On Saturdays, Mohammed Amirul Haque wakes up at 5 am and starts his journey to Dhaka from Chattogram, where he was born and raised. "When I visit my factories, it is as though I am visiting my garden," said the multi-factory owner and businessman.
Haque lives in Dhaka for three days. On Monday evenings, he journeys back to Chattogram for his offices there. He spends Fridays with his family, and mostly walks or goes for a swim for leisure, but otherwise, Haque is to be found busy handling his business affairs.
When the pandemic hit, Haque's company had to cut production by 50% during Covid-19 but he did not compromise on his employees' salaries - which amounts to Tk12 crore each month.
The exceptionally high amount of monthly salary exists because Haque founded at least half a dozen renowned brands such as Premier Cement, Delta Shipyard, Rupsha Petro Chemical Refinery, Seacom Group, Delta LPG and Delta Agro Food Industries, among others.
Haque has also been involved in the business of shipping, stevedoring and logistics, coastal Ship transportation and tank terminal. Additionally, he also became involved in edible oil refinery, LPG terminal, agriculture and Horticulture, manufacturing sacks and bags, shrimp hatchery, and, lastly, real estate.
Currently, Haque has 30 ventures that employ 6,000 people directly and more than 9,000 people through second-party contractors. He also has 60 lighter vessels from DWT (deadweight tonnage) 3,200 to 1,200 DWT capacity. Over the last 36 years, as Haque expanded his business, the cumulative investment in his business soared, and now it amounts to over $1 billion.
Perhaps hard to believe now, but Haque started with almost nothing.
A quiet beginning, Covid-19 and patriotism
In March 1985, Haque rented a 600 square foot office with one staff member and began selling scrap vessels as a middleman. Rerouting from his father's chosen profession in law, Haque took the path of becoming a businessman.
Earlier, he had completed a graduate degree in business studies from a government commerce college in Chattogram and then completed his post-graduation in leadership and sustainability in the United Kingdom.
Moreover, Haque is a Fellow Member of the Institute of Petroleum, United Kingdom. After the degrees, Haque began to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather who was a businessman. And he did it almost empty-handed.
But the visionary entrepreneur, born in April 1961 in Chattogram, soon struck gold. Fortune smiled on him, as he had earned Tk3, 24, 093 settling sales of scraps vessels.
"I wanted to start my own business, [primarily] because I thought I could employ people and eliminate poverty in the country," Haque told The Business Standard.
Haque noted how the economy began to boom after the first private bank was established in the country back in 1984, "the opportunity started to come to us. In March 1985, I started selling scraps within our periphery," recalled Haque.
Before then, everything was nationalised and there were only a few entrepreneurs in the market.
The Tk3 lakh income from selling scrap vessels was Haque's first income, although he started with a small amount of money in a 600 square foot office.
"Today my office is 60,000 square feet," said Haque. The multi-business owner credits his father for inspiring him to become a businessman. "If I weren't in business, I would have been a teacher," said Haque.
One of Haque's chief business ventures is Premier Cement, which was started in 2001.
"It was evident by 1999 that the regime had changed and development had begun. Despite this, no one expected the country to use 35 million tonnes of cement, the amount it does today. My dream was that cement would be needed for the development of the country. I still have this dream," said Haque.
Initially, Premier Cement set out to produce 6,000 tonnes per day, but it started with 2,000 tonnes daily. And within two to three years, it started to produce an additional 2,000 tonnes daily. "Our capacity is now 27,500 metric tonnes per day. We are the second-largest cement producer in the country," said Haque.
Moreover, "Our cement factories employ 2,500 people directly. The annual turnover of the cement company is around half a billion," added Haque.
The businessman was, however, not immune to the effects of the pandemic. Like everyone else, he too faced its difficulties.
"We were severely impacted by the worldwide supply chain disruption. We had to cut our production by 50%. As government projects were ongoing during pandemic lockdowns, we were able to continue our production for government projects," explained Haque.
"We kept our 2,500 workers at our Dhaka factories during the crisis period, and we took all initiative to provide them with food from our own sources. There were no casualties reported at our factories during the crisis period.
No salaries were cut, and we didn't even think about it. In order to maintain the mental strength and spirit of the workers, salaries and bonuses were paid on time," Haque further explained.
A unique characteristic of Haque's factories is the paint. They are coated with red and green colours. "The colours represent the national flag as I do believe that as a result of the birth of the country, the industries were born. It fueled us to become a billion-dollar company," said Haque.
Haque, who experienced the Liberation War at a very young age, firmly believes that our independence fuels growth.
A February (expansion) project
By the end of next month, one of the largest agro composite industries called Delta Agro Food Industries Ltd will begin operations. It was built spending Tk1,200 crore on 45 acres of land in the Narayanganj district.
The company alone employed 1,200 people during Covid-19, according to Haque.
The project involves 2,500 metric tonnes seed crushing including 1,000 metric tonnes of palm oil, 1,000 metric tonnes of soybeans and flour mills. It is one of the largest soya-seed crushing factories in the country.
"We had to wait for power and gas for one and half years. We got the utility lines on 30 December last year. These are the challenges facing our country today. The government must help us," lamented Haque.
The construction of the factory started at the end of 2018. And during the pandemic, it did not stop. But the utility lines caused grievous delays. "Now we are set to start production," said Haque.
Bangladesh spends around $2 billion dollars to import seeds and edible oil each year to meet its oil needs since its domestic production of oilseeds and edible oils is minimal. According to McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) research, Bangladesh, with per capita oil consumption standing at 9.9 Kg per annum, is much behind the global average of 25.2 Kg.
A Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report said per capita wheat consumption in Bangladesh was less than half of the world average – 35.6kg per year in 2020-21.
Haque said that the whooping demand prompted SEACOM and Samuda group (a business beyond his ventures) to invest in the sector. "The factories will help to boost the local agro-based sector as we are building the industries focusing on local wheat and soya-seeds. However, we will crush imported seeds as well," added Haque.
Business in Chattogram
TBS asked Haque how he sees the Chattogram port, through the lens of being an economic gateway? "If the port can properly act as a private port - I am not saying to sell the port - then services will accelerate," said Haque.
The port should either appoint somebody who will bring the equipment. "Why are you (the port) running the equipment? No port in the world is running equipment," said Haque.
In 1996, Haque said, he was the first private sector entrepreneur in the country who introduced private sector equipment at the Chattogram port. "My equipment was frozen for 16 months due to the opposition of the port workers as they did not want Chittagong port to be privatised," recalled Haque.
In 2007, the berth operator concept was introduced by Haque on behalf of the Chattogram Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCCI) and Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce & Industries, according to the businessman. "I had the opportunity to serve the chamber for seven years. If the private sector gets more involved, they would have been doing better," added Haque.
Moreover, is the current situation investment-friendly? "It is always investment-friendly but for foreign investment like FDI, connectivity with Chittagong is very important," said Haque.
Haque also strongly believes that a 10-lane eco-friendly highway is needed to allow people to commute from Dhaka to Chattogram within two hours. "Even a six-lane is fine by me," said Haque, "but why do we have four lanes?"
"The port still could not finish the work of the New Mooring container terminal, for which construction started back in 2008/ 2007. Our minister is saying they will run the Bay Terminal in 2024, I think our minister has been misguided by some people because I believe that is not possible," said Haque, adding, "If you think about the economic game; you have to develop the port, whether it is Mongla or Payra. To secure investment in the Mirsarai Economic zone, we have to develop the port soon."