Life’s Work: An Interview With K M Ali, CEO, Partex Star Group (CX-1)

Life’s Work: An Interview With K M Ali, CEO, Partex Star Group (CX-1)

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K M Ali is the Chief Executive Officer at Partex Star Group (Complex-1). Mr. Ali has a diverse and decorated career spanning multiple industries.

In this interview Mr. Ali walks us through his early life and upbringing, reflects on his journey to what he is doing today, his multiple decades of career spanning multiple companies, companies and important roles, trials and tribulations he has had to face throughout his career, shares his thoughts on leadership and strategy, talks about his work at Partex Star Group (CX-1), current state of the company and his ambition for the organization and incredible importance of building a solid culture, discusses his management philosophy and why it is important beyond measure to invest in people, shares his ideas for being an effective CEO, ponders upon the meaning of life and explores the eminent importance of contribution, why our moral authority comes from doing the right thing regardless of our position, limitations of MBAs and why it does not matter where you start and how slow your start, rather it is about persistence and commitment to improving yourself and your life.

The interview it is a compendium of practical ideas, personal anecdotes, and lessons – an intellectually empowering, immensely insightful and altogether enchanting read.

Future Startup

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

K.M. Ali

I was born and raised in Natore, a small northern district town of Bangladesh. My father was a government servant and in a transferable job. When he got transferred to different places we moved along with him. In that sense, I had a quite fascinating childhood experiencing different things in different parts of the country.

My educational life started in a rather unique way. When I was a kid, my elder sisters used to take me with them to the local Govt. Girls High School. That was, in fact, the beginning of my education in life. Since I did not actually like to go to school, I tried everything to make sure that they don’t bring me the next day. I used to sit in the class without paying attention to anything. In a bad day, I would cry and disturb my sisters so that they take me back home. However, the respite was hard to come by. If my father found me returning home without finishing the class, he would send me back again to finish the school.

Starting education in a girl’s school was a rather strange beginning for a boy! Here I must admit that I learnt one precious thing from this school. I learnt to co-exist in a gender friendly environment which had its marks in my career and life later on.

After enduring the pain of going to a girl’s school for a while in my infancy, my father finally decided to admit me to the local primary school. The school was situated in an old and shabby building. The kind that fails to impress you instead creates a sense of impoverishment.

But first impression does not always give you the right signal. Although the buildings were not that good, the teachers were very strict. They wanted everyone to be punctual and obedient. The experience that I had at the school was a rewarding one. I learnt the value of being ordinary which is a key to all great ends.

I’m an extrovert from my childhood. I was not much into the study. I was always into playing and doing my various mischievous activities. Everything has a cost. This had too. My academic results suffered.

After some time and with some pressure from my parents, I realized that this can’t go on and I have to be serious about my studies. Thus I started to pay a little more attention to my academic studies. I’m lucky to have a very sharp memory which I believe, has come from my mother. Putting my good memory at work was how I managed to do very good results at school occupying the first place in most cases right up to my examinations in the university. I was still that same old fun and sports-loving kid.

After a while, I was shifted to Maharaja J. N. High School of Natore, a private school at that time which was established by Maharaja Jagadindranath Roy, a close friend of Rabindranath Tagore. One of the key disciples of Tagore, Pramoth Nath Bishi, a noted writer was a student of our school. There were many inspiring stories of the duo.

One particular story that I found funny even these days and that shows the humoristic side of Rabindranath Tagore is about a conversation between Tagore and Bishi. The story goes something like this: one day both Rabindranath and Bishi were strolling in Shanti Niketan. After a while, Tagore stopped and looked up at a tree. He said “I thought that this was a Banyan tree but now I see that this is a Velvet-apple tree (Gab Gach).” Bishi asked Tagore why he was telling that to him. Tagore smiled and replied that his impression about Bishi was high like the banyan tree when he chose to bring Bishi at his early age from Natore to Shanti Niketan. But it was frustrating to see that Bishi did not grow to his potential like the tree velvet apple tree (Gab Gach) being referred to.

This story taught something profound about the power of humor and its ability to get the message across without failure, no matter how difficult the message is.

Later in my life, I applied myself to understand the essence of humor. I have understood that humor can open all the doors and emotions in your heart that very few other things can do. Humor is one of the keys to unlock the heart and possibilities of a human being whoever he or she may be.

I have also realized that if you want to achieve something big, you have to unlock all the doors of your heart. Sadly, what we see in our society is something completely opposite. We see shackles, lines, boundaries, and disciplines burdening the young minds. Our children are taught by schools and tuition to the level that they fear the word education and school. Children are by born creative but through our all mistreatments we make sure they remain ordinary and stay along the lines and leave their creative-self behind.

I studied in Natore up to class 5. My father was a philosophy student at Kolkata University. My mother, though she was an ordinary housewife, was the best human being I have ever come to know.

In class six, I was shifted to Nalta High School, a famous school in Satkhira where I stayed till SSC. In college, I added more things to my life beyond school curriculum! I became a very active hockey player. Also, I started smoking when I was a student of class VI. I started with bidi first and from class seven I started smoking cigarettes along with skipping classes. I also started getting interested in CBD oil and regularly visiting the cinema theater. I was an ideal example of a vagabond and disinterested student and I was lucky to have a great memory that helped me maintain good grades.

