The Future of Retail, Shwapno, and Life: An Interview With Sabbir Hasan Nasir, Executive Director, ACI Logistics

The Future of Retail, Shwapno, and Life: An Interview With Sabbir Hasan Nasir, Executive Director, ACI Logistics

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“I try to bring ‘beauty’ into everything,” says Sabbir Hasan Nasir, “into the product, space, customer relationship and overall organization.” He is the Executive Director of ACI Logistics where he leads Shwapno, the leading retail brand of the country. Mr. Sabbir has a diverse career spanning multiple sectors and countries. Prior to joining ACI, he was the CEO of Otobi where he had helped to transform Otobi and turn it into a regional furniture brand. He is also author of four books – three of them are a series on Sufism and a poetry book entitled Podochinho.

Mr. Sabbir was born in Khulna where he spent a large part of his early life. Growing up, he was into music, math, and physics. He studied mechanical engineering at BUET, worked with Professor Dr. Jamal Nazrul Islam – the prominent Bangladeshi mathematical physicist, and cosmologist, then moved to business and went on to do an MBA, studied Sufism and recently has completed an executive program on management, innovation, and technology from MIT – Sloan School of Management.

A self-described designer and passionate student of Sufism, to be in a conversation with him is a little like wandering into a wonderland of tranquility, warmth, critical thinking and humility.

In this interview, Mr. Sabbir walks us through his early life and upbringing, reflects on his journey to what he is doing today, trials and tribulations he has had to face throughout his career, shares his thoughts on the state and the future of retail industry in Bangladesh, talks about his work at Shwapno, how customer obsession, continuous evolution and collaborative approach to problem-solving defines its internal culture, Shwapno’s ecommerce initiative, and his ambition to transform Shwapno into an omnichannel retailer in the country, discusses how empathy, fairness and creating a challenging environment informs his management philosophy, shares his thoughts on design thinking, leadership and growing an organization, ponders upon the meaning of life and explores the eminent importance of maintaining a growth mindset and looking at life as an opportunity to contribute.

Future Startup

Where did you grow up? Please tell us about your journey to what you are doing today.

Sabbir Hasan Nasir

I was born and brought up in Khulna. My father was a journalist during the East Pakistan period and later took over the family business. He was a hard-working man an honest man led life by his principles.

As a kid, I often used to visit my father’s workplaces. Out of their several businesses, I was particularly fond of the printing and publishing business. I would go to the printing press and proofread documents and chitchat with workers at the press. At that early age, I learned how to create printing blocks and put things together. It was a learning station for me back in those days and I tried to learn at every opportunity I got.

The intriguing thing about learning is that when you find a subject compelling enough, it becomes easier to learn.

My mother comes from a bureaucrat family. While my father was involved more in business and looked after practical affairs, my mother was more focused on making sure that we receive a good education and did well in school. Both of my parents were very serious about our education, but my mother was the one who used to keep a tab on our daily studies.

I started my schooling at Saint Joseph High School, Khulna. I did well as at school and would regularly come top in my class. All the credit goes to my mother. She had been very persistent in making sure that I apply myself and give enough effort into studies. I was also into recitals and singing – two more things I got from my mother. In short, my family was into education, culture, and business.

From my school life, I can still recall two of my teachers who had made a lasting impression on me. The first teacher taught me how to read with a critical mind. He helped me develop my own perspective and independent thought process and come to my own insight while reading from different books and sources.

Later in my life, I have found that the ability to look at things from different perspectives is an invaluable skill.

During my HSC exam, I came across a teacher, a mathematics professor, who helped shape my worldview about rules and system. He showed me that I could create my own rules of doing math which eventually taught me that there is more than one way of doing almost everything and that you can bend the rules.

As a kid, I often used to visit my father’s workplaces. Out of their several businesses, I was particularly fond of the printing and publishing business. I would go to the printing press and proofread documents and chitchat with workers at the press. At that early age, I learned how to create printing blocks and put things together. It was a learning station for me back in those days and I tried to learn at every opportunity I got.

I was good at music but I never performed on the stage until I had passed my SSC examination. Soon after the exam, I found myself on the stage performing either as a singer or as a guitarist.

Like many young people, I was not sure about my life’s ambitions. I did not know whether I want to be an engineer or a physicist or a musician. I used to love physics and was more interested in being a physicist. Music was my second choice.

Later, of course, I had to heed my family, who wanted me to be an engineer following the footsteps of my two brothers. The eldest one attended BUET and took the engineering route before me, sealing my fate to some extent. I applied for BUET and got the chance in Mechanical Engineering.

While I got into BUET, I did not give up my passion for music and math. Rather I became a little more active in both those areas. During that time I had performed with many famous singers of the country both in studios and on stages.

On math and physics front, I become very good at abstract algebra, mathematical logic, and other areas. My learning was diversified into mechanical engineering and physics.

After graduation, I got a scholarship from Research Center for Mathematical Physics and Science (RCMP) at Chittagong University which was the Institute of Professor Dr. Jamal Nazrul Islam, the prominent Bangladeshi mathematical physicist, and cosmologist. The scholarship was given by ICTP Trieste, Italy. Dr. Islam was my mentor at that time.

We used to work on mathematical formulae and the theoretical aspect of physics on the side while I was working at BATA Shoe Company as the Senior Efficiency manager at the same time. I would work at BATA during the weekdays and travel to Chittagong every weekend to work with Dr. Islam.

He showed me that I could create my own rules of doing math which eventually taught me that there is more than one way of doing almost everything and that you can bend the rules.

I got married around this time. My wife was a law graduate from Dhaka University. She has been a strong support throughout my life. After marriage, the natural expectation is that you would spend time with your wife but it was different for us. I could not give enough time to my wife. I was always either in the music studio or with the mathematician or at my day job at BATA. She never complained, instead allowed me to pursue my ambition.

