Marjiya Baktyer Ahmed catches up with Safwan Sobhan on how through extensive research and development, Bashundhara Group is at the forefront of making Bangladesh an import independent nation.
What are the qualities do you believe that a successful leader must have?
To be a successful leader, I think a person must possess a blend of absolute integrity, honesty, decisiveness and must be a team player. Having these qualities also grows the capability to empower others to work efficiently. Leaders have to be able to rest their faith on their team and fully understand how to properly delegate.
As the Managing Director of Bashundhara Paper Mills Ltd. and Vice Chairman of Bashundhara Group, you have to oversee numerous operations. Do you have a strategy/ routine to ensure the efficiency of the processes?
Yes, I do follow a strategy and I believe it is an integral part of being a leader. We have weekly meetings where we prepare ourselves for every upcoming week. I need to ensure my Head of Departments and Head of Plants report back to me on a regular basis. Being the Managing Director I always have to have a bird’s eye view of the entire organization in real-time. Our integrated ERP system generates resourceful reports that enable us to build the necessary tools to forecast the challenges. We have deadlines and timelines for every piece of work, and from project to project basis. We set our KPIs and monitor them meticulously. Before we go live with a machine at production, we run it through an extensive troubleshooting process, following that it goes back to the R&D department. This is a daily routine we maintain to stay on top of any problems that may arise.
Can you please share with us about a challenge that you faced as a leader and how you pushed through?
Recently we have set up a new tissue machine from Austria, which has the capacity to churn out 100 MT tissues per day. We took the challenge to erect the machine in 18 months. It is located in our Unit 1 which is in Narayanganj. The machine is so highly technically configured that it was quite difficult for people here to figure out how to operate regularly. We did not have Bangladeshi expertise on this. The regular paper machines require about 80-100 people to run but this new one can be run by engaging just only 3 people.
So, to tackle this head on, we decided to go for extensive scheduled training. We sent our people to Austria and China to get trained on how to operate such a machine. Then we devised a plan on how to get the machine to Bangladesh, do the construction on time, and get it up and running. Finally, once it began running, it is not only supplying in Bangladesh, but products are also being exported in volumes.
Through this challenge we achieved specific knowledge of how to do team building, proper planning in tough times, then we did it a test scenario case and then we implemented it.
More potential for growth in the industry is in tissue, thermal paper and packaging paper. Thermal paper is what you use on a credit card machine, POS machines etc. It is an import substitute. Generally, Bashundhara Group enters in any industry with aims to take the place of the import substitute.
Who are the people that have shaped the person you are now?
My idol is always my father. I sincerely look at him, and thereby he has shaped me as the person I am today. Other than that, I would say the next person is my headmaster from my boarding school back in the U.K. His guidance has been invaluable to me.
From my boyhood, I was always fascinated by machinery and equipment. I am also fond of cars, so I was always into fixing and engineering things. I was keen on pursuing engineering, but eventually I opted for studying business administration, technology always fascinated me. This is how I ventured into the paper mill industry. They say, when you are born, you are given a piece of paper, and when you die, you are also given another. Many people say it’s a dying industry, but it has been maintaining a worldwide growth rate of over 6%. In the modern age, there is a movement to go paperless, but despite the digitization and this shift to an online dominion, the tangibility of paper is irreplaceable.
‘Bashundhara Paper’ has been the biggest paper exporter from Bangladesh for the past few years. What are the factors that helped “Bashundhara Paper” to reach this position? What are the future goals?
We have been adding capacity every year to match the demand of the market. We have recently listed ourselves on the Dhaka & Chittagong stock market being the biggest paper mill as well as the exporter. In terms of quality, India- our neighboring country – has a bunch of paper mills all over, however very few of these could compete with the quality paper that we manufacture. That is why our export market has grown substantially in India right now. India has a gap of 300,000 tons of paper per annum. We are basically filling that gap in, partially which is why export of our quality paper & tissue products have gone up.
Our future goals are to practice cost minimization and run the business more efficiently. At present, out of 14 machines, we have made 10 of our machines as closed loop machines, which means that the water discharge is almost zero. Before, we had to use 20 tons of water to make 1 ton of paper. We have reduced that down to 7 tons of water. We have made substantial reduction on electricity, steam consumption, as well as chemical consumption. We have switched to chemicals that are bio eco-friendly. So, all these aspects we are doing day in and day out, and cutting our costs, while also becoming more environmentally conscience.
Which segment would you say there is more potential for growth?
More potential for growth in the industry is in tissue, thermal paper and packaging paper. Thermal paper is what you use on a credit card machine, POS machines etc. It is an import substitute. Generally, Bashundhara Group enters in any industry with aims to take the place of the import substitute. The products that were once imported, now we can produce it locally and export it as well.
