At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in Bangladesh, there was an unprecedented level of job loss. As companies were unsure about the market trajectory and even their own operational resilience, they had to let many of their workers go.
As a result, economists feared that a grave recession may come soon. Even though the economy has recovered pretty quickly and unemployment is also gradually decreasing, for the majority of workers, the beginning of the pandemic was a time filled with uncertainty and anxiety.
But the employees of British American Tobacco (BAT) were able to avoid such a chaotic situation, partly due to the stewardship of one of the most promising business leaders in the country, Hasnain Ishtiaq.
Being a supply chain manager for one of the largest companies in Bangladesh is a hard enough challenge in and of itself.
As Hasnain puts it, "Supply chain is at the heart of any good business model. We, in BAT, have 40,000 registered farmers from whom we have to collect tobacco. We have workers in our factory alongside a large retail force. A supply chain manager has to coordinate between all of these moving parts".
But Hasnain's task was made even more challenging with the onset of Covid-19. Uncertainty is inherent to any such crisis but the pandemic was an unprecedented one. Operating such a large business like BAT in such a difficult time should have been a near-impossible task.
But the business continued to thrive instead. And the competent management of its supply chain played a crucial role. As many businesses had to close down their production facilities during the lockdown, causing an enormous amount of job loss and pay cuts, BAT was able to keep their factory open by collaborating with their workers.
"We sat with the leaders of the trade unions through which we operate our factory", Hasnain added, "We discussed whether to continue our normal operations. In the end, we determined that there was a demand for our product in the market and therefore, running our operations would be the right thing to do".
"Once workers [at BAT] saw that the company is willing to take care of them, they became far more motivated. They took charge of the production process and cared for the company as if it was their own. We did not have to look back after that."
But that decision introduced many complexities and nuances into the day to day running of the factory. Due to the strict lockdown imposed by the government, no public transports were present on the road. Additionally, there was a looming threat of Covid-19 infection at the factory.
To reduce the anxiety regarding this precarious situation, Hasnain decided to ensure workplace safety above anything else.
"We provided transportation facilities for our workers as public transportation was not available. We also instituted mandatory temperature checks and sanitation facilities in our factory to minimise the risk of contamination", Hasnain stated.
"We had an already established medical centre in our factory. But due to the vulnerable nature of the workers, we also kept doctors who were available for online consultation 24/7", he additionally remarked.
Hasnain also decided to make care packages for the workers and their families, providing them with face masks and sanitisers at a time when there was a shortage of these products in the market.
This was the biggest catalyst behind the resilience of BAT during the pandemic. "Once workers [at BAT] saw that the company is willing to take care of them, they became far more motivated", Hasnain remarked, "They took charge of the production process and cared for the company as if it was their own. We did not have to look back after that".
After some time, Hasnain's team decided to produce hand sanitisers for the community. "Since we had our factory running, we thought that we should produce sanitisers", Hasnain recalled, "We went on to produce 20,000 bottles of sanitisers for frontline workers, government employees and law enforcement agents as they still had to go to work to ensure the economy keeps prospering".
This also filled the employees of BAT with purpose, as they were not only serving their company but also their community.
The employee and community-focused approach of Hasnain has paid dividends during the pandemic.
"We focused on getting the most out of our employees, and part of that process is ensuring that they have everything they may need to do their jobs properly. Besides ensuring the safety of factory workers, we also ensured that our tobacco farmers and retail workers were well-equipped to handle the precarious situation", added Hasnain.
But none of that is possible without ensuring that the supply chain has covered all its bases.
"We have to make sure everyone is always on the same page", remarked Hasnain, "We have to determine the market demand, instruct the farmers on our tobacco needs, ensure the factories are running at the required capacity. And we need to be connected to all of these stakeholders for collecting data to take effective and decisive steps".
Hasnain displays one of the most important traits necessary for operating a successful business: the spirit of teamwork. "None of us, individually, could have achieved what we have achieved. It is not possible for one man to accomplish everything effectively.
Our team has collectively tried to ensure our factory is as productive as it can be. As a leader, my job was to keep everyone informed, confident and motivated so that we can get the very best out of our employees."
This collaboration can be the main driving force for productivity in a business, believes Hasnain. "We often see that there are rivalries between the upper management of companies and workers. That divide is harmful to the company and its productivity", he remarked.
"We are all here to do our job, get paid, support our families and see our company prosper. We are all on the same team, it is crucial to remember that," he added.
It is this mentality that earned Hasnain the "Young Supply Chain Talent of 2020" award from the Bangladesh Supply Chain Excellence Award 2020, which is sponsored by IPDC Finance. He reflects what an impactful business leader should be.
As Hasnain puts it, "We are as strong as the weakest link in our supply chain. Therefore, we have to take care of the most vulnerable among us to keep the company prospering". This showcases what good business practice is about, effective collaboration between the company, the employees and the community.