But things started to change when my first son was born. I started to look at life differently. I became more practical about life and our future as a family. This was essentially a good shift for me. Responsibilities are a good thing. When you take responsibility, you act differently and it makes you mature.

It was hard to earn a meaningful income doing music. My salary was not also that much at BATA. I had to find a way to meet the growing demand of my life. After much thought, I decided to do an MBA as the people with MBA had a higher salary than the non-MBAs. I was doing good at BATA in terms of performance. I was winning different internal company-wide contests and exams and breaking the records but those wins were not helping me at my job. I was not getting new opportunities other than a few small increments. I was not getting any promotion and was not making any meaningful progress in my career.

The first decision I made was to stop the music and concentrate on my career and MBA. I moved to sales and marketing department and was responsible for Dhaka division’s wholesale. I was doing really well in both MBA and my career.

We had a country manager back then named Fernando Garcia who had a lot of influence over my career. In one of our company-wide exams, I became first and later, I was given an opportunity to work with Mr. Garcia closely. It was a life-changing moment for me. I came to see how he works; his big table, his work setting and everything else about him, and I made a promise to myself that I would become a country manager or CEO of a company over the next ten years.

This was back in 1996. My ambition was to achieve my goal by 2006. I would not hide, I also had the ambition to have that kind of car, bank balance, and lifestyle. At that time, life was really tough for me. I did not have any transport facility or any other benefits. However, I had the dream of becoming something one day.

MBA came as a brilliant opportunity for me to develop a deeper understanding of my work at BATA. Before getting into IBA for MBA, I had a limited formal orientation about business education. Now I could relate my work and the studies. I had an engineering degree, I was into math and physics and into operations and strategy and now marketing and business. I could now relate things better than many of my coworkers since I had an interdisciplinary exposure.

When I graduated from IBA, I got an offer from an American company to sell their arsenic removal filter. I became their first GM in Bangladesh, developed their business plan and worked with IFC on this project and made it happen in Bangladesh.

After that, I got an opportunity to work abroad for Golfrate H & PC Limited in Angola. They were the licensee of Unilever, Nestle and Kraft’s in Angola. I got the appointment of “Marketing Manager” but eventually when I landed I found myself set as the site manager of Unilever’s operations.

I moved to Angola, learned Portuguese, their culture, and business practices. Once I got there, they offered me a position with the factory along with my marketing responsibilities. I had an engineering background but I said that my work there was as a marketing manager and I would do that primarily. Eventually, I ended up doing the both. I was responsible for standardizing Unilever’s operations there.

After working there for a year, I returned to Bangladesh and joined Dekko Accessories Limited as the General Manager where I worked for a year till 2005. After Dekko, I joined Tetra Pak in 2005 as Key Account Manager. Tetra Pak was expanding their business in South East Asia and I had a key role in establishing their operations in Bangladesh Market.

By that time, the renowned artist named Nitun Kundu had spearheaded furniture manufacturer Otobi. Around this time a headhunter approached me to talk with Mr. Kundu. I was doing very good at Tetra Pak and was rather in a comfortable position and wanted to stay with Tetra Pak.

Despite that, I met, largely because of the persistent nature of Mr. Kundu. After a few meetings, I became very close to Mr. Kundu, his son Mr. Animesh Kundu and his daughter Ms. Amiti Kundu. We became like a family. We used to meet and discuss Otobi’s next 5 years plan. I was more like an informal business consultant for over a year. We were dreaming of a new Otobi which would have the potential to become a global brand.

After a year, Mr. Kundu fell sick and his health was deteriorating. At one point, he proposed me to be the CEO of Otobi. He was a very persistent person. I wanted to make him happy and so I joined Otobi.

It was a critical decision. I was having a high flying career at Tetra Pak and was almost made the Country Head of Tetra Pak, Bangladesh. I had to leave all of that. But I took it as an opportunity to transform a local company into a global player which alone was enough an inspiration for me. So I did not have any regret for leaving Tetra Pak.

I joined Otobi in 2006 and after a few months later Mr. Kundu passed away. The responsibility to carry out his vision fell upon me as the CEO. At that time Otobi was growing aggressively. From a BDT 150 crore company, we became a BDT 550 crore company in five years’ time. Our team also grew from 1000 people to 7000 employees. We increased our showrooms from 100 to 500 along with bigger and better factories. The Daily Star had a long piece on this transformation at the time.

The first thing that we did after I joined as the CEO was the re-engineering of the company’s culture. We then focused on process transformation and particularly on business automation. We had brought SAP, Balanced Scorecard, and other automation and performance management tools. This was around 2006 and at that time a lot of corporate leaders had not even heard of the balanced scorecard. Animesh was quite supportive in this transformation.

After our tremendous growth in the local market, we were becoming a regional brand. We had launched our operations in India and our export was growing rapidly. We had also won some prestigious national and international awards on communication.

In 2010, the Otobi Board of Directors decided to diversify the business from furniture line to power generation. I was not comfortable with the decision. Despite my disagreement, I stayed till 2011 because I wanted to consolidate the business to the family members so that they could have their legacy of business in place.

I was aware of the fact that Otobi was not anymore a mere company, it was 7000 families. And their livelihoods, dreams, and futures would be affected by a single decision. I tried to make sure that any whimsical decision was not made that would put these families at risk. I proposed that the employees and management should be involved in the decision making process with the board. After a while, I realized that there was no proper intention to consider my proposal and so I decided to quit from Otobi in 2011, even though there was persistent pressure on me to continue as Otobi’s CEO with all these limitations.

Moreover, I was concerned seeing the strategic changes. I could see that the culture was changing from what I had built. I was witnessing changes of the organization and its structures that I and Animesh had built with passion, sweat, and hard work, love, and friendship.

