Premji had faith in a youngster like me: Suresh C. Senapaty5 min read . Updated: 31 Mar 2015, 01:22 AM IST
The outgoing CFO recalls his early days at Wipro and the company's long journey
Bengaluru: Life has been a series of “sweet accidents" for Suresh C. Senapaty at India’s third-largest software services exporter Wipro Ltd. After a six-hour interview in Mumbai with Azim Premji, chairman of Wipro, in 1980, Senapaty joined the firm as a chartered accountant (CA), thinking he would “park himself for some months", but he went on to become the group’s chief financial officer (CFO) and retired on Monday after 35 years. Senapaty will continue, though, as a member on the boards of Wipro Enterprises and Wipro GE Healthcare, the company’s joint venture with GE.
Six months after joining Wipro in 1980, Senapaty gave his resignation letter to his line manager as he had got an offer from a firm in the Middle East, but luckily for Wipro, the resignation was rejected. Senapaty was born in a business family in the small town of Rambha near Berhampur in Odisha. He never dreamed of becoming a CA, having no “hawa" (clue) of chartered accountancy", but somehow managed it since he was too young—having completed school by 15—to be accepted to either engineering or medical schools, because of which he had to choose commerce.
In an interview on Monday, Senapaty recalls his early days at Wipro and the company’s long journey. Edited excerpts:
How did you join Wipro and how was the journey?
I wrote a letter to a guy who was a CA in Mumbai and was the son of my father’s friend from Berhampur. Once in Mumbai, I worked across different firms until after a few years he told me that there was an opening at Wipro. I just wanted to park myself somewhere. But I enjoyed my six-hour interview (with Azim Premji). It was unusual. It was about case study, financing and taxation. I came out and I realized I was happy, for it was all my strengths. And so I joined. In the office, I shared a cabin with my boss and he (Premji) used to sit just a few feet away. So, we were a very closely knit unit. I was the 25th management employee in the company. Never did I thought the company will engulf me for 35 years. And 20 of the years I will be reporting to this gentleman (Premji). Should I revisit and look at it differently? I don’t think so. I have no regrets.
What qualities of Premji impressed you the most?
He is not emotional. I remember, a year after I joined, I went to Amalner factory (Wipro Consumer Care factory in Maharashtra) and based on my analysis, I put up a recommendation that an oil mill, from where the company started, is unlikely to make money in future and so it should be closed. Everybody thought, here comes this joker who is asking to shut the oil mill which started in 1945. But he (Premji) agreed. And that is where my respect for the individual went up. And that he will go by economics. (Above all), he had faith in a youngster like me. He has always backed me.
Can you recall a couple of things you cherish the most in your 35 years at Wipro?
It has been a wonderful experience with lots of great hits, excitement and a few heartbreaks. My over-a-decade working under P.S. Pai (at Wipro Consumer Care) taught me a lot of things. But if I have to say, then the three big spots have been the BPO (business process outsourcing) acquisition (Wipro acquired Spectramind in 2002 paying about $100 million), Unza acquisition (Singapore’s Unza was bought for $250 million in 2007) and Infocrossing (a US information technology firm that manages infrastructure such as desktops and communication networks for $600 million in 2007). BPO, because there were internal differences and Vivek (Vivek Paul, the then CEO) and me had a difference of opinion. The industry too was divided and we were not into BPO. But we eventually did it and later TCS (Tata Consultancy Services Ltd) and Infosys Ltd too got into BPO. Unza, because it was a very different buyout. That company was being chased by Dabur India Ltd and Godrej, and after our first meeting, the talks broke down. We then engaged with the PE (private equity) player (Standard Chartered). So we made the acquisition without the management. We did this deal without proper due diligence, for the management was not engaging with us. Infocrossing, because it had a different challenge as it was a listed company, and it had to be delisted.
I think there was a bigger opportunity in FMCG (fast moving consumer goods)—like there was some heroism in the Unza acquisition. We could have done something like that. We missed it and now I don’t want to get into an analysis. Another is that the transitions could have been smoother for us when we moved from a joint CEO (Wipro had a joint CEO structure until 2011) to single (incumbent T.K. Kurien took charge in February 2011).
What are some of the challenges ahead for a CFO of a software firm? Say currency fluctuation?
Capital allocation, of course, remains important. On currency fluctuation, it’s a part and parcel of the game. So, the areas which are not within our control, we cannot help much.
Are you leaving Wipro in a much better shape?
All bad is behind us. The economy is in better shape. Also, the new structure we will have, with the COO-CEO structure, will give much time and headspace and bandwidth to both these big leaders to focus and make things move.
What qualities of Azim Premji do you see in Rishad Premji?
He (Rishad) is very bright and sincere and (his) understanding of business is very good. Maybe not like his father (Azim) because father is father. But Rishad has certain strengths just like his father, which are complementary. Like very humble, down to earth, dealing with people without a chip on your shoulder. So after meeting him (Rishad), you do not get this impression that you had a meeting with a powerful owner of the company.
Do you believe the Indian market regulator Sebi (Securities and Exchange Board of India) should have processes that encourage more start-ups to get listed on domestic exchanges?
First of all, we should ask if Indian start-ups are ready for listing. You should see the preparedness of start-ups. So, if Sebi sees they are not fit, there is merit. See, these are start-ups and they should see how some of the big companies are struggling with this quarter-to-quarter performance. So, they should not go for listing now because that means there are too many shareholders.
Will you be hand-holding some start-ups, say as an adviser, or be joining their boards?
I cannot say no. But I don’t have any immediate plans.