“The Only Way To Go was Up”: Prem Watsa’s Interview with Chennai 36 [Part 1] by Chennai 36

V. Prem Watsa (BT/CH/1971) is the Founder, Chairman, and Chief Executive of Fairfax Financial Holdings, based in Toronto, Canada. He is commonly known as “the Warren Buffett of Canada” for his exceptional investing skills and business acumen. He won the Distinguished Alumnus Award from IIT Madras in 1999. Prem Watsa shot into the news headlines recently, with Fairfax’s takeover of BlackBerry Ltd (NASDAQ:BBRY) (TSE:BB) in September 2013.

Chennai36 now brings to you an extensive and exclusive interview of this great visionary. In Part 1, Mr. Prem Watsa talks about hockey, Inter-IIT, academics and his hostel life at IIT Madras; and the struggles and challenges he faced as an Indian immigrant in Canada in the 1970s.

"The Only Way To Go was Up": Prem Watsa's Interview

Please briefly describe your family background.

Prem Watsa: My father was an orphan from Mangalore. He lost his mother when he was 3 , and then his grandfather  when he was 12 . He was one of four children, so his other siblings were sent to live with various relatives. However, he went to school and was an active sportsman, did his Bachelor’s degree and became a teacher at Madras Christian College. He later, went on to become the Principal of Hyderabad Public School.

I was the third of the four children that he had. My father always emphasised education,  and gave me my grounding.  After high school he encouraged me to write the entrance exam for IIT.

How did you first hear of IIT-Madras back in the mid-1960s?

Prem Watsa: It’s a funny story. IIT Madras was in its infancy, but was already getting very popular. I first heard of it in school. I wrote the first exam, and scored only about 8/20 in Math. Despite this, my dear aunt forced me to write the other papers as well, the second of which was English and the third Chemistry. I was pretty good at Chemistry, and that is why I decided to study Chemical Engineering.

How was the hostel and academic life in your time, and what were the extra-curricular activities you were active in?

Prem Watsa: IIT Madras has always been a great place, and provided a really good foundation. The five years that I spent at IIT Madras were undoubtedly the best years of my life.  I was young, only about 16 years old when I joined. I was in Alakananda Hostel in my first year, Ganga in my second, and Jamuna for the  final three years.

Sports at IIT Madras:

"The Only Way To Go was Up": Prem Watsa's Interview

Prem Watsa: I was the Sports Secretary of Jamuna Hostel, and also later the Institute Sports Secretary. I used to play hockey for the institute, and also quite a lot of table tennis. In fact, IIT Madras started winning the Inter-IIT trophy during my tenure as the Institute Sports Secretary. Before that, it used to be dominated by IIT Delhi and Kharagpur. This victory also marked the beginning of IIT Madras’s ten-year winning streak.

The Warden of Jamuna Hostel, Dr. Anantharaman, was a wonderful person.  It was his encouragement and his guidance that encouraged us to prosper.

Full article here.

Please find Part 2 of Prem Watsa’s interview with Anirudh Srivatsa, Editor of Chennai 36 here.