I was aware of the fact that Otobi was not anymore a mere company, it was 7000 families. And their livelihoods, dreams, and futures would be affected by a single decision. I tried to make sure that any whimsical decision was not made that would put these families at risk.

I proposed that the employees and management should be involved in the decision making process with the board. After a while, I realized that there was no proper intention to consider my proposal and so I decided to quit from Otobi in 2011, even though there was persistent pressure on me to continue as Otobi’s CEO with all these limitations.

After Otobi, I moved to the UK and started my own consultancy company Road Map Limited in the UK. I had expanded it to Road Map Thailand Ltd and Road Map Bangladesh Ltd. Our specialization was in organizational efficiency management and strategic vision mapping for FMCG and retail companies.

Around this time, ACI’s the then CFO contacted me in the UK saying that they needed my consultancy here in Bangladesh and wanted me to come over. Long story short, I came to Bangladesh and they shared with me Shwapno’s case and that they want to revolutionize its operations. Both my consulting team and I found this project very interesting and we started working on it. After a while, people from my consultancy team started to join ACI.

After much thought, in 2011, I took the challenge of working at Shwapno. I took over a problematic retail chain which was having all kinds of challenges internally and externally. Right after joining, I had to focus my energy and concentration on solving problems. I decided to fix internal challenges first. Because once you are strong internally, it shows on the outside as well.

Eventually, I myself decided to resume my career in the corporate sector. I was offered CEO job by one of the largest retail brands at that time as well as by Shwapno as its Executive Director. The other brand was quite well organized and was already doing good. I thought that I would not have much to do there.

After much thought, in 2011, I took the challenge of working at Shwapno. I took over a problematic retail chain which was having all kinds of challenges internally and externally. Right after joining, I had to focus my energy and concentration on solving problems.

I decided to fix internal challenges first. Because once you are strong internally, it shows on the outside as well.

The first problem was the self-belief and confidence of the team. The people were very qualified and skillful but they did have faith in their ability to get things done, overcome and achieve ambitious goals. If you don’t believe in your ability, no matter how able you are, you would fail to perform.

I took it as the first challenge to rebuild the morale of the team and grow the confidence in them. I showed them where they are now and where they could be after some years. I showed them what and how we could be the market leader. I put together a vision, which looked over-ambitious to many in the team, and tried to rally the team to achieve it. Then again, many people had not believed that vision at that time because it all looked too big a vision to achieve.

Then I focused on the more functional aspects of the things. The basics of retail were absent in the company. The product assortment, category strategies were not right and many other important components were misaligned. My first task on the functionality side was to put them in line and implement them.

I started with training people on how to do retailing properly. I had visited every single store, spoke to people, all the store manager, listened to their ideas and concerns and gave them suggestions. We brought in some experienced people in retail business to grow our understanding and strength even further.

If you don’t believe in your ability, no matter how able you are, you would fail to perform.

After two years of relentless hard work, in 2013 we became the market leader and my people started to realize that we are onto something. The result is the best confidence booster.

Other than being the market leader, Shwapno achieved the Best Brand Award in 2016 and Communication Gold Award in 2017. We have reached positive EBIT a few months ago and we are doing very good on all fronts.

I always believe in the idea of taking the difficult and less traveled path. As I learned from my math teachers in school, there are many ways to solve a problem. Conventional way or popular way is not essentially the right way or the most effective and efficient way of doing something. Instead of giving in to the default mode, exploring other options often lead to the eureka moment.

From day one, we intentionally decided to pursue the difficulties of becoming a great retail brand and overcome the challenges. We wanted to set an example of willpower and determination that we could achieve anything and everything if we put our heart into work.

When I had decided to join Shwapno, very few people took the decision as something positive and many expressed their worries at that time, now many of them appreciate what we have achieved over the past few years.

Impact and fulfillment, both come from achieving difficult goals. There is little satisfaction in doing what is easy and everyone else can do. I was mostly motivated by the difficulties it offered.

I have just completed an executive program on management, innovation, and technology from MIT – Sloan School of Management. Recently, I was selected by MIT as a mentor for their Martin Trust Centre where I will be mentoring young students from later this year.

Shwapno launched its e-commerce 2 months ago. We are figuring things on the digital space. Our ambition is to be the best omnichannel retail chain in the country in the next few years.

Conventional way or popular way is not essentially the right way or the most effective and efficient way of doing something. Instead of giving in to the default mode, exploring other options often lead to the eureka moment.

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Future Startup

Most people pursue a linear education and career path in life. That’s how our education system is designed and our society thinks. You were very good at mathematics, you pursued music, studied mechanical engineering at BUET, then moved to business and went on to do an MBA, studied Sufism and now you have also completed a course on technology and innovation from MIT. how do you define yourself? How do all these different experiences help you in making decisions? There is a saying that creativity is combinatorial. How have your inter-disciplinary education and experience helped you in your career and life?

Sabbir Nasir

I think this is a flawed view and is detrimental for the individuals as well for the society as a whole. I had to endure my share of challenges for taking a relatively unconventional career path. Even my mother was frustrated that I was working at sales of BATA. She told me directly that she had not made me an engineer for selling shoes.

Now, it is even worse as I am selling groceries with having certification from MIT 🙂 This is how our society looks at things. Like many other collective viewpoints, this has consequences too.

Impact and fulfillment, both come from achieving difficult goals. There is little satisfaction in doing what is easy and everyone else can do. I was mostly motivated by the difficulties it offered.

I always had the fire in me to be a leader. I had my own musical band from 1987 till 1993. We had our own recording. I enjoyed leading the band. To be an effective leader, having an interdisciplinary understanding of things is critical. You have to develop a comprehensive understanding of things and it is hard to develop unless you can see things from different perspectives.

