Fazlur Rahman: The man who came from humble beginnings and built an empire

December 25, 2023

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More than 60 years ago, an adolescent Fazlur Rahman got an unexpected start to his journey in business.

After his father was stricken by paralysis, Rahman was forced to leave school and assume responsibility for his family by taking over a grocery shop in Old Dhaka’s Gandaria locality.

Although he had little capital, Rahman stretched whatever profits he made through years of struggle, eventually saving up enough to take the next step.

That next step laid the foundation for City Group, which came into existence with the establishment of City Oil Mill, a mustard oil production factory launched on February 6, 1972.

Although Rahman described many “ups-and-downs” during those initial years, including a business downturn due to a fall in prices of cooking oil, he forged ahead.

Unfortunately, massive floods in 1988 destroyed his inventories, threatening to pull him under. However, help from understanding financiers and an ever-supportive father gave Rahman the opportunity to continue on the path, one he would never look back on again.

He knew that with an increasing population, changing lifestyles, and growing quality consciousness, the food sector would be lucrative. He also correctly predicted that quality production would be critical for success in the sector.

In 1995, the transformation into City Group began in full swing, with the company starting production of ‘Teer’ branded flour, refined flour, and semolina, and Rahman held true to his vision.

That is precisely why he invested in state-of-the-art European machinery to give Teer products an edge over others. He also ensured better raw materials vis-à-vis other competitors in the hopes that his products would come to represent quality and commitment to millions of consumers.

This successful businessman has died in Dhaka’s United Hospital at around 4:00am today at the age of 77, leaving behind a wife, a son, three daughters, and a host of well-wishers. He had been battling a respiratory disease for a long time.

Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi expressed deep sorrow at Rahman’s passing, commending Rahman for being uncompromising when it came to maintaining the purity and quality of products manufactured by his companies.

“People will remember his contribution to the development of Bangladesh’s industrial sector and the economy. Rahman has worked tirelessly throughout his life to build an industrially rich Bangladesh,” he said.

He expected Bangladeshi products to survive in the world market based on reputation, the minister said, adding that Rahman’s dedication and concentration would be remembered forever.

After the success of the first venture, City Group started investing in new areas.

Gradually, the group entered sectors and built an empire consisting of around 40 companies over the last five decades. They include sectors such as printing and packaging, steel, plastic, bottled water, refined palm oil, poultry and fish feed, sugar and salt refining, and automatic milling of rice, pulses, and flour.

He also set up sawmills, tea plantations, banks and financial institutions. He was also the chairman of Somoy Television.

According to Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi, Rahman was also well aware of his social responsibilities, evidenced by the fact that he created hospitals, educational institutions, and numerous employment opportunities.

In 2018, City Group got permission to build the City Economic Zone on 78 acres of land in Narayanganj. It is one of three economic zones under City Group, which also has one hi-tech park, said Biswajit Saha, director of corporate and regulatory affairs at City Group.

The conglomerate, with a turnover of about Tk 35,000 crore a year, employs around 30,000 people.

“I stumbled several times in my life but I was never frustrated. I was always confident and dreamed of building a quality industry that provides quality products,” he said in a television interview.

“I always tried to be an honest and industrious worker to materialise my dream.”

City Group’s journey has not been an easy ride although Rahman had been characteristically modest about his perseverance in the initial years. “There was no hardship, only ups, and downs,” he commented in an article with The Daily Star in 2006.

Mostafa Kamal, chairman of Meghna Group of Industries, said Bangladesh had lost a pillar of business.

Kamal, who was close to Rahman, said: “We built a business group step by step in the late eighties by cooperating and sharing ideas of business development. We both started our businesses from zero at the same time and struggled immensely as we had no experience.”

He said there was competition among them but there was no gap in cooperation.

“We produce almost the same products for consumers but we were never engaged in any unhealthy competition. We knew the market was a vast one; it was not possible for one group to cover it,” he said.

“So, we enhanced cooperation with each other in the interest of improving business.”

According to Kamal, Rahman was industrious, patient, and a visionary businessperson. “With his passing, Bangladesh has lost a business icon.”

Paban Chowdhury, a former chairman of the Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority and adviser to City Group, said Rahman was second to none.

Chowdhury said Rahman was very interested in expanding education to create skilled human resources, pointing to the impending launch of a medical college by City Group.

“The chairman was an example. He built schools in areas adjacent to tea gardens in Sylhet and Chattogram for the workers’ children.”

As a person, Rahman was polite and industrious, he said, adding: “The sudden death of Fazlur Rahman, the pioneer of industrialisation in Bangladesh, is an irreparable loss for the country and the City Group family.”

Salman F Rahman, private industry and investment adviser to the prime minister, said in a condolence message: “Fazlur Rahman was a dreamer. Everyone will remember his contribution to the economy.”

Mahbubul Alam, president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, expressed deep grief over Rahman’s death.

Md Sameer Sattar, a former president of the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce & Industry, said Rahman was a source of pride for Bangladesh and set an example for the next generation.

He believes young businesspersons will follow in Rahman’s footsteps to sustain business and contribute to the economy.

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