point. When you are loaded 120% then you work 100%.’ and it is so true.”

Suresh Senapaty, ex-CFO, WiproApart from saddling people with a lot more responsibility, he would also be relentless in following up. He had given Bagchi the responsibility of heading the quality initiative at Wipro. Since he had no clue about Six Sigma, Bagchi asked him for some time to figure it out. He would follow up with Bagchi every other day asking whether he had figured it out. Slightly ticked off, Bagchi once responded, “Mr Premji, if you have figured it out, tell me. I will implement it or you can get a quality expert to do it. If either is not an option, then give me time to figure it out.” Premji calmly heard him out and said, “Look, it is my job to push and your job is to tell me your limit and push back.” I think that was phenomenal,” says Bagchi.

What was even more remarkable is that rather than expecting his team to adapt to his style, he would adapt to their working style. For instance, Pai was a stickler for time. According to Senapaty, there were times when he and Premji (a stickler for punctuality himself) have turned up a minute or two late for an 8 a.m. meeting only to find a note by Pai saying that he waited and left. “Most leaders would find the behaviour inexcusable but Premji did not take that as an affront,” he says. He is sensitive to whether his team member is an early morning person or a late riser before he calls them. So while Agarwal, who is an early riser, is likely to get a call at 6 a.m., Ranjekar, who is more of a night person, is unlikely to hear from Premji before 8 a.m.

While a boss can always be demanding, what sets Premji apart is that he sets the same exact standards for himself before expecting it from people who work with him. “He is very detail oriented and extremely hard working. He still manages a punishing schedule,” says Pratik Kumar, CEO, Wipro Infrastructure Engineering. Kumar has been with the company for 22 years and was part of the senior leadership team leading the HR function from 2002 to 2010. “He would be the first to turn in his appraisal before asking the others to turn in their ratings. Even his response to mails will be within a stipulated time irrespective of whether he is travelling. If he wants to get something done, he will get quite consumed by that thought and will not rest till it is done,” says Kumar.

Krishnakumar Natarajan, CEO, MindtreeOnce tasks are assigned, the reviews are typically held once a quarter to monitor progress. “He would always come prepared for meetings. Even if the note for the review or a meeting reaches him at 8 or 9 p.m. the previous night, you know by next morning that he has gone through the note meticulously because it would have his markings all over,” says Mindtree’s Natarajan. A good point would get a star, a double star for a great one, a question mark for more explanation.

“The amount of reading he does for a meeting or review is more than anyone else in the organisation,” says Sambuddha Deb, who was Wipro’s former chief delivery officer for nearly three decades. “His review meetings can run into hours. One can ask why he needs to get into so much detail but that was his way of keeping track of what is happening in the organisation.” Ashok Soota, executive chairman, Happiest Minds, recalls the time that he and Premji would visit their factory in Mysuru. “We would start from Bengaluru before 6.00 a.m. and reach by 8.00 a.m. when the factory opened. He didn’t cut himself any slack just because he was the chairman of the company,” says Soota who led the growth of Wipro’s IT business from $2 million in 1984 to $500 million 15 years later.

Attention to detail

Premji has a filing system where the minutes of the meetings are filed and reviewed periodically according to the time indicated. “He was so meticulous that if we happened to misplace any of our papers, we would go to him for a copy. He will circulate the file once in six months to see what needs to be retained and what can be discarded. There would be some things you have lost track of but it will all be there in the file,” says Mitta.

Subroto Bagchi, chairman, MindtreeThis preparedness extended to every occasion “Premji used to travel with me for market visits to check out how our products were doing. These would be smaller towns in the interior parts of the country where there would be power outages in the evening. During such trips, not only would he carry a torch light but knew exactly where to reach for when it was pitch dark,” says Agarwal.

Premji also has the uncanny ability to ask the right questions and will not quit till he gets a satisfactory answer. “You need a deep listening capability so that you can separate the signal from the noise and see what the others are not seeing. I think Premji has this unusual capability and that is what brings first-rate talent to Wipro,” says Bagchi. But to be able ask the right questions you need to know both what is happening inside the company and outside it. Premji picks up every opportunity to speak to employees be it after training sessions or when he is travelling to meet clients. “He always seeks opportunities to socialise at work and get inputs. I remember once when we were on a flight together, a senior CII colleague sitting behind us commented that we seemed to have run through the entire plan for the year,” says Soota.

