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At any point in time, Agarwal Coal is holding two million metric tons of imported coal, with a physical stock in ports of up to 1.25 million metric tons. A further 800,000 metric tons are at sea, en route to one of the 16 ports across India, from Haldia to Kandla, where the company has operations.
“Our daily dispatch of imported coal is 60,000 metric tons per day,” Managing Director Vinod Agarwal tells The CEO Magazine. “This huge inventory makes us the ‘go-to’ destination for customers looking for a one-stop solution, which keeps them very happy.”
To say coal powers India is a fair statement. The fossil fuel represents almost 70 percent of its total power generation. After China, the country is the second largest coal producer in the world. Yet, despite producing more than 700 million metric tons of coal in 2022, India still relies heavily on imports and places second overall in terms of global coal imports, as well.
The name Agarwal Coal is recognized as one of India’s largest importers of coal, with a portfolio of product sourced from mines in Indonesia, South Africa, the United States and Australia, among others, as well as domestically from within India.
Agarwal explains that for the first few years, only 5,000 GAR or above coal was imported – referring to ‘gross as received’, the metric for quoting on thermal coal. But, as the price crept higher and higher, he spotted an opportunity in the market for a 4,200 GAR equivalent. A deal was struck with an Indonesian mine to bring six million metric tons of this lower level into the country over three years.
“At first, nobody would touch it,” he says.
It certainly didn’t help that the moisture level was almost triple the level the market was used to with Indian coal (36–38 percent compared to 12–14 percent).
“People were asking how it would burn,” he recalls.
In response, the company set about educating on the benefits of this different coal. And the results were immediate.
“It went so well that instead of selling a predicted six million metric tons of coal in three years, we sold almost 7.5 million,” he says with a smile.
As the market for coal became bigger, so did the country’s appetite for importing it. And Agarwal has been watching it all, ready to change up the strategy when he spots an opportunity.
“Gradually, we understood that there was room for 3,800 GAR,” he says.
The segment is a fluid one, susceptible to feeling the impact of the geopolitical climate.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the coal price became absolutely abnormal,” he says.
In October 2021, India’s Power Ministry gave the country’s thermal power plants one year to replace five percent of their coal with biomass, a practice known as co-firing. The resultant coal had an even lower GAR, of less than 3,000.
“As a result, 3,000–3,400 GAR coal is now doing very well in India, in all boilers and industries,” he explains.
When it comes to sustainability, Agarwal Coal has taken multiple measures to achieve its global goals, Agarwal explains.
The company was the first to introduce EcoCoal in India. This coal has substantially low ash and sulfur compared to other grades of thermal coal, resulting in lower emissions of harmful gases.
It has put in immense efforts to set up a wide and elaborate network of ports across India. In many cases, these ports are only a few hundred kilometers away from each other. This was done strategically so as to ensure the delivery of coal to as close to the customers’ factories as possible, thereby cutting down on emissions caused by inland transportation.
It also has rooftop solar power plants installed across its institutional facilities. Agarwal has an installed capacity of seven megawatt wind power generators in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.
While the country continues to import limited stocks of 5,000 GAR coal (particularly for government power plants that are locked into long-term contracts, typically of a four-to six-year duration), the market has otherwise shifted, Agarwal comments. And, as it has, the company has continued to increase its market share in India.
Despite the growth, Agarwal Coal remains based in Indore, the city where the company began its journey. Indore has been named the cleanest city in India six consecutive times, a fact Agarwal is extremely proud of.
Agarwal Coal’s clients are virtually exclusively in the private sector. All the big names in the private industry, such as Aditya Birla Group, Tata Group, IPP and most of the major captive power plants, as well as all types of boiler industries, are clients.
“We have customers ranging from 500 metric tons to 500,000 metric tons, customers ranging from advance to credit,” he says. “We are the ‘solutions provider’ people.”
Where Agarwal does work with the government, however, is to procure the two million-plus metric tons of domestic coal it sells.
“We buy coal in bulk and at auction every month from the seven coalfields of Central Coalfields, a subsidiary of Coal India,” he explains. To minimize the cost of transporting its purchases, Agarwal tries, where possible, to sell the coal to clients within a 150-kilometer radius of the coalfield.
Today, looking back on everything the company has accomplished over 50 years in business, Agarwal highlights one crucial achievement that continues to shape its business today.
“With hard work, sweat and blood, we have made Agarwal Coal a brand,” Agarwal says. “Wherever there is coal, especially thermal coal, if you just say the name Agarwal Coal, then you won’t have to explain anything else.”
The business also ensures its relationships with all stakeholders remain positive.
“All the suppliers we have today, in India or in the world, are highly professional companies with huge volumes,” he says.
The relationships are maintained by ongoing lines of communication.
“We regularly meet for conferences or they come to our offices, or vice versa. We interact at regular intervals, so even small matters are dealt with,” he explains.
Philanthropy is another pillar of Agarwal’s life philosophy. Thus, his foundation Balaji Sewarth Vinod Agarwal Foundation has done significant work in the areas of healthcare, education and rural development, as well as raising awareness of yoga. According to the EdelGive Hurun India Philanthropy List of 2021-22 Agarwal ranks 34th amongst India’s top philanthropists.
Meanwhile, the Agarwal organization itself has terraformed completely over the past five years through a comprehensive digital transformation, including using an enterprise resource planning software SAP S/4HANA.
