Journey to the Apex: In conversation with Syed Manzur Elahi

December 29, 2020

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Syed Manzur Elahi, the founding chairman of Apex Footwear Ltd and Apex Tannery Ltd was interviewed by Dr Melita Mehjabeen who is an associate Professor of the Institute of Business Administration at University of Dhaka. Below are excerpts from the interview where the business magnate opens up about topics ranging from his childhood to the challenges of establishing a successful business.

On growing up

“Our family had a lot of law and judiciary practitioners. My father passed away when I was five. I was practically brought up by my brothers.

There was a very liberal attitude in our home. There was a plain living high thinking environment in our household. My eldest brother was not particularly fond of capitalists. He believed that businessmen have no idealism.

My other elder brother, though not very progressive, also had a plain living high thinking attitude. This plain living high thinking of my family somehow triggered my rebellious spirits and I started thinking that this approach is not for me. So, in principle, I sort of rebelled.”

On his role model

“In boarding school, I met people from various backgrounds. I had a friend there, who belonged to a very rich business family from Ranchi, Bihar, India. I went to Tatanagar with him, where his father worked.

There, I saw the industries made by Tata and I immediately knew that Jamsetji Tata would be my role model. When I told my brothers that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, they taunted me, ‘What do you know about business? Nobody in our family has ever gone into business. Give that thought a rest and study law, or sit for the government exam.’

Then, call it a twist of fate or not, I got a job offer from Pakistan Tobacco. The starting salary and facilities they provided were so lucrative that it impressed my eldest brother, my guardian.”

Opportunities after Bangladesh’s Independence

When we gained our independence, there was a huge vacuum. I was looking for an opportunity after independence to leave Pakistan Tobacco and start a business. And I saw that entrepreneurship was not increasing for some reason.

While this was going on, one day, at a dinner party, I met a French man. We started chatting. I asked him what he did for a living and he told me he was involved in import-export.

I asked him, ‘What kind of business?’. He said leather. He added, ‘I want to make you an offer, will you join me?’

Syed Manzur Elahi

I replied I would not take up another job as I am already well employed. To this, he said, ‘No, I am not offering you a job, I am offering you an agency. You will get a certain percentage from what you sell. You will also get a certain percentage from the goods you buy here. Do you want to do it?’

So, I came home and told my wife. She was furious. She told me it would be unwise to bid farewell to all the facilities provided by Pakistan Tobacco.

My eldest brother told me that he would not speak to me ever again if I did this. Obviously, it became a very hard choice. But the person who really helped me at that time was my father-in-law. He told me that he supported me.”

A challenging start

“After this journey of mine started, I went up and down for the next 6-7 months.

Then, Chittagong port, which was being salvaged by the Russians, opened up. This opening up improved things a bit.

We started using the port and we did very well. I was able to accumulate some capital. Then the great tragedy struck us in 1975 and the government changed. The new government started privatizing sectors which used to be public.

The first sector the then government privatized was the tanneries corporation. The first tannery that they put up for auction was Orient Tannery. I went to the auction and I bought it for BDT 12,22,000, which was a lot of money in 1975. So, this marked my entry into the leather business. And the rest is history.

My message for our future entrepreneurs is that working capital is the biggest problem. Now-a-days, there are venture capital firms who invest in green field projects. Bangladesh Bank has also started a fund for entrepreneurs. There, if you apply for up to a limit of BDT 5 million, you will get working capital. There is also a website for this fund.

I would like to request young entrepreneurs to visit their website. However, the situation has undoubtedly improved a lot.”

Dreams for the Country

There was not much political stability after the tragedy in 1975. There has been political stability since 1990, but we had a break in between with two years of army rule.

Now, democracy and development go together. If there is rule of law and democracy, I will invest. I need more investment. And for us, investment translates into job creation. The biggest challenge for South Asia, not only for Bangladesh, is job creation.”

Who is the friend of an entrepreneur?

“According to me, the best friend of an entrepreneur is the banker. Those who are entrepreneurs, please remember that your best friend in business is the banker.

You choose the banker, but your relationship with the banker must be very good. And if there is a banker behind you, your life is much simpler. My young friends, please always remember that. Do not upset the banker. Keep them happy.”

Message for young entrepreneurs

“You must acquire the habit of listening. Let everybody speak their mind. And you should take the mic at the last.

Of course, in between you can intervene and contradict. You must earn the respect of the people. You should try to conduct a meeting or run an organization through respect, not fear. I always say that respect is probably a much stronger affection than love.”

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