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HindustanTimes Sat,19 Apr 2014

Zamin's Agarwal: an earthy tycoon shaped by destiny

HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times  New Delhi, January 16, 2013
First Published: 21:03 IST(16/1/2013) | Last Updated: 21:51 IST(16/1/2013)

It grabbed headlines recently when Zamin Ferrous acquired global mining heavyweight Anglo American's 70% stake in Amapa iron ore mine in Brazil, pipping biggies such as Glencore and Russia's Severstal.

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Founded when the iron ore commodity cycle was just hotting up in the middle of the last decade, Zamin rode the wave. Yet, very little is known of the company or its founder Pramod Agarwal, who does not figure on the Forbes rich-list though he is perceived to be a billionaire.

A Bombay boy throughout with ancestral roots in a small village near Bhiwani in Haryana, Agarwal has largely been a trader, and admits that mining was more forced upon him than chosen.

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"In 2004, I went to Brazil looking for iron ore when I was told that they (mining company) did not want to sell to a middleman (commodity trader) but to an end user or another miner," says Agarwal, 58.

"A local geologist then asked me why dont you buy the mine itself  and explained in great detail how the industry worked. So it was fate... mining was forced on me."

Belonging to a family of traders, he started out predominantly as a commodities trader based in Hong Kong with interests in Russia, and realised over time there was money to be made in iron ore business.

Besides coal, iron ore is one of the most important raw materials in steel making.

Led by the surge in demand for steel from China, ore prices rocketed in the middle of the last decade hitting a high of over $200 per tonne in early 2008.

As an industry insider with two decades of experience in the late 90s, the London-based Agarwal was quick to spot that. 

"Steel is a cyclical business but I had traded in iron ore for quite sometime. Though mining is not something that I do, I sensed an opportunity in buying iron ore assets whose price will appreciate in future," he says.

"So I managed to bring in the best minds in the business and built the company that has one of the lowest production costs for iron ore mining."

But it is not for business alone that he has been in the news. In 2011, he grabbed headlines after he threw one of the grandest Indian weddings for his second daughter with an 800-string guest list at Venice's San Clemente Palace.

The highlight of the celebrations was a solo act by Hollywood pop singer Shakira. For all the ostentation however, Agarwal leads a very spartan lifestyle. A vegetarian who does not consume alcohol, he does not have exotic hobbies either.

"Most of my time is taken by my work and I am happiest doing that," says the man who loves listening to new-age musician Jeff Clarkson.

"I don't fancy luxury cars though I have them, neither I am a movie buff. I love gardening and that is one of my hobbies. I am not much into sports."

Agarwal has many similarities to ArcelorMittal chairman LN Mittal, the world's largest steel maker and one of the richest men.

Both are in metals and mining, have origins in India, are based out of London, own lavish mansions in the central part of the city - and had extravagant celebrations for their daughter's weddings.

Yet, critics say Agarwal is risk averse and content to play within his limitations.

"He has stuck largely to South America and has not ventured out," says an analyst with a leading commodity bulletin.

"He does not want to get into steel manufacturing either. Soon, he will find himself constrained for growth in an industry where Vale, Rio and BHP have a cartel - unless he diversifies. That vision is lacking. He is still a trader at heart."

Unlike Mittal, there are no plans to get into India either.

"The processes are very slow there," he says. "I may come back and settle down after retirement but there are no plans of retiring yet. My vision is to build a significant and dynamic company with a worldwide footprint, prioritising proper environmental care and social responsibility."

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