His ability to network outside the business is equally strong. “How can he challenge the CEOs when they are the ones meeting customers on a regular basis? So he would meet peers and gather all publicly available information on the industry. His reviews are not about what we actually achieved versus the plan. It will always be how much further can we get ahead of competition,” says Senapaty. And if a particular customer is not happy or chooses the competition in a particular deal, he will have no qualms in meeting the customer to find out why. In one instance, he was going to meet another IT service major for a no-agenda meeting, which takes place once a year to discuss industry issues.  After the meeting, he asked to meet the purchase head of the organisation because Premji had heard the purchase head was not very happy with Wipro’s lighting products and wanted to know why.

Pratik Kumar, CEO, Wipro Infra EngineeringBut people who have worked with Premji say he will never second-guess your decisions. “He will push you to test your conviction on your recommendation, once convinced he won’t overrule your recommendation to ensure accountability remains with the CEO.  To use his words, ‘I want to ensure that monkey remains on your back’,” says Soota.

Ensuring accountability

Unlike most promoters, Premji prefers to stay out of the limelight. As the IT business grew, people thought Soota was the owner. Even after Soota’s time, Vivek Paul was the public face. However, if things don’t work out as planned, like any true leader, Premji doesn’t hesitate to take personal responsibility. When the company faltered coming out of the 2008 recession and its dual CEO structure didn’t work out as expected, Premji was the first to admit that the company had underperformed compared to competition and that they should not be making any excuse. 

While Suresh Vaswani and Girish Paranjpe resigned from their positions in 2011 taking responsibility for the underperformance, their sudden departure surprised many since Vaswani was personally mentored by Premji and both of them were Wipro lifers. “He will give you time to get it right but can be tough on you if you fail to step up. He is aware of what people can deliver and if the organisation needs capabilities that are beyond their potential, then he will not hesitate to communicate that,” says a long-serving ex-Wiproite. “With Premji, what you see is what you get. He is straightforward. There is no pretence. You don’t weigh his actions or words,” says Sudip Banerjee who was the former head of Wipro’s enterprise business and was with the company for 25 years. 

Ashok Soota, executive chairman, Happiest MindsPremji was aware that Wipro needed different kinds of leaders at various stages. For instance, when Ashok Soota left in 1999, he knew Wipro would need someone like Vivek Paul to shake things up within the organisation and in his stint Paul grew the company’s revenue to $1.4 billion till he left the company rather suddenly in 2005. That time around, Premji stepped in and devised the way forward for the company. Despite his failed experiment with the dual CEO structure, Premji continued to side with internal candidates for the top job as he believes the risk is higher with external candidates given Wipro’s current size. So he turned to TK Kurien who turned around the BPO business successfully to repeat his magic with the IT business in 2011.

“The great thing about Premji is his ability to foster a culture that encourages dissent. You are free to speak your mind whether you are right or wrong. I don’t know too many leaders who have the maturity and the ability to take that kind of feedback,” says Behar. Unlike other promoters, Premji is always willing to learn from his team. “Premji never hesitated to admit if he didn’t understand anything. You need that intellectual honesty to admit that,” says Mythili Ramesh, CEO, NextWealth Entrepreneurs, who spent two decades in Wipro. “He is willing to learn from the best practices of even his competitors. After important meetings with clients or peers, he would capture the minutes of the meeting and circulate the note among his team members as a matter of discipline.”

Sudip Banerjee, former head, Wipro's enterprise businessHe is very open when it comes to communicating with his team. “He follows a very interesting principle of sharing sensitive details sometimes with what I would deem a larger audience than necessary. So I asked him why he did that. He said, ‘I don’t want to keep track of whom I have told something and to whom I haven’t told things. I prefer to directly share things and trust people. Till your trust is breached, you have nothing to worry. It keeps your life very simple.’ I thought it was a very sensible approach,” says Kumar.  Premji’s logic was simple.

