Abul Khair had sown the seeds of entrepreneurship for his heirs before his death. In turn, the worked hard and transformed this into a leading business group of the country. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank Group released a report on the private sector of Bangladesh in 2020. The report listed the 23 companies of the country based in their income. Abul Khair Group topped the list with a revenue of $1.70 billion or about Tk145 billion (Tk14,500 crore) annually. Its current revenue exceeds this figure.
Currently Abul Khair Group is leading in many industrial sectors. Its Shah Cement brand has the largest share in the country’s cement market. The company leads the corrugated iron sheet market, comes in second in the steel rod market with its AKS brand. Its Stella sanitary ware has become the market leader in hardly any time at all. Abul Khair Group also leads the market in many food products including Marks powered milk. Its Seylon brand tea has the second-largest market for tea in the country.
Starting with a job at the grocer's
Born in 1929, Abul Khair was the second of the three children of Serajul Islam from Natshwar of Noakhai’s Begumganj upazlia. He studied at a village school. In 1946, when he was in Class 9, he came to Pahartali of Chattogram with a person from his village to earn a living. He got a job at a grocery shop owned by a certain Gaffar Saheb in Pahartali. When he received his monthly salary, he saved a portion for himself and sent the remaining amount home. After working for a few years, Abul Khair dreamt of setting up his own shop. He told his father Serajul Islam about his wish. Serajul Islam sold land and gave Abul Khair some money. With his savings and the money given by his father, Abul Khair opened a grocery shop in Pahartali market in 1950-51. At that time, a haji camp was set up in Pahartali. People at the camp went to Saudi Arabia from Chattogram port by ship to perform hajj. As the hajis came, Abul Khair made a decent profit in two years. But he had bigger dreams.
At a glance Founder: Abul Khair (1929-1978) Head office: Pahartali, Chattogram First business: Grocery shop (1950-1951) First small industry: Handmade bidi - No 42 Abul Bidi Founder’s business: Bidi, brick kiln, lungi and shawl factory, trading First heavy industry business by successors: Corrugated iron sheet factory (1993) Running businesses: Corrugated iron sheets, steel rods, cement, ceramic products and bidi factory Essential products processing factories: Tea, powdered milk, condensed milk, juice, snacks and candy Tax paid in 2020-21 fiscal: Tk 65.21 billion (6,521 crore) Annual revenue: $1.70 billion or about Tk 145 billion (14,500 crore) (Source: IFC)
Beginning with bidi
There was a trend of jute, bidi industry, brick kiln and handloom in the country during 1950s. With the profit from his shop, Abul Khair started making bidi with two employees at Pahartali market in 1953. He himself sold it too. He named it “No 42 Abul Bidi”. The business grew and expanded outside Chattogram. He set up bidi factories in Pangachi of Feni, Chowmuhani of Noakhali and Laksham of Cumilla Abul Khair bought tobacco leaves from Haragach of Rangpur’s Kawnia upazila. Later, he also established a processing plant there.
Prior to expanding the bidi factory, he also started up a brick field. He purchased land in Madam Bibirhat area of Sitakunda in 1964 and set up a brick field there. After 2-3 years, he closed the brick field and bought 45 acres of land near Khulshi poultry farm and set up another brick field. It was closed in 2007.
Abul Khair was also involved in import business on top of establishing industries. Non-Bangalee traders dominated the import business in Chattogram in 1965. The Banglaees worked at the agencies of the non-Bangalees. At that time, Abul Khair opened a company on Jail Road near Khatunganj and started an import business. Traders required licences from Karachi to import goods. And Abul Khair gradually engaged in the import of steel sheets, cement, coconut oil, powdered milk and cigarette paper. The conglomerate still operates its import business from this old house where it started.
Abul Khair opened a lungi factory near Pahartali market in 1968 with Shish Mahal brand. It was very popular. The lungi factory was closed due to shortage of yarn and an extended bidi factory was set up there.
After independence of the country, Abul Khair invested in a cinema hall “Rup Bharati” in Chowmuhani of Noakhali in 1974. It remained open until 2003. The family decided to wrap up their entertainment business the day his youngest son Shah Rafiqul Islam Titu died.
Though Abul Khair developed diabetes early in life, nothing stopped him from going forward. He applied to set up a textile factory in Sagarika of Chattogarm city when privatization started in the country and entrepreneurs begun to venture into the industryial sector. But Abul Khair died on 4 February 1976 at the age of 49 before fulfilling his dream of establishing any big industry. At the time of his death, Abul Khair had four bidi factories, a brick kiln, a cinema hall and a trading business on Jail Road of the port city, and land.
