| by Moinak Mitra
Economics Times Bureau
(Across a bevy of Indias neighboring countries, prominent industrialists from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan have established empires in their own right and some even maintain strong business links with India.)
(March 16, 2014, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Huddled in a Taj suite in Mumbai, Binod Chaudhary, Maruti Suzuki Chairman RC Bhargava and Tilak De Zoysa are deep in conversation. The common link that has brought together the Nepalese, Indian and Sri Lankan business leaders, respectively, happens to be automobiles; Chaudhary is Nepal's sole Maruti Suzuki distributor while Zoysa's company is the Sri Lankan counterpart. Incidentally, Chaudhary also owns hotels in South Asia that are managed by the Taj Group and Zoysa sits on the board. "We like to operate in the toughest business environments, that's our USP," says Chaudhary, Chairman of Chaudhary Group, and Nepal's first dollar billionaire.
Across a bevy of India's neighboring countries, prominent industrialists from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan have established empires in their own right and some even maintain strong business links with India. Generally speaking, though, business leaders from these frontier nations often operate in environments scarred by political turbulence. But instead of shying away from leadership positions, they seem to forward their largely 'old economy' agenda (commodity trading, shipping, textiles, cements, construction, real estate, consumer goods) in cahoots with the powers that be.
Neighboring Nepal too has been in the crosshairs of Maoist insurgency and seen 22 governments in 20 years. But that hasn't deterred Binod Chaudhary from carving out a billion dollar noodle-to-hospitality conglomerate spanning 12 verticals across 21 countries. When Chaudhary invested in Sri Lanka, the ongoing war made the country out of bounds for the investment community. But Chaudhary felt it was the best time to enter. "Otherwise, why would a group like Taj partner with somebody from Nepal?" he asks.
Today, Chaudhary even operates a wing of his business in the hostile shores of East Africa. For him, the driving force is clearly the opportunity to develop a network as a prime mover. A Marwari from the Shekhavati region of Rajasthan, Chaudhary, prefers being first among equals. He traces his business roots to his grandfather who landed in Nepal 125 years ago and set up business wherein he used to import textiles from Surat and Ahmedabad for the royal Rana household in Nepal. His father expanded the family business remaining confined to textiles and even started dealing with Japan.
Like Muhammad Abul Hashem of Bangladesh and Dhammika Perera of Lanka, Chaudhary too has had political affiliations. The Kathmandu-based entrepreneur was a member of Nepal's Constituent Assembly until it was dissolved in May 2012. And like Perera, Hashem or even Mian Muhammed Mansha of Pakistan, he believes in delegation, not actively involving himself in day-to-day company affairs.
Perhaps, it is the distance that gives such frontier leaders a longer term horizon. Or, maybe, it is the political leverage. Whichever be the case, while some still maintain a rock-solid India connect, others seek virgin opportunities in difficult geographies just to make the prime mover grade. At any rate, the conversation goes far beyond the suite at Mumbai's Taj Mahal Hotel .
Mian Muhammad Mansha
Take the case of Mian Muhammad Mansha, Chairman of the $10 billion Nishat Group in Pakistan. His links with the incumbent Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is well-known and both hail from the Punjab. But what sets him apart as a leader is the way he's trodden the delicate balance of power while building a cement-to-banking empire.
Mansha lost a chunk of the business in 1971 that his father and uncles had painstakingly set up, owing to the separation of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's nationalization drive. "I had a tough time after the death of my father in 1969. First, the family suffered because of the fall of Dhaka and lost its textile, jute and soda caustic business there, and later, the government nationalized part of whatever was left of it here," he says.
In the late 70s, Mansha realized that money in the textile business could only be earned by creating economies of scale and developing a vertically integrated supply chain. In the subsequent decade, Mansha set up the country's largest textile complex of seven mills in Faisalabad. Another textile complex followed in later years in Chunian, near Lahore. Today, Nishat Textile Mill is the largest vertically integrated plant in the country.
Success for Mansha, nevertheless, seems to be punctuated by government and court scrutiny. He has been put thrice on the Exit Control List and compelled to live in self-imposed exile in Boston for three years. When prodded, all he says is, "Let bygones be bygones....we must make Pakistan a better place for its people.
Along with his three sons, Mansha is actively foraying into banking operations in Europe and the Middle East apart from adding new textile capacities and setting up cement and power plants. The 66-yearold has also trained his eyes on Myanmar "because this country is suddenly going to open up to the whole world with its new investment policy in April".
While Mansha's will to seek out opportunities is commendable, it also ties in with his management style — the ability to time decisions and not back out. "I always take decisions at the right time as one should be brave enough to take risks and tough decisions and boldly accept their consequences," he says.
LANKA'S VALUABLE ONE
Decades of war leaves scant regard for nobility. In Sri Lanka, that's very much evident as newbie Dhammika Perera basks in a personal fortune of $550 million. Perera is Chairman of Vallibel One, a conglomerate that has its fingers in every pie and also seems to have the blessings of the powers that be. After all, the other hat he wears is that of the Secretary to the Ministry of Transport.
