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‘I began purchasing tea with that Tk 5 million. I set up an office in Chittagong and began my new business. Exactly 14 years after that, a large delegation of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI) went to China, Japan, Korea and some other countries. Salehin saheb was there too. I went up to him at the Seoul airport and said, whatever we have achieved today, is all because of you. But I really want to know why you gave me a zero margin loan that day. Loans are not given like that. He replied that he knew my father, my father’s reputation, transparency in his bank dealings and his ethics. He gave me that special consideration because I was my father’s son. He said, it’s been 14 years and you have proven that trust I kept in you. If your son comes to me today, I will give him a loan in the same manner too.”

The Oslo Business for Peace Award is considered to be the Nobel Prize of the business world. In receiving this award, Latifur Rahman once again brought prestige to Bangladesh.

Fast forward a few more years to 7 May 2012. This businessman received the Oslo Business for Peace Award in recognition of his principles and ethics, reputation and integrity in business.

This is Latifur Rahman, chairman of Transcom, one of the top business companies of Bangladesh.

The Oslo Business for Peace Award is considered to be the Nobel Prize of the business world. It is bestowed upon those who practice ethics in business, focus on social responsibility and have environmental awareness. In receiving this award, Latifur Rahman once against brought prestige to Bangladesh on the world map.

The turning point

Latifur Rahman was sitting in his Transcom office in Gulshan, talking about his past. He firmly believes that the Tk 5 million loan granted by Mushfiqur Salehin, free of any conditions, was the turning point in his life. Loans were not granted in this manner.

He was more or less born with a silver spoon in his mouth and never had any financial constraints. “I had my own car when I was just 17, a small fiat. We had a big jute business. The first jute mill owned by any Bengali was ours. And we had tea gardens. We owned our house in Gulshan from way back in 1970.”

After Bangladesh’s independence, they had to start from scratch again. He recalls, “My grandfather Khan Bahadur Waliur Rahman was born in the village Cheora of Chaddogram. At an early age he went to Jalpaiguri, to his uncle because, I heard, he was unwell. He studied law over there and began practicing at the Jalpaiguri Bar. In 1885 he bought some land there and started up a tea garden. The tea garden owners at the time were basically British and my grandfather’s tea garden was the first locally owned one. My grandfather was bestowed with the Khan Bahadur title.”

“ My father Mujibur Rahman was born there too. He studied in Calcutta and came back to Tejpur in Assam, bought land and started a tea garden there. My father also received the Khan Bahadur title. After partition everyone came to Dhaka and then in 1951 or52, they began a new tea garden in Sylhet. They also began a jute business. They had jute business in Bhairab-Ashuganj.”

Latifur Rahman was born in Jalpaiguri on 28 August 1945. He was born after two girls and was followed by another sister and a brother. They would live in Ganderia in Dhaka. He would go to St Francis School and then to Holy Cross School which was for boys too at the time. In 1956 he was sent to Shillong where he was admitted to Class III in St Edmond’s School. From there he went to St Xavier’s College in Kolkata.

The situation was quite volatile at the time. There was the 1965 India-Pakistan war, the Hindu-Muslim riots and so Latifur Rahman returned to Dhaka. He joined the jute business. His father had set up the W Rahman Jute Mills in Chandpur. Work began in 1963, but production actually began in 1966. ‘I worked as a trainee there in 1966. After learning the ropes for one and a half years, I joined as an executive. I would look after the administration. I worked in this manner till 1971,’ he said.

Hard times

After the country won independence through the liberation war, everything was nationalised, even jute mills. Only the tea industry was untouched. Most of the tea industry owners were British, perhaps that’s why these were not nationalised. All tea from here would go to West Pakistan and there had been no scope for business outside. No one had any idea how to export tea.

I had a realisation that money was not everything. Everything can suddenly slip away.
Latifur Rahman

Latifur Rahman went on to say, “Our situation changed overnight. We did have our house and tea gardens, but no cash. Tea was piling up as we couldn’t sell it. I had an office then at 52 Motijheel but even the furniture was taken by the government because of nationalisation. There was a shop behind the court where furniture would be rented and I rented some furniture from there. We were quite well-off but for the first time I saw how things could suddenly just slip away. That was a big lesson in my life.”

Latifur Rahman changed things around. He said, ‘Towards the end of 1972 I met a Swiss man, Rene Berner and took him to our tea gardens. The tea gardens were in a bad shape. Unsold tea was lying around. He returned to his country and contacted us. Imports and exports would go through the government corporation TCB then and so nothing could be done ourselves.’

‘There was the barter system, but I didn’t even know about that. Rene Berner told me Bangladesh wants to buy pesticide from abroad and so there can be a barter trade of tea and pesticide. I would supply them with tea and they would provide me with pesticide. The German company Bayer would sell pesticide and so I went to the commerce minister MR Siddiqui for permission. He wrote that the matter should be examined. I remember going to the secretariat gate at 8 every morning. The officials would come and I would meet them. That is how my tea business began. A new company was formed – Tea Holdings Ltd. And that is how I stood on my feet again. We then became the agents for the Dutch company Van Rees.’ Then came the Tk 5 million loan story.

No fixed assets

Latifur Rahman managed to turn things around at a difficult juncture, but an impact was left on his psyche. He says, ‘I had a realisation that money was not everything. Everything can suddenly slip away. I also realised that no large investment could be made in any fixed asset anymore. I could buy a plot of land and build a huge building and live on the rent for the rest of my life. Many people live like that. But after some hard knocks in life, I did not take that path. These fixed assets may not be permanent after all. So I didn’t invest in land or property. I could have just done well in trading. Instead I built up industries. These are always living. You have to keep these running, have to go for expansion. You can’t sit idle.’

Latifur Rahman believes this political conflict will not last forever. Things will change with time. The youth will come forward. He has immense trust in the young generation. He says with deep conviction, “I firmly believe that the young generation will take Bangladesh far ahead.”

When Latifur Rahman started anew in 1972, there were only 5 people with him. Now the Transcom Group employs over 10,000 people. He began with a Tk 5 million bank loan and now the group’s annual turnover is over Tk 35 billion. In the previous year Transcom paid Tk 5.51 billion in taxes. He says, “I want to build up my company so it lasts over 100 years. Then it will mean that I have achieved something.”

Latifur Rahman has his own thoughts about that too. He looks to modern management. Every day there are transactions in millions of taka, but he does not sign a single cheque himself. He says, ‘My principle is to place the right persons in the right place and let them take responsibility. You must respect them. That is how my company runs. If not, it would become a family concern. One must go ahead with the global advancements. Management has to be world standard. That is what I try.’

Another story

There is another story in Latifur Rahman’s life. He would study in Shillong. Shahnaz Rahman would live close by. They met and fell in love. They married in 1965 and returned together to Dhaka.

They have been together for 47 years. They lost a daughter and now have a son and two daughters.

Latifur Rahman likes watching good movies on video and likes music too, more on the classical side.

His four grandchildren are his companions in his spare time. He and his family like vacationing all together, whenever they get the chance.

He strongly believes in family values. He has a lot of confidence in the country. He says, “Everyone in my family just has Bangladeshi passports. We never applied for citizenship of any other country. We are nationals of Bangladesh and have confidence in the country. There is a lot of potential here. If there were no political conflict, Bangladesh could go far ahead.’

Latifur Rahman believes this political conflict will not last forever. Things will change with time. The youth will come forward. He has immense trust in the young generation. He says with deep conviction, “I firmly believe that the young generation will take Bangladesh far ahead.”

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