I believe that every single human being on earth has only one word that drives him or her. I was trying to find that word for me. I had music, math and logic, and art inside me. For me the word is Beauty. I want to make the world more beautiful. I want to solve the mess and unfair practices to make it more beautiful than before.

It is applicable for micro instances such as fixing a messy and ugly design of a store and for macro instances such as designing a beautiful and efficient organization.

I try to bring ‘beauty’ into everything. Into product, space, customer relationship and overall organization. I am driven by logic and aesthetics about life. I look for subtle signs of aesthetics in everything.

During my at Otobi, I developed a fascination for Sufism, which still remains with me these days. I traveled to the different parts of the world to know more about it. I visited and spent time with saints, crazy ones and humbles ones, to learn from them and their lifestyle.

I have written 4 books. Three of them are a series of ‘Maqalat-e-Shams-e-Tabrizi’ and the other is a poetry book entitled ‘Podochinho’. The former is the discourse between the master Shams-e-Tabrizi and the disciple Jalaluddin Rumi. It tries to portray Shams teaching to Rumi.

Sufism has been a major influence in both my professional and personal life. In that sense, I am a corporate Sufi who wants to transform things and make things better than before.

Rumi is the most popular figure in Sufism. Most people know his perspective. My goal, however, was to understand Shams. I tried to understand the religious views of the world and saw that the roots of all religion are almost the same that is humanity and love. I found that everything is one and this oneness is nurtured by humanity and love.

Sufism has been a major influence in both my professional and personal life. In that sense, I am a corporate Sufi who wants to transform things and make things better than before.

As you mentioned, creativity or innovation is combinatorial. When you understand things deeply you can see the apparent inter-connectedness of visibly distinct ideas and make interesting new connections resulting in new ideas and innovations.

In order to meaningfully create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to tap into our diverse cognitive pool of education, experience, insight and inspiration that we’ve accumulated over the years, cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, amalgamate and connect these countless distinct dots, and build new ideas in extraordinary new ways. You can only do that when you have experienced life in all its forms.

Future Startup

You have several decades of experience in leading and growing companies in diverse sectors, working in diverse environments, what are some of the biggest lessons from all those years?

Sabbir Nasir

Look at the numbers and look beyond the numbers. Facts and numbers are important. They inform you about your company. Then and again, they do not always represent the most important story or insight. You can look at your profit-loss statement, balance sheet, customer satisfaction index or the metrics of the balanced scorecard but somehow along the way, the numbers may mislead you. That is why it is so important to develop your ability to look beyond the numbers. Instead, look at the nature, trends, and characteristics of those numbers and try to see the bigger picture. Trust the numbers. At the same time, look beyond the numbers.

Treat and observe your customers with the highest level of empathy. I and my whole organization get very concerned when we get a complaint from a single customer. We try our level best to satisfy our customers. I am not implying that we don’t make mistakes, we do. We understand that it is a persistent challenge to satisfy all the customer hundred percent all the time. But I can say that everyone on the team tries heart and soul. That is our promise and that is our attitude.

In order to meaningfully create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to tap into our diverse cognitive pool of education, experience, insight and inspiration that we’ve accumulated over the years, cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, amalgamate and connect these countless distinct dots, and build new ideas in extraordinary new ways. You can only do that when you have experienced life in all its forms.

We are what we pay attention to. The business environment is quite complex and vast. As a leader, you have to be aware of changes at all levels. Do not look at only one part of the business and look at all the possible aspects. Transform and adapt so that you can achieve your dream.

You can innovate in a lot of different ways and areas of your business. It can be process innovation, disruptive innovation, and operational excellence. Don’t only focus on disruptive innovation and focus on the other things as well. For instance, Dell and McDonald’s, they are successful because of process innovation and not disruptive innovation. You don’t always disrupt, you can improve efficiency and still move forward.

Not all people are the same. Some are rock stars and some are superstars. The rockstars are mostly lone geniuses. They tend to do their own thing and may not work well along with others. You need both of them in your company. Keep the rockstars, respect and give them space to perform and also support grow your superstars.

Prioritize your stakeholders. In business, you have to know when to create value and when to capture value. I’ve learned that it is important to prioritize your stakeholders. Sometimes you capture value and satisfy your shareholders and sometimes you create value and satisfy your customers.

We are what we pay attention to.

Future Startup

In life, I think all of us go through challenges, struggles, and obstacles. Any such obstacle or challenge or experience that has shaped you, your career or the way you look at work, world and life?

Sabbir Nasir

In my early career days, I was doing very good at my organization. I was meeting the KPIs, performing well at professional exams, despite that I was not getting enough responsibilities and promotion. I was a little frustrated and blaming the system and the organizational culture for this. After a while, I realized that other than skills, competencies, and KPIs, there are other things that you need to progress in your professional life and that is leadership.

I understood that I have to be a much better leader along with having the expertise and skills. I was going through a lot of challenges at that time and this particular realization was a turning point for me.

Afterward, I followed some mentors and started to invest consciously to improve my leadership skills. Reflection is an underrated quality in our society. We are too busy living that we seldom get time to look at what’s going on in our life.

Second, my second challenge was when I joined Shwapno. We had a great team and a lot of talents at that time. Unfortunately, people were not motivated and inspired. There were challenges both internally and externally.

The customers were blaming, stakeholders were blaming and voices of frustration within ACI were also blaming Shwapno. There was a lot of negativity at that time. I had to motivate and unite my people for something greater. In the end, we could come out of this dreadful trap of frustration and became the market leader.

Reflection is an underrated quality in our society. We are too busy living that we seldom get time to look at what’s going on in our life.

Sabbir Hasan Nasir

Sabbir Hasan Nasir | Photo courtsy Shwapno

Future Startup

What does it take to be an effective CEO or leader? What does it take to drive growth in an organization?