You have recently received FSC-CoC (Recycled Paper) certificate from the regulatory authority Control Union. How crucial do you think it is for consumers to use responsibly sourced paper products?
It is surely a responsible recognition, but for Bangladesh market we have not seen much of a big impact yet about FSC, mostly due to knowledge gap. But for the export market, it has been giving us a competitive edge for marketing and exporting. When we export to Europe, that is a must. When we export to the U.S. and the U.K, these certificates are also must to give documents.
The full form of FSC is “Forest Stewardship Council”. Basically, when pulp is produced from trees, it could be an Acacia tree or it could be a Rainwood, or Eucalyptus tree. To produce pulp, trees are uprooted and because of this, for every one tree taken out, ten trees have to be replanted. These pulp producers provide relevant certificates and necessary endorsement before giving us pulp products. The chemicals which we are using to recycle the paper, de-ink the papers, those chemicals has to be certified by FSC-COC, which implies they are not harmful to the environment.
How crucial is the role of R&D to remain competitive in the global market?
Our R&D department has been quite productive and inventive from the beginning, I personally look after its regular operation. Every time, based on market data/ feedback, we decide for the development of new SKUs or product range, it all starts from my endorsement and goes into trial to the market with my concurrence also. It is always critical to keep track what new facility can bring about and ultimately this is the only approach we take to be competitive in domestic as well as in the global arena.
How is Bashundhara Group constantly innovating themselves?
Bashundhara Group believes in opportunity-creation for the nation; hence innovation is the key to make it happen. The Group as a whole try to remodel itself every now and then to stay updated with the trend, as well as to remain competitive in the business arena.
Whenever we think of a new investment, we always look for import-substitute. We look into the industry, and in our R&D department we are always working on products that will be an import-substitute, even the ones in the pipeline right now. They all will be substituting import-goods for Bangladesh and will be saving foreign currency.
During early 2020, our new Bitumin plant will be in production. As Bangladesh is embarking upon building huge infrastructure, for roads and bridges, Bitumin is a product which has been imported a lot, from all over the world. We will have the capacity to cater to the national demand, as well as export. Our Bitumin will be guaranteed for 10 years, once it is put on the road.
How does meeting innovation requirements affect the rate of employment?
Bashundhara paper mill is not just an ordinary paper mill, we do not produce only simple writing paper rather we produce paper materials across the board. Paper mills in Bangladesh would only produce writing and printing paper, which you see as normal A4 paper or paper for newsprint. Instead, we have taken ourselves away from the conventional market, geared up ourselves for the next market, which is a specialty grade. Your everyday use for thermal paper which is used on every POS machine, NCR paper, duplex board, packaging paper – these are the growth markets we are looking at. So we are segmenting more in different specialty grades. There’s a growth and sustainability over there, as well as positively impacting employments.
Our R&D department has been quite productive and inventive from the beginning, I personally look after its regular operation. Every time, based on market data/ feedback, we decide for the development of new SKUs or product range.
Bashundhara Group’s core value is ‘For the People, For the Country’. How has this value shaped the company and its operations over the years?
As a company when we say For the People, For the Country; we mean it. All the concerns are built in for the people, for the country. They are adding value to the country, and it is a value addition for the employees as well. Take our real estate business for example, when we started back in 1987, we sold 3 lac Taka per katha, which in turn of time over 3 crore at present. So, we single- handedly as a company, made 50,000 multi-millionaires in the country. We handed over 50,000 plots. Other than that in all our products, we never compromise on quality and we always do extensive R&D, training for our employees so that they are well fitted and well educate, in every sphere of their lives.
Apart from running such a massive company, Bashundhara Group also engages in CSR activities. Can you elaborate please?
I believe great success comes with great responsibilities. Although Bashundhara Group has always been very much submissive about all of its philanthropic initiatives, it is of no doubt a big range of its CSR initiatives are running across many fields around us. Somewhere free eye clinic is giving supports to the poor and needy, somewhere Bashundhara Ad-din Medical College Hospital in Keraniganj is providing the cheapest medical care in its 500-bed hospital, yet Friday Clinics in Manikganj and Comilla awaits with best doctors of the Country. A Special Children Foundation for the autistic, for underprivileged children, having a capacity of 250 students, is a perfect institution of its kind. We have an orphanage of 1000 children, which is located in Bashundhara also. We always try to remain beside the needy in crisis time e.g. during the winter season, we always extend our supports all the Country with warm clothing, relief supports to the flood or, cyclone-affected coastal people.
What would you like to say to the new entrants in to the business sector?
I started 10 year ago, back in 2009. I would say where I am today, obviously I have been given the position to be where I am, but I have taken things furthermore up. But remember to dedicate yourself to your work as your passion. Whatever work you do, you should enjoy it. Do not think of it as a burden. When I do my work, I really enjoy doing it, I take it as a passion. I am a passionate golfer and passionate businessman also.