Ashraf Bin Taj, Managing Director, International Distribution Company

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The Marketing Maverick

You have worked in communication, brand management, marketing and now as the CEO of International Distribution Company (IDC). What has the transition been like?
After graduating from IBA, I started working in marketing with Berger Paints. I used to work frequently with people from the sales department because at the end of the day the activities being carried out in sales determines the success of the company. When I joined Nestle, my first role was in sales. We learned all the sophisticated techniques of the trade, but we did not have much freedom to implement all our ideas.

From there I moved to ACI where I began as a business manager and by 2008, I became the business director. For the next 8 years, I worked with marketing, sales, manufacturing, logistics, and finance departments. Even five years after leaving the company, I’m on one of their joint venture boards as a Director. I learned a lot from my boss, Mr. Syed Alamgir – his dedication has always inspired me. In 2013, my wife, who works for UNICEF, got transferred and got an international assignment. I took that opportunity to discuss with my family the possibility of taking an entrepreneurial route, even though it was a risky year.

Yes, 2013 was a very tricky year for Bangladesh. We went through a lot.
My partner in this company helped me through that time by inspiring me constantly. He promised that if I took charge of the company, we would be equal shareholders and he would provide the capital. With his help, I started doing business with Ferrero distribution. They were associated with the electronics business and were contemplating getting into the FMCG business. My background in handling complex portfolios really prepared me for the role. We started with 26 people in the company. Today we have over 533 employees.

One of your biggest problems with investment was solved by your partner. Were there any challenges that you were not prepared for?
Even today we face similar challenges as one of the key issues for new companies is getting funding. You need a bank and you need a financing partner who will continuously support you. My formula was to do something which I already knew about, create my base and then try out a few things that I would like to experiment with. It started off well but when the business began to grow, it required financing. It is difficult to get funding because even to apply for finance with a bank you need to have a trade license that is at least four years old.

The potential was huge because I started with global brands like Ferrero, Nutella, Tic Tac, Kinder Joy, Amul, and Nivea. Now we also do Unilever International portfolio, Kellogg’s and Pringles. These brands trust our capability, skill, and knowledge, but my financial industry cannot fund me in developing these brands in Bangladesh.

We asked for financing, but we did not get it straight away. I would say I was lucky with the connections I had because getting the right kind of people was not a big challenge for me. We also had a competitive advantage over that because of the exposure to the market. At that time, there was only one company that supported me without any collateral – LankaBangla. It would not be right to not mention them. They gave me a good limit without any security. With a few references from my friends, they agreed to finance 80 percent of our selective modern trade customers’ business through bill factoring. We started with a small limit.

Tell us about your human resource. Do you think there are enough skilled people for your business?
When you’re operating in a distribution structure, you need a few skills in the company. First is sales. You have to be more analytical now. Local companies have a huge skill gap with MNCs because the people who are leading the local companies are not exposed to this kind of sales management. Secondly, you need a certain type of supply chain skill. The way you would take the market demand and convert it into orders requires a good idea about the market demand and delivering on it.

Thirdly, you need the skills of physical distribution. Private companies like us require a combination of two things: skill and trust. I had to do a lot of things which was not required in my previous jobs, starting from reselling goods to arranging logistics. We now organize training programs regularly for skill development. When taking on a supervisor, they must have basic computer and internet knowledge, know how to run the apps and have a smartphone.

And finally, we lack major expertise in communication. We handle a lot of international brands and language is a big barrier. We constantly encourage people to develop that habit of asking questions. We ask them to follow the 5 W’s one H formula (who, what, where, when, why and how) Unless you have that association with the brand or job or company that you’re in, you will never have the assertiveness of having free flow in communication.

What has been your biggest challenge in finding capable employees?
I feel that knowledge has become superficial. You will find certain professionals spending only two years per job before switching to another one. They are appointed to high positions, but when you get into a discussion with them, you will find that they do not know enough about their occupation. This is because two years isn’t enough to master something. Companies that are always under pressure to constantly sell products don’t focus on investing in skill development and the number of time people is allocating to talk to the officers to get to know about their experiences. Our company is small, but we still invest in our people.

Do you see your company as a more data-driven one in the next five years?
We now have a team who come from India to work with us in order to improve our data analytics. We have already partnered up with one local app company, Systems Resources Limited, and they’re helping us with sales automation for our personal care business. What is important is that we’re getting sales through automation which is rare. Other than Unilever, BAT, Marico, Nestle, and few other big companies, no one does it. We are soon converting to a new platform that is going to make our company robust.

We are also developing the entire supply chain module this year. Our company is 5 years old now, and we can get a lot of support from the system. Food products usually have a decline once they get older. Unless it is data-driven, it will be really hard to achieve survival. Kellogg’s is our next project for automation.

Bangladesh has a huge consumer market, yet we fail in many ways. What do you think we are lacking in? Is it a vision or a hesitation from taking risks?
I think local entrepreneurs lack vision. Some entrepreneurs feel that Bangladesh is not an approachable country, but with political stability, population and GDP per capita going up this is about to change. Most of the people who make investments, look for an overnight return without focusing on the fundamentals of the business. A short-term profit focus cannot be translated into focusing on people, planet and society. In other words, achieving long-term sustainability in business will not be possible.

With regards to the survival of quality international brands in Bangladesh through an import model, I believe the exorbitantly high duty structure is the biggest bottleneck. Companies become risk-averse despite having a huge opportunity in this country.

What do you think the future of marketing in Bangladesh holds?
It doesn’t work when you stick to one formula. On top of that, one-way communication such as television is dying out. Marketing has to be content driven. Amul India’s marketing budget is actually less than 1 percent. They bring out 5 campaigns every week. That’s how they ensure that they’re always relevant. Brands really have to create opportunities these days to be noticed, stay relevant and find ways to engage with the customers. If you want loyalty, engagement, and conversion, be open to omnichannel marketing with a strong bias towards digital engagement. The challenge for the firms will be to build a really good digital capability within the organization.

What’s your advice to people who want to develop a career in marketing?
Observe people. In marketing, you have to know what makes the customers happy and what upsets them. Secondly, you have to be data-oriented. You need to know about data as a marketer if you really want to do well. One move can change your brand. Thirdly, if you want to be a marketer, you have to be good to society. There has to be a passion for people. You cannot shy away from visiting markets or consumers.

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