It’s been a sad week for Bangladesh. We lost two leading lights of the nation, Mr Humayun Kabir, chairman of Renata Limited, and Maj Gen (Retd) Amjad Khan Chowdhury, CEO of Pran-RFL group. A lot will be written and said about them over the next few days, weeks, and months. But one thing that can’t be emphasised enough is that they were, in the true sense of the phrase, “nice guys.”
In corporate Bangladesh these days, perhaps as a reflection of world trends, the ruthless seem to rule. Somewhere in our need to compete in the rat race, we often turn into something much worse. We have broken enough rules, bent enough regulations, bribed enough people to create huge piles of wealth. This has become so epidemic that those we hail as icons these days are now often the ones who have excelled in manipulation, greed, and, at times, downright criminal acts.
In recent times, we have seen reports of how big businesses have taken loans that they have no intention of repaying. How corrupt businesses have made billions on the backs of under-regulated factories. Basic Bank, Destiny, Hallmark, Rex, Rana Plaza, Tazreen … the list is endless.
But we must always recognise and remember: There is more to Bangladesh Limited than this -- and it is people like Mr Kabir or Gen Chowdhury who represent the other side, who championed that other way of doing business. The way of progress and growth. The way of ethics and compassion. They have shown us that profit is not greed. And that honesty pays.
Somehow, in Bangladesh, we look at the capitalist pursuit of profit with a lot of suspicion and disdain. I guess a lot of it stems from the centuries of economic exploitation that we have faced. Since the days of the Mughals, through the British Raj to the Pakistani experimentation, we have been the givers to our non-resident lords.
Bangladeshis generally never were the businessmen. We were the farmers, the craftsmen, the poets, the bureaucrats, the shopkeepers, or even petty traders. But rarely were we the business tycoons, AK Khan or RP Saha being but an exception or two.
Most of the wealth came from agriculture as opposed to commerce or industries. The landed gentry were grossly inept in infusing business acumen into the blood and sweat of the Bengali race. This is in stark contrast to the Marwari or Gujarati business classes.
Post 71, we hardly had role models to follow as we embarked on rebuilding the war-torn economy. The shortages of those years were regulated with licenses and permits. The holders of these papers became the bigger traders. The import tax regimes of the late 70s and of the 80s led to these traders turning into “industrialists.”
That, essentially, is the root of many of the businesses of Bangladesh today. No harm in that in itself. But profits rested on the shoulders of the person at the top. His ability to manage quotas or network deals led to the growth or the fall of the business.
In the late 80s to early 90s, as rapid “industrialisation” happened, the likes of Samson H Chowdhury of Square, Hamidur Rahman Sinha of Acme Laboratories, Anis Ud Dowla of ACI or Noorul Quader of Desh Garments came into the forefront, changing our concept of what businesses should be. It was at this time that Humayun Kabir and Amjad Chowdhury joined their ranks.
Mr Kabir took over global pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s local operations and used it as the foundations for Renata Limited. Maj Gen Amjad, by then retired from the Army and running Rangpur Foundry Limited (RFL), took a giant leap into the unknown field of agricultural processing to start off Pran.
Over the next few decades, both these gentlemen turned their businesses into power-houses. Growing aggressively, they have, and continue to be, hugely profitable -- while ensuring that ethical business practices were not just a phrase in corporate brochures. Their personal integrity and commitment were touchstones not only for their companies but also for the business community as a whole.
Their efforts for that greater good was evident in the time they spent in industry forums from chambers to associations, from boards of public companies to government committees. Their gospel was very simple: “Honest hard work pays.” They proved it over and over again with their own businesses. They took care of their employees and those who trusted them by buying their products. They did not need to forge documents or have huge loan defaults to be titans of trade and commerce.
Those who have been lucky enough to have met and interacted with these two souls will tell you the same thing. Underneath all the success were two decent human beings. Humble, down-to-earth, caring, and with the most disarming of smiles.
To them, success was not counted in numbers in back accounts, but by the good they have done to their people, their country, and the world.
Mr Humayun Kabir and Mr Amjad Khan Chowdhury, may your stars shine bright in the heavens as you continue to be a beacon of what is good, just, and possible.