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business leaders > profiles > Azim Hasham Premji
Azim Hasham Premji
Azim Premji: From soaps to IT
Azim Premji is the richest Indian and one of the few to have moved successfully from being an owner of an inherited vegetable oils and soaps business to being an extremely successful global IT business. The chairman and managing director of Wipro Ltd, that became one of the three billion-dollar Indian IT enterprises in 2004, along with TCS and

However, this reticent, legendary businessman is famous for leading a simple lifestyle. He always flies economy, avoids staying in 5-star hotels, and prefers clothes, watches and cars that are made in India. He likes to talk about his corporation and the emerging opportunities for Indian business rather than about himself. Premji has consistently advocated the use of IT at all levels of society.

Born in Mumbai on 24 July 1945, his beginnings were very simple. At 21, Premji was forced to leave his engineering studies at Stanford University in the US to take over the family business of vegetable oils due to the unexpected passing away of his father in 1966. After a gap of over 30 years, Premji finally managed to take time off from his rapidly expanding business to earn his degree in electrical engineering from Stanford.

Premji started off in Wipro with a simple vision – to build an organisation on a foundation of values. Under his leadership Wipro ventured into a continuous phase of expansion and diversification with consolidation. In 1975, before venturing into IT, the company diversified from vegetable oils to hydraulic cylinders and fluid power components and its factory at Amalner was used for production of soaps, toiletries, and baby care products. Wipro also entered the lighting products market and started manufacturing light bulbs with General Electric. But Premji's ambitions lay elsewhere.

Entry in to IT
The company entered the personal computer market in 1977, moving in to fill the void by the withdrawal of IBM in 1977. Wipro started manufacturing computer hardware, later moving in to software development under a special license from Sentinel, e-Security Inc's security information management and compliance monitoring solution. The company began selling and assembling products made by such well-known companies as Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems.

As a result, the $1.5-million company in hydrogenated cooking fats grew within a few years to a $1.76-billion diversified, integrated IT and ITeS corporation. The company offers software solutions, IT consulting, software design, and solutions, business process outsourcing services, and research and development services in areas of hardware. With offices in 45 countries, the company is the fourth largest in the world in terms of market capitalisation in IT services

Premji is a workaholic and according to him, in a competitive environment, work is the only way to success and survival. An exacting taskmaster, he expects competence from his people and though he is forgiving about genuine errors of judgment, he simply does not tolerate obfuscation or deception.

Premji firmly believes that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things. He believes that the key to this is creating highly charged teams. He takes a personal interest in developing teams and leaders. He invests significant time as a faculty in Wipro's leadership development programmes. He also makes it a point to deal directly with customers as much as possible.

Premji strongly believes in delivering 'value to the customer' through world-class quality processes. This belief has driven Wipro's pioneering efforts in quality practice adoption.
For instance, Wipro is the first software service company in the world to be assessed at SEI CMM level 5 – the highest maturity level for any software process. The company earned this certification in June 1999. It is also the world's first organisation to achieve PCMM Level 5 (people capability maturity model).

As the pioneers of Six Sigma in India, Wipro has already put in around five years into process improvement through Six Sigma. A measure of quality, Six Sigma is a disciplined, data-driven approach and methodology for eliminating defects (driving towards six standard deviations between the mean and the nearest specification limit) in any process – from manufacturing to transactional and from product to service.

Uncompromising integrity
Premji's adherence to integrity is legendary and he is known to be a stickler for it. He has consistently refused to offer bribes to get things done; his oils business had to wait for 18 months to get an electrical substation for the vegetable manufacturing unit because he refused to give in to demands for bribes. For 20 months the unit was run on captive power generation, at an unbelievably high cost to the company. But Premji remained steadfast, preferring the extra financial liability to breaking his strict code of adherence to values.

Over the years Premji has received several honours and accolades, which he believes are in recognition for the efforts of each person who has contributed to Wipro, rather than any recognition for himself personally.

In 2000 he was voted among the "20 most powerful men in the world" by Asia Week. He was also ranked among the "50 richest people in the world" from 2001 to 2003 according to Forbes. Financial Times included him in the list of "top 25 billionaires who have done most to bring about significant and lasting social, political or cultural changes". In April 2004, he was rated "among the 100 most influential people in the world" by Time magazine and Business Week (October 2003) featured him on its cover with the sobriquet "India's Tech King."

The Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee, and the Manipal Academy of Higher Education have both conferred honorary doctorates on him. He is also a member of the prime minister's advisory committee for IT in India. In 2005 the government of India honoured him with the Padma Bhushan, one of the highest civilian awards in the country.

Philanthropy has been integral to Premji's vision of regenerating India. In the year 2001, Premji established Azim Premji Foundation, a non-profit organisation with the vision to influence the lives of millions of children in India by providing them with quality education. The foundation works closely with the state governments of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh among others, and its programmes cover over 5,000 rural schools. Premji has personally contributed the financial resources to this foundation. The programmes of the Azim Premji Foundation currently engage 1.8 million children under its various programmes.

One of his favourite recreational activities is hiking. He leads a quiet life with his wife Yasmin, who has worked for Inside Outside magazine in an editorial capacity, and their two sons in a simple, but elegant villa in Bangalore. The elder son, Rishad, works for GE in the US and the younger one, Tariq, is the co-founder of a dotcom venture in Bangalore.

Compiled by Tanmoy Mitra

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