INVINCIBLE 25 YEARS

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Shehzad Munim, Managing Director, BAT Bangladesh, talks about his 25-year-long illustrious career at the company and shares his thoughts on skills development, career growth, and leadership.

Shehzad Munim, Managing Director, BAT Bangladesh
Photographs: Nirjon Mahmood

CONGRATULATIONS ON 25 YEARS AT BAT BANGLADESH. PLEASE GIVE US THE BACKSTORY OF HOW IT ALL STARTED.

It started with a notice on an IBA bulletin board – BBA final-year students could apply for a field job at Bangladesh Tobacco Company (BTC). I had my CV prepared for a course, so I decided to apply. Bangladesh Tobacco Company (BTC) called me for an interview, and I went through the entire process and got selected. But I still had 3 months left to graduate, so BTC told me to join after my final exams were over. On 3 August 1997, I joined BTC. I was posted in Brahmanbaria but then I went to Sylhet for a functional attachment. The territory officer at Sylhet was resigning then, so I was told to stay in Sylhet instead of Brahmanbaria and that’s how it started. It’s been 25 years now – a long journey.

YOU HAVE TRAVELLED THE WORLD AND WORKED IN DIFFERENT TEAMS. CAN YOU SHARE ONE EXPERIENCE THAT CHANGED YOUR LIFE OR WAS A GAME CHANGER?

I’ll mention two life-changing events. The first one was in Bangladesh. After 11 months of working in the field, I was transferred to the head office as a brand officer. I found that the budget for that brand had been cut to almost nothing, and as a result, there was very little to do. I was looking for a bigger challenge and I prepared a presentation for the functional head. I explained how if more investment was made in the brands I was looking after, we would have room to grow the category. He liked my presentation and gave me two options. One was to work directly with him and take on more projects as a brand officer. The other was to take the role of brand manager. Being young and ambitious, I chose the brand manager position. It would not only be a good challenge, but it would also mean a promotion. But, in my 25 years of career at BAT, my first year as a Brand Manager was the most difficult one. My performance was just enough to save me by the skin of my teeth to maintain that position. But the important takeaway for me was that I took a chance and tried something new. I believed in my abilities to find out what I could do. That’s how I have been pursuing my career.

The other significant event for me was taking on the opportunity to work in New Zealand as a Group Brand Manager. When I was offered that position, I was excited to go to a beautiful and developed country which would be a great learning opportunity for me. But internally, I was feeling that I may not be up to their level. But 3 months into the job, I realised that operationally, the business in Bangladesh is actually ahead of the operational realities in New Zealand. I also realised that Bangladesh is not lagging behind – we are as good as anybody else in the world. What I thought would be a learning opportunity, was also an opportunity to contribute to them. The turning point was the realisation that we have to take chances in life. It may be difficult to cope with the chances you take, but you should keep trying, and not have regrets. Believe in yourself, because you are just as good as anyone else in the world.

YOU ARE ALSO THE FIRST EVER BANGLADESHI TO BECOME THE MANAGING DIRECTOR OF BAT BANGLADESH. YOU HAVE PAVED AN INSPIRATIONAL PATH FOR MANY. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR JOURNEY, AND WHAT WERE SOME OF THE KEY LEARNINGS ALONG THE WAY?

As you grow through your career, you start climbing onto higher pedestals, and from there, you can see the horizon better. That’s when aspirations start to grow. When I was in New Zealand, I got inspired by my line manager, the Managing Director of BAT New Zealand who shared his aspirations of becoming the first Malaysian to become the Managing Director of BAT Malaysia. That’s when I also started believing that I should have similar aspirations to become the first Bangladeshi Managing Director of BAT Bangladesh.

The journey has been one of learning and curiosity. You should always yearn to find out how things work around your workplace. Maybe you are a marketer and that’s your core strength. But to go to a higher pedestal, you also need to understand how other departments like finance, HR, and manufacturing function. They all come together to make the company. Giving my own example, before becoming Managing Director, I wanted to understand how money is managed. So, I spent some time with the treasury team. It was important for me to sit up close with them because if I were to be a Managing Director, a very important aspect of the job would be to understand fund management.

For anyone who is joining a job or growing into an organisation, I would advise them to have a core area of strength. I am a good brand marketer. That’s my core strength. Likewise, find your own strength, build a strong base, and then start learning the other areas.