“He used to say if you are always speaking the truth you don’t have to think before speaking. So whatever you say or do must not only stand up to public scrutiny but also the scrutiny of your own conscience,” says Ramesh.  When it came to dealing with people in his team, he would be equally fair. There would be no favourites. “He would not allow any politics in the company. Premji believed that people excelled in a fair and apolitical environment so he ensured Wipro stayed that way,” says Deb.

Man of principle

Integrity is the common thread that runs through all the Wipro businesses. Premji was greatly influenced by his mother, Gulbanoo Premji, a doctor who ran a charitable hospital for children. Her advice when he took over at 21 was, “If you believe in something, stick to it. Don’t waver. Honour all your commitments.” Those words stuck with Premji and formed the foundation of his value system. 

When Premji took over, corruption was rampant in India with government officials expecting bribes, customers wanting kickbacks and black market deals being the norm. But Premji was clear that not one rupee would be paid irrespective of what the outcome would be. Once, Wipro refused to pay a bribe of #1 lakh for a power connection at its Tumkur manufacturing facility. Instead they chose to run the facility on generators, which tripled their power costs to over a crore.

Mythili Ramesh, CEO, NextWealth Enterprises“Premji believed integrity made business sense in the long term since it brought together the right set of customers, suppliers and people to work with. We have walked away from any business that would compromise our values and refused to pay any bribe. So an approval that would take one week will take us six months. But we were ready to bear the extra cost,” says Ranjekar. “The starting point for building institutional integrity is very high unimpeachable personal integrity which leadership has to demonstrate and it will be difficult to find a better example than Premji,” says Kumar.

Like integrity, being cost conscious is also something that is part of Wipro’s DNA. “Premji is very conscious about cost and the fact is he doesn’t set a standard a different for himself and the others. You spend what is required and that has stayed with me even after I left the company,” says Mindtree’s Natarajan. Little things such as printing on both sides of the paper, turning the lights off or travelling economy on domestic flights brought a sense of discipline in the company, according to Natarajan.  As a person, Premji is understated and drove a Ford Escort for the longest time. After years of persuasion, he finally upgraded to a Toyota Corolla.

In fact, he asked Agarwal to suggest a car that he could also use on long road trips or a vacation. Agarwal who had just bought a Honda Accord told him that it was good and he should consider buying it only to be told by Premji that it was too expensive for him.  Agarwal says, “I still remember the first thing he asked me when he saw the car. He said, ‘how could you afford it? I told him, ‘Mr Premji, I don’t know if you can afford it, but I certainly can!”

Premji prefers to stay at the company’s guest house when he travels rather than staying at expensive hotels. Banerjee recalls an incident where a particular airline had given them four complimentary business class tickets given the volume of business from Wipro. “He immediately told me to return the tickets. I told him it was complementary so we weren’t paying for them. He asked me how would the others know if we spent money or got it as complementary tickets? More importantly, he said it would send out a wrong signal if they travel business class when the rule for everyone was to travel economy on domestic flights,” says Banerjee. “I once asked him we were a small company when we started so we couldn’t afford a lot of things. But now we are much larger, why don’t you change all that.  He looked at me and said ‘I can’t change those things’. That is brand Premji.”

Dileep Ranjekar, Co-CEO, Azim Premji FoundationIndeed, Premji has been criticised at times for not being generous with stock options as compared to Infosys. “Wipro was the first company to introduce stock options. If you look at the number of millionaires Wipro has created, it may not be too different. It is just that Premji does not like to talk about it,” says Mindtree’s Natarajan, who had to dig out his documents when he finally realised the value of his stock options.

 Premji not only built an organisation that was committed to its values but also created an environment that encourages diversity of opinions. He believed, ‘Only when you work with people who are radically different, you can attract the best talent who will bring new ideas.’ Even as he was always up for discussing work with his colleagues, he is intensely private about his personal life. “There is no one who can actually say that they know Premji very well,” says Ranjekar.

Truly, you can consider yourself very lucky if you get to work with a good boss because before you know it, you are performing beyond your potential. But it is life’s biggest blessing if you get to work with an extraordinary human being like Premji, who not only has an amazing work ethic but has shown that in a country like India where almost everything has a price, integrity can be non-negotiable. So for people who have worked with him, you will always find a little of brand Premji in them, long after they have left Wipro. Now, that is something you cannot put a price on.