Azim Premji visiting the Santoor Soap Plant- Early 1990s. (File photo)
Bengaluru: On December 29th, 1945, a businessman from Mumbai, Muhamed Husain Hasham Premji, registered Western India Vegetable Products Limited after buying an oil mill in Amalner, a city located in the Jalgaon district in Maharashtra. Few would have imagined that a company that made vegetable and refined oils would go on to become a conglomerate that today houses a listed software giant, Wipro and an unlisted dark horse Wipro Enterprises- which has its consumer care, infrastructure engineering and medical equipment businesses.
This was possible only because of the ambition and vision of one man -Azim Premji. 21-year-old Azim Premji returned to India in 1966 after his father’s sudden demise, to take charge of his business. Premji diversified the company to hydraulics, soaps and lighting. He spotted the IT opportunity in the late 70s and 80s, and forayed into making computers after IBM exited India. Western Indian Vegetable Products Limited became Wipro, with a focus on software and technology. A $2 million hydrogenated cooking fat business today earns revenue of over $8 Billion from IT services, while Wipro Enterprises has revenues of close to $2 billion.
(Yasmeen Premji, Gulbanoo Premji, Azim Premji at the Amalner plant- Early 1980s)
In an interaction with students a few years ago on the occasion of Wipro Earthian Awards, a usually reticent Premji opened up about what drove him and helped him succeed in an interactive session.
“Wipro was started by my father but I think where I contributed was to expand its existing product range and to diversify. What inspired me was just ambition to be better than what we were doing in the past and to grow much faster. Hard work and a lot of luck- two major things helped in my success. The moment you have success- expectations go up from yourself. The only way to have sustained success is to keep competing with yourself,” he said.
Premji, famously frugal in his personal life, is India’s most generous billionaire. He was the first Indian who signed the Giving Pledge, committing half of his wealth to philanthropy. He upped the ante last year, when he raised that commitment to almost two-thirds of his wealth. Till date, he has made a total commitment of $21 Bn, making it one of the largest private endowments in the world. He has always said that the wealthy must remain ‘trustees’ of wealth for society, not its owners.
In 2001, Premji established the Azim Premji Foundation, which has been training government school teachers in various parts of India in an effort to improve learning outcomes. The Foundation works in 7 states of India which have over 350,000 schools. It also runs the Azim Premji University, which is focused on teaching and research programs in Education and other areas of Human Development. On the other hand, Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives supports not-for-profits, through financial grants in areas such as nutrition, local governance, and well-being of vulnerable groups. During the pandemic, Wipro used its internal infrastructure and kitchens at its campuses to deliver over 2.97 million meals over 74 days. It also converted its Pune office to a Covid19 hospital.
(Azim Premji speaking at an event in Amalner – 1980s)
In a recent convocation speech at NIT Trichy, Premji underlined the importance of truth and integrity- values that shaped him as an entrepreneur.
“This has been the most important lesson of my life, that truth and integrity are the foundation of everything. In the absence of integrity everything falls apart. While, if we are willing to face the truth and speak the truth and have integrity in all actions, we can be confident that things will finally fall into place. From 1966, ever since I took over the responsibility of Wipro, I have tried to practice this. It has not been easy. However, the most important thing that I believe has been the foundation of everything that I have done, it is this commitment to truth and integrity,” he said.
Azim Premji stepped down as chairman of Wipro last year, though he continues as Founder Chairman, in a non-executive, non-independent role. His older son, Rishad Premji took over as chairman. Wipro also has a new CEO – Paris-based Thierry Delaporte, who is tasked with turning around Wipro’s fortunes after years of middling growth, as it ceded market share to rivals such as Infosys, Cognizant and HCL Tech.
(Azim Premji visiting the Santoor Soap Plant- Early 1990s)
At a recent analyst meet, Rishad called Delaporte the right leader to take Wipro forward. “There is a great sense of optimism, for the industry and for Wipro. The new CEO is the right leader to take us forward. You will see an obsession for growth, much stronger external market orientation. We will drive simplicity over perfection with a nimble structure. I’m confident that you will see a bolder Wipro, that’s not afraid to shake the apple cart”, he said.
Some of this optimism bore fruit recently as Wipro won its first billion-dollar deal under Delaporte. The deal from global wholesaler METRO AG, valued at $700 million for the first 5 years, could extend to an additional 4 years, with a potential spend of up to $1 Billion, making it the biggest deal win since he became CEO a few months ago.
Even as Wipro charts a turnaround story, its biggest legacy on its 75th anniversary is its indelible mark as a torchbearer of integrity, ethics, and societal impact, long before ESG (environmental, social and governance) became a buzzword globally.