Is Wipro’s CEO Abidali Neemuchwala playing it too safe?


Bengaluru: It has been over 100 days since Abidali Z. Neemuchwala took the helm at Wipro Ltd and over a year since he joined India’s third-largest software services exporter.

But going by the performance of the company’s shares and recent analyst commentary, investors don’t seem to be holding their breath for a turnaround any time soon.

Wipro shares have fallen 4% since Neemuchwala took over as CEO and 14% since April 2015 (when he took over as chief operating officer), underperforming its larger rivals Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS) and Infosys Ltd, as well as the broader Sensex.

Many blame the underperformance of Wipro’s stock on its management’s reluctance to give regular guideposts and finer details on how and when it will get back to industry-matching revenue growth levels.

Wipro’s poor performance in the last year and a weak outlook for the current April-June quarter have not helped.

To add to Wipro’s woes, cross-city rival Infosys is growing at industry-matching rates under the leadership of Vishal Sikka, who took charge as CEO in August 2014.

Despite taking the helm at a time when Infosys was seemingly foundering after a dozen top-level exits and the loss of its bellwether tag, Sikka did not shy away from giving specific targets. He said then that he would get Infosys back to industry-matching growth levels by September 2016.

Infosys has already beaten industry lobby group Nasscom’s growth estimate in 2015-16, and could actually grow faster than Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. this year.

Sikka’s clear vision and ability to articulate it helped Infosys shares jump 24% in the 100 days after he took over as the first non-founder CEO on 1 August 2014. Infosys’s stock is up 7.14% since April last year.

“Abid is the polar opposite of Vishal Sikka,” said Phil Fersht, CEO of US-based HfS Research, an outsourcing-research firm. “Vishal likes to set a top-down agenda and bring in new folks to execute on it, while Abid gets right into the weeds and tries to fix what is already there.”

Like Sikka, who is based out of Palo Alto, Neemuchwala is based out of Dallas in the US, a country which brings in more than half of Wipro’s revenue. At Infosys, many former SAP AG executives joined at the rank of senior vice-president. At Wipro, eight former TCS executives have joined at a lower level of vice-president.

“So you have Infosys executives all drinking the Kool-Aid and getting excited by all these new ideas and enthusiasm from a technologist, while Wipro’s (executives) are being given a cold hard dose of reality to get their act together,” said Fersht of HfS.

Since Sikka was a rank outsider to the services industry, the former SAP executive focused on bringing disruptive concepts such as the user-centric approach of design thinking to make tens of thousands of Infoscions, as the company’s employees call themselves, push themselves to go beyond the scope of work in completing projects. Investors are yet to see something like that from his counterpart at Wipro.

Being a “services man” who knows the industry inside out, Neemuchwala should try to at least integrate Wipro’s service and industry lines much more effectively, Fersht said.

To be sure, Neemuchwala, who worked with TCS for over two decades before coming to Wipro, has not been idle. He made each of Wipro’s six business unit heads responsible for the delivery of software in addition to managing sales, emulating the model that powers industry leader TCS.

Like Sikka, he has also looked at acquiring companies. While Infosys has focused on buying firms to boost its technology capabilities, Wipro has bought firms for revenue growth.

Infosys spent $390 million to purchase three firms which are estimated to have less than $90 million in revenue, while Wipro spent more than $760 million in buying four companies which together have $371.5 million in revenue.

Wipro has also made investments in five start-ups since April last year. This means that Wipro, which added just $211.5 million in incremental revenue in calendar year 2015, bought more than 5% in growth for the next financial year.

Just like Sikka, who aims to make Infosys a $20 billion firm with 30% operating margin by March 2021, Neemuchwala has laid out an ambitious target of expanding Wipro’s revenue to $15 billion with 23% profitability by 2020.

But the lack of clarity on how Neemuchwala will achieve it worries industry watchers.

“Wipro has a new US-based CEO, who has padded up a second layer, made unconventional acquisitions, announced a reorganization and reportedly announced seemingly moon-shot (impossible to achieve) targets,” Ankur Rudra, an analyst at CLSA, wrote in a note last month.

These changes may not be enough for a turnaround.

“While the recent acquisitions are a shot in the arm, portfolio issues and client mining weakness are yet to turn around. We remain hopeful but not convinced of a full recovery,” Rudra said.

A spokesman for Wipro declined to comment for this story.

Wipro posted revenue growth of 7.6% in constant currency terms to expand its revenue to $7.35 billion in 2015-16, versus Infosys’s growth of 13.3% to $9.50 billion. Industry body Nasscom had estimated growth of 12.3% for the country’s $150 billion outsourcing sector last year.