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The Agarwals of Visa Group

Suman Layak     April 13, 2011
The typographical resemblance between the logos of the VISA and Tata groups is not entirely coincidental. There is a lot of Tata in VISA. Vishambhar Saran, founder of VISA Group, a Rs 5,000-crore conglomerate with interests in steel, mining, power, international trading, shipping and logistics, not only worked for the Tatas for a good 33 years after getting his degree in mining engineering from Benaras Hindu University in 1969, but has also tried to organise his group's culture in the Tata way. Saran, who lost his Agarwal surname in his Class X certificate like many Indians, structured VISA with different councils and boards to engage with professionals.

It has attracted top professionals such as Shardul Shroff, M.S. Verma and Ashok Basu to serve on the boards of its companies. Indeed, while working with the Tatas, Saran's outlook on life changed. When he started out, his aim was to work for a few years and then return to Kanpur, his hometown, to set up a small-scale unit. "At the Tatas, I was known by who I was. In Kanpur, I would always be someone's son or grandson," he says.

Visa Group
Founder: Vishambhar Saran, 63
Wife: Saroj Agarwal
Sons: Vishal, MD, VISA Steel, Vikas , MD, VISA Power, Vivek, who heads the trading unit
Why I did it: "What was the salary of a managing director at that time? The basic salary was capped at Rs 15,000."
Total turnover: Around Rs  5,000 crore
Main companies: VISA Steel, VISA Power, VISA Comtrade

It was this individualistic streak combined with professionalism that saw him rapidly climb the corporate ladder at the Tatas. In 1987 he was made the director for raw materials at Tata Iron & Steel Company (now Tata Steel), at age 38. Saran was part of Russi Mody's team in Kolkata. But it was also this same temperament that led him to resign in 1994 at the first sign of a roadblock to his career. "In 1992, J.J. Irani became managing director and had nine years to go before retirement.

I was 43 and not sure whether I wanted to wait it out to see if I would be made managing director after him," says Saran, who declined requests from Ratan Tata to stay back. Yet Saran still did not return to Kanpur. He decided to stay on in Kolkata, where his wife, Saroj Agarwal, had been running VISA Ltd, a company that traded in marine products, since the mid-1980s. He expanded VISA's scope, starting by bagging a contract with German company RHI AG to procure coke and coal from China for them. Saran's office became the starting point for the VISA Group's journey.

It was at this office that the eldest of his three sons, Vishal, now 36, an Oxford postgraduate in economics, joined the group in 1997. Vishal is now managing director of VISA Steel. Saran's other two sons, Vikas, (Vishal's twin, younger by 12 minutes), and Vivek, 32, joined the group in 1999 and 2004, respectively.

Vikas, who ran the group's office in Switzerland before it entered power generation, is now managing director of VISA Power, while Vivek heads the trading business out of Singapore and is also leading the group's mining and shipping businesses. Both Vikas and Vivek hold engineering degrees from Cambridge. Two of Saran's three brothers have also worked with him. While one has retired, his youngest brother, who also earlier worked at Tata Steel, has been deputed to run the trading outpost in China.

So did the inheritance come naturally to Saran's sons? "Sons and family members can join the business if they are qualified," says Saran, echoing the practice at Tata Group. In fact, both Vikas and Vivek worked in other companies before joining the group, the first at ICI and the other with Booz in Switzerland and the United States. At work, Saran is always addressed as "Mr Saran," even by his sons.

"We are in our positions because we have earned them through hard work," says Vishal, adding, "For us, VISA is not about inheriting what our father has created, In fact, we have built it together."

Finally, how did the name VISA come about? Simply by joining the first two letters of Vishambhar and Saroj, says Saran.

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