Azim Premji — A legendary Indian industrialist retires today
Today, 30th July 2019 is the last day of WIPRO’s founder Mr Azim Premji as Executive Chariman in office. In my organization, we have been fortunate in being associated with WIPRO in our earlier days as their computer sales & service partner and have learnt a lot of innumerable lessons from him. Both in business and humanity.
His first name ‘Azim’ has various laudatory meanings associated with it. I use it as an acronym A-Z-I-M to highlight some of our business experiences with him where ‘A’ means ‘Agility’, ‘Z’ means ‘Zeal’, ‘I’ stands for ‘Integrity’ & ‘M’ for ‘Meticulousness’.
‘A’ — Agility : It was our experience that any email sent to him personally was responded to within 24 hours irrespective of whichever part of the world he was in. To the best of my limited knowledge, within the IT industry or elsewhere; you would not have anybody at that high level of hierarchy and esteem who was as responsive to customer’s communications irrespective of the size of the customer or the business.
Another example : In the eighties, in response to competition from an Indian Personal Computer (PC) brand SIVA and others; WIPRO introduced a low end PC called as the ‘Popular PC’. It was not an ideal product in terms of quality and all channel partners were terribly dissatisfied with the same. At the annual WIPRO sales channel partner business conference that year, the agitation of the channel partners was visible and dominated the opening session. They wanted immediate answers from the WIPRO top managers on the same.
Mr Premji sensed the mood amongst the audience. He postponed the opening keynote session and asked the dealers present to immediately speak out their problems on the same. For the next couple of hours, he and his top management sales, service & factory teams sat down and noted down all the points made. He also committed that on the next day of the 2 day conference, there would be a dedicated session for WIPRO’s response on the same. The audience was mollified and allowed the conference to continue with delay as per the earlier decided schedule. The planned sessions of the day spilled over till late night because of the delay.
True to word, the next morning’s first session was solely devoted to answering ALL the points raised by the channel partners through a structured presentation by the CEO. Wherever commitments were given, they were done so with a definite time frame and assigned persons for the same. Most of the channel partners were delighted with this immediate action in promptly addressing the hot raging issues in their minds.
Later on, we learnt that Mr Premji had presided over an internal meeting which had lasted through most of the conference’s first night for almost all of WIPRO employees who were present there.
In our organization, we too strive to emulate his ‘Agility’ characteristic in our dealings with customers. We’ve received feedback that our customers find us very responsive to any of their communications to us. This is something we learnt from Mr Premji.
‘Z’ — Zeal : The first time I met Mr Premji was in Goa in the late eighties at a WIPRO annual conference. During lunch, I walked to him and introduced myself. The first statement he mentioned to me was something like “WIPRO Systems just announced a profit of Rs 4 crores (then USD 2.35 Million $)”. I was a bit taken aback because I had never ever met him before.
During those days, WIPRO Systems was a separate company focusing only on software services exports and had faced a lot of criticism from the rest of the industry as it had been loss making for quite some time. Naturally, once the company turned the corner, it was a source of obvious pride for him. I admired his passion and zeal in announcing the same to me — a small WIPRO systems integration partner at that time.
I also used to hear a lot of anecdotes on his passion for the WIPRO brand name and quality from employees there. Many times, during his road drives between Bengaluru (location of WIPRO headquarters) and Mysore (factory location), on spotting any WIPRO lighting bulb retailer outlet, at times; he would ask his driver to stop the car.
He would walk to the owner of the shop, introduce himself and take feedback (via notes) as regards the quality and customer feedback of WIPRO bulbs. Such was his passion. Many times, it would have been a great shock to the tiny WIPRO dealer retailer who would never have imagined a billionaire Chairman of a large principal company to visit his shop.
Even when he visited our office a couple of times, he had started his meeting with the questions “Mr Khatri, what are your problems ? What can we do to improve ?” There are many more such instances of his passionary zeal that one could share.