THE BANGLADESH CORPORATE SCENARIO HAS GONE THROUGH MANY CHALLENGES. HOW HAS IT EVOLVED OVER THE YEARS?

I think the corporate world has changed in many ways. When I was graduating 25 years ago, corporate culture existed only in a handful of MNCs in Bangladesh. But someone graduating now can find corporate culture in local companies that have become massive organisations. Some of them even have international footprints.

The corporate culture in Bangladesh is still growing and evolving. Corporate functions and disciplines are still not fully embedded in younger organisations. Nonetheless, the options are plenty for you to learn and invest your time in.

BANGLADESH IS ON COURSE TO BECOMING A DEVELOPED NATION BY 2041. HOW MAY WE ALL COME FORWARD TOGETHER TO MAKE VISION 2041 A REALITY AND ‘BUILD A BETTER TOMORROW?’

This is a very interesting question. There is no doubt in my mind that Bangladesh will be a very exciting place to be in the future. But we must be wary of the ‘middle-income trap.’ South Korea is a very good example to follow who broke out of the middle-income trap. They used to be labour intensive, but through close collaboration between their corporate sectors and their government, South Korea is now a technology-driven developed economy.

The challenges to overcome lie in the adjustment of some crucial sectors. Adjustments in the education system, policy, and funding, to name a few, have to work hand-in-glove. When we are able to create the right environment, we may start thinking of transitioning. We do have business bodies and chambers of commerce that work together on a regular basis and are in dialogue with the government, but we are still in the embryonic stage.

WHEN ENTERPRISES ARE ESTABLISHED ON A SOLID FOUNDATION OF TRANSPARENCY, ACCOUNTABILITY AND THE RULE OF LAW, YOU CAN FEARLESSLY MOVE FORWARD.

We need to have a purpose. We need to ask, what is the core brand value of Bangladesh? If we are to keep capitalising on our strong garments sector, then we have to slowly move away from the very low-cost labour-intensive model to an innovation-driven model. We have other sectors to consider as well. The government is setting up 100 economic zones. Each sector should have its own characteristic and its own strength.

A very important aspect to consider is ‘brain-drain.’ Young talents of our nation are seeking opportunities abroad, and as a result, we are not able to keep on growing at the pace opportunities are presenting themselves. If we are to believe that our children will want to live here in the future, we will need a bit of patriotism. In order to do that, we need to change the mindset of the people who have the resources to make a difference. With proper discipline, transparency and accountability, our enterprises can last long enough to make a difference. When enterprises are established on a solid foundation of transparency, accountability and the rule of law, you can fearlessly move forward.

25 YEARS IS A LONG TIME IN SUCH A HIGH-PACED INDUSTRY. HOW DID YOU MANAGE YOUR WORK AND PERSONAL LIFE?

Family plays a very important role in holding the fort at home. But it’s a very difficult task and we often underestimate that part. My wife has been a big support in this journey because I never had to worry about household problems. But moving from one country to another even before the family gets a chance to acclimatise themselves takes a toll. What’s more important is to have trust in the relationship. If you enjoy what you are doing, and you feel there is a sense of accomplishment in your achievements, then you’re doing it right. That’s where the energy and innovation come from.

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO PURSUE YOUR PASSION WHILE PURSUING YOUR CAREER? WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU LIKE TO GIVE YOUNG, ASPIRING LEADERS OF TOMORROW?

I think the main message to everyone is, “Try to get into doing something that you feel good about.” Don’t worry about your weaknesses – they only make you human. Try to build your strength into something which is world-class. Your strength is like the trunk of a tree – what you will stand tall on. If you invest in the areas that interest you, you will not be uprooted. Your inquisitiveness will then help you diversify into other areas.

Passion is very important in the whole journey. If you can link your passion to your job, then you not only enjoy it but also can keep building on it. We often hear the term, ‘work-life balance,’ but I find that term problematic. It insinuates that you have work, and then you have the rest of the things you categorise as ‘life’ – the things you enjoy. This means there is a disconnect. You should be enjoying the things you are doing for a living.

The majority of your life is spent working. So, do the work which excites you most. Enjoy it, and then you will find fulfilment along the way.

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