“Hello, Azim seth!”

Pankaj Mishra July 22, 2016 16 min

“Hello, Azim seth… namaskar seth-ji,” says 80-year old Jijabrao Gulabrao Deshmukh looking into the camera.

“Azim seth-ji baat kar rahen hain?” “Hello, hello?”

“Premji is not on the line, we’re only recording your message, we are doing an interview for a story,” I tell him, feeling a little bad for him.

His face falls, his expression that of a man who has been waiting for a beloved relative for years, got close to finally meeting him, and then suddenly realised that the person he wanted to speak to was not there.

Deshmukh has not come alone to meet me at Amalner, a town near the central Maharashtra city of Jalgaon. After hearing that someone from Bengaluru had come to meet people who know Premji, he has brought his son and grandson along, too. Deshmukh used to work as a machine operator in Wipro’s Amalner factory, and did so for over four decades. He used to fill vegetable oil in packets that would get shipped to wholesalers across the country. The memories are so well entrenched in his ageing mind that he snaps back the exact date of joining and retiring in a flash.

Jijabrao Gulabrao Deshmukh
Jijabrao Gulabrao Deshmukh worked at Wipro’s Amalner factory from 1951-1993

“I joined on June 18 1951, and retired on July 4, 1993. I have seen Premji (Azim) going around the factory in his shorts, and later becoming a really handsome, grand personality,” says Deshmukh. “I remember everything about him — he got married with Yasmeen from the Chenoy family in 1978. She came and gave me this watch after I completed 25 years at Wipro,” he says, eyes twinkling at the memory.

In Amalner, almost everyone has a Premji story. After all, the town accounts for around 20% of all of Wipro’s public shareholding, according to the local residents and stock traders.

On August 17 this year, Premji will complete 50 years at Wipro, and on July 24 he will turn 71 years old,  during 50 of which he would have chaired the company, which is currently valued at over $20 billion. FactorDaily interviewed over a dozen people who have worked with Premji during early years, apart from another dozen residents of Amalner, the birthplace of Wipro. Premji is so intensely reticent that we didn’t even ask for an interview. If he does speak with us, we will update this story, of course.

Amalner ka Premji

The old Wipro factory stands in the middle of the town, surrounded by off-white coloured walls made of stones making it look like an old, abandoned fort from the outside. It makes Santoor soap these days.

Outside, the streets are teeming with potholes; piles of garbage and plastic can be seen everywhere, and there are stray cattle and dogs are on the move. It’s difficult to imagine that Amalner was the launchpad for one of India’s most successful businessmen, who ranks among the world’s richest.

On the morning of August 17, 1966, a young 21-year old Azim Hashim Premji joined what was then known as the Western India Vegetable Products Limited (Wipro), incorporated on December 29, 1945.

A young Premji at an Amalner factory function
A young Premji at an Amalner factory function

His father Mahomed Husein Hasham Premji had just passed away and mother Dr Gulbanoo M H Premji had taken over as the chairperson, but the family wanted young Premji to take over the reins of the business.

How he steered and grew the business is the stuff of folklore in Amalner.

Stockbroker Sunil Maheshwari was a young student when he got his first client, his accounting professor Ramesh Bahugune from the local Pratap College, to bet on Wipro. In 1995, Bahugune had come offering to invest Rs 30,000 in Maheshwari’s ancestral grocery business, Jethmal Ramdayal & Sons. “The word around the town was that his shop was giving 18% annual returns; but Sunil asked me not to do it,” recalls Bahugune, who has now retired from the college and lives with his son and daughter-in-law in Amalner.

Instead, Maheshwari advised Bahugune to invest Rs 30,000 in buying shares in a company he had started trading in just a year earlier. Bahugune dutifully purchased 100 Wipro shares in June 1995. It’s a decision the former professor will never regret. Over years, as Wipro grew and kept splitting its shares, that investment grew. By around year 2000, the shares were already worth about Rs 1.5 crore and make for a pretty dime today. The gratitude comes across strong in Bahugune’s voice when he recounts how he grew up in penury as his blind mother struggled to make ends meet.