Struggle for survival
When Abul Khair died, his eldest son Abul Kashem was a first-year student at the University of Chittagong. His wife Masuda Begum was worried over the future of the business. On the on hand, she had to run the business and on the other, she had to ensure the education of her eight children. It was a tough test for a housewife, Masuda Begum, as she took on responsibility as the company’s chairperson. The company’s general manager Gaziul Haque and Abul Khair’s younger brother Abul Hossain stood by her to protect the business.
Abul Khair's successors eventually succeeded in overcoming this tough test to save the business and industry he had left behind. They then started expanding it. State-owned factories were being handed over to the private sector at that time. And Abul Khair Group got the ownership of the Balagamwala Vegetable Products Factory from Bangladesh Sugar and Food Industries Corporation in Nasirabad industrial area during the second phase of privatisation in 1983.
Success of the successors
Bidi factories had changed Abul Khair’s fate. It was the Balagamwala Vegetable Products Factory for his successors. The factor produced soybean oil, mustard oil and ghee. Raw materials were imported and those were refined at the factory.
In the meantime, the elder son Abul Kashem gained adequate experience in business. Since there were few edible oil factories in Chattogram, the company had made a good profit from its soybean oil factory for a decade. Later, Abul Hashem, the second son of Abul Khair, also got involved in business. Other brothers Abu Syed Chowdhury, Shah Shafiqul Islam and Shah Rafiqul Islam followed suit. With the previous business and new industries, Abul Khair Group expanded further.
The sons focused on building new industries with profits from their investment. Like their father, these sons, too, had a strong desire to build industries. In 1993, they acquired a corrugated iron sheet factory in Feni’s Mahipal from Illias Brothers. A year later, Abul Khair Group owned the GMG Steel Limited from Bangladesh Steel and Engineering Corporation in Nasirabad. They set up a condensed milk and powdered milk processing factory there. The large corrugated iron sheet factory was set up in Madam Bibi Haat area of Sitakunda in 1997, relocating the old factory. After bidi, the company started manufacturing cigarettes in 1998.
Transforming to big industries
The Abul Khair's successors first ventured to heavy industry in 1993 with corrugated iron sheets. Since the beginning, they had increased investment in corrugated iron sheets in that decade and expanded the factory. Abul Khair Group’s corrugated iron sheet brand, ‘’Goru Marka Dheu Tin” became the market leader. The conglomerate ventured into cement industry in 2002. They invested in cement factory in Munshiganj’s Mukterpur. They installed the world’s largest vertical roller mill (VRM) in 2018 with the technical assistance from FLSmidth of Denmark and received recognition by the Guinness World Records. The factory manufactures 5 million tonnes of cement annually. Abul Khair Group got involved in tea business in 2004. Its Seylon Tea brand quickly grabbed the second largest market share in the country, outperforming many century-old companies.
The company invested in steel rod manufacturing factory in Sitakunda in 2009. They started manufacturing steel rods with electric arc furnace (EAF) method following international standards for the first time in the country. With manufacturing 1.2 million (12 lakh) tonnes of steel rod annually Abul Khair Group’s AKS brand is the second largest brand in the country’s steel rod market. The conglomerate also invested in ceramics industry in 2011. The successors of Abul Khair set up a match factory in the old corrugated iron sheet factory in Feni’s Mahipal. The company also has big investment in road freight along with operating its own vessels on sea and in the riverways.
From zero to the top
Abul Khair's offspring took responsibility of the company after his death. His eldest son Abul Kashem is group chairman now, the second son Abul Hashem managing director, the third son Abu Syed Chowdhury group deputy managing director and the fourth son Shah Shafiqul Islam is group director. All of them studied at the University of Chittagong. They became involved in the business as students because of the death of their father. And they have become successful at whichever business they start because of hard work, sincerity and farsightedness.
Abul Khair Group has created jobs for 50,000 people. The conglomerate paid Tk 65.21 billion (6,521 crore) in taxes last fiscal, 2.5 per cent of the government’s total revenue from customs duty, value added tax and income tax. The company also stood by people during the coronavirus pandemic. They quickly set up 17 oxygen banks for Covid-29 patients amid a growing oxygen crisis in the country and distributed this for free. Abul Khair himself started social welfare work, founding a school at his village.
The land on which Abul Khair had set up lungi and bidi factories in Pahartali in 1968 now houses the head office of Abul Khair Group. With the land bought by Abul Khair at Bhatiary in 1964, the sons procured more land later and set up a corrugated iron sheet factory on it. In 2009, they also established a steel rod factory near the land that Abul Khair had procured. The bidi factory of Cumilla’s Laksham has also been expanded and a cigarette manufacturing factory was set up in 1998. The land where the brick field stood in Khulshi now houses tea and steel rod warehouses. Abul Khair started off the import business on Jail Road in 1965, now his offspring have expanded this along with the other industries. Stone import is just one of the many businesses. They established a ready-mix factory to turn this into an industry. The father had planted the seeds and the offspring nurtured this to grow seedings and now there stands a gigantic tree of success.
This article appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna