Home News Here’s how Zubin Karkaria is taking the $500-million firm VFS Global on a new tech adventure
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Here’s how Zubin Karkaria is taking the $500-million firm VFS Global on a new tech adventure

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Like many other Parsi boys from Dadar, Zubin Karkaria took up priesthood early. Starting at 15 in his last year of school, he would offer his services at Dadar Agiary in the mornings, making Rs 15-20 a day. It was a princely sum in the early eighties.

In his college years, the money would pay for his bike’s petrol. The Muktad period before the Parsi New Year, when families pray for the dead, saw rich pickings for young Parsi boys, including Karkaria, who would offer their services as Dasturjis or Parsi priests.

Karkaria is today the chief executive officer of VFS Global, the Zurich-based visa facilitation services company that works with governments of 62 countries.

Now 50 years old and based in Dubai, Karkaria is unable to offer his priestly services any more. But he makes it a point to visit the agiary with his wife and three children whenever he is in Mumbai. His mother and uncles still live in Dadar.

Karkaria also prays at the Siddhivinayak Temple, and often makes a day trip to Shirdi, 255 km away, to pray at Sai Baba’s shrine.

He studied at Don Bosco in Matunga and often frequented the church, and is comfortable with the plurality of faiths, he told ET Magazine in an interview.

New Horizons for VFS Global- Identity and citizen services

Identity and citizen services

India: VFS provides various services with the following local governments in India, including delivery and processing of birth and death certificates and licences. It works with: Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, Delhi Doorstep Services, Bhubaneshwar Development Authority, Pune Municipal Corporation

For Finland, VFS handles a resident permit application service from Turkey, helping Finnish officials process such applications from a remote country.

In Africa, VFS handles foreigner registration permits in Ghana’s National Identification Authority and manages bank verification number enrollment for Nigerian bank account holders in several countries.

In the Middle East, VFS handles: Dubai courts’ Dispute Resolution Centre and public notary services and citizen services (related to medical, court and business registration) for the UAE and Saudi Arabian governments.

For Russia, VFS handled the FAN ID programme for visitors to 2018 FIFA World Cup.

VFS Global is working with Probitas Quad (PQ) of Australia to provide international student verification and visa support services for universities.

Sitting at Café 792, a new-age Parsi Café at the edge of the Dadar Parsi colony, Karkaria also points out how the Parsi colony is not so exclusive any more. Back in 2001, Karkaria, as the India head of travel and destination management company Kuoni, did his own experiment in plurality, but this time in business.

He started VFS, short for visa facilitation service, as a new business within Kuoni. It was just a pilot project at the US consulate in Mumbai. But over time, it became so large and profitable that Karkaria ended up as the CEO of Kuoni Group. Then Kuoni, under a new owner, sold all its other businesses to focus just on VFS. Finally, in June this year, Kuoni Group merged with VFS. But the story of how Karkaria, the boy from Dadar, started VFS in Mumbai, begs retelling.

“As a travel operator, we would often meet consulates and embassies before the busy season to understand how we could best submit visa applications of travellers,” he says.

Every travel agent would get a window for submitting applications and a quota on numbers. During one such meeting, Karkaria suggested to the US consulate that operators could also help in visa application processing to make sure all papers are in order. What then started as a pilot in the consulate was soon expanded to other cities and other countries.

VFS Global: Growth Path

In 2001, VFS Global had a humble beginning as a unit of Kuoni in India providing visa facilitation through a pilot project in Mumbai’s US consulate

Seeing growth potential in the new business, Zubin Karkaria, who headed Kuoni in India then, focused on VFS

As a division of Kuoni, VFS Global kept growing bigger and moved headquarters out of Mumbai to Singapore, then Zurich and finally Dubai

In 2015, Kuoni Group sold its global destination management (tour operators) business

In 2016, Swedish private equity firm EQT acquired Kuoni Group and later de-listed it from Zurich stock exchange

In 2017, EQT sold two other B2B travel businesses of Kuoni Group and focussed on expanding VFS Global

In 2018, Kuoni Group merged into VFS Global making its India-born business the mainstay of the group

“We knew we had to start with the US. If we could succeed with them, it would be easier to convince others to outsource,” Karkaria says. “In our model, we were never making the decision. We were essentially freeing the visa officer from the routine work allowing him to focus on the decisionmaking.” As VFS grew and took on work for more countries, Karkaria first moved to Singapore and then to Zurich to lead the company globally.

Then in 2015, 14 years after VFS was born, Kuoni changed its strategy and sold its mainstay destination management businesses. These still run under the Kuoni brand name but the owners are new.

By then, VFS was the most profitable business of the group with more than 15% margins. Karkaria became the CEO of Kuoni Group in November 2015.

The next year, EQT, a Swedish private equity firm, bought a majority stake in Kuoni Group and de-listed it from the Zurich Stock Exchange.

Kuoni Group was later restructured into three businesses: corporate travel under Global Travel Services (GTS), travel business distribution arm Gulliver Travel Associates (GTA) and VFS.

