Sk Bashir Uddin is the Managing Director of Akij Group. His pursuit of excellence, eye for talent, and uncompromising expectations of quality have earned the companies under Akij Group, leading positions across multiple industries in Bangladesh.
Besides being one of the biggest conglomerates in the country, Akij Group is a household name across Bangladesh. What have been the company’s biggest strengths?
In a single sentence, “Trust in quality and its people.” The foundation was laid by my father almost 80 years ago. His pursuit of excellence was second to none, and he congregated the best talents under his wing. He had always believed in the philosophy of being “a poor owner of a rich company” and that is the DNA of the group even today. We always aim to enrich the company with people, technology and the perfect product. I believe this has helped us to shape what we are today. So long as we adhere to this philosophy, this will continue to shape the future of the group.
Despite tobacco being at the core of Akij’s success story, the wing was sold in 2018 which was also the biggest sale of a Bangladeshi entity to a foreign company. What factors prompted this landmark decision?
While this was the biggest ever FDI in the history of Bangladesh, we were parallelly acquiring a company in Malaysia, which was also the biggest ever acquisition by a Bangladeshi company in a foreign country. These 2 cross-border transactions – one inward, one outward, were executed by me and my team. There were many factors that led to these historic purchases. Regarding diversifying away from our tobacco business, tobacco was conflicting with the directions the company was taking. The complexity of the tobacco business – despite the fact that the business grew two-fold after I took over – led us to the decision to focus instead on our other consumer products. Consequently, our focus was to demonstrate our organisational and human resource capability, which is why we ventured out of Bangladesh. Our religious belief also played a significant role in the decision to diversify out of tobacco, as it was not conducive to ethical practices.
WE ALWAYS AIM TO ENRICH THE COMPANY WITH PEOPLE, TECHNOLOGY AND THE PERFECT PRODUCT. I BELIEVE THIS HAS HELPED US TO SHAPE WHAT WE ARE TODAY. SO LONG AS WE ADHERE TO THIS PHILOSOPHY, THIS WILL CONTINUE TO SHAPE THE FUTURE OF THE GROUP.
Perhaps Akij Group’s most popular segment among Bangladeshi consumers is its ceramics business. How does Akij Ceramics set itself in a market that is saturated with so many competent competitors?
Akij has always ventured into businesses which are not considered ‘easy.’ When Akij decided to make its footprint in the carbonated soft-drinks business, the market was primarily dominated by Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Our aim was to expand the horizon of the industry, and today, Akij Food & Beverage Ltd. is one of the biggest companies in the group. Similarly, when we decided to get into ceramics, the market was not looking for another company, but rather, the market was looking for another product. We were the first to introduce digitally printed tiles in Bangladesh and were also the pioneers of unique-sized tiles. With our natural pursuit of excellence, we utilised the latest in technology to bring in certain product categories, sizes, functionalities and aesthetic properties.
In no time we became one of the largest players. Our aspirations pushed us to expand into other ceramic categories such as sanitary ware, tableware, and subsequently, faucets. Our products have also excited global consumers. We are exporting our sanitaryware and tableware to the European market.
The ecosystem we have built has allowed us to successfully create a distinction in the consumer mind and has enabled us to get the best brand award 3 times in a row and we certainly are on our way to winning the 4th one.
At the same time, the company has been investing a significant amount of resources in innovating its tableware. Why is Akij focusing so heavily on this premium segment?
Tableware is a premium segment because it is an artisan product and requires a lot of manual activity – it has to be handmade. Our country has a long history of making tableware, much longer than tiles or sanitaryware. We are able to demonstrate our excellence because we have congregated some of the best minds and talents in the country. The positive response from our local and foreign customers indicates that we have invested properly in this premium segment and are creating products which are truly the best.
What is your vision for the building materials and surface solutions business? Are there new areas you are focusing on in the coming years?
Since 2010, Akij has started making a substantial presence in these categories. We have expanded our cement and ceramic capacity, ventured into plumbing solutions, and introduced new product categories in the tiles and sanitaryware segment. Soon we will be launching an exciting range of faucets. If you consider Grohe to be the Rolls Royce of faucets, I think we would be at par with that because of the technological acquisitions we have made and the people we have brought in – expatriate experts who have the knowledge. We believe this will allow us to build the faucets that our customers deserve.
Hopefully, by the end of 2023, or early 2024, we will be producing float glass. For the past year, we have also been using our paints in-house as a trial run. We are planning on launching paint very soon. For the first time, we are also planning on building a very large carpet factory where we will produce western-style carpets for domestic and export purposes.
Sustainability is another major global trend. What is your take on it?
Being sustainable should mean more than harnessing renewable energy. So far, the country’s focus has been on reducing water, air and noise pollution but those are really just the tip of the iceberg. My observation is that current efforts focus more on the symptoms, and not the disease.
To me, being sustainable means operating in a circular economy – where the waste products of one production ecosystem become the feedstock of another process. The infrastructure to support a circular economy has to be facilitated by the state. Akij group has taken it upon itself to create a circular platform with some drastic actions. In 4 years, we are aiming for our ceramic business to consume zero groundwater and have zero discharge. Additionally, we are aiming to dismantle our ETPs (Effluent Treatment Plan). We believe a sustainable economy should not even have any effluent.
Technology should play a substantial role in achieving sustainability. The country’s regulation stipulates 300 mg of air pollution as acceptable, but our latest cement factory is designed for less than 10 mg, which is 30 times less than the regulation stipulates. Being sustainable therefore has actually become more profitable for Akij group. Therefore, sustainability should be through close collaboration between subject matter experts, who have the education, and industrial enterprises that have to navigate through the challenges.
What is your leadership style? What are the qualities one must possess to become a successful leader?
I think that is a very difficult question. I have been trained by my father and have been very lucky to have worked under him for 17 long years. His philosophy has taught me humility, appreciation, and the importance of learning through collaboration. My way of leadership is to put all those into practice. I work with my colleagues, trust them and empower them. While I guide them on issues, I also learn from them. I am not an expert in all areas, but wherever I think I can bring value, I pursue that. So, I would say, my trait is versatility.
It is difficult to say what makes one a good leader. I like to define leadership as being daring enough to step into the unknown. Perseverance, endurance and the right attitude are also key to one’s success. But then again, success is a relative term. But people should be able to look to a leader in times of crisis. If a situation arises, a leader should stay calm and collected, and have a plan to recover from it with smart, executable strategies.