The Life of Haji Bashir

Philip Sunder Lal

Mr. Philip Sunder Lal is in esteemed IBA Alumnus of MBA Class of 1964, who resides in Lahore with his family.

Corporate Intelligence

Haji Bashir in his late 40's.

Karachi's IBA, set-up in the mid-50s, was a boon for many of us who were not doing well in the antique rote learning of the country's other institutions. In 1962, I was part of a mixed bunch from (West and former East Pakistan), coming from standardized BA-level rote-learning with age-old textbooks. I was a third-division student given admission only because I had done extremely well on IBA's aptitude test.

After having sweated over Dr S.M. Akhtar's dry, classical 'economics' when graduating from Lahore's FC College, I was rather fascinated by the teaching approach of some of IBA faculty's especially Dr George Summers (the superlative statistician), Dr Abul Hasnat (the finance wizard from the Wharton School who later left IBA for the Asian Development Bank), Dr Kenji Okuda (who made economics come alive with a flair I had not seen before), and Dr James Lee (a jazz musician who had the last word in Business Communications). These were wonderful personalities were working under IBA's chief, the late Dr I.A. Mukhtar (what a just man and disciplinarian we had in him!).

Perhaps it is natural for business schools in every era to create their own business icons. A lot of business students probably put people like Apple's Steve Jobs, Microsoft's Bill Gates or Alibaba's Jack Ma on big pedestals. In my time we IBA students had our business icons, too. We spoke about and admired Atlas Honda's Yusuf Shirazi, Bengal Oils' M.A. Rangoonwala, EFU's founder Roshan Ali Bhimjee, or Kohinoor Rayon's Shafique Saigol, and BECO's C.M.Latif. These were the men who had labored to build Pakistan's early industrial base (and got tagged with the infamous '22 families' title for their pains!).

Armed with a B+ MBA, I landed a marketing job in 1962 in Kohinoor Ghee Mills in Kala Shah Kaku (near Lahore) working for Farooque Saigol (a member of the well-known Saigol family), and had the privilege of launching a now-extinct brand called 'Kohinoor' banaspati. But this minor distinction was short-lived; I lost my job during the 1965 war with India. When an aerial dog-fight occurred over Lahore between our F-86s and Indian Gnats, the company's management saw that discretion was the better part of valour; they felt it would be wiser and safer to let some people go.

At the time I was shattered – what was I going to do now? But as often happens, things sometimes go bad only for new doors to open. And new doors did open at the Pakistan Institute of Management in Karachi working with management training pioneers like Inayatullah Siddiqui, Amanullah Kheshgi, Arshad Abdullah and Bashir Haider. At PIM, I was assigned with the Harvard Case Group to write case studies on Pakistani business. I enjoyed doing this because it afforded a tremendous opportunity to interview Pakistani businessmen and write about them. At the IBA we had become accustomed to reading case-studies and learning about the 'big men' of American industry – which probably many Pakistani business graduates do to this day.

But somehow I was unhappy about this. I was uncomfortable with the fact that we were reading cases about how the presidents of Sears or General Motors made their policies and what they were doing. I saw that for some strange reason it was more 'fashionable' to quote and write about US corporations. But absurd as it may sound, we had no idea at all of (for example) what Service Industries' Ch. Nazar Muhammad and Ch. Muhammad Hussain, the first builders of Pakistan's shoe industry were setting in motion in Gujrat and Lahore.

While writing PIM's Pakistani cases, I was privileged indeed to meet and get to know some of the business 'giants' (no less!) who were laying the foundations of business and industry in Pakistan – people like New Jubilee Insurance's Jimmy Fancy, Asiatic Advertising's Anwar Rammal and Fali Punthakey, Zelin's S.R Laljee, Manhattan Advertising's Bashir Ahmad, or Khalil Sattar (K&N poultry's founder). A biography should be dedicated to Mr Khalil Sattar himself who while getting K&N's off to a sound start in the '70s made sterling efforts to put in place the poultry industry's growth stage. It is my conviction that what these great men did for Pakistan's industry way back in the '60s and '70s should never be forgotten. We IBA students were indeed most fortunate to be living in Pakistan at that time.

