Career, Life, And The Future Of Cement and Real Estate Industry In Bangladesh: An Interview With Saleh Mujahid, CEO, Doreen Group

Career, Life, And The Future Of Cement and Real Estate Industry In Bangladesh: An Interview With Saleh Mujahid, CEO, Doreen Group


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Saleh Mujahid is the Chief Executive Officer at Eastern Cement Industries Limited and Doreen Developments Limited, two concerns of Doreen Group.

Mr. Mujahid has an interesting story and a diverse career spanning multiple industries and countries. Prior to joining Doreen, he worked at Bata, Meena Bazar, Otobi, and ACI. He is also an author of multiple popular poetry and short stories books.

Mr. Mujahid was raised mostly in Dhaka. In his youth, he was heavily involved in progressive politics, literature and anti-establishment student movements which contributed to shaping his worldview and informs his way of looking at the world even these days.

He studied at Dhaka University for a brief period before dropping out to pursue student movement full time and then, albeit when reality hit in, attended Dhaka City College to complete his B.Com and went on to do an MBA from IBA.

In this interview, Mr. Mujahid walks us through his early life and upbringing, reflects on his journey to what he is doing today, his several decades of career spanning multiple 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 Doreen Group where he leads Easter Cement Industries and Doreen Developments, the current state of the companies and his ambition for the companies going forward and the future of cement, real estate and textile industries in Bangladesh, as well as potentially having his company, Easton Pharmaceuticals getting into real-estate, discusses the incredible importance of building a solid culture, discusses his management philosophy, explains his ideas for being an effective CEO and growing a business, and reflects on why working hard is the antidote to life’s challenges and why it is important for us to understand that importance of any meaningful work does not depend on its popularity or extrinsic recognition of it.

Future Startup

Please tell us about yourself and your journey to what you are doing today.

Saleh Mujahid

I was born in Karachi, Pakistan where my father was stationed for work. My family came to Dhaka in March 1971. When the war broke out, we moved between our maternal and paternal grandfather’s houses on rotation sneaking away from the military. My younger brother was born during the war.

My father was a freedom fighter. Like many other families during the war, we also had to endure our share of struggles. There were times when we ran the risk of our lives. Anyways, we survived the war.

After the war, we returned to Dhaka and settled at Azimpur colony where I spent my childhood and youth. I started my schooling at West End High School, a very old school and still renowned one in that area.

After my SSC, I went to Dhaka City College and then I attended Dhaka University. However, I did not complete my degree at DU. I left Dhaka University in the middle of the degree and decided not to complete.

I was involved in politics, cultural and social organizations while at DU. I was a member of a cultural group called ‘Bortoman’ and was on the first committee of Chatra Federation.

Many of the movements I was involved with were anti-establishment in nature. We wanted to liberate the world. Consequently, I had developed a disdain for the so-called establishment and formal education was part of that establishment. I thought since I want to change the world by bringing parity I should myself leave the establishment that eventually led to my dropping out from the university.

After a few years, the idea of communism started to crumble all over the world. Bangladesh’s communism movement was also affected by that. Those who believed in communism had undergone the same emotional and practical disruption like the rest of the world.

For me, things were doubly difficult for the decision I made around not pursuing a formal education and all that. There was a lot of pressure from friends and families. Some even went one step further and questioned my ability.

I realized that I need a degree for many reasons. I got into Dhaka City College and graduated with a B.Com in 1991. I was still passionate about the cause of communism but I was also aware of the challenges of reality. Later, I got into IBA and did an MBA in Marketing in 1995.

After my graduation, I still did not want to go for a corporate career. But again I had to compromise. However, soon I got disillusioned after working as an Assistant Manager of Sales at Cathay Pacific Airlines for a year.

So I decided to try my luck elsewhere.

While my friends were clinging on to the corporate careers, I started teaching at Oxford International School and stayed there till 1998. Meanwhile, my parents were trying hard to get me married as soon as possible. They were pushing me to get a good corporate job and settle because it was getting difficult to marry me off as a teacher!

Afterward, I joined Bata Shoe Company as Retail Planning Superintendent in 1998. My plan was to do the job for a while, get married and then return to teaching after the marriage, albeit it did not go that way you can see.

Bata was a difficult journey for me but I learned a lot. I suffered largely because of the culture and my age. Being a newcomer, I was not always welcomed by my senior colleagues.

