The evolution of home essentials in Bangladesh
How does one tell the story of Bangladesh? The road most taken leads to the country’s violent birth and the glory of its founding fathers. Another popular approach is to talk about this rising South Asian tiger that is smashing its development goals and making strides in other arenas, such as sports. But in the tales of heroes and legends, the everyday colours of Bangladesh fade into the background, and to really see them, you’ll have to enter the homes of ordinary Bangladeshis. This is exactly what International Homeware has been doing for the past 62 years, and the story of this family business might well be the story of the evolution of lifestyles in Bangladesh.
A little background
In 1957, the late Alhaj Abdul Wazed opened a ceramics outlet in New Market, called “Crockeries View", importing fine crockery and tableware. This expanded into three more showrooms under the names, "Unique Traders" (since 1964), "General Gift House" (since 1967) and "Unique Promotion" (since 1992). He was succeeded in 1992 by his son Mizanur Rahman, who took the business further, expanding the range of products and the reach of the brand. In the early years of the present decade, the separate stores were brought under the umbrella of International Homeware (IHW), which boasts 7 outlets around the country, and has expanded its product range to include not only ceramics and glassware, but also kitchen appliances and industrial grade dishware and equipment for restaurants and hotels. In 2010, the founder’s grandson Moin Ur Rahman joined the company as Managing Director, thus bringing the company into its third generation. Avenue T caught up with the young MD to talk about the journey of this family owned business.
The face of change
A week before our cover shoot, I’m sitting in the air-conditioned boardroom at IHW’s corporate headquarters in Banani. The reception area outside bears the three framed photographs of the founder, his son, and his grandson, and looking at it, one can fill the weight of history settle down on one’s shoulders.
Moin enters, a little late, red-faced from wrestling the traffic to get here, apologizing profusely for the delay. Stuffy businessman? Absolutely not. His funky haircut, infectious energy, and the habit of prefacing every statement with an emphatic “auughhhh” all give him the vibe of the laid back best friend. For a business looking to adapt to the contemporary zeitgeist, you could not have asked for a better face for the company. We settle in to a comfortable chat about the evolution of the business and lifestyles in Bangladesh
5 Questions with Moin Ur Rahman
What’s it been like, entering the business in its third generation?
It’s been familiar and intimidating all at the same time. On one hand, my Dadaji and my father have created a legacy of quality products, importing only the finest goods from all over the world, and the goodwill and the reputation they have created makes it easier to do business than it would have if we’d had to start from scratch.
The downside of being the young voice in a company which has been doing things a certain way for the past two generations is that you meet a certain resistance to change. When I push forward some innovations, I am met with a lot of: “But this is how we’ve always done things” and it can get frustrating. It’s a process, but I think I’m getting better at handling it.’
How, in your opinion, has the business changed?
To start with, things are much more complicated now. When my grandfather started out, there wasn’t so much competition, but at the same time, the client base is also much, much smaller. Pre-Liberation, the spending power of the population was much lower; their tastes were very different. The bulk of Dadaji’s clients were wealthy Aga Khani families.
Then immediately after 1971, there was a ban on imports for a while, and we had to switch to local ceramics and products, and that was a struggle to innovate and maintain the standards we had already set.
When the ban was finally lifted, the market had begun to change. When my father took over, he had to travel extensively, undertaking long voyages, sacrificing a lot of his comfort to find the best products. I marvel at it because I could never travel like that. It definitely paid off -- where most other home essentials companies flood the market with Chinese products, we actually bring top quality products from Brazil, UK, France, Germany, Italy, UAE, India, Czech Republic, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, and China.
We diversified our product ranges into three categories: Home & living, Kitchen & Dining and Household Electric Appliances. We had brought all our outlets under the IHW brand banner.
By the time I came in, we’d already seen the rise of the middle class, and the restaurant boom. Right now, we’re seeing people, particularly young corporate and entrepreneurs, new couples, with a lot more disposable income. And mind you, I’m not just talking about Dhaka – I’ve seen lifestyle stores in Chittagong, Rajshahi, Barisal and Khulna, devoted to beautiful home essentials.
There are new businesses, hotels and restaurants popping up all the time, and these need the industrial and restaurant-grade appliances, so we’re seeing an increased demand for those as well. Bangladeshis now travel more, and are social media savvy, and this informs a lot of their purchase decisions, not just what they buy, but also, how they buy.
So what’s the plan? What changes are you trying to bring in?
To begin with, we’re looking at a future that is very digital. So far, the business model my Dadaji and my father had been used to was based on face-to-face interactions, but increasingly, people prefer to buy their goods online, especially if it’s a brand they trust, so we’re working on our e-commerce platform, which is launching very soon.
If we want to match the current trends and face the future, we also have to adopt newer methods of business and sustainable resources to import as a trading company, thus ensuring effective and efficient output. A lot of this involves incorporating new management principles centred on building a better relationship with our employees, patrons and partners.
In addition to evolving the business for the contemporary client, I also want to bring some changes into the workplace culture at IHW. We’ve so far run the traditional model of business, with formal hierarchies and relationships. While I acknowledge that I don’t have access to unlimited funds, and we do have some 300+ dedicated employees, I also want to make this a fun place to work at. Ideally, I’d like to change the office design to incorporate more open spaces, and maybe bring in some facilities that will allow the employees to relax. Our previous generations didn’t really mix work and play, but newer studies have shown that productivity goes up in an office environment that allows a reasonable amount of opportunities for recreation and relaxation. And happier employees will just be better at customer service. It’s going to be a process of adjustment, but hopefully I’ll be able to bring that change in.
IHW has also been involved in some admirable CSR projects and collaborations. Could you please elaborate on these a little?
We’re partnering with the It’s Humanity Foundation (IHF), which provides free education, healthcare and vocational training to underprivileged children. One of the foundation’s projects is an artisan project called Protibha, which facilitates the mothers of these unprivileged children to generate an income by using their creative skills. When we found out that one of those creative skills included glass painting and they were using glassware from IHW, we decided to get further involved, by providing them the glassware, and then displaying the finished artisanal glassware at our outlets for sale. In this way, we promote their work, and also help them earn an income, which then supplements the support already provided to their children, who are enrolled in the IHF schools.
What is your message to the readers of Avenue T?
Enjoy your life. Use the ‘good’ china, instead of storing it in the cabinet for the ‘proper’ occasion. Life is short; give yourself the permission to enjoy it.