Special Supplement Tuesday July 5, 2011

A special night for the change makers

Star Business Report

Awardees pose with trophies at the 11th Bangladesh Business Awards ceremony organised by The Daily Star and DHL Express at Sonargaon Hotel in Dhaka on June 25. From left, Alihussain Akberali, chairman of BSRM Group; Tanya Tazeen Karim, an architect; Faruk Khan, commerce minister (chief guest); Ali Reza Iftekhar, managing director of Eastern Bank; Amjad Khan Chowdhury, chief executive officer of Pran-RFL Group; M Matiul Islam, chairman of Industrial and Infrastructure Development Finance Company; Ramesh Natarajan, vice-president (Rest of South Asia), DHL Express; and Desmond Quiah, country manager of DHL Express, attend the ceremony. Photo: Amran Hossain

An award brings delight to its recipient, but some awards stand out with their special significance. Business awards given by The Daily Star and DHL Express are one of them.

The business community gathered at Sonargaon Hotel on June 25 to meet the winners of this year's Bangladesh Business Awards.

Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, set the tone for the glittering annual event with an inspiring speech showering accolades on leading businesses for their roles in taking the economy to a new height.

He said how businessmen braving all odds, including an energy crisis, wobbly infrastructure, red tape and political confrontation, marched on, changing the economic scenario, creating jobs and enriching the state coffers.

Anam made a fervent appeal to the government to pave the way for businesses to utilise full potential so that the Bangladeshis are able to make a mark as “a proud nation, an emerging economy”.

Desmond Quiah, country manager of DHL Express, described the buoyant spirits Bangladesh has demonstrated in the last 11 years to emerge as one of the competitive developing economies in the world.

“This nation has succeeded despite natural disasters. Even during the global recession, its economy defied the threat,” he said.

In this light, it is important to acknowledge the country's dynamic business leadership that drives and sustains the momentum, said Quiah.

The Daily Star, the country's most-read English-language newspaper, and DHL Express, the world's leading logistics company, give out the awards to the country's best businesses and the people behind them.

This year, three entrepreneurs and two enterprises were awarded at the event, which is the country's premier recognition for the private sector that has made remarkable strides in economic development.

The Daily Star and DHL together stepped into the 11th year of a partnership of standing by the country's growing private sector.

The June 25 night recognised Amjad Khan Chowdhury, chief executive officer of PRAN-RFL Group, as the Business Person of the Year for transforming a simple idea of producing agro-processed foods in 1991 into a company of 30,000 employees.

A rapturous applause rang out for M Matiul Islam, the doyen of the banking sector, when he picked up the Lifetime Achievement Award for a career that spanned six decades.

In the post-Liberation War Bangladesh, Islam, the country's first finance secretary, helped the sector take shape by championing nationalisation of six banks and setting up private banks later.

Eastern Bank Ltd was named the Best Financial Institution for continuously innovating products and services and exploring new markets. It is often cited for its sound performance and management built up over the years. An inspired Ali Reza Iftekhar, managing director of EBL, however, said the award was long overdue.

Architect Tanya Tazeen Karim, one of the few women famed for designing buildings at home and abroad, emerged as the Outstanding Woman in Business -- an award that recognised her footprints in design solutions and consultancy.

BSRM Group, which has been in operation for the last six decades, won the Enterprise of the Year Award for its historic presence in the steel industry. Alihussain Akberali, the company chairman, said the secret of the company's success lies in integrity, hard work and a relentless quest for innovation. “We want to tell the nation that we have not let it down.”

Faruk Khan, commerce minister, who graced the ceremony as the chief guest, congratulated all winners for continuing to tell Bangladesh's economic growth story to the world.

He said the awards are an important initiative to help businesses succeed and drive economic growth.

The minister did not shy away from admitting that there are many stumbling blocks and challenges holding up Bangladesh from exploiting its full potential. He vowed that his government would do everything possible to help businesses flourish.


A relentless innovator

Refayet Ullah Mirdha

Amjad Khan Chowdhury, chief executive of PRAN-RFL, works on his laptop in his office.

Amjad Khan Chowdhury, chief executive of PRAN-RFL Group, faced the real test of entrepreneurship when he set up an agro-processing factory at Ghorashal in Narsingdi in 1991.

Before entering into the agro-processing business, Chowdhury travelled in different sectors from real estate to manufacturing of foundry items, but none of them paid him the best yields.

