Zubin Karkaria is the CEO of VFS Global Group, the world's largest outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide.
What’s the story behind your business?
VFS Global, founded in 2001, is now in its 19th year now and I must say our journey and growth as a pioneer in the visa service industry has been fast-paced and action-packed! Just last month, we crossed the processing of 200 million applications worldwide since inception. Achieving this landmark gives me pause to look back to when we first conceptualised the idea of outsourcing the visa process.
It was the late nineties and as the Head of Kuoni India’s Tour Operating division, I saw the challenges our customers faced in applying for visas. Many were skeptical about the idea of outsourcing the administrative part of visa services and we spent many months pitching this idea to potential client governments.
The benefits of reduced administrative burden on embassies became clear and a new business opportunity was born. The US Consulate in Mumbai allowed us to pilot the concept and after it was deemed a success, there was no turning back. I am immensely proud that today VFS Global has evolved from just an idea into a market leader, serving 63 governments in 147 countries worldwide. Headquartered in Dubai, the company has Swiss parentage and is a portfolio company of EQT, a leading global private equity firm headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden.
Where do you see your company going in the next five years?
We are in a 24/7 marketplace, where innovation, customisation and time-to-market are critical factors – besides of course reliability and security which are basic factors in our business. We are constantly innovating and continue to make investments in technology and customer experience. For the core visa services business, the outlook is positive as we consolidate our position against an upward trend in the travel sector, which contributes to almost 9.8 percent of the world GDP.
In the current environment, having a cost-effective and flexible, yet highly secure, outsourced visa services model will continue to provide value for im-migration and border control mechanisms. Besides this, we also see growth potential in our Identity and Citizen Services division which assists local governments with providing tech-enabled seamless public-facing services for citizens. These are initiatives that will evolve well beyond the next five years and will meaningfully support and sustain our core and allied businesses.
What’s the single biggest challenge facing your industry today?
When we first started out, one challenge was that we had no precedents or benchmarks to follow. We had to develop our own systems and processes from scratch – especially in areas of compliance, information security, and data protection.
Today, all these processes undergo rigorous internal and external audits and have set global benchmarks for the industry.
An increasingly ‘glocal’ and digital marketplace keeps us on our toes and an innovation-first ap-proach has ensured we stay in step with changes in technology. For example, when we started biometric enrolment for applications in 2007, we could only guess that a decade later, it would become a key security element in many visa and citizen services processes. It was a future-proof solution, in a sense, that enabled us to become one of the largest biometric enrolment agencies in the world at present.
Where do great ideas come from in your organisation?
We have very comprehensive client and customer insight mechanisms that help us evaluate feedback from client governments and their embassies or consulates across the world, about every aspect of our operations.
We analyse this information to improve existing processes and come up with new innovations that often are routine, and sometimes have been real game-changers.
One example of this is the unique ‘Visa At Your Doorstep’ service that allows application submission and biometric enrolment at the applicant’s home or office of any location of choice that has proven to be tremendously popular worldwide.
That said, any organisation is only as successful as its people. We have an entrepreneurial mind-set, strong performance orientation and customer service focus embedded in the DNA of VFS Global since inception.
As a practice, we encourage our over 10,000 employees globally (almost 1900 of whom are in the Middle East region) to constantly think about how processes in every function can be im-proved upon and share their recommendations via an internal programme called ‘Spark’. Each year, scores of these ‘Spark’ improvement ideas suggested by employees (at both local and global levels) are formalised and integrated in our processes, to improve our processes, increase applicant satisfaction, and heighten efficiencies.
In fact, in one of our other flagship internal Learning and Development programmes, managers are encouraged to flesh out their ideas and recommendations into viable business models. These models, if approved, are tested out in the market and some have proved quite successful.
In this way, best-practice development and innovation is ongoing and institutionalised, and proven to be effective across the company’s many geographical locations.
What are three characteristics that you believe every leader should possess?
I believe it’s important to lead from the front by setting the right example and expectations. Personally, I have a very direct leadership style. This keeps the organisation vigilant for opportunities and innovations.
Secondly, it’s important to recognise and reward good performance and integrity adequately and promptly, to strengthen your team’s commitment to the larger core values.
And thirdly, a cohesive and empowered team is critical to an organisation’s sustainability and success. Encouraging entrepreneurship and trusting your teams to build on their duties responsibly and with integrity, is critical to the well-being of any organisation.
What advice would you give to someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
I believe leadership is about leading your team and organisation to success through inspiration and inculcation of strong values. Lead from the front by setting the right example. Fulfilling and exceeding your commitments is another extremely important attribute for a successful leader.
I have always believed for myself that you must dare to dream, but it is more important to back it up with action. It may be a cliché, but there is no substitute for hard work and perseverance.
Create genuine value for your organisation and for society and success is sure to follow.