In less than 15 years of its formation, VFS Global has emerged as the world’s leading outsourced visa, passport and consular services provider with 50 per cent of global market share and a presence in 120 countries. Recently the company moved its headquarters to Dubai and completed the 100 million applications milestone.
Curiosity Middle East talks to Zubin Karkaria, founder and Chief Executive Officer of VFS Global to find out what necessitated it and what lies behind this incredible success.
Photographs By: Firoze Edassery
You have just completed 100 million applications. Tell us how did it all start and what propelled this incredible growth?
VFS Global was born in 2001 out of a single core competence of understanding a traveller’s basic needs and understanding the visa process – a competence we had developed being a part of one of the world’s leading travel companies. VFS Global provided a solution that was absolutely unique at the time.
In fact there were several unique elements about it – centres in multiple cities meant that many more applicants could apply in their own city; much longer submission timings to enable acceptance of more applications per day ; proper air-conditioned facilities (centres) with all necessary conveniences such as lockers, waiting lounges, cloakrooms, reading material, etc., to ensure the entire experience was secure, convenient, comfortable and quick for visa applicants ; all the administrative work which was earlier done by the mission was now being done by VFS Global, allowing the mission to focus on the more important part of the entire process – the “judgemental” / decision-making part of whether to grant the visa or not.
We developed the business concept in India and then exported it globally. Expansion in the first 5-6 years was slow as we focussed on winning contracts one diplomatic mission at a time and the gestation periods were quite long.
Over the years we developed robust systems, processes and controls. We focussed on technology, quality and development of our people to deliver reliable, secure and innovative solutions and services. We did not focus on geographical expansion at the least possible cost, but on developing a high-performance institution functioning as per global benchmarks.
Since how long have you been operating in the Middle East and how significant is the region for you?
VFS Global has had business interests in Middle East region for many years.
We launched operations in the Middle East in 2004 with the launch of Australia Visa Application Centre (VAC) in the UAE. We expanded our Middle East footprint in 2005 by launching operations in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
However, our association with the Middle East actually preceded the launch of visa centre operations in the region, and dates back to 2002 when we signed a contract with Emirates to process UAE visa applications for Emirates’ customers under the brand Dubai Visa Processing Centre (DVPC) – initially in India and then across the globe.
In 2013 we were honoured to win the global contract of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia, for providing visa application and biometric enrolment services. We commenced service for Saudi Arabia visas in the UAE in 2013.
Overall we have been able to grow our Middle East operations steadily with the addition of new client governments on a continuous basis, and today we serve 26 client governments across 11 countries and operate 169 VACs in the region with an average of over 2 million applications processed in 2014.
You recently moved your headquarters to Dubai from Singapore. Being a global company, operating in 120 countries across 5 continents what made you chose Dubai? How will it help your business in the region?
We have identified the Middle East as a region with high growth potential. The Middle East region enjoys multi-dimensional importance from our perspective, fundamentally due to its growing influence on the global political and economic development, which results in increasing travel to and from the region. It is important for our top management to be based in a region which holds strong commercial and strategic importance for us, and hence a decision was taken in 2013 to re-locate our head office to Dubai.
Dubai and UAE in general, have a wealth of assets and conditions that make it a world-class business centre and leisure destination with political and economic stability and high end infrastructure.
Dubai Expo 2020 is round the corner. What does it mean for VFS Global?
We are convinced that Expo 2020 will be a very successful event and will attract huge numbers of travellers from across the world. It will help in channelling more investment in the region, and will further reinforce UAE’s and the region’s pre-eminence in the new global order. With the theme ‘connecting minds, creating the future’, the upcoming Expo 2020 will be a catalyst for progressive change encouraging sustainable growth. We are working on some initiatives which will support the success of this mega event.
What is the volume of business that VFS Global currently handles and what is your expansion strategy?
We currently process approximately 19 million applications annually. As far as expansion of our visa services business is concerned, it is largely dependent on policies of governments across the world. It is not a business where we can come up with a great marketing plan and suddenly grow our volumes. Governments decide when and where they would like to outsource visa services and they select the service provider.
However we have introduced two new business streams which we believe will help us to further strengthen our leadership position. The first one is Citizen Services, where we offer similar services as visa outsourcing services but services are fulfilled within the client government’s own country and the users of this service are citizens and other residents of the country. This could be for a variety of documents such as permits, licences, etc. The second business stream we are focusing on is Identity Management solutions where we develop end-to-end solutions driven by biometrics and other advanced technologies and integrate them into various documentation processes, such as eVisas, etc. Of course we continuously work on developing innovative solutions and on enhancing our services which help us to strengthen our competitive advantage and build VFS Global’s brand credibility and brand equity, which in turn contributes to the growth of our business.
How significant is technology in your business and how are you preparing for the future?
We embrace technology as a key business driver and as a differentiator which strengthens our competitive advantage.
We also recognise that technology is extremely dynamic and it is very important to have access to the latest and most relevant technology – hence we have a strategic partnership with one of the world’s leading technology companies, HP. We work jointly with HP to develop and deploy advanced technology based solutions to fulfil the vision and requirements of our client governments. The end objective is strengthening and streamlining control over processes which will shape the future of visa processing and border management.
