Anil Agarwal left his home in Bihar in northern India to seek his fortune in Mumbai in the 1970s. Armed with a high school education and boundless determination, Agarwal started out as a scrap-metal dealer. Today his Vedanta Resources is a global mining and metals company, the largest producer of zinc, the second-largest producer of copper, and an active competitor in oil and gas and power generation.
Vedanta Resources is the product of Agarwal’s unending search for undervalued assets and his ability to operate lean. In the 1980s, he migrated from selling scrap metal to making telephone cables after he acquired a small industrial plant at a discount. Next, when he needed to lock up a steady supply of material for the cables, he entered the copper business.
From there, he broadened into other metals and natural resources and ventured outside of India into Australia and Ireland. The rest is rags-to-riches history. As the controlling shareholder of Vedanta Resources, Agarwal is one of India’s wealthiest executives.
Despite the diversity of Vedanta’s business portfolio and its geographic footprint, Agarwal has always insisted that the company be run simply. He installs strong leaders in operations and gives them the room and authority they require to win. He keeps Vedanta’s organization as straightforward as possible.
Agarwal recently sat down for a discussion with Janmejaya Sinha, BCG’s chairman of the Asia-Pacific region. Edited excerpts from that conversation follow.
It is a matter of personal privilege for me to interview somebody from my home state of Bihar for this leadership series. When did you really start thinking about making such a big empire?
In Bihar, we have tremendous energy. The energy levels are very high. That is why so many politicians come from Bihar, and it is a center of education.
It is true that Bihar has produced a lot of leaders in India. It has produced a lot of good politicians, like the first president. It has not yet produced a global business leader like yourself. You may have had energy, but you did not have precedent. How did you think that you could create a business empire of this stature?
I always had the dream to go to the big city and do something big. I used to read in the newspaper about the big companies being run by the industrialists.
How did you then think globally?
The first acquisition was a small cable company, and then there was a company in Tasmania that made a big blunder. The management there had played in the metal market and had gone bankrupt, so I rushed to Tasmania, and the Tasmanian premier said, “I would be very pleased if you can look at this mine.” You’ll be surprised to learn that I bought that mine for $2.5 million, and every year it has paid us $100 million. We bought another mine in Queensland, which was very small, and then a gold mine in Armenia.
So you started identifying undervalued assets?
That’s all I could do. I had no “pocket.” There were foreign exchange rules and regulations. You could not transfer money from India, but I had belief and determination. I believed in my karma. I believed that if you keep doing, are sincere, and don’t look back, something will happen.
The world is getting very complex, especially in areas like mining. You have a lot of regulations coming from different groups of people—all with good intent by not always with good outcomes. You have operations across many countries, where you have to retain people and your processes have to be different because sometimes the environment is different. How have you managed complexity?
I will always keep my business simple. I’ll keep my business very simple, trust people, and empower them. I’m not going to allow things to get complicated.
So you’re making a profound statement. You are saying, ‘I keep my businesses simple, I hire good people, and I trust and empower them. That is how I deal with complexity.’
People say that they can’t leave you, that you personally create an attachment with your team, especially your early team, and that they feel personally committed to you. How do you create that personal loyalty and commitment?
I try to embrace people and to be with people. With whomever is around me, my love and affection will continue. Whether I’ll be able to cover everybody in today’s business context, it may not be possible.
So what are your thoughts around sustainability and how you think about your business in this context?
I will give you the story of Hindustan Zinc; it is an amazing story. When we took over Hindustan Zinc, we were told that we had a reserve for five years, and we made 150,000 tons of zinc every year. We opened the door and we put in the very best people. To cut this story short, today we are producing 1 million tons, we are about seven times bigger, and we have a reserve for 40 years. The company never used to produce silver; we are producing close to 1,000 tons of silver.
We have to sit down together with government; there is no question about the importance of sitting down across the table.
So you are saying that the whole dialogue around some of this is wrong. Government and business should sit together and decide what India needs and then unlock the full potential of India by allowing business to generate the types of jobs and the kind of future that India deserves. What lesson would you give to somebody who is 25 years old in India today?
You have to be focused and make sure you have the right boss. This is a very important time for you. Even if they give you too much money, if the work is boring and your boss is not going to inspire you, there’s no point working with him. You want to learn. There is so much to do, whether you work for somebody or start your own business. There is no question that you can be successful.
How would you like to be remembered?
If I can help to open up India and its natural resources, to make India self-sufficient, and to create win-win situations with the government that create more employment, improve education, and give recognition to entrepreneurs, that is more than enough for me.