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WELL PLAYED, SIR

Azim Premji: India’s second-richest man owns a second-hand car and a generous heart

Reuters/Jagadeesh Nv
Ready to move on.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

It’s the end of an era at India’s fourth largest IT company as its chief of over 50 years bids farewell.

On June 6, Wipro said (pdf) its executive chairman, Azim Premji, will retire upon completion of his current term on July 30. Seventy-three-year-old Premji has held the role since the young age of 21. His son, Rishad Premji, will succeed him.

“Leading Wipro from 1966 till now has been the greatest privilege of my life. It has been an extraordinary journey—growing from being a small vegetable oil company to the diverse global business that we are today,” Premji, who is considered a pioneer of Indian IT, said in a letter to employees. “Wipro is an exemplar of a successful, (an) ethical and a socially responsible organisation. I want to thank all of you as well as all my colleagues from the past for their contribution and dedication.”

It was the sudden death of his father that forced Premji to leave his computer science course at Stanford University mid-way to take over the reins at Wipro, which was then a vegetable oils maker. In 1982, he began moulding the firm into a global IT powerhouse. Today, Wipro clocks an annual revenue of over $8 billion (pdf) and employs over 170,000 people. The Premji family owns 74.3% stake in Wipro.

Premji is India’s second-richest man behind Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani.

However, lately, IT hasn’t been the biggest feather in Premji’s cap; it is philanthropy.

The veteran businessman has reportedly donated two-thirds of his wealth—$21 billion—to charitable causes. Nearly two decades ago, in 2001, he set up the Azim Premji Foundation, a non-profit focussed on improving elementary education in rural government schools across India. In March this year, he committed 34% of his Wipro shares—worth about Rs52,750 crore ($7.5 billion)—to the foundation.

A recipient of some of India’s highest civilian honours, such as Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan, Premji now plans to devote more of his time to philanthropy.

“I will continue to serve on the board of Wipro Limited while dedicating most of my time and energy to the philanthropic efforts of the Foundation,” Premji said in his letter. “I will remain the chairman of Wipro Enterprises Limited which includes our consumer care and infrastructure engineering businesses, and the Wipro-GE Healthcare joint venture, with total revenues of approximately $2 billion. I will also continue to chair the board of Wipro-GE Healthcare.”

Throughout his life, he’s been known for his simple lifestyle, driving relatively less expensive cars like Ford Escort, Honda City, and Toyota Corolla. Even when he upgraded, he bought a second-hand Mercedes E-Class from one of his employees. Despite having built an empire of sorts, he still flies economy and takes auto-rickshaw rides. At work, he encourages employees to conserve electricity and toilet paper.

And he did go back to finish his Stanford degree, albeit 30 years later.

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