But Chowdhury did not stop his journey. He pressed on with an innovative idea that transformed a small company into a conglomerate.

The Wealth of Nations, a bestseller by Adam Smith, taught him that business takes place mainly due to a huge gap between supply and demand.

“I observed that there was a huge gap between supply and demand in agro-processing business in Bangladesh. So I decided to start the entrepreneurial journey in agro-processing business,” he said.

A small idea in agro-processing business in 1991 made Chowdhury an employer of more than 30,000 people directly and 64,000 farmers countrywide.

The idea not only made the group a market leader in the segment, but also helped generate gross revenue of Tk 2,600 crore in fiscal 2009-10, while the target for fiscal 2010-11 was fixed at Tk 4,000 crore.

The group exports products to 75 countries.

Before stepping into agro-processing business, Chowdhury used to cultivate vegetables, fruits and other agro-products on six acres of leased land in Ghorashal, Narsingdi to supply to major markets in Dhaka. But, it was not paying him good dividends.

He set up the company's first agro-processing factory in Ghorashal with machinery purchased on auction and started processing pineapple, mango, papaya and other fruits to make juice, pickles, jam and jelly.

Later, when the business clicked, Chowdhury went big in manufacturing and set up six plants in Narsingdi, Gazipur, Bhairab, Mymensingh, Rangpur and Sirajganj, producing more than 400 products ranging from plastic to jelly.

A relentless entrepreneur, Chowdhury started his business career in 1981, after retiring from the Bangladesh Army in the same year, through setting up a small company, Rangpur Foundry Ltd, in Rangpur to make irrigation pumps.

But his foundry venture did not pay off well enough, which prompted him to diversify his business.

Chowdhury went into real estate as demand for apartments was going up among the rising middle-class in Dhaka and its adjacent areas. That is why Property Development Ltd came into being.

“I made thousands of apartments for the people in Dhaka. The real estate business is doing well,” he said in an interview with The Daily Star at his new office in Badda.

Now he aspires to be a market leader in dairy business.

"I have a plan to retire from the group and hand over the stewardship to my sons once the dairy becomes a market leader,” he said.

Creating jobs through setting up businesses is the best practice of corporate social responsibility, he said. “I have seen a lot of unemployed women gathering at the gate of PRAN factories in Rangpur.”

“Later, I employed them at my factories and now many of them are self-reliant,” Chowdhury said.

Born in Natore in 1940, Chowdhury started his education at St Gregory's School in Old Dhaka.

He joined the Pakistan Army in 1956 and was commissioned in 1958 before his assignment in Sargoda in Pakistan. He returned to Bangladesh during the Liberation War in 1971.

Now, he is the president of Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.



An architect apart

Md Fazlur Rahman

Tanya Tazeen Karim

Seventeen years ago, she started it with a small investment that could only buy her a computer, some stationery items such as tracing paper, drafting pens and some books on architecture.

Today, architect Tanya Tazeen Karim is among few women entrepreneurs who earned fame both at home and abroad by designing buildings.

Tanya formed a partnership with a classmate, Nurur Rahman Khan, after graduating from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology in 1990. Three years later, their firm, Tanya Karim NR Khan & Associates, was officially registered.

“We started with minimal capital. We could not rent office space. We had used a small bedroom in my apartment as our first office for the time being.”

Her major breakthrough came in 1993 when Tanya and her team worked on the interiors of the Beximco Pharmaceuticals headquarters in Dhaka.

Since then, she has never looked back. The orders started flowing in from multinational banks and other companies.

The firm's next breakthrough came when it designed a residential building owned by Annisul Huq, a leading businessman.

Her work also involves interiors, landscaping, master planning and graphic designing. All are part of an effort to make Tanya Karim NR Khan & Associates a one-stop service centre.

Tanya also had to fight other issues. “Initially, I had to overcome gender bias to come this far. Everyone around me thought that I knew nothing.”

“When one saw that my technical knowledge is sound and I am capable of delivering what clients ask for and giving decisions on the site, the situation changed and respect grew.”

Tanya rates herself as a successful entrepreneur. “As a business entrepreneur, in terms of money, we will not say we are very much up in the ladder. But in terms of quality of services, I think we have advanced a lot.”

“We have been able to earn respects of society and business clients. We have played a key role in changing interiors and office interior designing. I think we are a pioneer in quite a few aspects,” Tanya said.