There are many Bahugunes and Maheshwaris in Amalner who have bet on Wipro early and reaped the dividends. “Wipro shares are like household gold. You sell that gold only in emergencies, or when you have to marry off your daughter,” says Maheshwari.

Giridhari Lal Maheshwari, Sunil’s 80-year-old father, has his own Premji stories. His eyes lights up when asked to recount his favourite Premji story.

Sunil Maheshwari
Sunil Maheshwari with his father (seated) started trading Wipro shares in 1994 and is Amalner’s first stock broker

Sometime during the late sixties, when Premji had just returned from Stanford University to join the family business, Amalner received heavy rains during a monsoon month. Back then, Wipro used to buy groundnut at wholesale prices, dry them in the open on the factory premises, and process them for producing vegetable oil.

“The rains were set to spoil all the groundnut drying in the fields and that would have hurt Wipro’s prospects badly,” says the senior Maheshwari. Premji, in his early twenties, asked for a hole to be made in the factory wall for the rainwater to pass through.

 The main entrance to Wipro's Amalner factory
The main entrance to Wipro’s Amalner factory

“But that would have washed away a good chunk of the groundnut haul too,” says Maheshwari. “Almost on the fly, Premji calculated the quantity of groundnuts that could get washed away and concluded that Wipro would have to increase the per kilogram price by a rupee for the company to still make some profits on the remaining stock.”

“You can’t ask for better proof points,” says Sunil, referring to Premji’s handling of the Amalner flooding in his father’s story. “The management led by Premji and PS Pai was focused on earning more bang for the buck.” Pai, a long-term associate of Premji, retired as vice chairman of Wipro in 2002.

A reluctant manager, “Scrooge” Premji

At Wipro’s annual general meeting in Bengaluru’s Electronic City, at a large, no-frills meeting venue last week, a shareholder asked Premji why he wasn’t holding the meeting at a fancier location. Premji didn’t mince words. “I have been a scrooge for 70 years, can’t change now,” he replied.

“I have been a scrooge for 70 years, can’t change now”

Over the years, Premji has built his reputation of being a rupee pincher, a curt and outspoken manager — all at the same time.

Until a few years ago, Premji would monitor the amount of toilet paper rolls consumed by Wipro employees. Stories of Wipro employees bumping into “Mr Premji Sir” in the economy aisle of a commercial jet are part of legend at the Sarjapur, Bengaluru headquarters of Wipro. He would even walk around the campus to check if the lights were switched off after work hours.

“He would send email first thing in the morning about fax papers being wasted for what could be communicated in other forms,” says a Wipro executive. The antique Ansonia clock hanging on his office wall is quartz powered, not an expensive hand-wound one. He still drives a Toyota Corolla. 

YES Bank Chairman and CEO Rana Kapoor once recalled how he had Premji visiting him when the bank was being set up in 2004. The bank’s offices in Worli were being fitted out and the meeting about the path a technology-powered new-age lender should take dragged on into lunch time. When Kapoor’s secretary fretted about ordering in lunch, it was Premji who suggested there was a McDonald’s downstairs. “We had Macs and strawberry shakes for lunch that day,” Kapoor chuckled, recounting the meeting to an interviewer.

Premji at an internal meeting
Premji at an internal meeting of Wipro

In many ways, Premji has been responsible for building what some refer to as an extreme parsimonious culture at Wipro.

When Premji took over Wipro 50 years ago, the setting was turbid, both emotionally and financially. He was called back to lead the company, dropping out of Stanford. He was clearly unprepared.

“It was a really turbulent period for the family when Azim seth came back,” recalls Deshmukh, the retired machine operator from Wipro in Amalner.

The traits Premji developed early in his career continue to shape much of his behaviour to this day.

“Premji was a reluctant manager back then,” says a person who worked with him during those days. “He dug a deep hole, staying away from expressing emotions, and buried himself deep. He became tough, really difficult to please and unpredictable.” This person didn’t want to be seen as commenting on Premji’s vulnerabilities and requested anonymity.