Sabbir Nasir

It is all about mindset. Some people have fixed mindset and other people have a growth mindset. As a CEO, you need to have a growth mindset. Now, it is easy to tell that you should have a growth mindset but it takes real work to build one and constantly maintain it. It is a frame of mind through which you look at the world.

The advantage of having a growth mindset is that you look at things more constructively. For instance, when you see one of your team members struggling, instead of identifying him as an incapable person, you try to help him to grow and perform better. When you fail, you look at it as an opportunity to learn instead of as your inability. This is an indispensable quality because you will face constant challenges, unless you see them in a more positive light you will not be able to endure and thrive.

That’s one aspect.

For driving growth, it is hard to come up with a sure-fire formula but there are a few things that help.

First of all, you need a vision. You have to see the future and be able to share it with your team. When I see a Shwapno store, I do not see it as it is today. I see an open canvas and then I try to build things in it. I try to understand what would be the right things to set up there. I try to build it with my tastes, my vision, and my expectations.

With your vision, you can have your roadmap to follow. In creating the roadmap you have to visualize your existing reality and the future reality. You have to make sure that your team understands their work and their part in achieving that vision. You have to make them understand their value in the organizational success. Without bringing them on board you can not achieve your future plans.

Secondly, you have to have your numbers right. That means you have to understand the meaning of the numbers rather than just the numeric value. It is not uncommon for numbers and statistics to be misleading in the business. You need to have additional numbers with you. You need to have customers account and number according to them, the competitor’s numbers. You need to foresee the future of your industry. You also need to have your value chain dynamics and see yourself there.

Thirdly, you have to understand where the market is going and where you are positioned in this market. Most importantly, you have to check the evolution of your brand position, proposition and identity every once in a while. The CEO has to make sure that his vision, mission, and strategies all are rightly aligned.

Fourthly, you should try to be a perfectionist but then and again you should be flexible as well in order to get things done. Sometimes, I try not to continue arguments when I feel that being a perfectionist will not do any good in a conversation.

Fifthly, treat and manage your employees with utmost empathy. Employees are not robots. They are human beings. They have needs, dreams, aspirations, frustrations, and difficulties of their own. You have to understand what drives them in order to lead them effectively.

Make competition irrelevant. I’m not talking about blue ocean strategy here. I’m trying to look beyond. For instance, in 2014 we experienced a price war in the retail chain shops space and we intentionally decided not to participate.

Instead, we launched our own different campaigns such as formalin free campaign and safe food campaign etc. We changed the conversation and by doing so we made the price competition irrelevant. As a result, we have the 44% market share.

We are always renewing ourselves by adopting changes. Do not be complacent and always renew yourself and only then you can see the growth in your business

The advantage of having a growth mindset is that you look at things more constructively. For instance, when you see one of your team members struggling, instead of identifying him as an incapable person, you try to help him to grow and perform better. When you fail, you look at it as an opportunity to learn instead of as your inability. This is an indispensable quality because you will face constant challenges, unless you see them in a more positive light you will not be able to endure and thrive.

Future Startup

Please give us an overview of ACI Logistics.

Sabbir Nasir

ACI is one of the largest conglomerates in Bangladesh. We have 4 major divisions comprising Agribusiness, Pharmaceuticals, Consumer Goods, and Retail. I look after the Logistics division that is actually the retail chain Shawpno. Shawpno has been doing well over the past few years. We have been experiencing a rapid growth.

ACI is here to change the lives of Bangladeshi people. We provide inputs to our farmers in the form of seeds and other relevant essentials for agriculture which results in the best output that we take to the consumers through Shawpno.

The ambition is to connect all the dots in the entire value chain and link people and process together so that we can give people a better tomorrow. ACI believes in technology, innovation and development and changing lives of the people through science and technology.

For Shwapno, I visualize it to be a company where people would love to shop, work and invest. With the EBITDA being positive, we can say that we will be achieving break-even in the near future.

Our target is to win the minds and hearts of our consumers by implementing the idea of ‘Everyday Better Life’. Our core strengths are our customer-obsession, pragmatic decisions, innovative technology, creativity and perfectionism in customer experience.

We source 50% of our fresh produce and fish directly from growers, helping to keep their dreams alive, giving them a proper value with convenience, and offering their products directly to customers.

We employ a lot of students who come from distant places with little other than their dreams, and as an organization, we are also trying to help them with good jobs and opportunities that support their dreams as well.

Future Startup

Are you involved in any kind of manufacturing or contract manufacturing from Shawpno as part of your sourcing strategy?

Sabbir Nasir

We have launched a few private label brands that come through contract manufacturing which contribute around 6% of our entire portfolio. Our ambition is to take it to 20 %to 30% level over the next few years.

Future Startup

Can you please tell us more about Shwapno in terms of your size of operations, team and all?

Sabbir Nasir

We have 62 stores and 11 franchisees and growing. We are a team of 2000 people and all together we have over 335,000 Square Feet of retail space. We have 3 different types of stores. The first one is convenient-store that can be less than 2000 sq feet to 5000 sq feet. The second type is superstores that are around 2000 to 8000 sq feet and lastly, we have mega stores as large as 24,000 sq feet.

Around 23% of revenue comes from our fresh goods, fish, and similar items, around 44% from consumer packaged goods (CPG) and the rest come from commodity and lifestyle products. We have launched a few private label brands which contribute around 6%.

Future Startup

What is your ambition with private label brands?

Sabbir Nasir

As I mentioned, our ambition is to have 20 to 40% revenue from that. We identify them as buckets of freshness and buckets of safety. Most of our private label brands are in commodities (including rice, sugar, etc), cookies, and similar types of categories.

We want to ensure the lives of our children are safe through food safety. We want to make these products the way it should be, with love and care. We consider ourselves as transformers. Our ambition is to transform the retail landscape of our country.