In the early 90s, Perera was a small-time shopkeeper repairing ECBs in Colpetty, and from there ventured into auto sales, shipping and gaming, banking, construction, hospitality, and what have you. He clearly believes in retaining ownership and leaving day to day activities to professional managers. One such professional manager is LD Dickman, a director on the board of Vallibel Power Erathna.
"Perera gives a lot of freedom to professional managers and bases most of his decisions on sound logic and statistical analysis," he says. In the past, Perera has gone on record saying that he has devised a mathematical model that allows him to take the quickest route to decision-making. This calculated and quickthinking approach has resulted in a plethora of acquisitions and timely exits, from Pan Asia Bank to Royal Ceramics, Delmege Group to Hayley's. Today, Perera is Lanka's biggest billionaire with some 20 listed companies that pay 5% of the total corporate income tax of the emerald island.
BHUTAN'S BOUNTY HUNTER
Like Mansha, Bhutan's Dasho Topgyal Dorji too has made strides with his Tashi Group. Being the previous Bhutan king Jigme Singye Wangchuk's cousin certainly helped.
As the landlocked dragon nation of 800,000 people gradually opens up to the rest of the world, Dorji trains his eyes on infrastructure, banking, telecom and tourism. Of course, Tashi also manufactures the ubiquitous Druk brand of juices, jams and pickles, with its juices accounting for some 25% market share in India.
Dorji's Kolkata-based right-hand man in India and President of his Tai Industries, Rohan Ghosh, claims that Tashi does far more than the general perception.
"It is not just juices, jams and jellies, we also make ferro-alloys and are into many core projects," he says, perhaps mirroring his promoter's background, who went to Norway in the 1980s for an advanced degree in metallurgy. "When we do a project, he (Dorji) is actively involved and apart from hearing out consultants, he personally visits plants of other companies in various countries to get a first-hand feel," Ghosh elaborates.
By all accounts, Dorji is the richest man in Bhutan, though his rugged demeanor with long flowing mane and adrenaline-pumping rafting quest defy the suave etiquette of boardroom culture. But Dorji is hands-on. He runs some 40-odd companies under the Tashi Group banner with 3,000 people, which has wide-ranging interests from brewing to aviation.
As most of these companies are unlisted, it is difficult to put a value to Dorji's net worth, but the array of businesses that he runs is mindboggling and in sync with Bhutan's neo-liberal regime.
Dasho Topgyal Dorji has come a long way since 1959 when the Tashi Group was founded by his late father, who imported Indian spices to Bhutan. He understands fully well that Bhutan has been a late riser in Asia's economic boom story and now wants to seize every opportunity with gusto. Dorji hails from a family of aristocrats and nobility as his ancestors ruled Haa Valley, some 115 kilometers away from the capital, Thimphu.
But Dorji seems to wear the elite tag lightly as he prepares to win contracts to exploit resources of the still virgin dragon state. Apart from brewing Druk beer, he's one of the few bottlers of Coca-Cola in Bhutan.
Besides, among the two telecom service providers in Bhutan, his TashiCell occupies pride of place, the other being the state-owned Bhutan Telecom. He relaunched Tashi Air, Bhutan's first privately-owned airline last year and already has a footprint in the travel trade with hotels run by the Taj Group and Singapore's Como Group besides managing Druk Hotels. As his country opens up, the 48-year-old is keen to get in people and processes from overseas to lay the foundation of learning across his diversified empire.
BANGLADESH'S BIG BULL
Bangladesh hasn't seen a war in decades, but its politically volatile atmosphere has created inefficient state-owned enterprises and its own share of corruption.
Amid such chaos, Muhammad Abul Hashem, founder and chairman of Partex Group, stands out. Hashem started out 50 years ago as a tobacco trader.
"When Bangladesh was formed in 1971, his tobacco warehouse in Chowmuhoni was packed full, thereby placing him in an excellent position to grow his business exponentially. Then he moved to Chittagong, the commercial capital of Bangladesh, bringing him greater success with subsequent diversification into imports of various consumer items and building materials - the much sought-after products in the newly formed nation," says Sanjay Saldanha, Executive Director, Planning & Development, Partex Group.
After having established himself as a trading tycoon, Hashem decided to make the switch to manufacturing.
In the 1980s, he moved his business to Dhaka and purchased Star Particle Board Mills from the government through auction, which he turned into a profitable company. This was how Partex Group came into being.
There was no looking back. Hashem began setting up new industrial units and diversified his business across sectors both at home and abroad. He founded two new banks—City Bank and the United Commercial Bank—and Janata Insurance and Phoenix Insurance.
Partex's other companies are market leaders in nearly all sectors in Bangladesh, including food and beverages, plastics, fabrics, yarn, cotton, sugar, paper, jute, shipping, furniture, real estate, media, education, services, and IT. At one point in time, Hashem was also lawmaker in Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party having been elected from his hometown of Noakhali.
But he had to step down owing to corruption charges, though he steadfastly denied his involvement in a business syndicate that manipulated commodity prices. "Ours is a free market economy and the private sector as the engine of growth plays a key role in establishing the basic industrial base. We have been trying to play the role and contribute to the making of our GDP," says Hashem.