Some other colleagues recall instances when Premji would walk out within minutes of review meetings, leaving everyone shell-shocked. “If you didn’t have what was originally promised in terms of plans or numbers, he wouldn’t accept it, there’s no second chance,” recalls another former Wipro colleague, adding Premji never ever raises his voice. Examples of this no-nonsense trait can be seen in abrupt departure of senior executives, even CEOs, who have had to step down after missing targets.

Premji continued to be a quick learner even later in his career. “Probably his worst years were when he was the CEO in addition to everything else he was doing. In those years he suddenly became a doer. his real strength is the ability to identify key factors for success of a business and focussing on it and helping the line managers do their best,” says Ashok Soota, who was the CEO of Wipro Infotech during 1984 to 1999.

“He gave you a lot of headway. In the process, he also never got the monkey off the back. So you were completely accountable in that sense”.

“He never overruled you. He gave you a lot of headway. In the process, he also never got the monkey off the back. So you were completely accountable in that sense,” adds Soota, who left in 1999 with a team of Wipro veterans to start Mindtree, a mid-tier software services company. Mentoring and space for professionals to perform is part of the culture at Mindtree — perhaps influenced from the founding team’s years at Wipro.

“His most favourite phrase was ‘So, what else …?’ When you thought you had run out of ‘what else’, someone else would come up with a ‘what else’, and someone else would do the same. So you got a lot of colour into discussions. It’s a simple way of probing,” adds Soota, who now chairs Happiest Minds, his second tech services company since Wipro.

Premji inspecting a Wipro factory
Premji inspecting a Wipro factory shopfloor

Yet, Premji has a reputation for being thrifty with praise. “In my career spanning a few decades, there was just this one time when he praised my work, and that’s like an Oscar award,” says an executive who worked with Premji almost throughout his professional life.

“Sometimes I would wish him on his birthday, and he would give a dry smile,” says another Wipro old timer. “But then, he would walk up and wish me on my birthday, and I would feel like I was on top of the moon.”

Citizen Wipro

Earlier this year, Sridhar Mitta, an engineer whom Premji hired in 1980 as the first employee for the newly incubated software business, came up with an idea: a Wipro reunion. Wipro has been called an entrepreneur factory several times for the scores of its managers who have gone on to set up chartbuster businesses. Mitta thought it would be great to get everyone together under the same roof for the first such reunion at Wipro in a few decades.

He first reached out to over 100 Wipro veterans with tentative block-the-date requests.

And, then, he called Premji.

Premji was his usual self, asking pointed questions.

“Where is the event?”

“What time?”

“Who all have you invited?”

“And how long will it take?”

Finally, on May 7, a Saturday, not only did Premji join the reunion at Royal Orchid, a hotel in central Bengaluru, he came along with wife Yasmeen and sons Rishad and Tariq. “He was running a fever,” says Mitta. Yet the Wipro Chairman spent over two hours at the event.

In attendance were at least a dozen millionaires, several entrepreneurs and many retired professionals now deploying their wealth as angel investors. The attendees included K. B. Chandrashekar, a Wipro alum and serial entrepreneur whose big one was Exodus Communications, which he sold to Cable & Wireless. P. G. Karania, an old confidante of the Premji family who helped the company transition after Premji’s father passed away, was present too. There was Wipro’s first campus recruit Victor Jayakaran from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and even some old factory managers from Amalner.

The Wipro Alumni Reunion on May 7th 2016
The Wipro Alumni Reunion on May 7, 2016 at a Bengaluru hotel

“I get undue credit for all the achievements Wipro has had,” Premji opened his speech at the gathering, according to at least three people present there.

“I get undue credit for all the achievements Wipro has had”.

During a Q&A session, he almost blushed when asked if he had proposed to his wife Yasmeen before their families had met formally over their wedding. “You should ask her.” Yasmeen’s father, a friend of Azim’s father Mahomed, was on the Wipro board in its early years.

