NEWSMAKER-Vedanta founder Agarwal is a daring dreamer

MUMBAI Mon Aug 16, 2010 9:44am EDT

MUMBAI Aug 16 (Reuters) - Anil Agarwal arrived in Mumbai, India's city of dreams, decades ago with little more than a burning ambition to succeed.

Now the billionaire chairman of mining giant Vedanta (VED.L), he lives his dream in London but his ambition burns on.

Vedanta on Monday agreed to spend up to $9.6 billion to buy as much as 60 percent of Cairn India (CAIL.BO), marking the company's first foray into oil and gas. [ID:nLDE67F074]

Agarwal, who quit school at 15, is estimated to be worth $6.4 billion and ranks 113th on Forbes magazine's list of the the world's wealthiest people.

Raised in Patna, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, Agarwal started his business in Mumbai in 1976 as a scrap-metal dealer. Now he runs a mining and metals empire that spans Britain, India, Australia and Zambia.

"He is a daring man. He is somebody who dares to dream," said Amit Mitra, secretary-general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

The founder of Vedanta, which means the last of the Vedas or Hinduism's sacred texts, is a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna and a vegetarian. He is also a fan of Bollywood movies.

"He is unassuming and simple and that is his strength. When it comes to performance, he is absolutely a fighter," Mitra said.

Agarwal, who grew his business through acquisitions, will look to harness that spirit as he faces possible regulatory hurdles to his latest deal. He also needs it to tackle the Indian government's reluctance to give him mining approvals.

CONTROVERSIAL, RESOURCEFUL

Agarwal is a lightning rod for critics who oppose Vedanta's plan to extract bauxite from what locals say is a sacred peak in India's impoverished but mineral-rich state of Orissa.

The firm says the mine in the Niyamgiri mountain forests, beneath which lie 78 million tonnes of bauxite, will not violate the rights of local tribes.

Since 2007, four international investors -- including the Church of England -- have sold off their stock in the company, citing ethical concerns over the project.

Agarwal's firm also funds schools and clinics in the area.

Agarwal is most widely known for his resourcefulness.

In 2003, when considering a listing of Vedanta on the London Stock Exchange, the entrepreneur reportedly showed up on his bike outside the Oxford home of former BHP Billiton (BLT.L) (BHP.AX) CEO Brian Gilbertson and rode with the avid cyclist all the way to London, convincing him to agree to become chairman.

Bringing such a known name onto the board helped Agarwal, also a cycling enthusiast, make Vedanta the first Indian firm to have its primary listing in London.

"Nobody believed me when I took Vedanta to LSE. Many were scared to put money in a company with a promoter with little education. My bio-data was scanned and auditors did 150 due diligence checks," Agarwal told Businessworld magazine in 2008.

Agarwal also successfully navigated choppy regulatory waters to buy stakes in Bharat Aluminium Co (Balco) and Hindustan Zinc.

He counts prominent politicians among his close friends -- Indian home minister P. Chidambaram was once on Vedanta's board.

Known for a ferocious temper -- Agarwal was reportedly furious when Gilbertson refused to cut ties to a rival Russian firm -- he is also praised for reaching out to junior executives in a country where heirarchy is deeply entrenched.

"'If I can do it, why can't you?', he always says," a person who has worked with Agarwal said. (Editing by Jui Chakravorty and Michael Shields)