How three generations of entrepreneurs built a legacy local brand that continues to thrive in an industry now dominated by Indian brands
It began in a tiny room, as a young man's sole experiment, without any industrial touch.
He would mix paints in a small bucket, put the shades through tests and trials until he was satisfied. He had only one assistant, who also doubled as the delivery person.
The year was 1952 and the paint business was all but a far-fetched idea in Bangladesh.
But from that small chemical factory, Serajuddin Ahmed successfully built Elite Paint, and eventually Elite Group of Industries.
Serajuddin Ahmed was born in 1931 in Kamarjuri, Joydebpur. After completing his HSC and graduation from Salimullah College, he came to Chittagong and settled there.
He quit his job as an executive in a trading company and founded Elite Paint in 1952 under his venture "Elite Chemical Industries", with the aim of providing high quality paints at a competitive price.
Between 1952 and 1954, Elite Paint came into full-fledged production.
In the early years of independence, Bangladesh was facing a severe sugar crisis. Sugar import was lucrative, many businessmen indulged in it.
"My elder brothers had imported some sugar and stored it in our warehouse. Abba had gone somewhere when it happened. When he came back and saw it, he told my brothers to immediately remove them, or else he was going to throw the sugar in a drain!"
A man of firm business ethics, this is how Serajuddin Ahmed, founder chairman of Elite Group of Companies, was remembered by his youngest son, Sajedur Seraj.
"He was strictly against trading and said no one in his family should be involved in it. He would always say that trading only brings money to whoever does it, but manufacturing creates job opportunities for others," he said.
Post-independence, Elite Paint flourished more and became especially popular in markets across North Bengal where paint used to be scarce.
"Some old shops in North Bengal still remember my father, he had that effect on people. He was soft-spoken and at the same time, a fantastic salesperson and a great coach," recalled Sajedur.
Before his sudden demise in Poland in 1985, Elite paint continued to be the market's leading paint brand.
"I was in a boarding school in London when Abba went to Poland on a business trip. He met me in London before going off to Poland and told me he was going to come back and spend another day with me. But it never happened," Sajedur said, his voice heavy with emotion.
"He was such a successful businessman. Had my father lived longer, he could have done so much more," he added.
Serajuddin Ahmed loved the simple things in life. He was also a doting father and husband.
Sajedur Seraj reminisced, "Family was always the most important thing for my father. No matter what, we would always have breakfast together. In the afternoon, he would come back from office and we would have lunch together."
"After our mother passed away in 1982, he truly became a workaholic. Those three years, from 1982 to 1985, he may have worked the hardest," Sajedur said.
From 1974 to 1983, Serajuddin Ahmed also established Elite Tea, Elite Garments and Elite Steel. Elite Tea used to be one of the largest exporters of tea in Bangladesh.
He was also the founder director of Arab Bangladesh Bank Ltd, former president of Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industries and former chairman of Tea Traders Association of Bangladesh (TTAB).
He was also one of the eternal founder members of Bhatiary Golf & Country Club.
Serajuddin's departure, however, appears to have foreshadowed the decline of local brands in the paint industry in Bangladesh. Up until the late 1980s, Elite Paint used to be the single largest player in the paint industry in Bangladesh. Then the Bangladeshi economy opened up in the 1990s and Indian paint brands such a Berger began spreading its wings in the market. Today, Indian brands control nearly 80 to 85 percent of the market.
At present, Serajuddin's grandsons, Shajir Ahmed, Rabez Ahmed and Rahil Ahmed are looking after Elite Paint and Chemical Industries as its directors.
"Our late grandfather's values of integrity, accountability, and trust are what have kept the company thriving and they continue to act as guiding principles as we work with the drive to be the best in the industry," said Rahil Ahmed.
On whether local paint companies could have prevented the gradual decline when the paint market dominance changed, he said that within 2010 to 2011, the paint market grew exponentially, which the local players could not foresee.
The MNCs used this opportunity and spent millions on television advertisements and campaigns to shift the consumers' mind.
According to Rahil Ahmed, at that point, there was an opportunity to grab chunks of market share by spending a lot of money on quality advertisements and/or campaigns, and by making some smart capital investments.
Unfortunately, local players did not have access to the huge sums of money or marketing backup like the MNCs.
That being said, Elite Paint has gradually worked its way up to meet the international standards of ISO 2008-2014. They are the only certified lead safe paint manufacturer in Bangladesh.
In 2018, Elite Paint gained global recognition by gaining the "Superbrands" status.
"Changes are rapid and are taking place everywhere. Starting from which technology is being used to manufacture coatings to what new and exciting machine is being used to apply paint. There is a growing need for special industrial coatings, as industries are demanding more protection for their assets.
"Going forward, there will be an increasing need to invest time and money in market research and R&D to understand consumer behaviour better and provide more innovative solutions to meet business needs," said Rahil speaking about changes in the industry.
Currently, the paint industry of Bangladesh is worth nearly Tk4,000 crore and 1,94,0000 metric ton in volume; 45 companies are operating in the market.
The focus was always on providing high quality products to the customers, which is why when the market was slowly being infiltrated by foreign paint brands. Resultantly, Elite had to focus more intensely on rebranding and marketing.
Another of Serajuddin's grandson, Shayaan Seraj, is the director of Aqua Paints.
The two companies operate differently, but stem from the same dreams that Serajuddin Ahmed had.
"When we were young, we used to hear that our grandfather would experiment with paint in a small bucket inside his house. From those experiments, he eventually built Elite Paint. The Elite House in 54, Motijheel still stands erect as a landmark."
Shayaan Seraj believes that contrary to popular belief, paints are not a luxury. A nicely painted house gives the feel of cleanliness and comfort.
Moreover, paint creates a protective layer on walls and saves them from rain, dust and mold. Softer shades and shades of white help reflect the sunlight and keep away heat.
He said, "While constructing a building, the primary cost lies in building its structure with rods, cement etc. The paint part is actually not that expensive but it tends to get ignored."
He shared an anecdote on how once a shade of green got made.
"My wife and I were visiting Lalakhal in Sylhet and we were just mesmerised by the bright green of nature. It was a beautiful shade of green which we tried to recreate in Aqua Paints and named it 'Lalakhal Green'."
He also said that although local paint companies in Bangladesh have been losing out market share, foreign brands do not always maintain quality.
Instead, they focus more on advertisements and gifts – things which attract customers more.
The government should ensure fair competition and support good quality brands to help them thrive.