Since his low-key entry into Wipro five years ago, Rishad Premji is being carefully groomed to lead the company one day. Indulekha Aravind on the man who could succeed Azim Premji
On April 30, Bangalore-headquartered infotech services company Wipro held a teleconference with journalists on its acquisition of Australian analytics firm Promax Applications Group. At around $36 million, this was no big-ticket deal (the company’s last buy had been SAIC’s oil and gas tech services for $150 million in 2011). And yet, taking questions was Rishad Premji, Wipro’s chief strategy officer and elder son of chairman, Azim H Premji. A journalist who was part of the conference call says once the interaction was over, a Wipro executive called him for a chat during which he slipped in the question: so how did Rishad do? The message was implicit: apart from an acquisition announcement, the conference call was also one more step in what seems to be the careful grooming of the 35-year-old before he takes over the soaps-and-vegetable oil to software conglomerate that clocked revenues of Rs 37,525 crore in 2011-12.
That conclusion was bolstered earlier this week, when 66-year-old Premji told Bloomberg that “it would make sense” for Rishad to succeed him eventually as non-executive chairman, with a caveat that he himself had no plans to step down at least for the next two years. The statement was the first of its kind on the Wipro succession plan but is not exactly a shocker. Speculation that Rishad would inherit the chairman’s mantle has been rife ever since he joined the company in 2007. Since Premji and his family hold 78 per cent of Wipro, shareholder approval would hardly be a hurdle. As a former Wipro executive says, “It’s Premji’s own business. How can someone else take over?” The move, he emphasises, is very much in accordance with the long-term plan the chairman has chalked out for the company.
Nevertheless, the company has time and again emphasised that it is a professionally-run business and not a family-run enterprise. This is important also because none of its peers — be it Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) or Cognizant — has family members of the promoters as part of any succession plan. In a 2006 interview to The Guardian, Premji had said: “You cannot hand an organisation of this complexity and size to sons. I think anyone who takes over has to earn it on merit and this job requires a fair degree of maturity. It’s a complex job, a global job.” To be fair, however, Premji has made it clear that Rishad’s potential elevation will be to the post of “non-executive” chairman. And before Rishad steps into his father’s rather large shoes, he is being made to go through the grind.
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Rishad joined Wipro in July 2007 as a business manager in the banking and financial services division, after building up an impressive CV consisting of a stint in GE Capital in the US, an MBA from Harvard Business School and two years as a consultant with Bain & Co in London. (School had been in Mumbai followed by a BA in economics from Wesleyan University in the US.) His entry, he told Business Standard in an earlier interview, had been like that of any other employee, with former joint-CEO Girish Paranjpe interviewing him in London. “The way I approached it was the way I would approach any other new job... you evaluate the pros, you evaluate the cons... you go through the same butterflies you go through in a change of job,” he had said. “I had a boss, and a boss of a boss, filled in appraisal forms, etc....” The company, too, tries to drive home this theme of “he’s just another employee”. Another former Wipro executive says, “I don’t think anyone sees him as an ‘inheritor’.” This, she says, goes with the culture of an organisation where the chairman himself saunters into the office canteen to snack on a dosa or ice-cream and no one looks at him as a celebrity.
Wipro is also very guarded about Rishad — his first interview with a publication came more than four years after he joined the company, in November 2011. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
In his first role in the company, Rishad helped set up the mortgage business after which he was promoted to general manager, treasury and investor relations, which he termed one of the “funnest” jobs because “you get to interact with 100-150 investors a quarter, you get to see the company from a different lens.” Rishad was made chief strategy officer (CSO) in September 2010, when he was a few months short of 34, becoming one of the youngest CSOs in India Inc.
As CSO, Rishad said he was looking after four aspects. “One is how to look at a few things that can have a big-bang impact... The second is we fund initiatives that can pay off for the company in a four- to six-quarter timeframe. We function like a venture capitalist, we fund opportunities, evaluate them, mentor and even kill opportunities...” The other two areas are the strategy planning cycle and mergers and acquisitions. After taking over as CSO, Promax was Rishad’s first acquisition but he might have his hands more full in the days to come, with Premji senior revealing that the company is looking to make acquisitions of $1 billion over the next 18 months.
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Those who know Rishad describe him as someone who is confident, articulate and very capable. “He is a very impressive, very well-behaved boy,” says Sudip Banerjee, former president of enterprise solutions at Wipro. “He is also very simple, with no airs about him.” This simplicity is a quality that is also associated with Azim Premji, who, despite having a fortune estimated at $15.9 billion (Forbes ranked him the third richest Indian), is known to shun ostentation, even choosing to travel economy on domestic flights. And, despite having spent 12 years abroad, Rishad has no trace of a foreign accent.
In previous interviews, Rishad described himself as “the sort of person who will study all the elements and make an informed decision. I’m less the kind of person that makes a gut-based decision.” A source who has interacted with him concurs. “He is a very thorough, attention-to-detail kind of person.” He is also said to be reserved. “Basically, he’s the type of person who keeps to himself and focuses on the job at hand,” says one of the ex-employees quoted previously. His role model, he has said, is Warren Buffett.
Outside office, Rishad is interested in cricket and watching films. He and wife Aditi, who he is said to have known since school, are a very private couple, “They have a circle of close friends,” says a source who knows Aditi but requests not to be named. Though the two are not Page 3 regulars, Rishad is more active on the social circuit than his father. Aditi is involved with Embrace, a foundation that promotes low-cost infant warmers for babies in developing countries. According to the organisation’s website, Aditi holds an MS in Communications Design from the Pratt Institute in the US. The couple has two children, Rhea and Rohaan. Rishad’s younger brother, Tariq, is said to be involved with the Azim Premji Foundation, the philanthropic organisation focusing on education set up by their father in 2001. Rishad is also on the board of the foundation.
Comparisons between father and son are but inevitable. “Rishad is much more tech-savvy, and of course, he is very well-educated,” says Banerjee. Azim Premji was forced to drop out of Stanford University and rush home because of his father’s sudden death. (He completed his engineering degree 15 years later through correspondence.) One of the executives quoted above says it would be unfair to measure one against the other, at least for now. “The context in which Rishad will take over as chairman is very different from when his father did. Azim Premji took over the company when he was 21, and transformed it from a vegetable oil manufacturer to the global giant it is today while Rishad will come into the role in very different circumstances. It would not be an apple-to-apple comparison.”
Nevertheless, India and the world will be watching to see how the younger Premji measures up.