At Bata, my colleagues were all in their 40s while I was just 26. I had to collaborate with them on the same level and designation which many of them did not take it easy and felt offended. As retaliation, they tried to make it hard for me. I was often assigned to the hardest and complicated tasks.

In such an assignment, I was posted to the Banani Bata showroom as the Area Manager. My Managing Director at that time used to live nearby and visit that showroom almost every day, sometimes with his family. Which means we had to work extra hard on a constant basis to keep the store prepared all the time.

It was difficult in a sense that my products, people, inventory and accounts needed to be up to date as well as the decoration, hygiene, and hospitality had to be top notch all the time which was hard to manage. My colleagues wanted to go through these pains. However, it ended up as a good thing for me. I became close to the Managing Director and he picked me up from there.

I was sent to Europe and many places in the world for training and learning. After a while, I ended up being the trainer of my seniors because I attended training programs overseas. I must say it was not liked, by everyone.

After a while, my Managing Director left Bata and new management came in. These changes put me in quite a difficult situation. There was enormous mental pressure on me. Eventually, I decided to move on. After working for 4 years at Bata, I left and joined Meena Bazar.

In 2002, I and one of my colleague, who had left Bata long before, had started working on Meena Bazar. We literally built it from the scratch starting from its first outlet at Satmasjid Road of Dhanmondi.

Every new job and the new role that I was given was a challenge. I had to struggle and then those challenges and struggles helped me to prepare for the next challenges and gave new ideas to do my job better. One of the key lessons from me is that our struggles are our making. Instead of running away from our struggles we should embrace them.

It was a very difficult assignment. Building a retail chain like Meena Bazar is a tall order. I worked there as the Head of Operations and we both had to look after everything starting from buying needles and threads to the placement of bricks for the store. I worked at Meena Bazar for three years before leaving in 2005 for Otobi.

I joined OTOBI as General Manager of Marketing and Sales in 2005. Otobi was an entirely different business with its own kind of challenges that I was not exposed to before.

I was responsible for marketing as well as had to coordinate my strategies with the production team. GM was the second senior most position at that time under the Managing Director, Mr. Nitun Kundu.

Again, I was younger than many of my subordinates which made it even more difficult for me. I was given a tough time by many. Despite the challenges, I managed to thrive.

I worked at Otobi for almost 7 years. I was the first Regional Coordinator for South Asia for Otobi where I worked out of India for 3 and a half years.

I left Otobi in 2011 and joined ACI logistics as the Head of Operations where I worked for over a year.

At that point, I decided to start my own business which I ran for a while. After a year, I decided to return to the corporate world. I joined Dekko Group at their Dekko Accessories Limited as the Head of Operations in 2012 and worked there for two and a half years before joining Doreen.

I joined Doreen Group 2014 as CEO where I look after Eastern Cement, Doreen Development, and our Textile business unit. (Source: https://mirvishandgehry.ca/downtown-location-amenities/) It has been over three and a half years now. When I joined, Doreen was facing a host of business challenges. Over the past few years, we have managed to rebound and now we are a growing company.

Be courageous. Most people try too hard to keep them within the boundaries. Take risk. Make the decision. I believe that a wrong decision is better than no decision. In life, there would be many situations where courage alone will be enough to solve your problems. Every day, show a little more courage.

I’m a passionate reader. I take particular interest in ancient Bangla literature including Puthi and Charyapada. I have written on these subjects quite a few times.

I love art and frequent art galleries across the world while trying to decipher artists and their arts. I have published two poetry books and one book on the life and how I look at it.

Every new job and the new role that I was given was a challenge. I had to struggle and then those challenges and struggles helped me to prepare for the next challenges and gave new ideas to do my job better. One of the key lessons from me is that our struggles are our making. Instead of running away from our struggles we should embrace them.

I have worked in a host of different industries. I worked in footwear, supermarkets, garments accessories, furniture and now cement and real estate. Each of these had different demands and different challenges to take on.

In many instances, I was not sure about the moves I made at first but now that I look back I could see working in diverse industries has its value and it allows you cross-pollinate ideas and strategies and deliver better results.

I believe leadership is all about contribution. Unless you contribute, no one will consider you a leader.

It is important that we care about the people who work for us. Why do people work? Mostly to lead a happy life with their family and loved ones. I believe a business should be equally empathetic to the personal lives of its employees.

Throughout my life, I have always tried to do things in time. I hate procrastination. I do not like to put things off for tomorrow.

I’m a decisive kind of person. I often prefer making a decision than hesitating and doing nothing.