But one strange phenomenon troubled me: at that time whenever one spoke of Pakistan's growing industry, people seemed to assume that Pakistan's business brains were anchored in Karachi. Maybe it was my perception, but it was a somewhat lop-sided view of how industry was developing in Pakistan. I found it strange that people in Karachi didn't show much excitement about industrial growth in other parts of Pakistan. Surely, many in Karachi must have known the late Abdul Samad of Samad Rubber Works' (the innovative founder of Pakstan's rubber processing industry), BECO's C.M. Latif (founder of Pakistan's heavy engineering industry who had the misfortune to see nationalization destroy his innovative engineering works), Syed Muhammad Ali Zaidi of Lahore's Zaidi's Photographers (and founder of Pakistan's portraiture industry), or Maulvi Feroz-ud-din's Ferozsons, Pakistan's iconic bookstore and first bookselling chain-store. The contribution these pioneers made to Pakistan is of tremendous significance.

Sometimes it is purely by accident that the name of an industry 'great' who one had not come across in the '60s and '70s, occurs in a chance conversation. I don't know whether Khalil Sattar had ever met Haji Muhammad Bashir during his frequent travels to Lahore. But it was in a conversation between Khalil Sahib and a PIA-Shaver manager in Karachi in the '70s that I first heard mention of Haji Muhammad Bashir. The conversation (details I don't recall) was in response to a question I asked: is there anyone in the Punjab whom you think would be a potential industry-builder? The name Haji Muhammad Bashir occurred once or twice – a name I had not heard at all in the context of founding an entire industry! How one wishes I could have used a recording device to record that conversation!

However, during that conversation a thought did cross my mind. Here was Khalil Sattar, an industry-builder himself, who was mentioning a person with a 'desi' traditional name like Haji Muhammad Bashir as a potential industry-builder. Who this person was I did not know, but if Haji Sahib was being perceived as a potential industry-builder then surely, I thought, there is something here!

It did not strike me then to ask Khalil Sahib what it was he knew about or had seen in Haji Bashir to regard him highly? This was a 'desi' businessman who did not have any formal business education (no MBA, nothing); he did not have much experience in (West) Pakistan's markets, he was not in the 'glamour' industries (like cosmetics, autos or pharmaceuticals) – he was in flour-milling and solvent extraction. But it is a fitting tribute to a person with hardly any education to leave behind him a rich legacy of four highly-educated professionals and knowledge - an MSc daughter with an MSc, an MBBS doctor daughter, a Stanford-educated son (now part of PM Imran Khan's team), and an IBA-trained son (the person behind the 'Seasons' canola brand and with whom I am privileged to be associated). True, Haji Sahib may not have had much formal business training but in the '60s/'70s he worked night and day, without knowing it, to grow Pakistan's flour milling, solvent extraction and poultry feed industries at their nascent stages. Great Pakistanis who have made memorable contributions to Pakistan's early growth like National Foods' Waqar Hasan and Abdul Majid (pioneers of packaged spices in Pakistan), or Haji Muhammad Bashir (the man who made the brand 'Punjab 'atta' No.1) – this country's builders; we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Like other Muslims who migrated from India at Partition, all had to re-start their businesses in the newly-setup Pakistan from point zero. It was the same with Haji Muhammad Bashir, a struggling 20-year-old entrepreneur who came back to Pakistan from Calcutta during Partition. His only business experience was in leather trading (a business that Hindus left to Muslims for religious reasons). Imagine the anxiety and trepidation that the young Haji Muhammad Bashir would have encountered in '47/'48 – leaving behind a business he knew, entering the chaos and confusion of post-Partition (West) Pakistan, with no business network, the odds stacked up against him. This was his test-by-fire for making a second start – literally from the bottom. I can relate to what Haji Sahib went through: my own family had been vacationing in Mussoorie (India) in August 1947 and we had also just come back to our home. I saw first-hand the corpse-strewn Lahore Canal, the awful scenes at Lahore's railway station and the burnt-down hulks of Shahalam Bazaar. Imagine pioneering 'frontier-men' the incoming Muslim builders of our economy like the late Abdul Samad and Haji Bashir trying to re-start their businesses from scratch in this environment with little funds in post-Partition Pakistan!

