Book Title: Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions
Author: Sundeep Khanna and Varun Sood.
Azim Hasham Premji is an oddball. The 75-year-old business magnate does not conform to any preconceived notions people have about how billionaires should be. He loves chocolates and is not averse to grabbing a few even at midnight. He loves eating street food wherever he travels — be it Singapore, New York or Mumbai. His commitment to thrift has given him the image of Uncle Scrooge in the business world. And yet, he was equally at ease when he donated 75 per cent of his wealth to charity. Totalling around $21 billion, his donation to Azim Premji Foundation, a non-profit organisation focused on education, made him one of the top philanthropists of the world.
Premji is also one of the most reclusive billionaires. So when two journalists, Sundeep Khanna and Varun Sood, got down to writing the biography of this serial entrepreneur and philanthropist extraordinaire, they found that very little was known about the man beyond his billions.
The authors went about seeking out people from his past and present who gave an insight into the life of the man who fiercely guards his privacy as well as that of his closely knit family, which comprises his wife Yasmeen and sons Rishad and Tariq.
From battling to save his family’s debt-ridden fledging oil company in Amalner to establishing a bona fide conglomerate with more than $10 billion in revenue, the book captures the five-decade journey of Azim Premji, called Lalaji by some old-timers. He had no knowledge of the IT industry, but his company became part of the triumvirate of IT start-ups (Infosys, Wipro, TCS) that put India on the global software services map. Wipro was the first Indian IT company to be listed on the NYSE.
Towards the end of 1971, he penned down the principles — integrity, respect for people and customer centricity — according to which he expected to do business. The company is known to fiercely hold on to these values.
About him, Nandan Nilekani, non-executive chairman of Infosys, says, “He is an unusual man.” And unusual he is. Unlike most billionaires, he doesn’t travel first class. He believes in buying made in India products. Micromanaging everything, Premji gets into the nitty-gritty of every tiny issue. He carries his famous yellow pad in which he takes meticulous notes. His respect for resources is evident in his frugality. When he goes around switching off the lights and fans after everyone has left or insists that both sides of a sheet of paper must be used for photocopying, or when he insists on paying from his pocket for the personal calls he made at work, he sets a precedent for all to follow.
The book is littered with interesting anecdotes such as the one in which his friend and business leader Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw narrates how he disguised himself with a hat and a fake moustache when he wanted to buy some artwork. His reasoning: “The moment they know I’m Azim Premji, they’ll charge me too much.”
Major personal milestones, including his wedding as well as that of his son Rishad, have been low-key affairs with barely 100 guests invited on each occasion.
The book also takes into account the many missteps the company took, and how it ran into rough weather after it took many wrong decisions.
Premji’s business achievements are often overshadowed by the sheer scale of his generosity, a quality he imbibed from his mother Dr Gulbanoo Premji, co-founder of the Society for Rehabilitation of Crippled Children, Mumbai. When Covid-19 knocked on the doors of the country, the Wipro conglomerate donated Rs1,125 crore, the largest amount by an Indian company, besides distributing millions of meals and hospital beds.
At a lecture to Stanford business school students, Premji summed up how he handled the many successes and failures in his career: “It is impossible to generate a few good ideas without a lot of bad ideas. Failure should be forgiven and forgotten completely.”