By Omo,e Amawhe
Zubin Karkaria is a legend of the international travel industry. 17 years ago, he was a 32-year-old outbound tour official with an Indian travel agency, where his remit was to facilitate participation of Indian businesses in international trade fairs. Whilst working at the Mumbai based firm, he constantly encountered difficulties getting visas for his clients. “It was a nightmare, and it was going to get worse,” Karkaria recalls. Foreseeing an upcoming travel boom amid rising middle-class prosperity, Karkaria figured that the visa process needed a change. And so, he conceived the idea to provide visa facilitation service that could tackle the long queues that form outside embassies worldwide.
That’s the idea behind VFS, the three lettered global phenomenon now synonymous with international travel. Founded in 2001 with the US Embassy as it first client, VFS Global, now a division of Swiss based company, Kuoni Group, has morphed into a global leader in this specialist service. It operates over 2,000 visa-application centres, representing 52 client governments across 128 countries. To date VFS Global has handled over 145 million visa applications and now have more than 50 per cent of the annual global total. In this interview, Karkaria, who recently became the first Asian to head the 110-year-old Swiss-based Kuoni Group, shares his thoughts about starting a business that has introduced several cutting edge technologies to aid client governments and the global travel space.
WHAT was your spark in getting into entrepreneurship in general, where did it come from?
Early in my career, when I joined travel company SOTC (as Kuoni India was called then), the industry was at the start of a phenomenal growth phase. I was able to get a rare insight into the mechanics that drive this industry, and a chance to develop new opportunities, like VFS Global, that pioneered the idea of outsourcing the visa process to streamline and enhance conveniences for applicants. The idea of visa process outsourcing was a new one. The culture of the company was one that prized entrepreneurship, and even the concept of VFS Global, when we first came up with it, was a result of the way new ideas were nurtured by our leadership.
At the onset, how did you go about realizing the VFS vision?
VFS Global was born in 2001 out of a single core competency which we had developed being part of Kuoni India, one of the world’s leading travel companies. We had first-hand knowledge of the difficulties travellers faced, and the pressure embassies were under in meeting the demands for visas.
Yet, serving a sovereign government is a serious and sensitive proposition and the solution of outsourcing the visa process that we pitched to client governments was unheard of – it was unchartered territory! So getting that first contract with the US consulate in Mumbai, India, was challenging – we had to convince the government not only of our competence in providing this service, but of the very need for such a service!Today, VFS Global has evolved into a market leader, serving 52 client governments worldwide, and having processed over 145 million visa applications till date.
In these past 16 years of the company’s existence, what are the milestones achieved?
It’s been an eventful and exhilarating journey to say the least! Since VFS Global was started in Mumbai, India, we have grown fast, extending operations to 128 countries, and maintaining high service quality standards even in challenging environments. In terms of milestones, I would say definitely winning that first contract and launching VFS Global was a turning point, not just from my personal perspective, but also due to the pioneering contributions VFS Global made to the overall visa process. Another milestone was launching the Identity and Citizen Services (ICS) vertical a couple of years ago.
Sixteen years have gone by fast, but there’s a lot more to be done. We are confident we will keep developing new technologies and solutions aimed at supporting governments in enhancing their visa and other consular services and their citizen services
How would you describe the client perception of VFS as a brand?
Over the years, we have built strong relationships with our client governments based on trust, maintaining a track record of reliability and quality in all our services, irrespective of the region we operate in. The result is that 52 client governments today acknowledge VFS Global to be one of the most competent and trusted service providers in the visa processing business.
Starting out as an Indian company, how did you manage to morph into a global multinational?
Well, since inception, VFS Global has always been part of the Switzerland-based Kuoni Group, so has always been international in its culture and approach. That said, yes, our operations were first set up in India where our first client government was the Government of the United States. From serving one client government in 2001, to serving 52 client governments in 128 countries – our ‘first mover’ advantage in this space catapulted us fairly quickly into becoming the leading global player in this industry. Our ability to push the boundaries of innovation and come up with new cutting-edge solutions ensures we stay ahead of the curve to maintain our global market leadership position.
Looking back, how has the outsourcing and technology services industry shaped up in comparison to the time you started?
Changes in consumer behaviour in practically every consumer-facing industry have caused several companies to adapt their processes in line with these changes. Today, customers want more flexibility, personalisation, mobility, and digitised services on online and mobile platforms, and we are seeing this even in the traditional visa process. Travellers now actively seek real-time solutions that they can get with the click of a button.
With the massive growth recorded, are there certain challenges you have to tackle while expanding the company?
Managing a truly global company where your clients are sovereign governments who demand very high service standards, with the inherent nature of business being very sensitive, is of course challenging and exciting. In fact, I would say the most invigorating part of my job is to identify new opportunities and resolve challenges. We refuse to be complacent about our market leadership position. Having an excellent leadership team helps us to constantly stay ahead of the curve!
That said, irrespective of environment we operate in, our strength lies in maintaining the same levels of precision across regions, by empowering highly competent teams to manage processes and controls as per the diverse requirements of our client governments.
To what would you attribute the company’s overall success?
The single most important success factor is our ability to deliver solutions and services in a highly professional and reliable manner – irrespective of challenges faced. Our competitive edge also comes from our entrepreneurial mindset, high-performance orientation, customer centricity, and the ability to constantly churn out innovative service solutions for applicants and client governments.
Even a minor advancement in process can improve efficiencies significantly, and because of these ongoing efforts, we are able to constantly provide new business solutions that generate revenue as well as meet the high quality of service excellence. Importantly, the trust and goodwill we have shared with our clients for the past 16 years is at the nervecentre of our leadership position.
So lastly, what are the new opportunities and trends sparking your interest right now?
We have entered into a new business in the past couple of years – Identity and Citizen Services (ICS). As local and state governments around the world are moving to integrate technology, transparency and speed into their governance systems, VFS Global supports these initiatives by enabling governments to assimilate next-generation solutions into public-facing services.
For Nigerian customers particularly, VFS Global manages the on-going Bank Verification Number initiative for Nigerian bank-account holders in nine countries. We are also in the process of launching a Premium Drivers Licence Centre in Rivers State, Nigeria, where citizens can avail themselves of quicker and efficient issuance of driving licences. The centre will act as a one-stop service for new and renewal driving licence applications. Besides exploring the public-private partnership model to add value for several governments, including Nigeria, VFS Global also uses its domain expertise in the governance space to undertake multi-country attestation services for various nationalities.