He is known as India's Bill Gates. Azim Premji took over his father's cooking oil company in 1966 and remade it into Wipro Ltd., India's third-largest software firm with operations in more than 50 countries. He is one of India's richest men (worth $14.9-billion U.S., Forbes says), but is equally lauded for his frugality, humility and philanthropy: Much of his fortune is now spent on boosting the quality of India's rural elementary schools.
In Toronto this week for an event sponsored by The Indus Entrepreneurs, Mr. Premji spoke about refusing to pay bribes, growth plans and Canada-India relations. Here is an abridged blend of his comments and an interview with The Globe and Mail.
How do you see the new world order, post-global economic crisis?
The developed world is seeing places like India, China and Africa as the major growth markets which you have to invest in - and take the risk of that investment. The Western world is unlikely to have growth of more than 2 or 3 per cent, whereas in the developing world, you have growth rates of plus-6 per cent, with a large, attractive base. So there's going to be significantly more attention, more investment and more partnerships.
I think the global scenario - value for money - has changed. You see across the world, savings rates have gone up. It's a typical indicator that people are less secure. So all customers, all over the world, across all industries, are going to drive more value for money.
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What are some of the key challenges?
There's a huge drive in companies for getting better, differentiating themselves and building productivity. All of which means there's not going to be a lot of extra employment because people are wanting more value. Customers are demanding more value, and employees are getting more and more expensive. The problem most governments will face is how to generate, at a low cost, higher employment - because unemployment levels are not going to fall easily. It will require a lot of imagination to fix it.
India is facing its own share of unemployment because it lost a year of hyper-growth and hyper-employment. So it is being observed in terms of cooling of compensation. But countries like the U.S. and parts of Europe are facing huge unemployment challenges, and in the foreseeable future it could get worse. If I was president of the United States, that would be my priority No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3.
You aim to double revenue from Canada in the next year or two. How do you see trade relations, generally, between India and Canada evolving?
Trade between Canada and India is much less than it should be. One very obvious area - Canada is a large source of energy. I see more flow of technology between India and Canada, more flow of services. If we can get more active in terms of more focused delegations going into India -- with a more focused agendas and meetings - that could kick-start a lot of collaborations and co-ventures.
The Indian community here in Canada is a million people. They're very successful. They've integrated themselves beautifully with Canada and maintained their links with India. They could be very strong ambassadors, to build bridges.
We're (at Wipro) putting a lot of resources into Canada. We'll do everything to be successful because it's potentially a large, attractive market for us. The fact [is]that Canadian companies aren't as IT-ified as U.S. companies, and they've been very conservative in terms of not using global services to get more value in terms of quality and cost.
You've made a point of not paying bribes. Why?
We never pay bribes. One you establish those principles, [it becomes easier to stick with them] You can run a clean, honourable business in India - and anywhere in the world. And when you don't compromise on paying bribes, in the long term it reduces your costs.
How do you envision India in five years time?
The economy is going to get progressively more liberalized, including financial services. The government is conscious that they have to put efforts ... into pumping more money into rural India. There will be much more investment in infrastructure - roads, power, agriculture.
I'm very optimistic - you will see very solid growth in India and you'll see it fairly well distributed across sectors, and urban and rural centres. That doesn't mean we emerge from poverty - that will take a long time. But if we can control our population, have less corruption and let free more entrepreneurship, I think India will be a much nicer country in five to 10 years in terms of quality of life - [the wealth]will be more broad-based as opposed to just a few people who get very rich.
What do you envision for your company in the coming years?
We'd like to be in the top 10 globally, in terms of revenue, and the top five in terms of market cap. But more important than that, we'd like to be on the table of the three short list for large complex solutions which customers ask for, because of our reputation in understanding the needs of the customer.
It means expanding our entire product line, and penetrating markets in which we are underrepresented - Germany, France, Canada, and Latin America.