This was me. I was not at all serious about life.

I passed SSC examination with First Division and then got into Jessore Govt College from where I did my HSC. In HSC I was placed in the first division and secured 7th position in entire Jessore Board. Then I enrolled myself into the English Literature Department of Rajshahi University in 1972.

I got the chance in both Economics and English Literature. I finally opted for English because I thought that Economics would be hard for me because I was not good at math.

I was reasonably good in English but had a slow start in terms of results. But I progressed fast once I realized the risk I was running. I stood 49th in my 1st-year term, 3rd in my 2nd year and stood 1st in my final year of Honors.

When I came to Dhaka in 1977, I got a job at a furniture shop in Elephant Road for a monthly salary of BDT 400. It was a tough job, almost 12 hours duty per day. My duty was from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Despite that, I continued this for some time as my realities remained equally tough. Around this time, I came across an opportunity for a lecturer position at Faujdarhat Cadet College but I decided not to join because I did not want to pursue a job that would not take me far.

Many people were a little surprised including some of my teachers because I was not that regular a student. I managed to maintain my result in Masters as well.

This was, in fact, a ‘defining Moment’ for me. I realized that I am actually not that bad. Truly, an extraordinary moment, a moment of self-discovery. Everything changes when you start believing in yourself.

The people who all through doubted my ability, after my B.A.Honors results, they became silent. But they did not accept it. In fact, many of my faculties did not take it positively either despite the fact that I was a good student all along which they knew.

After Masters in 1977, I started to look for a job. Previously, I was under the supervision of my parents but now I am out in the open world. I had to take responsibility for myself as well as my family, partially though. Since I came out first, I tried at the University for a while for lecturership without much luck. I finally came to realize that it would not happen so soon if it happens at all.

When I came to Dhaka in 1977, I got a job at a furniture shop in Elephant Road for a monthly salary of BDT 400. It was a tough job, almost 12 hours duty per day. My duty was from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Despite that, I continued this for some time as my realities remained equally tough.

Around this time, I came across an opportunity for a lecturer position at Faujdarhat Cadet College but I decided not to join because I did not want to pursue a job that would not take me far.

Later, I got an appointment at a local company called Karnafuly; a Chittagong based shipping company at that time. I got posted in Chittagong. It was a tough job again. I would wear a t-shirt; jeans pant holding a walkie-talkie to communicate with everyone and would work on the ships and barges continuously for long hours, sometimes without much sleep and food for days. I had to work with port authority, sea going vessels, boats and sea men including captains of incoming and outgoing ships.

After working at Karnafully for over 1 year, I got an opportunity at British American Tobacco. I joined BATB in 1980 where I worked for the next 15 years. It was an incredible experience, in fact, a life-changing one for me.

After BAT, I moved to GMG Group in 1995. I was pursued by Ron Daniel Pilnik, a Swiss Consultant. I joined GMG Group as Marketing Director of Samah Razor Blade Industries Limited and the next year I became the CEO of the same company. I introduced Sharp Stainless Blade which later turned out to be the market leader in the country. I worked there for around 2 years. By introducing this Sharp I could give the nation an international quality razor blade. This was previously the market for Supermax Blade, a product of Indian origin.

Then I joined Transcom Electronics Limited as its Head of Consumer Electronics at the end of 1997. I worked at Transcom for over 5 years. Transcom was a wonderful organization. Although they did not appreciate or encourage much entrepreneurial initiatives, the working culture was good. I enjoyed my time at Transcom. I left Transcom in 2002.

After that, I worked at Otobi with Nitun Kundu for a short stint and at Akij Group with Sheikh Akij Uddin for just 3 months. Together it was around 18 months that I had the opportunity to work with these two local legends. And it was a wonderful experience for me. It was a completely different experience than what I gathered in BAT.

I have always been fascinated by their work. They built huge conglomerates almost out of nothing. I took the opportunity. I tried to learn and understand their entrepreneurial thinking and decision-making processes and preferences. Both of them were self-made and hard-working and self-disciplined.

Kundu of Otobi came from a very humble background. During his university life, he used to stay at famous film director cum actor Subhash Dutta’s house. Both of their maternal grandparents were from Dinajpur. In fact, Dutta was the one who brought Kundu to Dhaka. Nitun Kundu studied Fine Arts at Dhaka University where he stood first class first in the Masters examination. He went through a lot of struggle in his early life.

He used to do cinema posters, which was his main source of income. Otobi was founded in 1975. Kundu and some of his friends started it together. His friends quit the company in a very short period of starting it, but Kundu continued. He worked relentlessly to make it work and as a result, today Otobi is what it is. He was an incredibly dedicated man. He was an example of commitment.

The most extraordinary thing about Kundu that make me think even these days is that he came from a relatively poor family but still he held on to his passion, judgment and integrity amidst countless distress and hardship. His hardship and difficulties could not cloud his focus for a moment.

Akij Uddin’s life is yet another extraordinary story. As recounted by him, he used to sell fruits over Howrah Bridge in Kolkata. He worked hard throughout his life and today, look at the empire he has built.

It has been a matter of personal fascination for me to know how these legends of Bangladesh and the entrepreneurs of these large companies managed to build such big corporations. Working with Kundu and Akij had a lasting impact on me and my career thereafter.