Tanya and her team have done some international works. “We designed the Bhutan Telecom building and a mosque in India. We have also worked in Malaysia, China and Thailand.”

"We had to compete to win such projects. We are proud of our team and works.”

“Our vision is to become a global design house that will be internationally recognised," she said.

Tanya said architecture is one of the few areas that allow women to shine. “I think professions such as architecture and interior designing suit women the most in a sense that you can design from home as well.”

Fifty-seven people work for her firm on a regular payroll, with another 150 people on contract. Tanya said trust and respect are important for a long-lasting partnership.

“We have built a partnership. The basis of our partnership is complete trust and respect for each other.”

She said the scope for architects and interior designers has expanded. “After the 90s, the trend began to change, as people travelled more and came to know the importance of a good design. The knowledge base of the clients has gone up.”

According to Tanya, maintaining a balance between a career and family life is important. She thanks her sons and husband for helping her through everything.

“I have been able to maintain a balance due to their understanding.”

“My husband, parents and in-laws have helped me a lot. For a woman, this type of support is crucial,” said the mother of four.

The 47-year-old said teaching is helping her to relate to the younger generation. She considers teaching a way to give back to the society. “It is my social responsibility.”

Tanya said her firm is concentrating on designing firms that prioritise energy consciousness. “We are designing such that you can save up to 40 percent of your energy bill.”

Best Financial Institution

Banking: keep it simple

Sajjadur Rahman

A famous mathematician S Gudder said the essence of mathematics is not to make simple things complicated, but to make complicated things simple. Gudder's views on math have influenced Eastern Bank's slogan -- simple math. Over the past 19 years, Eastern Bank Ltd (EBL) has proved that banking is like solving a 'simple math'. The bank has made complicated financial services simple to its customers.

Noor Ali
Ali Reza Iftekhar

“Some small things, such as service excellence, staff satisfaction, effective strategies and products matter more than how big the bank is,” said Ali Reza Iftekhar, managing director and chief executive officer of the bank.

For more than five years, the Eastern Bank staff -- from the chief executive officer to fresher -- have been streamlining services and constantly finding ways to improve customer care, products and efficiency.

Commitment to the service excellence has paid off the bank owners, shareholders and employees. It has risen from the dust of a collapsed bank and become one of the valuable brands in the banking industry.

EBL has won the Bangladesh Business Award as the best financial intuition for its superb operational performance in loans and advances, deposits, non-performing loans, ratings and product innovations.

Iftekhar joined the bank in 2004 as deputy managing director and promoted to CEO in 2007. Since his joining, the bank started paying off from the third year.

The bank's deposits have almost doubled to Tk 5,642 crore between 2007 and 2010. Similarly, loans and advances stood at Tk 5,860 crore in 2010 from Tk 3,096 crore in 2007.

Despite the global recession and its subsequent impact on Bangladesh markets, EBL's profit after tax grew by 66.70 percent to Tk 242.5 crore in 2010. Non-performing loans dropped to 1.99 percent in 2010 from 2.46 percent a year ago.

“Change comes from employees, and they have altered the health of the bank in ways visible,” said Iftekhar.

Among many banks, EBL stands out: it has proved that being a big spender for promotions to be glamorous does not make a bank the best in the industry. Quality service and staff satisfaction have made EBL a special brand.

It is one of the biggest players in syndication financing. In the last five years, EBL has closed syndication deals worth more than Tk 1,500 crore. EBL also got ISO 9001:2008 certification as the first bank in Bangladesh for excellence in trade financing.

But the bank did not earn this name and fame so smoothly. It had to cross rocky-roads.

Previously, it was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), a major international bank founded in 1972. In the 1980s, BCCI became the focus of a massive regulatory battle in 1991 and in July 5 of that year bank regulators in different countries, including Bangladesh, locked down the bank and liquidated it throwing thousands of its depositors into great despair.

Bangladesh Bank took over the management and started restructuring the bank. Later, some brave but big depositors showed interests to buy its shares. The born-again bank was renamed Eastern Bank in 1992.

Noor Ali, chairman of the bank, was a depositor at that time.

“I had to mobilise depositors of collapsed BCCI and encouraged them to buy shares in the restructured bank,” recalled Ali. “Our commitment has paid off. Five directors did not take any profit, even fees for six years.”

Ali said no director is allowed to take loans from the bank. “We want to see EBL as a model bank, a real substitute for foreign banks.”


