Books

Into the life of a billionaire-philanthropist

K Giriprakash | Updated on November 22, 2020 Published on November 22, 2020

Title: Azim Premji: The man Beyond the Billions Authors: Sundeep Khanna & Varun Sood Publisher : Harper Business Price: 699

The book covers Wipro founder Azim Premji’s journey without pulling any punches

For a man who gives away ₹22 crore of his wealth every day to improve elementary education in the country, Azim Premji, has been an enigma. Short of being a recluse, Premji, India’s top philanthropist, and Wipro’s founder-chairman has studiously kept himself away from the media spotlight, even though curiosity about him has never dimmed.

Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions written by seasoned journalists, Sundeep Khanna and Varun Sood, gives a comprehensive view of the life of Premji, and how he built a very successful IT services firm which is now among the top five domestic companies in its domain.

Wipro Ltd has always been perceived as playing second fiddle to a more flamboyant, if one can use that term to describe a company rather than a person, Infosys, another Bengaluru-based IT services company. Given that it occupies a bigger mind space than Wipro does, one expected at least a couple of similar books on Infosys, but surprisingly, Premji’s Wipro has found itself shelf space earlier than its cross-city rival.

Perhaps what made it easier for the authors to take the decision to write a book on Premji was his willingness to not restrain his colleagues and those close to him from opening up to the authors. But that was perhaps the only easy part.

As the author-duo in the early chapters reveal, once they started researching about the man and his work, Premji, as one expected him to, steadfastly refused to be interviewed for the book saying that he had hardly anything substantial to contribute.

These are the kind of stumbling blocks authors writing about Indian businessmen face routinely. Not only are there not enough published material to lean on, but as the authors point out, navigating through the very dynamic nature of Indian businesses can be quite a task.

The early chapters might give the impression of this book being a gushing tribute to Premji, but as one reads through one will realise that the authors are trying to build a context for the book before taking a deep dive into the various facets of the company. As the authors rightly point out, Premji’s business achievements are overshadowed by the sheer scale of his generosity though the fact is that philanthropy was a late realisation for him.

Focus on ethics

More than the sheer magnitude of his philanthropy, what was evident from the beginning was that for Premji it was more important to run an ethical organisation, even though it was easier not to do so considering the fact that in its early years, corporate governance and transparency in conducting business were relatively unknown terms.

In this context, one can’t but compare Premji with NR Narayana Murthy, one of the co-founders and former chairman of Infosys. Both built their organisations on the bedrock of ethics and values but in certain aspects they differed completely. While the co-founders of Infosys own not more than 13 per cent of the company, Premji and his various entities own as much as 74 per cent in Wipro.

However, Premji’s decision to own such a large stake in his company has allowed him to drum up donations worth $21 billion for his foundation. In the case of Infosys though, the co-founders’ large heartedness in sharing the wealth with their employees is what drove them to keep their stake to the minimum.

What is also worth noting is that Premji’s two sons, Rishad and Tariq, own a mere ₹65 crore worth of shares in Wipro.

While running the company as ethically as was possible, given the labyrinth of regulations in India, Premji was well served in the initial years by Ashok Soota, Wipro’s longest-serving CEO.

When Soota left to launch his own company, Mindtree, with five other Wiproites in 1999, the authors point out that such was Soota’s larger-than-life presence in the company, that when he left many outsiders wondered why the company’s owner had quit! Second, his exit, according to them, was acrimonious partly because Premji “was never a good loser either of business or people.”

Khanna and Sood do a superb job from here on as they unravel for the readers behind the scenes events which led to the hiring of the next CEO, the young and dashing CEO of GE Medical Systems, Vivek Paul, his run-ins with Premji, which was mostly centred around sharing of wealth which the CEO felt was disproportionate.

Wipro’s employee stock option plan, the authors point out, was tiny compared with that of Infosys. While by the year 2000, every fourth employee at Infosys was offered shares by the company, at Wipro, it was less than half that number. Despite Paul’s best efforts, the stock option scheme remained “narrow in scale and lacked depth.”

The Infosys-Wipro rivalry

Journalists who track the IT services sector are well aware of the rivalry between Infosys and Wipro, which for an outsider is based on mutual respect. Both Premji and Murthy too have on several occasions acknowledged each other’s contribution towards creating shareholders’ wealth, as well as giving back to society and building some of the finest institutions in the country.

However, according to the authors, there was an “excessive focus by Wipro’s senior leadership team on what its rivals, especially Infosys, were doing, (which) became one of its biggest problems.”

To the credit of the authors, they hold back no punches while articulating the several missteps Wipro took. According to a former board member of Wipro, Premji believed that he had the loyalty of his people, but he did not build and preserve this loyalty by paying high salaries. Another was on Wipro’s inability to keep pace with its peers and that it squandered its leadership position in some of the business areas where it was way ahead of its competitors in the initial stages.

The events surrounding Wipro’s experiment with the joint-CEO structure in 2008 followed by its dismantling is another incident which has been captured without any bias seeping into the narration.

The experiment with the joint-CEOs was bound to end badly and it was something Wipro did not handle quite well, the authors note. Apparently, it left both the CEOs, Girish Paranjpe and Suresh Vaswani, crushed after they were informed by the board that the current structure was being scrapped and it would switch back to the single CEO model.

A week later, both Paranjpe and Vaswani wrote separate emails to Premji telling him how wronged they felt because of the decision of the board and the damage that it had caused to their reputation. “We will have to be born again to get another chance to build our reputation,” wrote Paranjpe in his mail, more or less encapsulating the kind of treatment that they believed had been meted out to them.

Both Khanna and Sood have written the book with as much honesty and sincerity as is possible. In the pecking order, Wipro might have slipped badly in recent times, but that should not take away any credit from the founder who has given India one of its finest companies, admired globally for its uncompromising ethics and best practices in business.

His severest critics might end up doing a bit of nitpicking, but one can only doff one’s hat and admire Premji for his generosity, that remains unparalleled in the country’s corporate world.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Sundeep Khanna is a regular columnist for Money Control as well as The Morning Context, a subscription-only business news outlet.

Varun Sood is a Bengaluru-based technology journalist.

 

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Published on November 22, 2020
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