After that, I joined Rahimafrooz Energy Services in 2004. Initially, when I was asked to appear before the selection board, I declined on the ground that I was not an engineer. However, on being pursued by Monower Associates, the leading head hunting company and Rahimafrooz Management I came for the interview and was selected to head their energy business.

I started with 11 to 11.5 crores worth of annual revenue and I took it as a challenge to grow the business. In 5 years, I grew its business 15 times. I stayed at Rahimafrooz Energy Services till the end of 2009 with record profits within the Group SBUs.

I joined Partex Group in its Business Complex 1 as CEO for a term of 5 years in the beginning of 2010. I was actually, the first CEO of the group which was a kind of experimentation on CEO Concept. This was done by Mr. Aziz Al Kaiser, the visionary Vice Chairman of the group. He was ably supported by his immediate younger brother, Mr. Aziz Al Mahmood, the Managing Director of the group. Later on Partex Star Group (PSG) was born out of the old Partex. The new group name Partex Star and its pay off line were suggested by me and accepted by the board. The tag line attached to the group name was “Partex Star Group, A Legacy with New Face Forward”

It may not be out of place to mention here that, while naming the group and its tag line, I captured the body and soul of Partex Group. While Partex was the body, Star was the soul (as it was the original company – Star Particle Board Mills Limited out of which the brand name Partex came into being for its products and services.)

The first thing I did after joining was I set the team right. I made sure that they are highly motivated and inspired to go beyond ordinary performance level. I radically changed their compensation package to create an instant commitment and connection to the business challenges for a transformation in the real sense. But at the same time I made sure that right people were on the bus and wrong people were off.

To make our change efforts visible, we moved to a new office in Tejgaon in 2011. I believe that where you work is important for your productivity, and satisfaction. If your office does not inspire you, does not have a good environment, it is hard to operate at your best. The new office was in fact, an architectural beauty which fascinated all tiers of Management. The employee satisfaction level peaked at that time considering the comfort and ambience of the new work destination for corporate people.

In December, 2008 my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer – one of the most devastating events for me of course. Over the next 2 years it gradually got complicated further. During the time, I shuttled between Singapore and Dhaka to make sure that she received the best medical attention possible on my part. But, eventually she left us on 20th June, 2011 leaving behind my two children and me, submerging us in utter distress.

During the few months preceding her death in June, 2011, I was offered a financially lucrative offer to join another company. I could have resisted the temptation to join it but I allowed myself to indulge in only because I needed a huge cash support to cater to my ailing wife’s treatment abroad. Frankly, this was a mistake since I broke the continuity of my leadership trail that is considered critical for any successful and ambitious business corporation.

The people at PSG were disheartened by this. I had a great experience working at PSG in my first stint. Within a year and a half, I had grown the company significantly in all areas including human resources, sales turnover, brand management, profit, compliance, digitization, Logistics, customer satisfaction, supplier satisfaction, Training & Development, culture etc. I also restructured the whole company including management structure, performance management and compensation.

I always believed in the fact that consistency is a factor. If you are not consistent in your efforts and strategy then it will undermine your leadership ability. You need to have the spirit of a marathon racer in order to accomplish something worthwhile and lasting. If you want to create something sustainable in the market and achieve customer acceptance and good brand positioning, you need to develop a long-term mindset rather than looking for an immediate success story and short-lived self- celebration.

PSG wanted to get me back having tried a few other CXOs who had a spell of 6 months to 9 months without much success. On being asked I rejoined its Business Complex – 2 in July, 2012. It was altogether a different business domain i.e. consumer packaged foods. I took the challenge to recreate an action replay of my one and half year stint in Complex -1 earlier.

I have taken very few vacations in my career. I always try to use my vacation and vocation interchangeably keeping no different meaning between them. When you are enjoying your work, you do not need a vacation in a formal way. When you are enjoying your work, you will be able to give your best effort. It is not just about getting connected or engaged, it is about being immersed in the deep sea of passionate.

I always believed in the fact that consistency is a factor. If you are not consistent in your efforts and strategy then it will undermine your leadership ability. You need to have the spirit of a marathon racer in order to accomplish something worthwhile and lasting. If you want to create something sustainable in the market and achieve customer acceptance and good brand positioning, you need to develop a long-term mindset rather than looking for an immediate success story and short-lived self- celebration.

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Future Startup

You studied English Literature at University, why did you choose a career in business? Was it because you were passionate about it?

K M Ali

Certainly, not with a definite purpose in mind. I just took a call that came straight from my heart. The path you choose in life is always paved with uncertainties. A focused choice will always help you to reach your desired destination but there could be setback and unsolicited variations on which you may not have enough control. Most people build their career outside of their academic focus except Doctors, Accountants and Engineers and of course saints.

The core function of a university degree is to prepare the minds of its graduates and make them capable of dealing with life and the wide world in general. The purpose of university education should be to teach how to live a good life with meaning. It should give its graduates the power to choose and respond creatively and effectively.

The graduates themselves will figure out which way to go, what to choose and what not to. University helps to develop the thinking ability and impart general awareness and insights graduates can apply in life and for their chosen workplaces.