“We are a SAP S/4HANA-enabled enterprise, which is a one-off in our industry,” Agarwal says. “We also run a bespoke data crunching and analytics tool we call ‘Manthan,’ which aids in strategic development and decision making at the highest levels of the business.”
And then there’s its geographical spread across the country.
“There’s no competitor ahead of us in the market with a presence along the entire coastline of India,” he says.
And there is a reliability that comes with Agarwal’s half-a-century-old transport network.
“We have made a system of ports that respond to our requirements, and we ensure a steady flow of coal to them,” he says. “Meaning that if customers expect a shipment of a certain quality of coal to a specific port of ours, then it will definitely arrive.”
This has been made possible thanks to a combination of factors: a robust network of international shipowners that operates Supramax, Panamax and Cape-size vessels, a healthy financial position and strong relationships with mines.
“Our customers understand that they are going to receive fresh coal of a certain grade at regular intervals and that’s what makes us completely different from our competitors,” he says.
So unique is its positioning in the market – and the systems that have been developed – that Agarwal doesn’t identify any true competitors to the business.
“We consider ourselves different and able to do good work,” he says. “If we compete, we compete with ourselves. We don’t care too much about others.”
Although a market leader in imported coal, Agarwal says the next 12-to-18 months will bring a renewed focus on Indian coal – and identifying high-quality coal sources to supply a similarly high-quality product to its customers.
He’s also aware of the external forces that also have the capacity to impact business: the recession, interest rate hikes and volatility of markets.
“But we have a strong system and we’re able to balance ourselves out in a way. In other words, there are problems, but there is also demand,” he explains.
The overall vision is to extend the company’s expertise in thermal coal, both for domestic and imported. There are also export networks to develop.
“Our entity in Singapore does a lot of business in Thailand, China and Nepal, so we are increasing that as well,” he says.
On the domestic front, he is out to ensure that, if there’s a port where the company doesn’t have a presence, that swiftly changes.
“We are going to increase the ports in which we are working as well. Our complete target is to take coal from mines to rails and ports and move it from ships to our customers,” he says.
Despite the global push toward cleaner fuel sources, Agarwal predicts thermal coal will continue to be an essential source of energy for the next 30 years.
“We have a complete focus on coal because it acts as a fundamental building block for countries in South-East Asia and Africa. In fact, even developed countries like Germany, after having long abandoned it, were forced to switch back to the use of coal due to the Russia–Ukraine war,” he says.
However, Agarwal does appreciate the calling to curb global emissions and the rise of renewable energies. So, as a part of a very long-term strategy, the company is diversifying and exploring other business opportunities.
As a well-established brand, Agarwal Coal has long nurtured business diversification as it develops a reputation in other segments, including real estate and education.
In 2006 Agarwal established the Chameli Devi Group of Institutions, also in Indore, as a “philanthropic initiative to nurture innovative and committed technocrats who could bring about positive social transformation,” as the company describes it.
Today, more than 4,500 students attend four professional institutes: Chameli Devi School of Engineering, Chameli Devi Institute of Professional Studies, Chameli Devi Institute of Pharmacy and Chameli Devi Institute of Law. The campus is more than five hectares in size and boasts state-of-the-art facilities.
“We do many things in the city of Indore, so we have a very good image,” he says.
Real estate is another primary area of diversification for the company. Led by Agarwal’s son Tapan, Emerald Developers, as the real estate arm of Agarwal Coal is known, is in the construction of world-class buildings across the residential, commercial, retail, warehousing and logistic spaces as it aims to change the real estate landscape of the city.
“In the next five years, we are working on delivering four million square feet [37 hectares] of real estate,” he says, adding that it’s a debt-free business. So far, three projects have been completed, with four under construction and a further 12 in the pipeline.
These verticals are run with exactly the same guiding principles as the coal business.
“Everything we do, we do A-Class. We do not lack for anything, not even one percent, whether we’re new to it or not,” he says. “We do it with full professionalism. We bring in highly-qualified teams. We keep the monitoring system very strong, keep our control very tight, but we do it very well.”
He may have a firm grip on the business and the direction he sees it heading, but Agarwal knows that it’s a changing global environment and that he must be prepared for the unexpected when considering external forces.
“Globally, nowadays, there is no certainty left for anything,” he says. “It used to be that, if a business is made to be passed on to children, then it can run for 50 to 100 years. Today, there is a greater chance it will be 25 to 50 years, maximum.”
There are also global fluctuations to navigate, from commodity prices, to transport, to foreign exchange.
Despite the external challenges, he’s excited about the future.
“There is a lot of opportunity in India, it’s a fast-growing country,” he enthuses. “Everything is about to happen, there is no dearth of opportunities, as long as the business stays alive, then you’ll be able to benefit from those opportunities.”
Agarwal’s entrepreneurial success gained nationwide recognition when he was ranked 679th in the IIFL Hurun India Rich List in 2020. Since then, he’s not only held the position of the richest man in the state, but also climbed the IIFL rankings to 279.
As the saying goes, slow and steady wins the race – or, to reference an Aesop fable, the tortoise is victorious over the hare.
“Agarwal Coal is that tortoise,” he says. “Today our company has a revenue of 14,000-plus crores [US$1.7 billion] – we started with five-to-ten crores [US$600,000 to US$1.7 million].
“We have good, healthy stock and over 1,200 customers. It’s a good thing.”