Sundeep Khanna and
Despite his huge networth,
Azim Premji loves chocolates and he is not averse to grabbing a few even at midnight in the cafeteria of a company Wipro is looking to acquire. It is possible that he may struggle to pay for them since he often doesn’t carry cash. But then he is not very fussy about the brand of the chocolate, so it is unlikely to cost too much.
Despite being a billionaire several times over, his tastes are simple. Neither he nor his wife have ever displayed any love for gold or other jewellery. Till a few years ago he would
These are also the kinds of things for which he has been called a miser, a man who would wash his own clothes when travelling abroad, with soap sachets borrowed from colleagues, rather than give them to the hotel laundry. His reasoning, as he explained to Sudip Nandy, who was president of Wipro in 2008 when he left the company after a twenty-five-year stint, was that the cost of getting his clothes laundered would be more than the cost of his clothes. Not surprising since the most expensive purchase he has made in a clothing store is a 3,000 overcoat he was coerced into buying at a Zara store in Paris, en route to a
This frugality reveals another and equally important facet of his personality — his respect for resources. He insists that both sides of a sheet of paper must be used for photocopying. Once, after he noticed that most of the directors at Wipro’s board meetings didn’t finish the coffee they were served, he toyed with the idea of using small cups. TK Kurien, earlier the CEO of Wipro and who now heads Premji Invest, recollects a day when Premji called him to ask if he had any idea how much the company was spending on toilet paper rolls in its washrooms across offices. TK, as he is popularly called, says he told his boss that not only was he not aware of the figure he was also perturbed by the fact that Premji himself was spending time on such a trivial thing. But, for the man, no expense is trivial and the thought of the amount of paper being wasted would have hurt his sensibilities.
In that, as in many other ways, he is an oddball, a tycoon who refuses to conform to any preconceived notions others have of how business family promoters or billionaires should be. Which is why Deepak Parekh says, ‘My reading is that he is a bit of a loner. He does not have a large friends circle. He did not take an active role in CII [Confederation of Indian Industry] or FICCI [Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry]. He stayed aloof. He is a bit of an introvert.’ That extends to his complete disinterest in public positions. Unlike most other business leaders, he has steadfastly refused to join the boards of companies or institutions, insisting that he can do only one job at a time. The one exception was when in June 2006 he, along with
Not for nothing does Nilekani say: ‘He is an unusual man.’
This isn’t a man who would spend his wellearned billions on boys’ toys such as fast cars or jets or yachts, though in his younger days he loved to drive and could be spotted during his college days in Stanford zipping around in a white Volkswagen Beetle. At one time he did end up buying a number of cars, including the Sierra and the Estate from Tata Motors, but that was more out of his sense of loyalty to Ratan Tata, a friend, and also because he believes in buying made-in-India products.
Much like Tata, with whom he also shares a great love for dogs, Premji is a rare exception among Indian promoters for the absence of an entourage when he travels or goes for meetings. He has a distaste for hangerson, a staple of Indian business leaders, and is quite comfortable fielding media queries without the presence of irritating minders ready to jump in with interjections. At a 2004 meeting in New York with nearly a dozen reporters and editors from BusinessWeek magazine, he was asked what the US could learn from India. He didn’t respond immediately, a trait that can be disconcerting for those who don’t know him too well. Rather, he takes his time to think through his reply, as he did in this case. In the event, his answer, ‘warmth and humility’, delivered with a deadpan expression, marked him out as a rare Indian business promoter capable of impressing the international media.
Excerpted from the recently-released Azim Premji: The Man Beyond the Billions