Some of the old Wiproites wear Premji’s values of integrity and even miserliness as a badge of honour. Many of them today form a strong network of former colleagues. This “Wipro mafia” may not be unique in itself, but the “emotional capital” created by the former staff is really worth learning from. As Dan Ariely, the famous behavioral economist, said in his bestseller Predictably Irrational, the stickiness of “social contract” far outweighs the economic and commercial contracts with people you work with.

Many like Phanindra Sama, the founder of bus ticket aggregator Redbus, look up to Premji for the ethics of running a business. He recalls an instance when Premji directed a Wipro factory be run on generators because the minister of the state wanted a bribe to approve a power line to the factory site. The line was drawn 18 months later when the minister’s party was voted out.

“Those were the stories we grew up with. Bangalore was full of leaders from Wipro during our time, including Sanjay Anandram and Dr Mitta,” says Sama.

Sudhir Sethi, now founder chairman of IDG Ventures and a Wipro veteran, told the audience at the reunion that, by his estimate, there are nearly 450 Wipro professionals working across the founding teams of about 150 top Indian startups, which have raised over $1.2 billion and are valued at more than $4 billion.

What Amalner feels it lost

As I drove out of Amalner after my meetings, Kishore Patil, who is driving my car, told me how he used to visit Amalner as a child with his father who was a truck driver. “We used to pick vanaspati (vegetable) oil from the factory and sell it to smaller grocery shops,” says Patil. “ this place hasn’t developed much.”

While describing Wipro as an “oil to software” conglomerate, what gets lost is the contrast between Amalner, a sleepy town with poor civic hygiene, and Bengaluru, a crowded metropolis with an income of over $80 billion. It’s a gap that many in Bengaluru (including this writer) will not even acknowledge. After all, there are enough socio-economic and political explanations for why this city became India’s’ Silicon Valley, and how Amalner lost it — perhaps wasn’t even in contention ever — as an old economy destination.

“If only Wipro had invested in Amalner’s education infrastructure, this place could become a software factory”.

Some in Amalner still don’t see the new economy-old economy chasm. “If only Wipro had invested in Amalner’s education infrastructure, this place could become a software factory,” insists Bahugune, the accountancy professor.

He is referring to Premji’s passion of the last 15 years or so. Sometime during the year 2000, the Wipro chairman assigned a team within the company to identify the areas where he could focus his philanthropic efforts.

“He would maintain a file on philanthropy that kept growing thicker month after month,” says a person involved with the process during those days.

Later, Premji set up the Azim Premji Foundation, which is now around 1,200 people strong, working in the area of primary education across over a dozen Indian states. Last year, he set up Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives, which will go beyond his own foundation, and donate Rs 500 crore annually to not-for-profit organisations working in the areas of improving the lives of street children, the disabled and governance issues.

Premji looking at the Wipro Alumni Reunion
Premji looking at the pictures at the Wipro Alumni Reunion

Premji is a strange man, even going by the oddities of billionaires. On one hand, he makes it a point to hide his emotions or show warmth to colleagues. On the other, he shows up at a Wipro alumni meet with family and talks about his early life and love. On the one hand, he is a hard-as-nails professional who can take tough decisions with a snap of his fingers. On the other, his child-like stubbornness roars to life when he wants to prove his point. On the one hand, he’s this scrooge stretching every rupee in his business. On the other, he’s working hard on giving away his wealth; he has already irrevocably committed nearly half of his wealth to charity.

“The success of Wipro has made me a very wealthy person,” he told the Indian Merchant’s Chamber on June 29 this year. “I have never felt the need for such wealth, nor any thrill at being wealthy. I have always felt intuitively that such large wealth cannot be the privy of any one person or family.”

A person familiar with Premji’s thinking says giving away is almost an obsession with the Wipro chairman today. “His ambition to give away is far greater than what you see being articulated — he will leave almost everything to charity,” he says. That makes many of those who know Premji his avowed fans; reluctant fans, perhaps, but fans, nevertheless.

Jayadevan PK contributed to this story.

Edited by Josey Puliyenthuruthel

Illustration: Nikhil Raj

Image Credit: Wipro Alumni Reunion

Updated on July 22 at 12.46 pm with edits for grammar and clarity.  


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