I think it is important that we develop a deep understanding of our work and the world.

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Life is strange. We assume that we control many things but in reality we seldom do. No one knows where I would end up tomorrow. Although we pretend that we know. I was a dropout and doomed to fail. Many of my friends left me because I was a failure. Today, I have come this far which is not a huge success but many people even did not expect this out of me when I was a young idealist and dropout. You never know what life has for you. You just have to trust, believe in yourself and concentrate on doing your work. Most important things in life happen beyond out conscious realization.

Future Startup

You have several decades of experiences in leading and growing companies, what are some of the biggest lessons from all those years?

Saleh Mujahid

Never give in to the challenges and difficulties of life. There will always be problems and challenges but you have to fight back till you are out of options. Every problem has a solution and you just have to look through it and figure it out.

Be courageous. Most people try too hard to keep them within the boundaries. Take risk. Make the decision. I believe that a wrong decision is better than no decision. In life, there would be many situations where courage alone will be enough to solve your problems. Every day, show a little more courage.

Sometimes, an offense is the best form of defense.

Never take no for an answer. Rejection is normal but there is always more than one way to get around a no and make things happen.

The struggles, trials, challenges that we endure are our making. At the end of the day, we are our struggles. The more we suffer the better we become. That simple.

Action trumps everything. It is the answer to the most problems in our life. You can only learn swimming when you get into the water.

I believe that running a business is like running a family. Just like a family, you have to manage your things, resources and concentrate on issues accordingly. Sometimes, you have to be strict and sometimes you have to keep it loose, sometimes you have to think about future and save today and sometimes you have to invest to get more resources. Sometimes your kid gets into a fight with the neighbors, sometimes he gets beaten up and sometimes he beats others. That is fundamentally how a business works. You just need to watch closely.

Balance is everything. I always try to find balance in things and life. When you find your balance, you are all set to go.

Personally, material wealth does not attract me much. I know that I will die someday and all these would be meaningless to me soon. I am very sensitive and empathetic in my personal life. I always try to contribute to the happiness of people. Personally, I dislike showing my children wealth and riches of life. I always believe that they have to see life as it is with its beauty and challenges. I always want my children to understand the world rather than just topping the examinations.

Life is strange. We assume that we control many things but in reality we seldom do. No one knows where I would end up tomorrow. Although we pretend that we know. I was a dropout and doomed to fail. Many of my friends left me because I was a failure. Today, I have come this far which is not a huge success but many people even did not expect this out of me when I was a young idealist and dropout.

You never know what life has for you. You just have to trust, believe in yourself and concentrate on doing your work. Most important things in life happen beyond out conscious realization.

My philosophy is that if you are doing meaningful works, satisfaction lies in doing it, not in the result or the recognition.

Book Cover, Saleh Mujahid - Courtesy SM

Book Cover, Saleh Mujahid – Courtesy SM

Future Startup

You are an author meaning pursue creative work. During student life, you were involved in the communist movement. there is an idealist in you that is quite against the establishment. But now, to some extent, you are part of the establishment. How do you deal with the paradoxes of a creative person and idealism and the world you are working in now.

Saleh Mujahid

To be very honest, every creative person lives in a paradox and duality. In a perennial conflict that goes on inside. For the sanity, understanding and managing this duality is critical and when you fail to manage you end up being insane. It is a matter of how you look at it and nurture it for that matter.

We all eventually die regardless of our achievements and all. Sometimes, we can see our works getting recognized during our lifetime and many of us are not so lucky. Many great artists in the past could not see the result of their work. For example, Jibanananda Das. His contemporaries even did not recognize him as a poet and today he is one of the most important poets of Bengali literature. Vincent Van Gogh had committed suicide out of poverty whereas we are now dealing with his paintings with millions of dollars. It does not matter for them as they could not see any of it in their lifetime. On the other hand, Rabindranath Tagore could see his life and fame while he was alive. Humayun Ahmed too.

My philosophy is that if you are doing meaningful works, satisfaction lies in doing it, not in the result or the recognition. You need no external recognition. Sometimes, I go out in old clothes and roam the streets and observe the world as a common man. When I attend any party I try to stay aloof to enjoy the party in my own way. I love the feeling that I am a nobody and that I will turn to a nobody eventually. That is my way of life.

Sometimes, I feel like to abandon all this hustle, bustle and responsibilities and live on my own on a riverside tent like Hasan Raja. Then again, we are responsible for others and that is why we can not just do whatever we like and whenever we like it.