Around 23% of revenue comes from our fresh goods, fish, and similar items, around 44% from consumer packaged goods (CPG) and the rest come from commodity and lifestyle products. We have launched a few private label brands which contribute around 6%.

Future Startup

You joined Shawpno in 2011 and this is 2017, how much has Shwapno evolved over the past six years in terms of innovation and other major areas?

Sabbir Nasir

In terms of store format, machinery, and equipment, we have evolved significantly. In many areas, we are an entirely renewed organization. We for the first time brought live chicken and fish in the store. The customers can see live fish and chicken and buy. It was a complex decision. We had to manage odor in the store, the temperature for the chickens as well cleanliness to ensure the perfect experience for the customers. We designed special environment for chicken so that it does not create a bad smell and also chickens feel comfortable with the right degree of temperature.

Ours is a complex business. Every morning we have to make sure that we are providing fresh produces to our customers. It means when our customers are sleeping at night, our people are sourcing the best produce from the farmers all night long so that we could provide fresh foods to our customers in the next morning.

This is a complex and long process. It demands a lot of innovation and cross-functional integration to make the entire logistics system works effectively and efficiently. Over the past few years, we have brought in more efficient systems that have improved our performance across logistics.

On the top of that, improving the service experience and getting the right products in front of our customers on the right time are a few of changes we face in-store. We have evolved our interaction between customers and employees. The bonding is stronger and lively now resulting in better shopping experience for our customers.

We have recently launched our eCommerce platform. We understand that ecommerce has a huge prospect in the coming years and we don’t want to be left behind. We have just launched the platform and figuring things out. You will see more activities from us in the coming days.

We have also been investing heavily in technology including SAP, DSS, JDA and a host of other analytics software to make work easier for our employees and create new offers and value proposition for our customers.

Ours is a complex business. Every morning we have to make sure that we are providing fresh produces to our customers. It means when our customers are sleeping at night, our people are sourcing the best produce from the farmers all night long so that we could provide fresh foods to our customers in the next morning.

Future Startup

Please tell us about the organizational culture at Shwapno. How people work, collaborate etc?

Sabbir Nasir

We are a fun working place. Enjoying your work is a precondition for your productivity and optimal performance. We try to ensure that we are collectively enjoying our work.

We have a flexible office hour. People can come anytime between 8:00 am to 10:00 am and leave accordingly.

There is very little office politics here in Shwapno. We consciously discourage it. We are a progressive bunch, always doing new things and embracing and enjoying new developments.

I believe that retail is a war without blood. You have to win this war on a daily basis. You need to create something new every day. You have to surprise your customers on a near constant basis. For that to happen, we need fresh minds working in a flat hierarchy and in an open culture. We have a combination of young and experienced people to have more energy, rhythm, and ideas in the organization. In that way, the new ideas can be mixed with experienced ideas to create something that works – combinatorial creativity in a way.

We have recently launched our eCommerce platform. We understand that ecommerce has a huge prospect in the coming years and we don’t want to be left behind. We have just launched the platform and figuring things out. You will see more activities from us in the coming days.

We have people from diverse backgrounds. Some are good at graphics and contents, some are good at data analytics and mining and some are good at communication or technical works.

Bring this diversity into one place results in a brilliant new culture which helps everyone to reach out to their goals and targets and allows them to challenge their own ideas and predispositions.

No matter how hard the target is given, we could devise a way to overcome that together. Given the retail landscape, we need to ensure adaptation and new learning every day just to survive in the market. In order to achieve that goal, you need a conducive culture that supports it.

I believe that retail is a war without blood. You have to win this war on a daily basis. You need to create something new every day. You have to surprise your customers on a near constant basis. For that to happen, we need fresh minds working in a flat hierarchy and in an open culture.

Future Startup

It is a fairly big team, how do you align people when you make a major decision or strategic change?

Sabbir Nasir

I break the barrier and engage people. I put my people in one room and we call it ‘War Room’. In there, we sit together and solve the problem. After breaking the ego, favoritism, and biases, I push them hard to solve the problem. When they see that they must solve the case and it is a difficult one, they unite together to achieve the one goal.

My job is more of a facilitator and guide and to ensure that the facts are right, numbers are right and the direction is right. If they do not move in the right direction, their numbers would never add up. I have to make them align in the right direction.

I also get into strategy, creatives and other staffs. I work with almost all the teams in all their works and try to help them bring their solutions into life.

Future Startup

What are the challenges for Shwapno now? If you look into the future what challenges do you see down the line 5-6 years?

Sabbir Nasir

In the past, our main challenge was to attract customers from traditional shops and bazaars and convert them to supershop users. We have succeeded in doing that. Almost 50% of the people now have experienced the shopping in super shops.

The challenge is now is finding a balance between value creation and value capture. The shareholders would always want to capture value and have their return as soon as possible whereas the market is demanding more about value creation. As the leader, my challenge is to balance between these two and deliver at an optimal point that makes both parties happy.

The second challenge for Shwapno is the shift and transformation from brick and mortar to e-commerce and then an omnichannel retailer. I can feel and sense the change of business and that is why I have to prepare both my organization and myself.

The world has changed. Today, anything that happens in any part of the world is bound to happen in everywhere in the world sooner or later. It means you have to be perpetually active and innovative. My responsibility is that we continue to evolve as a company along with the changes in the market.

Future Startup

What are your future plans for Shwapno?

Sabbir Nasir

The future plan is to be one of the strongest retail players across Asia. In that way, the employees and the investors can have more opportunities and we will be able to serve more people.

We plan to scale Shawpno and take it to as many places in the country as possible in the next few years. It does not mean that everywhere we will be opening up retail shops of Shwapno, it can even be an order fulfillment center or even a kiosk. And we plan to connect the world with Shwapno through its e-commerce platform.