Being a graduate of English Literature, apart from pursuing a career in business, I had a few alternatives: government jobs and the teaching profession. I figured that government job does not allow much flexibility to explore creativity and personal ambition. I would not be able to deliver my full potential there. The same goes for the teaching profession as well. I chose private sector because I thought that it would offer me ample opportunities to develop myself and apply my creativity.

The path you choose in life is always paved with uncertainties. A focused choice will always help you to reach your desired destination but there could be setbacks and unsolicited variations on which you may not have enough control. Most people build their career outside of their academic focus except Doctors, Accountants and Engineers and of course saints.

Future Startup

As you mentioned, there are turning points in our life when an event or a person change the trajectory of our life. Was there a point in your life that you consider as your turning point?

K M Ali

Since my college days, I was in love with a girl, who later became my wife, which in fact changed my life for better. Until then I was always a fun loving young vagabond who never took things seriously and enjoyed endless freedom with no worries about future.

When I graduated, I realized that I have to take charge of my life. My life is no more about me alone; it is about the person I love and about my parents. That was one of the major turning points of my life. It pushed me toward a better and different direction and made me responsible. And when you understand your responsibility and take it, everything changes by the second.

These days when I conduct any workshop or training, I encourage participants to take responsibilities. When we take responsibility, we become active and we apply ourselves no matter rightly or wrongly.

For instance, if you make the naughtiest boy in the class responsible for maintaining discipline as a class captain, he will become a disciplined student himself instantly and he will also make sure that no one disturbs or breaks the discipline.

Responsibility is a good motivator which sometimes pushes us beyond our negative or destructive frame of mind.

Future Startup

Life is full of ups and downs and ebbs and flows. We endure trial and tribulations throughout our career. Some big, some small. And some of these events shape us and our worldview. Was there any particular event that changed how you look at life and the world?

K M Ali

Life demands an incredible amount of resilience in us. It is a daunting journey all the way. If you think that this is all very easy and life will go according to your plan then you would be very wrong. You should be able to create a space inside your heart and then accommodate the stress instead. We need to develop a mindset to manage the highs and lows of our life.

That said, one particular benefit of going through tough time in life is that you learn to stretch yourself and your ability to endure grows. I was at my lowest point when my wife died. It took great courage and a lot of patience to hold on to myself in that time. Having my children around helped me a lot during those days. These difficult days come in everyone’s life. Some trials are inevitable. As a human being, our greatest strength is to be patient and keep pushing forward. But I must say that with every tragedy in life, I only grew more human.

From a career perspective, in my early days at BAT, I had faced a significant challenge to perform and deliver as per my responsibilities. I was failing to fulfill the expectations of my supervisor.

My boss was a wonderful person and he was aware of my capability. When he saw me struggling, he attached a trainer with me. The coach who was a field force trainer helped me on the job which fundamentally changed the trajectory of my career. With the help of my coach, in the following three years I exceeded all the performance expectations leaving behind many of my superstar colleagues in promotion and performance. I became the dark horse who was lagging behind in the beginning with a U-Turn later on.

Now that I look back, I realize that self-discovery is an incredibly empowering experience. When you manage to know yourself better, everything changes. At BAT, my mentor helped me to find myself.

Since my college days, I was in love with a girl, who later became my wife, which in fact changed my life for better. Until then I was always a fun loving young vagabond who never took things seriously and enjoyed endless freedom with no worries about future. When I graduated, I realized that I have to take charge of my life. My life is no more about me alone; it is about the person I love and about my parents. That was one of the major turning points of my life. It pushed me toward a better and different direction and made me responsible. And when you understand your responsibility and take it, everything changes by the second.

Future Startup

You have several decades of experience in a diverse set of fields, what are the biggest lessons from all those years?

K M Ali

First of all, you have to be a good human being. At the end of the day, this is what matters most and this is what people remember you for. To be a good leader, this is the first and foremost requirement.

We need to develop a habit of relentless learning. I believe that learning should be a lifetime pursuit. You have to learn, unlearn and then re-learn all the way, all the time. Every day, I learn from people I meet. I learn from my grandson who is only 4 years old.

I do not think and care much about the market and competition. I believe that our own environment both internal and external is responsible for our success or failure in the market place. To me, success or failure comes from internal dynamics, your ability to interpret and the precision of your execution.

Sometimes we fail due to our cognitive inability when we cannot see the changes in the context. Here we tend to grow old rather than grow up. Within the organization, we may have cultural hurdles for which entrepreneurial orientation and expression may remain subdued which discourages us from trying new things or ideas.

Dr. Stephen R Covey famously said, “Seek first to understand then to be understood.” When someone communicates with you, you have to understand them at first. If you fail to do that, they would never understand you either.

We have to understand the other person first and normally, we fail to do so as according to brain science, our brain functions very fast and it starts processing the conversations faster than we can speak. At times, we listen to reply and not to understand.

In an organizational context, when this happens, which is often the case, we become judgmental and act like we are the justice of the Supreme Court. It is called ‘Master of the Universe’ syndrome. That means you do not know what you actually do not know because you believe you know everything. Moreover, there are people in organizations who take advantage of conflict and spreads toxicity through whispering. Many people take advantage of flattery. Even Julius Caesar was a victim of it.

In an organizational context, flattery is a big problem. It acts like a filter. Your failures will come to you as your successes. You will see a mirage of you and your future but when the time will come you will see nothing but a void there.

