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The Rediff Interview/Anil Agarwal, CEO, Vedanta Resources Plc
February 16, 2005
In November 1975, a 19-year-old young man was walking down Nariman Point in Mumbai (then Bombay). The grand facade of the Oberoi Hotel impressed him so much that he wanted to stay there at least for a day.
But he was afraid to check in as he could not utter a word in English. So, he got hold of somebody to help him check in the hotel.
Once he checked in, the entrepreneur in him instantly realised that the hotel could be a great address for his business.
At Rs 200 a day, he stayed there for almost three months, but made sure that his laundry and food were managed outside to keep the cost to the minimum.
Now, 51-year-old Anil Agarwal, founder and chief executive officer of Vedanta Resources Plc, does not make any fuss about eating at five-star places.
We are at Kandahar, the Indian restaurant at The Oberoi, overlooking the Arabian Sea. The last three decades have changed him dramatically. The scrap dealer of the 1970s is the uncrowned non-ferrous metal king of India with a turnover of close to $2 billion.
But his approach to business has not changed.
Today, he owns a £20 million home at Mayfair in central London. "I have to do things differently. I have to project myself. I have to have a Bentley, the best of chauffeurs and butlers. All these add to the confidence," Agarwal says.
Even before the BS lunch starts, Agarwal mesmerises us with his art of story telling.
We order paneer tikka for a starter and masala bhindi and dal kandahari to go with Agarwal's missi roti. A strict vegetarian, Agarwal insists that we must have some non-vegetarian dish and recommends prawn curry for us.
He also tells us to try out lacchha paratha, which is very good at Kandahar.
As we settle down, we ask him about his "struggling days". In 1975, he came to Bombay "on a small business opportunity" but never went back home to Patna.
"That was the first time I sat in plane (on a student concession) and for the entire flight kept mum as I could not speak a word in English," says Agarwal who is a matriculate.
He went to the same school -- Miller High School -- where Lalu Prasad studied. In fact, he is a great fan of Lalu although he claims to have met him only three times in his life, the last time was eight years ago.
"He has a tremendous sense of humour," Agarwal says, referring to Lalu.
His father was into making aluminium conductors. In his initial years, Agarwal used to collect scrap from most of the cable companies in other states and sell it in Mumbai.
For 10 years, he worked in the scrap business and ran a cable company that he bought from a loan from Syndicate Bank.
"I used to spend half my time at Syndicate Bank, looking at the bank manager's face through the glass. If he was smiling, I knew that I could go in and ask him to clear the Rs 50,000 cheque. . . But Bombay was a great experience. I learnt how to speak English, how to dress well and the other tricks of the trade," Agarwal says taking a bite of paneer tikka.
His first office was 8 x 10 square feet at Kalbadevi where not more than three people could sit and a telephone was rented from another office upstairs.
How did he come up, we ask him. "I have always been ambitious. I see something and want to have it -- there is a burning desire," says Agarwal laying down his cards on the table while enjoying his missi roti with kali dal.
We order a Diet Coke to wash down the roti-sabji.
In 1986, Agarwal got into the business of jelly-field cables by putting up a factory at Rs 7 crore (Rs 70 million) against the normal cost of Rs 30-40 crore (Rs 300-400 million). Sterlite Industries was born.
A plant was bought at Illinois and shipped back to India to cut the cost of a greenfield project. In four years, his company's market share jumped from 5 to 50 per cent.
"Every one thought that the second hand equipment would not work. I focussed on my work. I used to smoke and drink a bit but gave up all to concentrate on my work," Agarwal tell us.
That's the beginning of his empire building. Soon, he wanted to produce copper -- a raw material for cable business which was in short supply.
"If you asked for 1,000 tonnes you got around 5 tonnes. There was no copper available from MMTC and Hindustan Copper. So we went for backward integration and started manufacturing copper rods at Lonavla," he says as if it was a cakewalk.
He went to Australia to learn about the technology of copper smelting and from there flew down to the West Coast to take a look at a plant that had been shut down.
"I reached there with high temperature and did not know whom to contact. I stayed there, took some gifts for the people I met and convinced them to sell the plant to me," Agarwal says finishing his missi roti and asking for one tandoori roti.
The normal cost for that plant would have been Rs 2,500 crore (Rs 25 billion). He managed it within Rs 900 crore (Rs 9 billion) following his "buy abroad and set up in India" formula.
His next target was aluminium. He wanted to buy Indian Aluminium (Indal) but did not succeed. So, he bought Madras Aluminium, a sick company with the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction and shut down for four years.
The 20,000 tonnes plant now produces 40,000 tonnes and makes a profit of around Rs 75-100 crore (Rs 75 million to Rs 1 billion). Balco happened in 2000 by which time he had bought two mines in Australia.
Has the takeover of Balco been the most challenging phase in his life?
"Yes, I had put in Rs 550 crore (Rs 5.50 billion) but could not touch it for over for almost four to five months. I had a paper that the company was mine, but it had no meaning. We went to the divestment ministry and it almost seemed that the whole process would reverse. But once we started talking to the workers they realised that this plant would not survive unless it is modernised. We've put in almost Rs 4,000 crore (Rs 40 billion). Now, overall income of Balco workers has gone up by almost 13 per cent," he says.
In comparison, the takeover of Hindustan Zinc, another big-ticket divestment for the government, was easy. "From 1,75,000 tonnes, we are increasing the capacity of Hindustan Zinc to 4,00,000 tonnes and the cost of production has dropped from $870 a tonne to $560 a tonne. Almost entire zinc demand of the country is met by us now," Agarwal says with satisfaction.
How does he manage to overcome all resistance and get his things done? This time he chooses to be a bit diplomatic.
"I understand the Indian psychology. That's my biggest advantage. In India you must have patience; everything will come through," he says and quickly points out that there have been some failures on his way.
"For every six projects there are two failures. Fortunately, I've been able to sell them off," he says.
At the moment, he's sitting on almost $4 billion of investments into the country. His 1.4 million tonne alumina project at Kalahandi in Orissa, is 45 per cent complete.
After a $875 million initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange, Vedanta Resources, the metals and mining giant (the holding company of Sterlite Industries), of which he holds 54 per cent, also went for large bond deal of $600 million.
He has already made a commitment of investing Rs 12,500 crore (Rs 125 billion) in a steel project at Keonjhar in Orissa. On top of that, another Rs 7,000 crore (Rs 70 billion) investment was announced to set up a five lakh tonne per annum greenfield aluminium smelter, again in Orissa, last week.
All these besides a slew of expansions for his copper and zinc businesses.
As he asks for yoghurt to round off his meal, we ask him whether Laxmi Mittal -- his neighbour in London -- is his mentor? He does not give a straight answer but says his approach to business is different.
While all the world outside India is a stage for Mittal, Agarwal's USP is his India focus. He is, however, quick to add, "Mittal is a great man. Perhaps it is the administrative hurdles that have stopped him from coming to India."
How is his life beyond work? "I do some yoga...I love cycling. I watch Hindi films and relax in the company of my kind of people who laugh loudly. I can't have intellectual companions for relaxing. I want to be known as a man on the street."
We ask him about the key to his success. "I never defaulted in my life be it to banks or business parties. I always honour my commitment," he points out.
Is there anything he does not like about himself? "Perhaps I am over-aggressive. I want to reduce my aggression," he says point blank.
As we are ready to leave after switching off the tape recorder, Agarwal asks rather innocently, "How did it go?" "Oh, it's quite fascinating," we tell him. His last question reminds us of his observation on life: "I always believe that you should not be over-smart. Even if you tend to behave like a bit of a fool, it doesn't matter. This works."