Dato’ K. M. Rifatuzzaman, Managing Director of Akhtar Group, reflects onthe growth of the company and elaborates on its future endeavours.
You have been involved in the family business from a very young age. What motivated you to begin so early?
When I was in school, my father would give me a small allowance on the condition that I would regularly visit one of our showrooms. I would visit every other day to observe and learn about the business. No matter my schedule, I would find time to do these store visits because they were both interesting and a good incentive. To say that I had a knack for business from a young age might be inaccurate. It was my father who motivated me to visit the showrooms, talk to the employees and get to know the ins and outs of operations. So, it has always been him who has motivated me to begin so early.
Starting so early has been a blessing. It has instilled a drive and passion in me to constantly find creative solutions to expand the business. For example, when I went to North America to study, I would visit stores – much like I would visit our showrooms in Bangladesh. I would look at how the home decor and construction industry were packaging, shelving and branding their products. When I would visit home for the summer break, I would relate and compare the local market to what I had seen abroad.
In 2009, Akhtar Furnishers got a new brand look. We changed our logo and gave it a new identity, introduced a diverse product line, improved the production process and increased the square footage area of our showrooms. Furniture showrooms generally used to be 5000 to 6000 square feet. We made ours 15000 to 20000 square feet to not only show the wide range of product lines we offer but, at the same time, facilitate an immersive shopping experience.
How has the business evolved over the years?
Akhtar Furnishers started with my father setting up a furniture factory in 1976. The quality and design of the products immediately won the hearts of the customers. Since then, the company has experienced continuous and steady growth. Akhtar Furnishers’ reach is now nationwide. We have showrooms all over the capital, and we have opened showrooms in all the major divisions. Currently, there are 62 showrooms under two brands around the country, and we are opening more.
Over time, we expanded to other sectors and became a group of companies which people now know as Akhtar Group. Our businesses now include furniture, foam, mattress, board, tools, polymer, satellite channel, chemical, magazine publication, sports, construction and fashion. Our brands are very well known in the local market, but my vision is to think global. My efforts are geared toward increasing our export portfolio, and we have gained significant traction in the foreign market as well. We are the first Bangladeshi brand to get international certification to export furniture and also receive ISO certification in 2000.
WE ARE THE FIRST BANGLADESHI BRAND TO GET INTERNATIONAL CERTIFICATION TO EXPORT
FURNITURE AND ALSO RECEIVE ISO CERTIFICATION IN 2000.
Could you please elaborate on Akhtar Group’s current export portfolio? Are there any challenges in the way of your global ambitions?
We started exporting around 1995-96 as the first entity to export furniture from Bangladesh. Initially, we were not selling under our name – we were making furniture for other brands. We will continue to do that but we will parallelly sell our own brands. We already have stores in India, and we are planning on opening stores in Nepal, Bhutan and Malaysia. To date, the brands under the umbrella of Akhtar Group have been exported to India, Japan, Australia, the UK, France, Canada, and the USA.
With regards to challenges, there are not many. Our export infrastructure has drastically improved over the last decade. Perhaps the biggest challenge right now is the rising price of imported raw materials. To facilitate export, the duty structure of imported raw materials might need to be worked out. But even that may be ironed out as our government is gearing up for doing tremendously well in the export market.
What do you think are the company’s biggest strengths that have allowed it to grow so much since 1976 when it was established?
I believe Akhtar Group’s biggest strength would be our commitment to excellence and quality. It has enabled our brand to become a household name across the country. The high perception of the quality of our products among the general people of the country is the biggest testament to our commitment. There has been so much word of mouth that a lot of goodwill has been created in the market through our products.
We are dedicated to giving goodwill back to the people of this country. We believe in creating employment opportunities and providing people with the necessary skill sets to become employable. For that, we have created Akhtar Foundation. Because we have been successful, we have the means to provide the people of this country with such facilities.
Could you expand a bit on Akhtar Furniture Academy and Akhtar Technical Institute?
Akhtar Furniture Academy is the only private institution of its kind in the country. We provide technical education on furniture making. There are so many young and fresh minds who are willing to learn and dedicate themselves to craftwork, but there used to be no support for them. Akhtar Furniture Academy provides that support. It is a 3-month training program, which, when completed makes one employable in any furniture company in the country.
There is an unfortunate shortage of manpower in this sector because of a lack of training and guidance. We provide our students with that guidance and make them qualified and employable. Our subjects include carpentry, woodworking, upholstery and lacquering, to name a few. Most of the students who complete the training get hired by Akhtar. We also refer our students to other furniture companies.
Akhtar Technical Institute teaches computer skills, sewing, stitching, tailoring, welding and plumbing among many others. It is difficult for employers to reliably hire a workforce where these skillsets are essential. Through the certification provided upon completing the training at Akhtar Technical Institute, the process is authenticated. Our students are confidently able to present these credentials, and employers have a way to verify them as well. We recognise that it is not always possible for people to travel to Dhaka and pay for travel and living expenses. We have therefore taken the initiative to take the training to them. We create zones and set up workshops all around the country to take our training to as many people as possible.
As one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, Bangladesh is well on its way to becoming a developed nation by 2041. What do you think Akhtar Group’s role could be in that future?
In the growth and development of a nation, any business will have its contribution. Akhtar Group has experienced significant growth since it was established in 1976, during which, it has created vast employment opportunities and helped advance multiple industries. Our government’s efforts and initiatives to become a developed nation by 2041 will require the continued effort of Akhtar Group, and many other groups of companies like ours. The timeline we have is 18 years during which I see Akhtar Group achieving higher export volumes, better brand recognition, and better scope to represent Bangladesh in the global market. We are setting up different factories to facilitate the export market, and we are building export plants to separate them from the local demands. Akhtar Group is currently contributing to the economy with its 11 companies across 8 industries. We are growing skilled manpower through our academy and institute to keep pace with the rapidly developing world. This is where the imperative necessity of digitalisation and automation is addressed. We recognise that growth should be parallel – manpower and technology both need to advance in tandem. Akhtar Group has already set a path to providing that for the economy.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of leading Akhtar Group?
My father has built this company from scratch. The diversified portfolios of B2B and B2C businesses we have built are the culmination of his efforts. Getting the opportunity to run the whole show and then successfully growing it year by year gives a sense of self-satisfaction. Of course, there are challenges. Being the son of one of Bangladesh’s most prominent industrialists and philanthropists and taking over such a vast responsibility puts pressure of mounting expectations. It is very difficult to live up to not only people’s expectations but to my own. No matter how much I am able to do for the company, people will always have this sentiment that the foundations were already laid out for me. I feel that pressure. But it is even more challenging for me because I myself reflect on that feeling that maybe I have not yet achieved what I am meant to. But, I take that positively and turn it around as motivation to do better for the group. I have dedicated myself to the growth and well-being of Akhtar Group. I work 10 to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week as there is immense pressure in managing such an entity. But it all comes from an honest and humble place. Being in a position that allows me to create employment opportunities, provide training facilities and contribute to the overall growth and development of this nation’s economy is a reward in itself.