‘I’-Integrity : He exemplified integrity in all his dealings. Both at a personal level and organizational level. Once, I happened to meet him at a NASSCOM meeting at a 5 star hotel dinner in South Mumbai. As usual, after I introduced myself; he asked me about our pain areas with WIPRO. In those days, we were facing a lot of unethical price cutting competition from some WIPRO channel partners who would offer to sell computers to customers in Mumbai without the local city 4% Octroi tax. This was having a detrimental impact on our business.
When I mentioned to him the same, he was shocked. “You mean to say that WIPRO dealers are doing this ” ? “Yes, Sir”. I replied. “Can you email me on this ?” He asked me. I agreed. That night itself, I sent him an email. Sure enough early next morning, the concerned WIPRO sales regional manager frantically got in touch with us. He had got an earful from Mr Premji. The WIPRO sales team visited us on the same day and ensured that all such cases of octroi evasion were stopped by WIPRO channel partners.
Another small example of integrity in terms of time management. The group photograph below almost happened without Mr Premji in the frame.
It was scheduled for sharp 8 am on the 2nd day of the WIPRO conference. Exactly at the appointed time, Mr Premji and the entire WIPRO team was there; but as is usual in all such national conferences, a few important large dealer owners were missing. Mr Premji was getting impatient and wanted to leave for another appointment elsewhere.
Teams were frantically dispatched to all corners of the five star property, the missing dealers located, some of them pulled out mid-way of their breakfasts and brought on the spot. By that time, Mr Premji had had enough. He had already called for his car. As soon as he sat down in the car, Mr Anal Jain (sitting on Mr Premji’s right in the photograph above), requested him to step out. The photograph finally happened.
‘M’-Meticulous : As is usual for many such esteemed personalities of his stature, he was extremely detail oriented in our interactions with him. Two small examples. Once, after WIPRO had tied up with the Taiwanese giant ACER to sell high end computer servers in India, as one of their server partners; we were called for a meeting at WIPRO’s South Mumbai office for an interaction with top WIPRO officials headed by Mr Premji along with his deputy Mr Ashok Soota.
Before Mr Soota walked in, I remarked to Mr Premji that the WIPRO — ACER Tie-up was causing a lot of brand confusion in the minds of consumers due to differing perceptions of quality and WIPRO should call off the joint venture. He heard me quietly. A few minutes later, after Mr Soota walked in; Mr Premji asked me to repeat my comment. I was a bit surprised, but did so. He probably wanted Mr Soota to hear this feedback from a customer, rather than himself.
A second example of his meticulous approach — during one of his annual customer visits, we decided to visit a large residential builder customer’s office in suburban Mumbai. This was a first generation extremely successful entrepreneur rumored to have extremely strong personal and money connections with one of India’s strongest muscular regional political parties. For them, my company had set up their entire IT network using WIPRO computers. Mr Premji wanted to get their first hand feedback.
Mr Premji, our WIPRO Channel manager and myself met the customer in his cabin. It happened to be the founder’s birthday. We all wished him. As was usual in such meetings, Mr Premji directly introduced himself while handing over a leather folder with WIPRO marketing collaterals. The customer was probably very flattered that Mr Premji had himself come to meet him.
He got carried away and started boasting of his achievements and future business plans. Amounting to investments of thousands of crores approximating then to a couple of Billion US $). After the meeting got over, Mr Premji asked me “What do you think ? Will he be able to do what he says ?” I replied “Sir, I do not think so.” As it happened, the builder went bust a few years later.
Later on, I learnt that after our meeting with the builder, Mr Premji had commissioned one of his executives to study the prospects of WIPRO entering the construction industry. The conclusion : Not suitable for WIPRO due to the high nature of unaccounted tax evaded monies in that industry at that point in time. I was highly impressed by his ability to sense business opportunities and meticulously act on them immediately.
I have many more learnings & experiences to share. But I must stop here. So, a humble tribute to a legendary industrialist, India’s 2nd richest man who also has pledged to give away US 21 Billion $ of his wealth to charity. In my opinion, echoing others; he is a fitting case to be awarded the ‘Bharat Ratna’, India’s highest civilian award.
Disclaimer : The author is sharing his personal and professional experiences. The author currently has no business dealings with WIPRO.