That is why executives should and must be honest in every place. They have to filter the facts and truths from all the noise and flattery. If they fail to do so they will never be able to make the right decision.

We live in a highly competitive market and it is hard to survive when you make wrong decisions. You and your company both will be on the rocks if the ground realities turn invisible through some machinations of self-serving people.

Another thing is that we often talk is that everyone is equal. That is not true. You can treat everyone equally and equitably but everyone can’t be equal. Everyone in an organization does not do the same thing and does not possess the same skill set. You have to treat high performers as high performers and not otherwise.

I always try to be polite and kind to people. I never forget to say thank you and praise people if they do good. You have to be polite and generous to people. Just because you are having a bad day, it must not cloud your judgment and affect your interaction with others. By being nice you do not do any harm to yourself and your purpose. Toughness does not mean roughness.

In life, we need to give more than what is expected of us. If someone wants 10%, give them 11% of efforts but never give them 9%.

Sometimes we underestimate our ability. In the middle of 2004 at Rahimafrooz, we launched a five year visionary plan with a lot of fanfare. It was a big hairy audacious goal for the next 5 years. In the next two years of the launching, we achieved the five years goal. Everyone was surprised. The reality is we quite often undermine our own potential and our ability to achieve much bigger and better things. I just made everybody realize that anybody could do and achieve what they want.

Life demands an incredible amount of resilience in us. It is a daunting journey all the way. If you think that this is all very easy and life will go according to your plan then you would be very wrong. You should be able to create a space inside your heart and then accommodate the stress instead.

Future Startup

Please give us an overview of Partex Star Group (CX1).

K M Ali

Partex Star Group is one of largest local conglomerates in the country. It has two Business Complexes, i.e. Complex 1 and Complex 2. Each Complex has its own portfolio of companies ranging from 10 to 15.

I am currently responsible for Complex 1 which has over 14 separate entities in a host of sectors including Building Materials, Furniture, Adhesives, Logistics, Agro, Cables, and Apparels.

In 2010, when I had taken responsibility, furniture was not doing well. I took it as a challenge. In 2 years’ time, we could push this sagging business into a rapidly growing one and occupy the number 2 position after Otobi.

Future Startup

Can you please tell a bit more about strategy and growth? How do you push growth, in general?

K M Ali

Engaging People.

Almost 70% of the business in the world is done without a business plan. We start planning and other things after starting the business. Yes, you need plans but not all the time. Sometimes, you should rely on your instincts.

Instincts are not created in just a few days. You see, you hear, you experience, you gain, you lose, you learn, you fail, you succeed and only then you can have a seasoned and moulded instinct. It gives a kind of spotlight with which you can find the solution of a complex and nagging problem.

When I set an objective, I make sure that everyone in the organization knows it, understands it, and owns it. I don’t only aim for top management engagement. I engage everyone in the organization regardless of their position, power or authority. Engagement is different than appointment. Many executives are appointed but not all of us are engaged.

My philosophy is that we should engage and motivate people and with a proper clarity of purpose. And when they are engaged, they can move mountains. People always tell me that I emphasize on soft skills very much rather than the hard skills. As I have seen that hard skills and hard equipment could not do what soft skills and human skills can. The leaders should inspire their team members to give their full efforts. They should immerse each and every person in their team.

Then you have to ensure that your strategy is right. How do you do that? The strategy can be made in 2 ways: from a marketer’s point of view and from the market point of view. If you are a follower in the market that follows the competition, then you do not need to worry much about strategy as you will be doing what other players in the market are doing. That’s a very simple way of doing things. You don’t take much risk. The results are predictable, as good as the over used strategy i.e. nothing significant.

You can never expect an extraordinary result from an ordinary strategy. If you are doing business on the same operating principle that your competitors are doing, then how can you expect to get different results?

People often apply some common strategies such as reducing the price. I don’t see this as a strategy. It is a defensive mechanism, as if you are choosing to walk on crutches. You just can’t cut your price to sustain competitiveness. A brand never does that. Rather a brand builds on product and service quality and lends an appealing character to win customer preference.

Today, customers are super demanding. They have both normal and value-added expectations. They want more. They want products/service and pluses, add on etc. They have endless options now. Previously, what we used to offer as a unique value proposition, now it has become a generic utility to the customer.

Once quality was a major point of distinction. Now it has become a hygiene factor. In order to merely compete in the market, you have to offer quality products and services. ‘Best quality’ is no more a competitive advantage. When every product available in the market becomes good enough, competition moves on to a different level. And differentiation becomes a tall order.

Now in order to differentiate yourself from others, you have to provide best possible service by showing a class or character. When a customer comes to buy boards and doors, they see that all of them are somewhat similar and the difference in quality and durability is not that much at least to an open eye. Then he asks who made the board. In the end, he ends up buying the one from Partex. Because everyone knows that whatever Partex does, it always delivers the best value. That is the character not only of the brand also, the organization who is making it.

Building a character is a long-term process. And once people come to know your character for either good or bad, it is hard to change it. You can’t use laundry service on your character. Whatever you say, whatever you do and whatever you plan, it is all part of your character and it stays with you for a long time. When you have a good product and a firm character, then and only then people will start believing you.