After having spent his initial years in business in leather trading in Calcutta (an unrelated business), and with the odds stacked up against him, one can well imagine the severity of Haji Muhammad Bashir's condition test-by-fire in making a second start. He started in wheat flour and rice trading from humble beginnings in a wholesale trading shop in Lahore's Akbari Mandi – perhaps one of the largest and busiest wholesale markets in Pakistan. We read about 'pure market' competition in the theory of economics but few of us have any idea of how to do business and survive in it - precisely the business environment Haji Bashir faced daily in the aggressively competitive Akbari Mandi. Having survived the first two or three years of business hardships in 'pure market' competition, Haji Bashir slowly struggled to the next step. He established his rice milling business in Sheikhupura. And, by dint of hard work over 40-odd years, he entered the 'atta', poultry feed, oil extraction, and edible oils industries.

It was probably during this time of setbacks and pain that Haji Sahib became even more passionate about Pakistan; he clearly saw it as his own refuge (after the trials of pre-partition Calcutta) as well as a homeland for Muslims. In fact, when I talked to his son (an IBA graduate of 1983) about what was Haji Bashir's singular legacy, the response was: his passionate commitment to Pakistan. Indeed, Haji Bashir took issue with his sons when they mentioned the possibility of emigrating to Canada or the US. What was the point, he asked, of having borne the pain and struggle for a Muslim homeland if my own sons emigrate to the West?

His business model seems to have been founded firmly on four principles:

Families come first. The reason for our business is to look after them. He strongly felt he should take the responsibility of providing employment and livelihood to members of the family who were not well-off. Haji Bashir took this sense of responsibility to another level – something that MBA students are probably not made aware of. An incident that occurred some time ago vividly illustrates Haji Sahibs' interpretation of what the word 'business' to him. In his son, Aamir Bashir's words: "This incident concerns a distributor of ours who was not a relative. The gentleman had high regard for my father and considered him his mentor. My father also had high regard for him. This gentleman had married late and had very young children. He had brothers-in-law assisting him in his business. When he suddenly died leaving his business in the hands of his brothers-in-law and very young children my father felt that, as the deceased considered him his mentor, he needed to protect the children." Haji Bashir asked the brothers-in-law to hand over Rs.15 lakhs which (as an astute businessman) he promptly invested in three plots without telling anyone. Years later when the plots' market value had grown astronomically, Haji Sahib handed over the ownership deeds of these plots to the children.

Unrelenting hard work, everyday; for Haji Bashir there was no such thing as a vacation or 'holiday' as for many of his generation. A day gave 24 hours as an opportunity for work, these hours were not to be wasted.

One does not gain in business by others' misfortune. Come what may, stand solidly on commitments. An incident in Haji Sahib's business dealing illustrates his commitment to this principle (given in Aamir Bashir's words): "About the purchase deal of seed from an Australian company, the bare facts are that we bought half a shipload of seed from an Australian company. It was just a verbal order which in normal course would have been followed by a written agreement and letter of credit. As luck would have it immediately after the telephonic order was placed and before any documentation, the international seed market crashed; the drop in prices was enough to bankrupt us if we went ahead with the purchase and it was company with whom we had no prior business relationship. My father did not waver for a moment; his word was his bond. He went ahead and established the letter of credit. But luckily the seller could not complete his part of the deal on time and we were saved from financial ruin."

All the industries that Haji Bashir did business in and with were run by thoroughly hard-nosed businessmen, but they knew the late Haji Sahib's principles as the founder of the National group of industries and this is how they honoured him:

  • Elected Patron-in Chief, Pakistan Poultry Association
  • Chairman, Pakistan Poultry Association (multiple times);
  • Chairman, Pakistan Flour Mills Association (multiple times);
  • Chairman, All Pakistan Solvent Extractor's Association (multiple times);
  • Perhaps Mr Khalil Sattar had seen something we could not see!