We plan to build more intimate and strong relationship with the farmers, craftsmen and our supplier so that we can give our customers best value proposition.

The future plan is to be one of the strongest retail players across Asia. In that way, the employees and the investors can have more opportunities and we will be able to serve more people.

Future Startup

Technology is changing almost every business. How do you use technology in Shwapno?

Sabbir Nasir

The core system is SAP ECC 6 and we are trying to migrate into a better version of SAP. On top of this ERP system, we have some DSS and Analytics Software.

We have an analytics team who works with the technology team to gather data and generate customer insight. In the near future, we plan to invest in artificial intelligence, augmented reality and VR to improve efficiency and customer experience.

Future Startup

How do you use data, in terms of collection and implementing, in your decision-making process?

Sabbir Nasir

We are data rich company. We collect a huge amount of shoppers’ data that too about the most important area of their lives: spending pattern. These are invaluable if you can put it into proper use.

Apart from that, we collect data how our customers interact within the shop through devices and also collect data from other pertinent sources. As I mentioned, we have a data team who work constantly to generate actionable insights from these data points.

Future Startup

Retail is struggling in many developed markets. The Atlantic, the US-based magazine, named the phenomenon as the great retail apocalypse. There have been nine retail bankruptcies in the first few months of 2017—as many as all of 2016. J.C. Penney, RadioShack, Macy’s, and Sears have each announced more than 100 store closures. What do you think about the future of retail in Bangladesh?

Sabbir Nasir

My answer is that only e-commerce is not the solution. Equal importance has to be put on both the brick and mortar model and the e-commerce. That is why I prefer the term, Integrated Retail Experience. That said, doing this integration will not be an easy task.

Technology should receive the top priority along with HR management. Aligning the programmers, engineers and IT experts as well as creative and business people around a single objective is a tough ambition. And without the talented, skilled and dedicated people, it would not work.

So the point is about becoming an omnichannel retailer. If you look at the US market, retailers who have adopted technology are doing pretty well. Amazon being the ecommerce leader just bought the Whole Foods Market. We see that Amazon, being an e-tailer, is doing well and Walmart, being mostly brick and mortar, is also doing well. The same goes for Target. They are investing heavily in technology. They first introduced the self-checkout and price-checkout concepts in Target stores in the US.

I do not think that the only ecommerce is the answer in the long run and only brick and mortar is not either. The human-machine interactions can happen but not on a disruptive scale to transform the industry. There has to human-human interactions at the end in order to make it sustainable. I never think that robots and machines will occupy our brick and mortar shops and we will only shop online because we humans want to see and touch the products.

In our country, I would say that the brick and mortar retailing is very strong and has a great future. We are still learning about e-commerce and it will take some time to make a meaningful progress in that area. That said, ecommerce is the future.

In short, I think the future of retail is integrated omnichannel experience where customers would have options and go back and forth.

My answer is that only e-commerce is not the solution. Equal importance has to be put on both the brick and mortar model and the e-commerce. That is why I prefer the term, Integrated Retail Experience. That said, doing this integration will not be an easy task. Technology should receive the top priority along with HR management. Aligning the programmers, engineers and IT experts as well as creative and business people around a single objective is a tough ambition. And without the talented, skilled and dedicated people, it would not work.

Future Startup

Retail is a business of experience in many ways. How you shops look, your lighting, in-store experience make a lot of difference in customer behavior. How do you design a great retail experience?

Sabbir Nasir

I consider myself a designer. From that perspective, I have conceived many of the things you can see in our stores. We have a great design team. I give the preliminary ideas of the store and they add their magic and aesthetics over it and together we build something.

While designing a store, the first thing we look at is the shapes of the space. In our country, we hardly get a square or rectangle shape space. Mostly, we get uneven and crazy shapes.

Then we consider where to put different categories of products in the store. This is an intricate affair because you have to consider the aisle and movement of customers and put things accordingly.

We then look at the lights and colors of the store. The lighting and color usually highlight features, products, items, and categories visually that help customers make decisions.

We are now planning to control the natural smell of the store. I am planning to implement different odor for different parts of the store to influence the customer experience.

Each of our stores has different design, style, and structure based on a host of parameters.

As you rightly mentioned, in the retail business design of the store influences customer experience. We are constantly looking for the changes to improve the shopping experience of our customers. We are applying new building materials and lightening parts and other components.

Previously, our environment was more flashy but now it is warmer. We are designing warmth where customers find them at home. If you look at the new Shwapno stores from the outside you will be seeing a golden box with lighting focused on different corners, shelves, and zones. We are trying a lot of things to give our stores an aesthetic and convenient look.

Future Startup

Since you consider yourself a designer, how do you apply design thinking to other areas of your work and solving problems?

Sabbir Nasir

Design thinking is basically a 5 steps process. Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and test.

Empathy ensures that we consider the expectations and priorities of our customers, what and how they look for products in the store and what our competitors are doing. We also find out what is the customer demography in that area and put our products in the store according to that.

In the second step, we define. We have figures and numbers that informs our expectation from an area. We also define what kind of ambiance and feeling we want to project to the consumers.

After that we ideate and we consider the design challenges. In the ideate stage, we do a lot of things. We draw pictures and draw different things and discuss and argue and collaborate. We try different colors and items to see how it goes with the store. Finally, we develop a prototype and then test in a realistic setting to see if it works and learn from the experience.

We are currently in the process of opening a store in Dhanmondi area. Everyday 5 to 7 members of our team go there to discuss and debate the execution and implementation. We re-do things based on their suggestion. We even have discussions on the day we open our store and make changes.

We have been applying design thinking for a long time. It is an interesting way of solving problems.

Future Startup

What is your management philosophy?