The brand manager has to think about the communication also. I always tell them about communication what Aristotle said 2300 years ago about 3 pillars of communication: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos. Ethos means your credibility, your character, your expertise and your reputation. Logos means the logical argument and judgment. Pathos means emotional connection or appeal. Now, consider the Samsung brand. People do not question about the brand Samsung. They seek the latest model every time they go to purchase. Samsung already has the Ethos as a world-class maker of mobile phone. The features and utilities of that specific model if found okay, then Logos (i.e. logic) is also there. Now, with the appropriate communication Samsung marketers can connect with its brand users. This is what we call Pathos (i.e. appeal).

Unfortunately though, we in our society, politics, religion everywhere place undue stress on the pathos part forgetting the need to build the competency and character first, provide enough content for customers to make them convinced. Mere appealing reduces the attractiveness of our offer. By doing this we undermine the customers because in today’s market they are much more informed and empowered than we may like to think.

If you do not have the Ethos and Logos in the first place, people would never come to buy your products no matter how heart touching advertisement and marketing you do. Brand preaching should not be like canvassing that gives a mouthful of promises but delivers none.

When I set an objective, I make sure that everyone in the organization knows it, understands it, and owns it. I don’t only aim for top management engagement. I engage everyone in the organization regardless of their position, power or authority. Engagement is different than appointment. Many executives are appointed but not all of us are engaged. My philosophy is that we should engage and motivate people and with a proper clarity of purpose. And when they are engaged, they can move mountains.

Future Startup

If you look back at your journey, was there any particular struggle or challenge that made you who you are today or shaped your outlook towards life and work significantly? I believe that if you want to know someone then you have to know their struggles.

K M Ali

I started my career in a very humble way. The first job that I took was a 12 hours duty per day. My salary was BDT 400 per month. My wife was a student of Dhaka University at that time. My father also retired from his job by the time. Those were really difficult days. Initially, I really struggled financially.

Despite the challenges, I always believed in my ability to overcome. Eventually, I got into BAT, one of the best MNCs in true sense, where I had got the opportunity to develop myself. At BAT, I started from scratch. I was posted in remote areas at least for the first ten years; you can say four corners of the country. I travelled to remote villages on a bicycle, boat and or even by walking long distances.

During my early days at BAT, I visited as many retailers, markets, and distributors that I could. It was like Teknaf to Tetulia shuttle service. I covered the markets of almost all places. That was, in fact, the foundation of my career. I believed that this was the only way to know the market and prepare myself for the future. I had the academic excellence but I realized that if I do not have the practical knowledge about my job, I would not be able to move forward.

Future Startup

You had to struggle a lot in the early days of your career. And it is hard to stay inspired when you are facing constant challenges? How did you deal with motivation problem that you had to endure at that time?

K M Ali

Mindset is critical. How you look at challenges in life ultimately defines how you respond. When you think you have the ability to overcome whatever challenges come your way, you deal with a challenge in a more positive way. And when you see challenges as something part of your bad luck and don’t believe in your ability to overcome a challenge, you react differently.

I have always tried to develop the right mindset. A sense of responsibility helped as I mentioned earlier. At the beginning of my career, I struggled financially but I eventually overcame that. While at BAT, I struggled with performance issues but I managed to overcome with the support of my superiors. Not only that, I was reckoned as a very good performer and eventually led the Trade marketing & Distribution Department as its number two.

It has taught me something profound about life that it does not matter where you start and how slow your start for that matter. It is about how hard and intelligently you work to move forward. It is about persistence and commitment to improving yourself and your life. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, those days of struggles are the best thing that happened to me. They prepared me for life and helped me to discover myself again and again.

Mindset is critical. How you look at challenges in life ultimately defines how you respond. When you think you have the ability to overcome whatever challenges come your way, you deal with a challenge in a more positive way. And when you see challenges as something part of your bad luck and don’t believe in your ability to overcome a challenge, you react differently.

Future Startup

Can you please tell us more about Partex Star Group CX1? How big is your team and how things work?

K M Ali

Partex Star Business Complex 1 is basically a Building Materials Division. It carries the name Partex as its brand name which is the market leader. We have nearly 900 people only in the management team in 14 different companies spanning multiple domains and industries. In total, we are approximately a team of 6500 people including workers level.

Partex is a very old company. I am here for about last 7 years. Throughout my tenure with a little break in between, of course, our team has been working to bring positive and sustainable changes to the organization.

Our primary aim is to get the right people for the right job. And then create an effective strategic response to the fast-changing market in terms of products and services matching our brand promise.

I would also emphasize on training and development of people. It is incredibly important that you invest in your people. A good business is all about great people. I regularly organize workshops and training sessions to improve skills of our people.

it does not matter where you start and how slow your start for that matter. It is about how hard and intelligently you work to move forward. It is about persistence and commitment to improving yourself and your life. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, those days of struggles are the best thing that happened to me. They prepared me for life and helped me to discover myself again and again.

Future Startup

Can you please tell us about the organizational culture at PSG? How do people work and operate?

K M Ali

I think the organizational culture comes from individual culture. What I do gets reflected in my organization and what every one of us at PSG does collectively is our culture.

Culture, in simple term, is what we do repeatedly. If you do not have a good culture in your organization then your company will be at risk. You can draw up good figures, profits and numbers on your balance sheet in the short-run, but in the long run, things will crumble.