Steely nerves

Sayeda Akter

Alihussain Akberali

A persistent thrust to modernise products and an enthusiastic passion to create and open newer avenues have taken BSRM to where it stands now. Today the Tk 3,696 crore BSRM Group is the leader in the local steel market.

“It has been our integrity, hard work and relentless quest for innovation which place us here today,” said Alihussain Akberali, chairman of Bangladesh Steel Re-rolling Mills Group.

“As a chartered accountant, my calculations have taught me to keep my eyes open to the domestic need and modernise my line of products accordingly.”

In 1947, the family of Akberali Africawala, founder of BSRM Group, migrated from India to Pakistan to make it his new home. Initially, the hardware merchant settled in Karachi, visiting Dhaka on and off.

Soon Akberali decided to start living in Chittagong, once he found out that the iron rich water of the port city was soothing to his stomach. He next went for establishing a steel re-rolling mill to produce reinforced steel bars and structural sections. Since the entire region then did not have even one such plant, the plan seemed feasible to him.

Akberali, with his brother Taherali Africawala, set up the first steel re-rolling mill of the country in Nasirabad, Chittagong, in 1952.

“We grew gradually from one mill to four, and all of them were manually-run mills. We also opened a nut-bolt factory, a wire factory, and some more cluster factories over the years,” said Alihussain.

Alihussain joined his father in business in 1974. He did not have to go through the initial hassle to initiate a company in an unknown land, and he certainly had the vision to widen the horizon of BSRM to a next level.

“In 1984, my father and I went to the UK and bought a second-hand automatic re-rolling mill to be set up in our factory premises in Chittagong. Then we started producing high grade quality steel materials, using which, the first Meghna Bridge and Meghna-Gomti Bridge were built.”

The same year, the group started renovating and spent hundreds of crores of taka on that, where the motto was 'no looking back for us', said Alihussain.

Innovation and new products have always given BSRM an edge. In 1987, BSRM set up a wire-rod mill and a captive billet making plant in 1996 for a steady supply for its rolling mills.

A decade later, the group established a pilot cold rolling mill to manufacture ribbed high strength wires in 2006.

At present, the BSRM Group has several sister concerns -- Meghna Engineering Works, Karnafuli Engineering Works, BSRM Re-cycling Industries, BSRM Wires, BSRM Iron and Steel Company, and BSRM Steels.

“We kept on upgrading and diversifying our products. Three years back, we ventured into setting up BSRM Steels that is basically a result of our experience. We have calculated that with an additional cost of hardly 25 percent we can enhance our capacity by nearly 70-80 percent,” said the quiet entrepreneur.

BSRM Steels, the flagship company of the group, the country's only manufacturer of 500 grade steel rod, started its operation in June 2008 with an annual production capacity of 3.75 lakh tonnes of steel rod.

The Tk 370 crore project manufacturing TOR steel, MS angel, MS channel, shaft wire, rod, beam, rail and spring steel was listed on the capital market in January 2009.

“The main reason behind going to the capital market was to source a huge capital needed for the project. It also brought me an opportunity to get 10 percent tax benefit for listing in the capital market,” said the BSRM boss.

Built on 11 acres at Latifpur in Faujderhat, it is one of the largest mills of its kind in the sub-continent. BSRM Steels branded its products as 'xtreme brand', which soon got popular in the local market, because of its cost saving feature.

BSRM Steels churns out Tk 2,200 crore in annual turnover. It made a net profit of Tk 96.48 crore in fiscal 2010-11. BSRM Group employs 1,097 people. Another 1,500 people work with the group on a temporary basis.

Despite all hard work and a proven track-record of high growth, problems still hinder the pace of growth, thinks Alihussain. “The main problem is that the government does not provide all the support we should get.”

After receiving the Bangladesh Business Award in the Enterprise of the Year category for its historic presence in the steel industry, the BSRM chief said the award is recognition of the company's contributions to the steel industry for the last 60 years.


Coming full circle

M Matiul Islam is an example of life lived to the fullest

Arun Devnath

Friends and colleagues call him a “doyen of banking”. M Matiul Islam is an endearing name among his peers. He made a clear mark in the nation's financial sector and built a towering profile that dwarfs many others around him. His career that spans six decades stands out with high points of achievement. It started with the Civil Service of Pakistan in 1952. Matiul Islam, now 81, is still a taskmaster -- the chairman of IIDFC, a leading non-bank financial institution.