I personally believe in maintaining a work-life balance. I dislike it when people work late beyond the office time and when people work on weekdays. We encourage people to have weekends and leave office on time.

Future Startup

Please tell us about your work at Doreen Group. Also, please give us an overview of the company.

Saleh Mujahid

Doreen is a quite big group of companies. We have investment is a host of sectors including Power, Garments, Textile, Hotel and Resorts, Dhaka Stock Exchange and a host of other sectors.

I look after three companies: Eastern Cement Industries which produces Seven Horse Cement, Doreen Development which is our Real Estate Company and our Textile business. There are separate management teams for other businesses.

In Cement, we are a medium-sized company. Our Real Estate business is in its early stage and the textile is one of the oldest of companies in Doreen. However, our size is moderate.

My job as a CEO has been to improve the profitability of the companies that I’m responsible for. I am also strategizing some new ventures.

We have around 2000 people in the 3 companies that I look after. Cement has over 1000 people and Real Estate has around 500 and the Textiles has around 400 people.

Future Startup

Please tell us about the culture at Doreen. How do people work and collaborate?

Saleh Mujahid

The culture is collaborative. We work as a team. I routinely meet with the board and we team sit together as well to make major decisions and design strategy.

I personally believe in maintaining a work-life balance. I dislike it when people work late beyond the office time and when people work on weekdays. We encourage people to have weekends and leave office on time.

We treat our people as family. I try to know them, their families and personal life. We rejoice our success together.

We celebrate almost every success with cakes and candles just to keep the morale high and maintain the strong bonding.

I dislike office politics and rumor and we try to contain both. When I see a complaint or problem, I listen to both parties bringing them together and solve it. When you bring both parties together, things get easier to solve and you can solve it transparently.

We have empowered our functional heads to make decisions and make their calls. I sometimes also check on their people. My door is always open but then and again if someone is trying to get a decision in their favor with explanations and reasons, I do not take a heed on those. I try to judge things dispassionately.

It is a fast-growing industry and logically so given all the infrastructure works that are going on and that we need as a country. I believe this pace of growth will continue for another 15 to 20 years.

Future Startup

Please give us an overview of the Cement industry in Bangladesh. What do you think about the future of the industry?

Saleh Mujahid

Cement is a big industry. If you talk about the size, it is over BDT 20,000 crore industry per year.

It is a fast-growing industry and logically so given all the infrastructure works that are going on and that we need as a country. I believe this pace of growth will continue for another 15 to 20 years.

Future Startup

What are the challenges for Eastern Cement Industries?

Saleh Mujahid

The market is competitive and competition is intensifying by the day.

We are a medium-sized company which makes us relatively vulnerable to competitive pressures from the larger players in the market. The financing has become a little challenging over the past several years.

Having said that, there will always be challenges in business and your job is to move forward regardless of the challenges.

Instead of trying something out of the box, we are trying to do basic things right. We are doing everything to keep the pressure on competitors and focus on our operations.

Our marketing and sales teams are doing a great job. They are working hard to push the competitors at bay and grow our market share. We aim to continue this push and grow in the process.

Real Estate companies have created a bubble in the market through their activities over the past several years where they paid a premium for lands in different parts of the country with the hope that they would be able to sell at an even higher premium. Apparently, it did not happen and it pushed the entire industry to the brink.

Future Startup

What is your take on the real estate of the country?

Saleh Mujahid

After a long hiatus, the industry is slowly turning around. Real estate is a business of collaboration where companies collaborate with the landowners. If both parties are not on the same page, things are unlikely to be fruitful.

Landowners now have the opportunity to get loans from the Bank at a cheap rate which is why many of them are opting for building on their own. This has created a newer kind of challenge for the real estate companies.

On the other hand, Real Estate companies have created a bubble in the market through their activities over the past several years where they paid a premium for lands in different parts of the country with the hope that they would be able to sell at an even higher premium. Apparently, it did not happen and it pushed the entire industry to the brink.

Now real estate companies have learned their lessons and they are behaving with an after bubble mentality whereas landowners are not. But landowners are still asking for the same premium that they used to receive a few years ago. That is why growth is still a little slow.

Having said that, market correction has happened and it will happen further in the near future.

Growth usually comes from serving your customers well. You can only serve your customers well when you have a great team and a great organizational culture that support that goal.

Saleh Mujahid speaking at an event | Courtesy - SM

Saleh Mujahid speaking at an event | Courtesy – SM

Future Startup

What does it take to grow a company? What are the things you need to do in order to grow a business?

