Tawhidur Rashid catches up with ACI Managing Director of Consumer Brands, Syed Alamgir to hear what good leadership is all about.
I will start with a very casual question, what is your new year’s resolution?
As you know this is going to be a year of transformations. Bangladesh is going through rapid changes. A huge number of infrastructural development is taking place; this had a very positive impact on the investment in the industrial sector last year. This year the benefit will be passed on to the market & consumers. As you know there was a depression in the marketplace last year, due to uncertainty regarding elections. I am very hopeful that we will overcome this year. We are a big company; I am in constant communication with every stage of the company so that we can quickly overcome this stagnant period.
You mentioned that you are trying to take a fresh approach from every perspective in business, what is your approach regarding setting goals? Is there any method that you follow?
It’s very simple actually. I operate about 19 types of business. Every type has its problems and solutions, so you have to be multidimensional. Some businesses have more opportunities to grow than others. For example, we are 97% percent of shareholders of the aerosol market. In this case, our aim is to increase the number of people who use aerosol for market expansion. On the other hand, we have a very small market share in the rice business. There is huge potential in this market. Therefore, we are trying to exist in that market through better products, better handling, and better pricing. We are not aiming to capture a significant market share right away, we may have a small market share but we are giving top quality products to consumers. We provide exactly what it says on the packaging. The flavors of our rice are also authentic.
When it comes to leading a company, what kind of challenges do you face? How do you overcome them?
First of all, to get to a leadership position is very tough. After you become a leader, things get easier. For example, when we were new in the salt business, sales were low. It proved very tough to sell. We were competing against low quality and low-price products already present in the market. Those products were dirty and not properly iodized and most importantly, they were half the price compared to mine. Interestingly, people were reluctant to buy my salt because it was “too white”. I directed my sales team to convince people by letting them know that our product is 100% dirt free, properly ionized and packaged. Optimum iodine intake is a necessity for fighting iodine deficiency, which causes various diseases and hampers mental faculty development of the children. Also, customers were made aware of the dangers of consuming dirt through their food. Slowly we gained the trust of consumers and now we have the majority market share. Consumers often put pressure on distributors for a regular supply of our salt. So, as I have said, when you are already a leader, it’s relatively easy but when you are a challenger, it is very tough.
When it comes to your personal leadership style, would you like to share one quality that you think every leader should possess?
I have my own personal style and it is not unique. First of all, adaptability is very important. I try to adapt myself to every situation. I do not pursue whatever comes to my mind. When I started my career after graduating from IBA many years back, I decided on my style of leadership. I listen to everybody with due attention after which I form my own idea and adapt accordingly. For me, two things have enabled me to become a successful leader. One is my religious belief, as a Muslim, I believe Allah’s mercy is very crucial. I have seen time and time again Allah’s reward comes at most improbable circumstances. After that, I would say the cooperation of my colleagues. I only provide guidance. I never tell my employees to do something which I myself think is not possible. If an employee fails to perform a task, I go and show him/her how it can be done. I don’t only dictate, I try to lead by example. Cooperation from every stakeholder is very important, not only the employees but also the salespeople and distributors. I am good at pursuing people. If someone doesn’t like me, I very carefully listen to the reason behind it. If I am wrong, I try to fix it. I do not possess the ego that I am right just because I said so. This is one of the reasons for my success.
When running a big company like this, integration is very important. Have you ever thought that you are not keeping up with the ever-changing world?
I am very updated on the subjects that are relevant to my work. For example, if it is required to make a beautiful power point presentation, I can make it even though it is not my job. My job is to provide the content of the presentation and beautification is the responsibility of my junior colleagues. Junior employees cannot replicate what I do. I travel a lot and come across a lot of presentations. If I like any of them, I bring them back home and show them to my employees. They can replicate it in minutes. Also, nowadays all information is available at one’s fingertips.
You are currently looking after 19 different portfolios, that must occupy a lot of time, how do you balance work and life?
The key is to have knowledge about each business. I have started every one of the business, therefore I possess in-depth knowledge about its operations. That makes it a little easier. But it is hard work nevertheless. As I mentioned earlier about traveling, even if I travel to a beautiful place, I always have to cut my trip short because of the responsibilities I have. Previously, I was involved in other activities, I was a consultant at PSC for many years but I had to quit because I could not manage time. Also, I was teaching in two universities North-South and South East for many years. I also had to quit there because of time constraints. Therefore, managing time has been very tough. I can tell you that I give a lot of time to my family. Every day, after office, if there is nothing absolutely necessary, I have dinner with my family. I go to the gym on my way home, usually, my gym session lasts for an hour. I get up very early in the morning. Managing time has been very difficult. But my decisive nature has helped a lot.
Have you ever experienced failure in business? How did you cope with it?
Definitely. I have been very successful in life but there are some failures too. I had a plan to introduce a soap brand in the early 90s. I am the father of the “100% Halal Soap” slogan. Initially, I was hesitant because at that point the market was saturated with Halal soaps from other competitors. After communicating with the machine manufacturer in Italy, I came to know that the company had been selling an unusual amount of machines to other soap manufacturers in the country. Therefore, after considering the market potential and competitors, I decided to stop that venture. Instead, I concentrated on the coil (mosquito repellent). I was able to beat every other player in the market and became the market leader. So by withdrawing from the soap market, I was able to become the market leader of coil market which eventually led Aerosol to be the market leader.
Do you have a favorite piece of advice that you received from someone that has really helped you over time?
I have come across many great people throughout my life. And I have received advice from them over time. One piece of advice that’s stuck in my head even though I don’t remember who it’s by, “If a person cannot achieve anything significant by the age of 40, then it is going to be very difficult to do anything more in life”. I heard this while I was doing my MBA, it gave me so much speed after I graduated because suddenly I had to do something with my life before I turn 40.
I remember a conversation with someone while I was in England. He asked me what I wanted to do in my life. I replied I wanted to become a managing director or CEO of a company. He asked whether I would be disappointed if that doesn’t happen. I replied, of course, I will be. He advised it is better to be in an intermediate position and continue that for many years than to become a managing director and retire immediately. I understood that and set my goals on becoming a director by the age of 40. I am very proud to say that I became a director much before forty.
Is there any plan for the future?
Currently, I am working for a few reasons. One of them is that I want to take this company to a certain big position. Another, there are lots of young and energetic people who are working in the company, I want to lead them so that they can benefit from the fruits of the company. We are not the type of company that only takes away all the fruits of profit, I also want my employees to enrich themselves. Thirdly, and most importantly, for the love of my country. I have gained a lot of experience and insight over the course of many years, I want to give back my knowledge for the betterment of the country. Lastly, my worth in the company. I am crucial for the operations in the company. My leadership is very relevant. It gives me encouragement to keep
You have been recently awarded The Marketing Superstar by Bangladesh Brand Forum & Channel I. How do you feel about this outstanding achievement?
This has really been a proud chapter of my life. I was chosen for this award by none other than the best marketing professionals of the country: Director of IBA Professor Dr. Syed Ferhat Anwar, CEO of Pacific Telecom Mr. Mehboob Chodhury & Founder of Bangladesh Brand Forum Mr. Shariful Islam. So, this has been a great honor bestowed upon me, now I have a bigger responsibility to deliver more for the nation in return.