Sabbir Nasir

I help people grow. I try to understand their good side and bad side, potential and their limitation. As I have said, I try to separate the rockstars and superstars and nurture them accordingly for their roles and responsibilities.

I criticize people a lot and offer a lot of challenges. Sometimes, I tell them that they are not doing anything good. People feel challenged and some of them feel down, but this put them in a situation where they work hard and grow. My intention is to help them grow up and prepare them to face the intensely competitive retail industry. Either you grow up or you die. That said, even when I challenge them they know that I love them and respect them and wish their best. There is always an undercurrent love and empathy. That’s probably one of the reasons why very few people leave me.

I give people job according to their skill set which means I take time to understand my people and their strength and weaknesses. I am a beautician and I make things beautiful. I try to make everything perfect even if it is a mere SOP, business model or a store. I bring my design sense into my work and how to deal with people. Whenever I find something ugly, I point it out and I try to change it.

Fairness is one of the most important traits of my philosophy. I believe in Grandfather Management philosophy. Not only that I supervise people who report to me, I also interact with their subordinate to find out whether they are being treated fairly and doing their job properly.

We foster teamwork. Working as a team is something that we constantly encourage. I try to put people from different background together so that they can have a better understanding and more points of view on a particular matter.

I prefer flat organization where I can connect with every single person in the organization. When I go to the store, I talk with every single employee there to understand them and their store.

I criticize people a lot and offer a lot of challenges. Sometimes, I tell them that they are not doing anything good. People feel challenged and some of them feel down, but this put them in a situation where they work hard and grow. My intention is to help them grow up and prepare them to face the intensely competitive retail industry. Either you grow up or you die. That said, even when I challenge them they know that I love them and respect them and wish their best. There is always an undercurrent love and empathy. That’s probably one of the reasons why very few people leave me.

Future Startup

What do you think about leadership?

Sabbir Nasir

I have been taught in MIT about 4 capabilities of leaders: visioning, relating, inventing and sense-making.

A leader is someone who can show a vision, help people make sense of it, motivate them and reach individual and collective goals through the process.

Sabbir Hasan Nasir

Sabbir Hasan Nasir | Courtesy of Shwapno

Future Startup

How do you deal with stress and challenges that come with your work?

Sabbir Nasir

I transform my stress into tranquility. I practice proper breath-work to control my stress level which is quite simple, but in order to apply it, you have to practice.

I listen to music. Some old musicians come to my house or I go to their place to discuss and play music.

Future Startup

How does a typical day of you look like?

Sabbir Nasir

I have got to maintain a pretty crazy schedule these days. I usually get to work late at night to match MIT related schedules.

One of my two children wakes me up before going to school in the morning. In morning, I go to the market, observe people and sometimes I visit a store and talk to the customers and people there. I come to office by 10 to 11 am. Usually, I finish my day’s work by 8-9 and return home. After dinner, I read for a while.

In the weekends, I listen to music. I often visit saints in different places and try to learn about life and living from them.

Future Startup

What books have you been reading lately?

Sabbir Nasir

I usually read several books in parallel. Right now, I’m reading The Fifth Disciple, Homo Deus and System Dynamics. Over the years, I have developed a quite diverse taste and it often reflects in my reading list.

For anyone who is looking for a good read, I would suggest Sapiens, Why Nations Fail, Disciplined Entrepreneurship, and Clock Speed.

Future Startup

Tell us something that’s you believe to be true that very few people agree with you on.

Sabbir Nasir

We often misunderstand the idea of oneness. Even though many religions including Islam have preached about oneness, we seldom practice the essence of that belief.

Instead, we divide people based on religion, gender and color. That is not oneness.

To me, the children of my next door neighbor are my children. That is one of my fundamental beliefs and I try to work on it.

Life is beautiful. That said, beauty is not automatic, it does not happen by itself. You have to work to make it beautiful and maintain its beauty. I suggest you keep a flower in your house because the fragrance is good for life. Similarly, make yourself beautiful so that your fragrance is good. That entails, the work you do and contribution you make to the world through your work is what makes life meaningful.

Future Startup

How do you think about life?

Sabbir Nasir

Life is beautiful. That said, beauty is not automatic, it does not happen by itself. You have to work to make it beautiful and maintain its beauty. I suggest you keep a flower in your house because the fragrance is good for life.

Similarly, make yourself beautiful so that your fragrance is good. That entails, the work you do and contribution you make to the world through your work is what makes life meaningful. That is your fragrance. Probably, that’s what gives meaning to a flower.

Future Startup

What advice would you be giving to the who are starting or restarting their career or business or life in general?

Sabbir Nasir

Stretch yourself. Go beyond your capacity and comfort zone.

Believe in yourself. This is important because when you believe in yourself everything changes. Have a vision for yourself for the next 10 years and align your activities with that.

Leave your ego. Ego is our most dangerous enemy. Be aware of it. Learn from others and break your ego from the equation. Recognize that your knowledge is limited and what you know is not absolute. You have to learn from the day laborer, the farmer, and nature.

Read as well as experience things. Everything that you read, you can experience as well and experience is the best teacher.

Spend time with people and be good with people.

Do not go for cheap things. Anything that comes easily almost always does not worth it. Don’t settle for easy or less, imagine immensities and aim for the best.

Be a person of highest integrity and strong will.

Leave your ego. Ego is our most dangerous enemy. Be aware of it. Learn from others and break your ego from the equation. Recognize that your knowledge is limited and what you know is not absolute. You have to learn from the day laborer, the farmer, and nature.

(Interview and edited by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Md. Tashnim, Photo Courtesy of Shwapno)

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Ruhul Kader

Co-founder at Future StartUp
Ruhul Kader is a co-founder at Future Startup. He writes about business with a specific concentration on strategy, technology, and society. He can be reached at [email protected]

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