Innovation is a cherished value at VFS Global. One of our biggest technology-driven business solutions innovations has been the development of our a unique location independent document processing solution, LIDPro – which incidentally won the Opportunity Award in the Towards 2020 category of the International Business Excellence Award 2015 held in Dubai on 20-21 May!
We also have an annual event, iConnect, which is dedicated to technology and innovation where we showcase our latest innovations to governments and have detailed discussions with individual governments on the adaptability and implementation of these solutions. This is a first of its kind event in our industry. We launched iConnect last year in Dubai and will be hosting our second edition of iConnect 2015 once again in Dubai later this year.
We see a clear trend of countries requiring electronic solutions relating to the visa process – such as eVisa – and are working on developing advanced solutions for the same. Simultaneously, we are also working on developing mobile channel solutions for visa application processing.
Over the past few years we have developed strong core competence in setting-up and managing biometric projects and in developing and integrating end-to-end biometric solutions. We will now continue to build on this development. This includes facial matching solutions, passport verification, biometric solutions and border management support. We believe that Identity Management is going to play an increasing role in various processes across industries, and we are working on developing our capabilities and solutions to meet this increasing demand for high-end Identity Management solutions which is one of our key strategic priorities.
Furthermore, VFS Global has successfully developed a business model that delivers citizen centric services integrating identity management solutions for governments within their home-country leveraging the skill and technology inherent to professional services to enhance the front office experience.
What are the major challenges facing your company? Do you have the adequate resources to meet those in terms of technology and other infrastructure?
Continuously changing business dynamics are a challenge for all businesses in general, and the same applies to us too. However our dynamic and high performance-oriented business model enables us to overcome challenges and maintain our leadership position. Since inception, in 2001, we have maintained our position as the market and innovation leader in this industry and that is because of our commitment and belief in our people, quality, innovation and technology.
Over the years we have invested consistently in technology, infrastructure and people and we will continue to do so.
What are your unique strengths and key differentiators over your competitors?
VFS Global takes pride in being the pioneers, innovators and the leaders in the provision of Visa Services and Citizen Services for governments. Over the past 14 years we have developed a highly successful business model which features the following unique strengths and key differentiators over our competitors:
- Customer-centricity is a core value for VFS Global. We are strongly focussed on our customers’ requirements and objectives, and delivering services and solutions which exceed their expectations.
- Our global reach of over 1600 Application Centres in 120 countries provides us with touchpoints across the world and an understanding of business dynamics of all these countries. This enables us to roll-out new projects in any part of the world within the shortest of timeframes.
- The extensive experience that we have gained in working as a commercial partner to a wide range of governments around the world has provided us with a deep understanding of this unique and very sensitive business, and an ability to adapt to our clients’ specific and wide-ranging needs
- Our robust systems, processes and controls are a reflection of our strong expertise developed as an industry pioneer over 14 years.
- Security is our absolute priority. Our uncompromising approach towards security, and our advanced security systems and infrastructure is at the core of our global operations. Our operations are certified ISO 27001:2005 for Information Security Management System. The data privacy framework at VFS Global is based on EU Data Protection Directive – 95/46/EC, UK Data Protection Act, Canadian PIPEDA & Generally Accepted Privacy Principles (GAPP) from AICPA/CICA.
- Our high-performance orientation and a strong focus on Quality enable us to deliver high quality service continuously and consistently across our global operations. Our worldwide operations are certified ISO 9001:2008 for Quality Management System.
- Deep-rooted culture of innovation enables us to continuously enhance our solutions portfolio and improve our services.
- Technology is a key business driver at VFS Global. Continuous investment in technology and partnerships with the world’s leading technology companies enables us to offer sophisticated technology-driven solutions to our client governments.
- Above all else, OUR PEOPLE and our multi-cultural diversity set us apart. We employ 8,000 experienced and talented people of over 100 nationalities and our investment in their development is ongoing. Our customer-centric colleagues are proud of VFS Global’ ethos and work extremely hard to deliver a high quality service to both our client governments and their customers
All of this has enabled us to become trusted partners to our client governments around the world.
Being in the service industry how do you keep your customers satisfied?
Very strong customer-orientation and a deep understanding of their needs and of the nature of our business have been key success factors for VFS Global. We are passionate about exceeding our client’s expectations from the solutions we provide and the service we deliver.
VFS Global has always and will continue to invest in technology supporting innovation in the industry. We value our clients and consider our partnership one that is enhanced with new efficiencies and continuous improvement.
You have come a long way in a very short span of time. How does it feel to have reached where you are today and what’s next?
We started with basic visa application processing services and have now diversified into offering sophisticated solutions and services not only in the visa and consular services domain, but also in the identity management and in-country citizen services domains. Reliability, security, technology-driven innovation, and a high-performance culture have been the bed-rock of our service offerings.
We have always strived to enhance our customer service on an ongoing basis, and remain deeply committed to supporting the vision and fulfilling the requirements of our client governments through secure, reliable and innovative solutions. Our strategy is simply to continuously build on our strengths – leverage technology, strong process-orientation and customer-service focus, and an underlying commitment to high performance levels.