In 1972 when the shadows of the Liberation War were lingering on the economy, Matiul Islam was handpicked as the nation's first finance secretary by none other than Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He had been tasked with building a banking system, the first step to inject an impetus into the war-ravaged economy. Guided by a new government's mandate for nationalisation, he merged 12 banks into six. When many said the new country, Bangladesh that is, would not last long, he pressed on with his mission -- to build a strong banking system. A personal vision statement -- “Bangladesh will survive, if banks survive” -- carried him forward. Today, he does not shy away from admitting that he exerted a total control over the six banks, without appointing a chairman to any of them. Those state banks were free from political influence and performed very well, he recalls.

In the world of private banks as well, Matiul Islam is a pioneer. The first private bank, Arab Bangladesh Bank, now AB Bank, was his creation.

There was a long pause -- 12 years -- in his career in the financial sector at home, but he was active abroad, serving the United Nations, World Bank and other organisations from 1981 to 1993. When he came back home, he picked up his earlier thread in his life by setting up International Leasing and Financial Services Ltd, followed by National Housing Finance.

Matiul Islam's latest creation is Industrial and Infrastructure Development Finance Company, a non-bank financial institution. Its shareholders are banks, not greedy individuals, as he likes to put it.

“Earlier experiences taught me that 'don't give shares to individuals; give them to corporations'. So I took banks as shareholders for IIDFC.”

Dr Farashuddin, who was governor of Bangladesh Bank, had insisted that there should be some state banks as shareholders of IIDFC and Matiul Islam did so.

The IIDFC boss advises government officials to be careful about what they should and should not say because people watch them every moment. Honesty and a sense of duty should be the guiding principles for them, he said.

For him, the third principle, perhaps the most valuable, is his willingness to accept any loss or failure gracefully. He participated in bids to privatise Rupali Bank in 2005 by forming a domestic consortium of banks, but lost out to Saudi Prince Bandar Bin Mohammad Bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud, one of the bidders, because his offer fell far short. He congratulated the Saudi Prince's representative after the prince won the bid with a $330 million offer. “I accepted the loss gracefully,” he said. “I think I am a gracious loser.”

Matiul Islam still remembers the most shocking incident in his life: he was forced out of the Pakistan Civil Service in December 1969. As a senior government official, he went to Karachi to plead for relaxing the import policy which was highly controlled at the time. “You needed permission or licence from the government for anything you wanted to import. It was not like what we see today. Now, our import policy is free.”

“I was there in Karachi to plead for what we needed for East Pakistan. I was there to raise our demands. But at the meeting, I was told that 'Mr Islam, your service is no longer required'.”

“It was a big shock not only to me, but to the whole family. I faced it with courage. I always thought it was a temporary setback and I knew I would make a comeback.”

Matiul Islam, never willing to give up the fight, was determined to make a living in Karachi, away from home. And there is always a silver lining in the clouds. He was offered a job at Pakistan National Oil (now Pakistan State Oil) in Karachi and transferred to Dhaka as the country head of the company three months later.

But things changed after independence. Islam lost his job again and was about to begin a new journey to try his luck elsewhere -- again away from home -- in London.

As he was preparing to leave home for good, he received a call from a former colleague with a piece of news that he would have to take a top job on the Awami League government. Matiul Islam still remembers the date: January 11, 1972. Six days later, he took the reins as the country's first finance secretary, with so much power and authority.

Objectives of Bangladesh Business Awards

To publicly acknowledge the vital contributions made by the companies and individuals to Bangladesh business.

To create an environment, which will encourage the entrepreneurship and enhance the standards of corporate management in Bangladesh.

To illustrate the depth of talent that exists in the country by highlighting the success stories of nominees.

To enable the organisers, The Daily Star and DHL Express, to fulfil their responsibility as good corporate citizens.

Rules of Eligibility

The awardee should be involved in private business enterprise and must be a Bangladeshi citizen or ordinarily resident in Bangladesh. He/she must have clean banking and tax records. There is no restriction on age or race. In case of Enterprise Award, only Bangladeshi companies will be considered with published balanced sheets. In case of Financial Institution Award, Bangladeshi and joint venture financial institutions will be considered with published balanced sheet. In case of Joint Venture Financial Institution, a company incorporated in Bangladesh for carrying out business activities jointly by Bangladeshi and foreign investors will be considered.