Abdul Matlub Ahmad, who heads Bangladesh’s leading conglomerate, the Nitol-Niloy Group, preferred to wait for five years for the right opportunity to start his own business rather than take up a safe job.
His economics degree from Oxford University could have obtained him a position in a government or corporate organization but he thought it would stifle his freedom to make his own decisions.
“My aim was to become an entrepreneur and make money,” the 60-year-old says. “I was always confident that I’d succeed.”
For nearly five years he ran a small business with his brothers until 1982 arrived, a landmark year for him. That year he heard opportunity knocking and set up Nitol Motors though he had a capital of only 200,000 Bangladeshi taka ($2,440). Then the son of a judge started selling reconditioned Japanese minibuses and cars.
“I love driving cars. That’s why I always wanted to do something with cars,” he says, explaining the choice for his entrepreneurial debut. “Moreover, in the early 1970s, the world’s wealthiest companies were in automobile and oil businesses.”
There was a fair element of risk when he began but the venture soon took off, thanks to some “good connections” he had. They included directors at some of the private banks that had just begun operations in Bangladesh.
“They were extremely generous and went out of their way to help me, and meet my needs for capital,” says Ahmad, who is known to have great persuasive skills.
Then to his delight, sales of imported cars from Japan doubled in just one year.
Currently, Bangladesh requires 25,000 cars and 20,000 commercial vehicles a year, Ahmad says.
“I am happy being the largest car seller in my country,” he says. “We have some expansion programs.”
Nitol Motors has been working with Indian automobile giant Tata Motors for 22 years. Ahmad says it will soon begin selling the Nano, the world’s cheapest car made by the Indian manufacturer, and other models from the Tata stable.
Though the final price will be decided only after the government announces the customs duty, the world’s cheapest car is expected to cost around 650,000 taka in Bangladesh. That is almost three times the price of the standard version in India, but still it is expected to do brisk trade.
The Tata Nano will cater to those who need a second car,” says Ahmad. “Also, for numerous families living in semi-urban areas, it will mean the fulfillment of the dream of owning a car.”
Nitol Motors also has a joint venture with Tata Motors for an auto assembly project for buses, trucks and pickup vans, and is seeking to set up a manufacturing plant for Tata Ace, a mini pickup truck by the same Indian group. Nitol Motors holds 60 percent share in the project.
However, Ahmad rules out setting up a car plant in Bangladesh right now. “We’ll have to wait for our domestic economy to grow and the domestic market to flourish before that really happens,” he says.
A car plant requires a large market as well as a strong export network and mechanism.
“We have none at present,” he says.
Meanwhile, he is looking for opportunities in other areas.
“I have never been content with just one business,” he says. “One needs to diversify, to grow. So I have always looked for opportunities to set up more businesses.”
Today, from the imposing Nitol-Niloy Tower, the group’s headquarters at Nikunjo in capital city Dhaka, Ahmad runs a string of successful businesses, including textiles, cement, tours and travels, poultry, sugar, paper and insurance.
The conglomerate has an annual turnover of around $160 million and about 2,400 employees.
Currently, the Nitol-Niloy group, which is named after his two sons, is planning to export apparels to India. It is in the process of setting up two 40-hectare industrial zones — one for garments in Kishoregunj near Dhaka and another for a multi-product plant in Chattak in Sylhet in northeastern Bangladesh.
“We wish to serve as a strong readymade garment trading house with a design center, an R&D (research and development) facility and regular brand improvement activity,” Ahmad says.
He is confident that this will give Bangladeshi entrepreneurs a new brand image — that the stuff they make is of international quality.
Besides Tata Motors, his group has also partnered with Grasim Industries, one of the flagship companies of India’s Aditya Birla Group.
Ahmad’s Nitol Cement Industries is one of the oldest cement companies in Bangladesh and makes grey as well as white cement.
Partnerships, he says, dominate his business philosophy. Yet another joint venture is Nita Company Ltd with Tata Motors that assembles commercial vehicles from auto parts imported in knocked-down condition. The plant in Konabari, about 40 km from Dhaka, was established in 1991.
Ahmad has at least 10 joint ventures.
The president of the India-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, he is seeking to promote bilateral trade with India. According to him, Bangladesh is currently enjoying its best relationship with India since 1971, the year Bangladesh was liberated from Pakistan. The volume of bilateral trade has been improving since India granted duty-free access to 46 made-in-Bangladesh items in September 2011.
“My expectation is that exports from Bangladesh to India will double this year from $500 million last year,” he says.
Economies in South Asia are growing fast and the region is now a huge market as well. So he feels it is imperative to increase the quantum of trade and investment.
Bangladesh, seeking serious business with India and other countries, needs to ease certain restrictions, including visa rules, in order to promote trade and attract investments.
He looks up to China, where he says infrastructure is strong and labor-intensive industries such as textiles, shoes, accessories, building materials and auto components are strongly supported by the government.
“I feel there is a great potential for joint ventures between Chinese and Bangladeshi companies in these industries,” he says.
ABDUL MATLUB AHMAD
Chairman, Nitol-Niloy Group of Companies
2004: Launches Nitol Sugar Mills
2000: Starts private helicopter service
1999: Sets up a motorcycle manufacturing plant and Nitol Insurance Company
1996: Launches Nitol Construction Company and Niloy Cement industries
1994: Sets up Central Properties, a real estate management wing
1991: Sets up Nita Company and starts assembling Tata vehicles under a joint venture agreement with Tata Motors, India
1988: Becomes distributor of Tata vehicles in Bangladesh
1985: Inks a dealership deal with India’s Hindustan Motors and Eicher Ltd
1982: Sets up the flagship company Nitol Motors and starts selling reconditioned Japanese minibuses and cars
1977: MA in Economics from Oxford.
1973-1976: BA in Economics from Oxford.
Founder president, India-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Former president, Bangladesh-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Former director, Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry
Person you look up to:
J. R. D. Tata (founder of the Tata Group in India) for his vision.
Leaders you admire:
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the man who gave Bangladesh freedom, and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his courage to fight for a cause.
When the first vehicle was rolled out from our assembly plant.
Turning point in your career:
When I obtained the license for the car assembly plant.
I avoid doing important things on the 13th day of any month. And also on Fridays.
Suzuki Fronte 600.
Favorite past time:
Born: March 15, 1952