The most significant downside of a bad culture is that you would not be able to attract and retain good and competent people. Without competent people, it is hard to build and sustain a company. People don’t leave a company; the company is nothing without people. People leave unsupportive supervisors and colleagues. Backstabbing, suspiciousness, aggressive behaviors and politics and mostly promote bad culture.

There is a leadership philosophy called Servant Leadership. It has been in existence for ages. Traditional leadership normally deals with the exercise of power by one at the top of the mountain By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, keeps the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform at optimum level. Servant leadership turns the power structure upside down; instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. By doing this the leaders unleashes the potential and creativity in those around them, resulting in superlative performance.

In business, this philosophy has been popularized by Howard Schultz of Starbucks which should be a role model for many leaders today.

Finally, let me put it this way, in this competitive world, you need talented people for your organization to serve, survive and thrive in the market. A great organization culture is the sure fire way to attract and retain talented people. The financial cost of losing right people due to bad culture could be staggering.

Future Startup

You have almost 14 companies in CX1; it is difficult to talk about challenges of an individual entity. Instead, can you please touch upon a bit about what are the major overall challenges for your business?

K M Ali

The overall challenge is to ensure a better future for the entire organization. My goal is to turn each and every unit of the business into a self-sustainable venture so that they can run on their own.

It is easy to manage a small venture with ad-hoc rules and systems. But for a large diversified conglomerate like PSG – Cx1, it is very difficult to manage without scalable systems, processes, and structures. It is imperative to define things and put together structures so that things progress smoothly regardless of over the shoulder supervision.

When I was in Danish, I introduced ‘Independent Business Unit (IBU) with an intention to turn each unit into a Strategic Business Unit (SBU) eventually with independent resources, human resources, banking support, facilities, and planning. My ultimate plan was to turn them into companies and take them to IPO. This sort of planning allows you to devise a focused plan with exponential growth through materialization of a visionary goal.

The other challenge is around finding right people. By right people, I am referring to people with right attitude, character, personality, skill and also talent, as a whole. Great people are scarce in our environment.

The other challenge is resource management and mobilization. It is becoming increasingly difficult to manage resources for large organizations.

I think it is critical to have a cross-functional understanding of things in order to be an effective CEO or leader. I have always felt that the limitation of MBAs is that they don’t read philosophy, literature, psychology or anthropology. Unless you read this, you don’t understand people or context. And business is an art of understanding people and context than anything else.

Future Startup

PSG CX1 is a huge organization. How do you align everybody in the team with major strategic decisions?

K M Ali

It is about the heart to heart engagement through open communications. As I mentioned earlier, engagement is at the core of my strategy. I engage people, everyone in the team. It is true for when major changes are taking place. When you are designing a strategy, if you engage, it becomes easier to implement. I call upon my core team and instruct them to spread it out up, across and down the line.

I try to communicate effectively. I always use some visuals and metaphors when I am communicating with my team. The key to effective change management is basically effective communication and alignment.

More importantly, I think it is critical to have a cross-functional understanding of things in order to be an effective CEO or leader. I have always felt that the limitation of MBAs is that they don’t read philosophy, literature, psychology or anthropology. Unless you read this, you don’t understand people or context. And business is an art of understanding people and context than anything else.

I try all these knowledge – starting from literature to history and sociology just to drive the point home. It helps me to understand people better and deal with situations better.

Future Startup

What are your future plans for the company?

K M Ali

Firstly, the plan is to have both organic and inorganic growth. But first of all, we need to concentrate on our core competencies like building materials division. Our goal is to take advantage of these growing opportunities in the geo-political environment.

At Partex, we have a legacy of reputation and performance that offers us unprecedented opportunity to move forward as a brand. Our ambition is to position ourselves as one of the leading business corporations in the country as well as expand our operations internationally.

Lastly, when you build an enterprise and make its principles strong, process strong, people strong and culture strong the rest just falls into place to create an exponential growth.

Future Startup

How do you work as a CEO? How to prioritize and manage everything?

K M Ali

Our office time starts at 9:00 am. For CX0s office hour is flexible but I make it a point to attend office in time. I believe in the principle of leading by example. Being a leader, people look up to us and take cues to shape their own behavior. When I come late, I also run the risk of encouraging similar behavior from my people. Similarly, when you don’t do something worthwhile you lose the moral authority to ask other people to do it. You can’t preach what you yourself don’t practice.

Now, let me turn to my office, I check emails and follow-up. Then I drink a cup of tea and by 9:00 am I’m ready for the day’s activities. I start planning the day by listing schedules and priorities.

I am a strong believer in collective leadership and when I make any critical decision, I make sure that I do it with my people. I believe that in order to deliver results and we need to empower people. It encourages ownership and a sense of responsibility. A manager must take responsibility for his or her action and results.

I maintain a positive outlook when dealing with people. I try not to point out negative side unless it is absolutely necessary. As Mother Teresa said, “If you have the time to judge then you will not have the time to love.” I am an avid follower of the idea.

Our office time starts at 9:00 am. For CX0s office hour is flexible but I make it a point to attend office in time. I believe in the principle of leading by example. Being a leader, people look up to us and take cues to shape their own behavior. When I come late, I also run the risk of encouraging similar behavior from my people. Similarly, when you don’t do something worthwhile you lose the moral authority to ask other people to do it. You can’t preach what you yourself don’t practice.