Then, last year GTS and GTA were sold off to different buyers and Kuoni Group decided to focus on VFS only. In June, Kuoni Group merged into VFS.

By this time, Karkaria had relocated to Dubai, which he felt was centrally located to serve the world. VFS was already working with 50 countries by the end of 2016 (62 now) and had Swiss Franc 348 million in revenues (A Swiss Franc is almost equivalent to a dollar in value).

This journey of Karkaria is well documented, as a story of an intrapreneur, doing a startup within a large global company in Mumbai and then scaling it up and making it a global success.

Today, VFS Global, after a bunch of acquisitions in 2017, handles 22 million visa applications a year. VFS has 50% of the outsourced visa application market. Only 30% of the total visa work has been outsourced so far. So growth possibilities are still immense. But the company is growing elsewhere too, in what it calls ‘identity and citizen services’. For instance, in India, VFS helps with the door-to-door delivery of services in Delhi, sends home birth & death certificates and driving licences in Mumbai. It also works on establishing the identities of illegal immigrants in South Africa.

The company is also investing in technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence to convert what was essentially a manpower outsourcing business to a techheavy delivery model of services. In fact, VFS is on the lookout for acquisitions in blockchain and facial recognition. It is already in talks with some companies, Karkaria says.

As the interview carries on, Karkaria talks about his favourites at Café 792 –chicken farcha (a fried chicken dish) and salli boti (mutton dish topped with potato shreds). “It’s heavy,” he warns. For a light snack, chicken puff is ideal, he adds. A former schoolmate of Karkaria walks into the café with his sons and the two old friends do a high five. They were in the same school from kindergarten to high school.

“Everything is here, my entire ecosystem,” Karkaria says as he looks around. His childhood playgrounds, his school are around the corner. With his business though, Karkaria is building a different ecosystem, something that will be ready to take on highly tech-intensive work even while growing its people count.

“Technology will be the cornerstone but security will be paramount,” Karkaria says, explaining that having people around is the key for security.

He explains how VFS is investing around $20 million a year on technology and another $5-10 million on an innovation lab based in the UK.

The company now offers services that allow businesspersons to apply for visas in India from smaller towns and a VFS crew can fly in with their equipment in a box to do the biometrics.

Then he talks about how Turkey has become a hotspot for asylum seekers. So now, asylum seekers can apply for residency in, say, Finland from Turkey. A person sitting in Finland can go through the submitted documents.

“With our technology, we can send passport images so that the verifier in Finland can digitally turn pages and view the passports in three illuminations: white light, infrared and UVA,” he says.

Karkaria also explains how VFS has developed technologies where a visa officer and an applicant need not come face-toface and yet the officer, sitting in his home country, can, at the press of a button, print the visa sticker at the location where the applicant is.

The company has also invested in technology on chat bots and the Australian government uses them for answering students’ questions.

Acquisitions: On the Prowl

VFS Global is looking for acquisitions in blockchain and facial recognition, in talks with some companies

In March, it took over 100% ownership of its joint venture with TasHeel Group. The JV was the outsourced visa services partner for Saudi Arabia

VFS also acquired Al Etimad, a facility management company that operates 90 visa application centres in four countries

In August 2017, it acquired UK-based visa service provider TT Services

In 2017, VFS acquired a facility management company in the CIS region which operated 550 visa application centres in eight countries

An Emirates visa and a Brazilian e-visa can now be obtained through VFS with just the mobile phone, without the need to be physically present at a visa office.

Karkaria says VFS is introducing layers of services that will let a visa applicant choose the degree of comfort he or she would like to opt for: whether the applicant will pick up the visa or whether the person like to use the lounge that offers a fast track. All of this, of course comes for extra fees. The company is also working on designing visa apps, based on artificial intelligence.

VFS has also spent much on getting ready for the European General Data Protection Regulation. Karkaria says they will be ready for India too, as and when the proposed data privacy regulations are put in place. He explains that in this visa business, the security of the process — ensuring that the person giving out his biometrics is the same person whose passport is being processed — is paramount. Therefore having people on the ground is critical. So, between 2017 and 2018, as VFS completed a bunch of acquisitions, its manpower doubled from nearly 5,000 to 10,000 now.

Visa Facilitation Industry

VFS’ share is around 50% of outsourced visa facilitation market and 15% of total visa services.

30% of visas applications are today processed by 50 outsourced facilitation players.

Nearly 70 govts outsource visa services and VFS works with 62. The maximum for the next biggest player is 12 governments.

While investments in technology will continue, hirings will also go on. However, Karkaria recalls missing out on the opportunity of passport facilitation business in India, which went to TCS.

He says TCS has done good work but adds that as the deal is coming up for bidding again, VFS might take a look at it. “In government services in India, we would not like to replicate what the government is doing but come in where we can help streamline the process,” he says Karkaria about seeking more business in India.

Given the queues at government offices in India, there could be a lot of business for Karkaria to pitch for. After all, he enjoys dealing with crowds. He says busy religious places where people pray together fills him with positive energy.

Published on Economic Times