Saleh Mujahid

When growth slows is slows for a reason. Similarly, when your business is growing it is growing for reasons. Hence, the first thing is identifying the problems and bottlenecks.

My first job after joining Doreen was to identify the problems. At that time, it was the quality of products. Some of our machinery were giving a subpar output and inconsistent quality.

Now when your product is not good enough, you can’t properly compete in the market and customers would not return unless you offer quality products. We fixed that problem by simply replacing and fixing our machinery.

Prior to me, people were blaming each other and were trying to find a problem in the production line and factories which was a wrong approach.

When you see a problem, the most productive thing to do is identifying the root cause and addressing that.

Another challenge was sales. Our sales was not growing fast enough. It was an HR problem because a few people in the sales team decided to do things their way instead of putting the interest of the company first. We decided to let them go one by one and we brought in new people who have generated fantastic result since.

Growth usually comes from serving your customers well. You can only serve your customers well when you have a great team and a great organizational culture that support that goal.

Having said that, every change takes time. So does making growth happen. It took us nearly 2 years to set all of these things straight and start moving upward. So you have to consistently work hard for a long time.

Future Startup

What are your future plans for the company?

Saleh Mujahid

We have come a long way over the past few years as a business. We are now stable and have a consistent operation. Growth is the priority going forward. That is where our focus is now.

I look after the Cement and Textiles businesses of the group where our plans are to double our capacity to have more market share and business.

Real Estate market is rebounding slowly and we are doing well and there too our goal is growth and more sales.

Future Startup

What does it take to be an effective CEO?

Saleh Mujahid

First and foremost, you have to be a good human being. The world has changed and you can’t afford to lose your reputation.

Business is all about numbers, finding balance, acting ahead of the competition and seeing what is next. A CEO needs to understand the numbers, have a good intuitive power so that he can act ahead of the market.

A leadership role involves dealing with a lot of people which is why you need to be a good human being. I think it is critical to be able to make decisions fast. Because often a bad decision is better than indecision.

Stress is a part of life. If you are working, there will be challenges and difficulties and at times you will feel overwhelmed. You have to get used to it. I think at the end of the day we all learn to live with imperfections of life and difficulties and sufferings life brings to us.

Future Startup

What do you think about leadership?

Saleh Mujahid

You can speak a lot about the theory which I don’t want to talk about. To me, it is simply about being with the people, solving problems together with your people, engaging your people in finding solutions.

It is about setting an example instead of forcing people to do things. Often leading by example is the best way to lead.

Saleh Mujahid | Write up Screenshot

Saleh Mujahid | Write up Screenshot

Future Startup

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

Saleh Mujahid

Stress is a part of life. If you are working, there will be challenges and difficulties and at times you will feel overwhelmed. You have to get used to it.

I think at the end of the day we all learn to live with imperfections of life and difficulties and sufferings life brings to us.

If you are looking for a specific strategy, I pray and meditate when I feel stressed. I feel comfortable in the solitude and in the presence of my creator.

The only advice anyone needs I think is that you need to work hard and work intelligently no matter what your profession is. Often intelligence is not enough. Nothing fails like talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

Future Startup

How do you think about life?

Saleh Mujahid

I’m a simple person and showing off is not my cup of tea. What you are will be proved by what you do. You will be judged by your work and activities. It is often distracting and most of the time detrimental to keep buzzing people about what you do and your activities.

I don’t buy into the idea that you have to achieve a lot, get recognition and all that. Rather I think it is important to do meaningful work – work that you believe is important to do – regardless of what other people think of it or whether they recognize you or not. Importance of any meaningful work does not depend on its popularity or extrinsic recognition of it.

Future Startup

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

Saleh Mujahid

The only advice anyone needs I think is that you need to work hard and work intelligently no matter what your profession is.

Often intelligence is not enough. Nothing fails like talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

Similarly, applying critical thinking is often an underappreciated quality in our society. Develop the habit of thinking critically and the ability to see beyond the surface.

I don’t buy into the idea that you have to achieve a lot, get recognition and all that. Rather I think it is important to do meaningful work – work that you believe is important to do – regardless of what other people think of it or whether they recognize you or not. Importance of any meaningful work does not depend on its popularity or extrinsic recognition of it.

(Interview: Ruhul Kader, Transcription: Mohammad Tashnim, Image Courtesy, Doreen)

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