Future Startup

What does it take to become an effective CEO?

K M Ali

First of all, to be a CEO, one must have the people skill. People skill is actually, considered as a specialized skill and not a threshold skill. You have to be sensitive enough to understand and interpret people’s emotions.

You have to have the ability to stimulate people’s mind. You need to have an inspiring presence. Leadership is largely about mobilizing people and inspiring people. You have to understand what motives your people and how to design reward to move things and ideas.

Secondly, you have to manage the resources in an efficient way. An ability to create surplus and wealth for the organization regardless of resources is precisely what a CEO should have. This is because, a CEO is not just another employee in the organization, he is rather an entrepreneurial employee.

A CEO has to be an excellent strategist. Even if you have a good idea or team or product or superb insight, you will still fail if you cannot understand the market and respond with a proper strategy and execution. You have to see the market with a different lens which your competition is not seeing. A CEO has to have the outside view still being an organization insider.

Future Startup

How would you design a strategy and what do you think about strategy?

K M Ali

The first step is to understand the context and challenge. Once you define the challenge, it will tell you what to do. However, this may not be the case always.

Design thinking is a popular idea these days when it comes to solving a complex problem. I find the idea quite interesting. Normally, we do things through trial and error and find the best possible solution through the process. I strongly recommend that people should rather check out design thinking to avoid unnecessary trial and error method which is time consuming and costly.

The other thing is a contingency plan. Whenever you will make a move the competitions will not sit back, they will definitely act as well. While designing a strategy, you also have to the plan for course correcting the changes.

Finally, a good strategy is nothing unless you put it into work. In order to put it into work, you have to manage your relationships with various stakeholders including your customers, suppliers, and employees. At the end of the day, your people either make or break a strategy.

Future Startup

How do you think about leadership?

K M Ali

I believe that a leader is someone who is always there to present a solution, tackle a crisis and take responsibility in the face of uncertainties for the people around him. He is someone who gives purpose and someone in who people put trust.

A leader is not like every one of us. When a storm emerges, birds try to find shelter whereas eagles come out from their nests and start flying high defying clouds. Leaders have a very different purpose and a unique mindset.

There is a debate about the idea of leader and manager. Many people argue that they are mutually exclusive. But I beg to disagree. I think in order to be an effective leader you have to have good managerial skills. Unless you can manage, you can’t lead. In fact, it can be said that a manager may need to lead and a leader may need to manage depending on the situation and urgency. However, a leader must bring about changes. Great leaders always practice and do great things out of the ordinary.

Our young people make almost no decision of their lives until they are 30 or so. Throughout our adult life, our parents as long as they are alive make decisions for us which ultimately reinforces dependency. This is prevalent in our society and it creates unintended incapacity for us to meet challenges at our workplaces. This is one of the major sources of stress for many leaders that people can’t make their own decisions.

Future Startup

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

K M Ali

I apply simple things such as reading, sitting alone, taking a deep breath, taking a short break, listening to music, creative thinking etc., Stress is a common thing in our daily life. You can’t completely get rid of it. However, you can definitely learn to live well with it.

One of the sources of stress is, of course, our people and environment. Culturally, we are incapable of making decisions. The story goes, once a Minister in the cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru had forwarded an issue to Nehru for his decision. Nehru replied that the decision of the Prime Minister was that the minister should be able to take the decision.

Culturally, we are formatted in a dependent mode which makes us uncomfortable in the position of authority and power. In such cases decision making becomes difficult.

Our young people make almost no decision of their lives until they are 30 or so. Throughout our adult life, our parents as long as they are alive make decisions for us which ultimately reinforces dependency.

This is prevalent in our society and it creates unintended incapacity for us to meet challenges at our workplaces. This is one of the major sources of stress for many leaders that people can’t make their own decisions. Probably you are all aware of this ‘to be or not to be that is the question’ syndrome that eventually killed prince Hamlet

Future Startup

What advice would you give to the people who are starting out?

K M Ali

First of all, never give up. Initially, it will be very difficult but you should not give up. When you start anything, be it a car or you running, it takes some time to set the rhythm and build the momentum. Once the momentum is created, it picks up the steam and keeps moving forward. In your life, startup, and career you have to create that momentum. It will take some time and hard work and you have to be resilient at the beginning but once you reach the momentum, you will be set to go.

Start small. You do not need a lot of resources just to start. Instead, you need the right mindset and an intelligent approach to issues and opportunities you come across.

Work hard. There is no secret to success, it is about applying yourself and working hard every day.

Be a relentless observer. Try to look beyond what is on the surface or what is obvious. The opportunity lies in the non-obvious things. Everyone can see what is visible but very few people can master the details to reach an incredible solution.

First of all, never give up. Initially, it will be very difficult but you should not give up. When you start anything, be it a car or you running, it takes some time to set the rhythm and build the momentum. Once the momentum is created, it picks up the steam and keeps moving forward. In your life, startup, and career you have to create that momentum. It will take some time and hard work and you have to be resilient at the beginning but once you reach the momentum, you will be set to go.

(Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription By Md. Tashnim)

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