Pran-RFL is now the leading business group in the country directly employing 1.40 lakh people. It produces 2,800 types of products, including food products, light engineering, electric and electronic home appliances, furniture, bicycles, elevators, textiles, toiletries and packaging.
Besides setting up many factories in 20 places of the country, it has also set up five factories in India. Additionally, factories are being set up in Africa and the Middle East as well.
Ahsan Khan Chowdhury, chairman of the group, recently spoke to The Business Standard's Editor Inam Ahmed and Senior Reporter Abbas Uddin Noyon about the company's four-decade journey and future business plans.
Whenever your name comes up in discussions, we hear that you are in Canada. What is the reason for this?
I have to travel to remote parts of the world to introduce Pran-RFL to the world market. I spend most of my time in the Middle East, where the potential is huge right now. We are doing very well in that market. I am also very optimistic about the market in Africa. I also spend a lot of time there.
But India is the country I like spending most of my time in. The Indian market for Bangladeshi products is huge. Because of this people, out of love, say I am in Canada when I'm travelling abroad.
You mentioned the three markets of the Middle East, Africa and India. Which of the following is the best?
To me, all three seem promising. India, however, has the edge given that both its population and market are much larger than ours, while their product stock is not as rich as ours. The demand in India is huge, which is why we give it importance.
Furthermore, consumption is on the rise in Middle Eastern countries these days. As a result, their food inflation is also rising. The importance of the industry is dawning upon them, so there is potential there. In Africa, the food demand is also rising rapidly. Hence, I see all three regions as promising.
Pran has won the national export trophy 17 times in a row. How has this been possible?
Pran is a company of values. When my father, the late Amjad Khan, started, he worked to improve the living standards of farmers in Bangladesh. We started our journey to meet the food needs of our people. But from the very beginning, we also thought that the food needs of people outside the country needed to be met too. As a result, we started exploring new markets every year.
People from all over the world have responded to us. The government has also evaluated and rewarded us.
Amjad Khan Chowdhury founded Pran-RFL with a visionary idea. He passed away in 2015 after establishing a huge organisation. How would you say you have been faring as his successor?
I have been in the business for 26 years of my life. I spent 20 years of that with my father. He was the one who showed me the ropes. He was my mentor and a pioneer. He was the one who grew our businesses. After his death, we are trying to expand the business while upholding our core values. We are trying to make the company a global one.
What did your father teach you? What were his values?
My father's teaching was to do business honestly and ethically. He preached doing business in a way that increased dignity and self-esteem. He told us to have confidence in the consumer class of Bangladesh, build a beautiful corporate structure and remember that not one person, but many people would have to work hard to nurture it.
His plan was to make it larger by relying on Bangladesh's agriculture. We are now following in his footsteps. At the same time, we are thinking of beyond our border, looking at agriculture across the world. We want to spread our agricultural success across the world.
Give us an idea about the current business scenario of Pran.
At present, 1.40 lakh people work directly in Pran. Our annual turnover is about Tk20,000 crore. At the moment, our exports are around Tk3,200 crore. We are constantly adding new products and growing our export basket.
The game plan that we have for the future will keep improving Pran. Pran's exports will increase and it will be established as a global brand. We will not only export Bangladeshi products. Pran will also spread Bangladeshi products across the world. We also plan to collect from and feed other countries. We will collect the best products produced in different parts of the Third World and spread them all over the world under the Pran brand.
You have more than 3,000 product lines. Is there a fear of being de-focused with so many lines?
It feels like that at times, but when we started, there was nothing in the country. As a result of our efforts, the agro-processing industry is now huge. Earlier, a huge amount of foreign goods used to come to Bangladesh. Now we have stopped relying heavily on foreign products. It was our dream to be the number one company in the country. For that, we have built a huge product line and succeeded.
Beyond the country we are now working to become the largest company in the world. If Coca-Cola, Nestle, Unilever can do it, we can too. But we have to work a hundred times faster. The company needs to transform.
What are you doing now to transform a Bangladeshi company into a global company?
First of all we are trying to bring talented people to Pran-RFL. I am coordinating with the talents myself. We are teaching our company's values and business ideas to the recruits. Besides, we are bringing talented people from India, Sri Lanka and developed countries. We are building leaders.
You must be investing heavily to be global. How is your plant operation outside the country at the moment? What are you doing in the future?
At the moment, we have five factories in India. We are doing well in North East India, Kolkata and Siliguri. We are also setting up a factory in Bangalore. Our plan is to have some presence of Pran in every state of India. Apart from this we have contractual factories in Nepal. We are planning to set up a factory in Saudi Arabia this year. We also have plans to set up a juice factory in Nigeria.
You spoke about marketing by sourcing products from outside the country. How would that work?
You see, people's needs and marketing systems change all the time. 20 years ago, we thought of benefiting the farmers. Now our dream is to ensure food security.
For this, we want to set up factories not only in the country but also in other countries where agricultural production is high. We want to ensure food security in the country by setting up such factories where wheat production is higher and rice production is higher.
What project do you have at the moment?
We always have a lot of wonderful projects on our hands. We are always thinking of new things. I have started a starch factory near Dhaka. This starch will serve as an alternative to sugar. Besides, I am making a flour factory, and a fish and animal feed factory. I am thinking of setting up a salt factory too. To protect the environment, I am setting up a factory to make fabric by recycling plastics. I am also investing more in confectionery.
Buyers from Europe and America speak of different standards when it comes to importing agricultural products from Bangladesh. They also mention use of child labour and weakness of our testing labs. How are you doing in these regards?
I do not agree with their allegations about child labour. Bangladeshi children are now going to school. I would not call it child labour if I go to work in the field with my parents besides studying.
We make specific markings for the collection of raw materials for production. If we produce rice somewhere, we set aside land for it. I am taking the product with the guarantee that there is no problem in the product I get from there. I am also buying the product for the local market from the local market.
We still have some shortcomings in the lab. But now it is being worked on. We are making the labs ourselves privately. I am also hiring good meritorious people there.
You are building factories and marketing systems outside Bangladesh. Are Bangladeshis being hired there?
When we started the first factory in Agartala, we started with Bangladeshi people. Bangladeshis are working in our factories in Africa. They are working in all fields of factory setting, production and marketing. Bangladeshis make up 80% of our Middle Eastern institutions. But due to regulations, more locals have to be hired in India.
I would like to emphasise that due to the nature of their lives, Bangladeshis are being established outside the country today as workers and talented people.
We would like to know more about you. People say you travel a lot. How much time do you spend on planes?
I travel 15-20 days a month. I also travel a lot in Bangladesh to explore new markets. Business is in my blood. I like to spend time doing business. That is why you have to stay traveling. People say that when you go abroad, you walk around markets and when you see a new product, you bring its sample and apply it in the country.
People of Bangladesh always want new and good products. We have a responsibility to these people. We want to make people's quality of life better. As a result, I collect products from remote areas of the world and bring those to the country. Again, we deliver domestic products abroad. When I go abroad, I pack 2-3 suitcases and carry the goods made by Pran. When I return, I bring foreign goods. I consider myself an ambassador.
What do you do in your free time?
I exercise as much as I can in my free time. I walk whenever I get a chance. And I pray. But business is my only leisure.