When Navidul Huq created Bongo BD, one of the largest OTT platforms, he had already been in a leading role at Mohammadi Group.
Expanding business umbrellas are natural for conglomerates. But Navid creating Bongo BD was more than that. He wanted to prove that he could set up a business aside from what his parents had already.
So, he started the business in partnership with his childhood friend. Launching the company with an initial seed of Tk2.5 crores from his father and Tk2.5 crores from his partner, Bongo BD now has around Tk100 crores turnover each year, and it is currently a $60 million company.
"Yes, I had my family business exposure and familiarity; all these combined played a role. But I think with a proper business plan, you can be successful in any business," said Navidul Huq, one of the youngest directors of BGMEA and the director of Mohammadi Group, one of Bangladesh's largest conglomerates.
After his father, Annisul Huq, the late mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation, died in 2017; and since his mother joined the BGMEA as president, Navid had been the de-facto leader of Mohammadi Group, his family business empire.
A rising star in the country's business leadership, Navidul had ambitions to build a career in film making instead of business in early life.
After completing his higher secondary education from American International School in 2002, Navid wanted to study media and film studies. But his father strongly opposed the idea.
Father Annisul Huq warned that he wouldn't give him a penny if he studied film. "You will have my support only if you study business," said his father.
Navidul had thus ended up at Bentley University and studied business as his father wished.
Early exposure to business
"When I was in school, I used to visit my parents' office frequently. In the late '90s and early 2000, when the Internet and email were still a new thing, I helped my parents with it," Navid explained how he had an early exposure to the business.
During his graduation from Bentley, he dropped a semester and contributed to his parents' business at that time.
When returned after graduation in 2007, "I was made in charge of our sweater business sector. It was a new business for us at that time and an ailing business in our group. Normally, we were in the woven business since my parents knew woven well. They asked me to try to improve the sweater business for a year. If it did not turn around, they would shut it down."
Bangladesh's selling point is low wages. Why do you think so many garments producers are in Bangladesh? Because we produce low-cost products. How do we produce low-cost products? Because our wages are low.
"I did tremendous hard work and the sweater sector eventually turned around by 2008. Then my parents realised that I would actually come in use," Navidul told with a burst of laughter how he got busy full-time in the business.
Since then, he was engaged in the hosts of responsibilities of Mohammadi Group. Besides garments, this group has IT, power, media, and real estate businesses. He also owns Bongo BD and he is now a BGMEA director.
Although his businesses flourished in many areas, Navidul said he feels comfortable introducing himself as a garment businessman. "First of all, I am a garment businessman, although we have many other businesses."
Raised on the laps of the employees
When asked how the older employees treated him once he ascended the role of leadership, Navidul said, "I am lucky I was raised on the laps of many of our employees. I still work with many of them."
Instead of the concern about employee resistance that usually follows after newer bosses enter the scenario, Navidul is overshadowed by the thoughts of his former employees retiring one by one.
He rather finds adjusting with the new generation challenging. He was comfortable with the older ones, said Navidul, adding that, "I was adjusted already."
Besides, his notion of the new generation of employees is not very inviting. "The new generation is better skilled and efficient, but they lack loyalty and dedication."
To raise employee wages, he conditions upskilling first
Navidul opened up with us about plenty of issues plaguing the garments sector. We asked him about the issues of better wages, labour rights, and gender balance in the garments sector to have an idea of what the next generation leadership thinks of labour rights issues.
When asked for his thoughts on the low wages that garment workers in Bangladesh are offered, Navidul said, "Bangladesh's selling point is low wages. Why do you think so many garments producers are in Bangladesh? Because we produce low-cost products. How do we produce low-cost products? Because our wages are low."
He has a conservative view when it comes to raising wages. "If we want to raise wages, workers' efficiency should be developed at the same time. If the employees do not work on increasing outputs and skills, raise does not work that way."
Navid believes our education system is at fault when it comes to the lack of a skilled workforce. "If workers in China and Vietnam have 80% efficiency, why do our employees have 50% efficiency? Maybe he (a Chinese and Vietnamese worker) is better educated and better trained."
"We also want to upskill our workers. But the workers lack basic knowledge, education, and their critical thinking is poor. As a result, our effort does not bring any result."
His 'down to earth' overview of raising wages and upskilling the workforce, however, sharply contrasts his optimism regarding promoting gender balance.
"The family I belong to encourages women to work. I have seen my mother working all my life; my sisters work, my wife works. The background I was raised in, equality and gender balance are highly acknowledged."
Navidul on top brasses of the private sector being occupied by the foreigners
"I have ten foreign employees here. If I could employ local people of the same calibre with double salary, I would take them. I would not employ foreigners with four times more in compensation.
"Since we do not have local people who have a combination of the same skill set, speed, and dedication, we hire foreigners. It is close to impossible to hire a good person for a good position," Navidul Huq sounded blunt.
Is there a way local people can lead the top brasses?
"Our worst lacking is that our level of education is abysmal. We do not have people with good education, skill and exposure. You cannot solve this overnight. If you start to work on it, you will find a solution 20 years from now." Where to begin if we want a change?
"We got to begin working from education. It got to be made realistic."
On automation and post-LDC negotiations
Navid advises creating more labour-intensive sectors as automation will kill many jobs in the RMG sector.
"We had to reduce a big number of people already thanks to automation. It will challenge us as an industry in the future. I think in terms of production technology, a massive change is due because of the latest innovation in automation – which is robotic and artificial intelligence."
"If more labour-intensive industries don't grow, many jobs will be lost due to the automation in the garments industry."
We asked if he is ready for the race for better price negotiation as LDC graduation will lose him some special privileges in the western market.
"I think we are not prepared for that future yet. When the GSP privileges are gone, we have to be competitive in productivity and technology. It will be a big challenge for us."
We ended the conversation asking Navidul Huq if he has political ambitions like his father Annisul Huq. He said, "No. I do not have such ambitions."
"Discipline. I learned from my father. He said I needed to be the first person in the office, serious, and hardworking if I want others who work for me to be serious and hard working. I will follow his lead in business."