In 1972 he started up a company, Manzur Enterprise, and started selling leather for a commission. Four years later, he bought the nationalised Orient Tannery at a cost of Tk 12,22,000 (Tk 12 lakh 22 thousand) and established Apex Tannery. And 14 years after that he launched Apex Footwear, which is now the top shoe exporter of the country. The Apex Group presently has over 17,000 employees. The group’s annual turnover is Tk 1,851 crore.

Syed Manzur Elahi is more than just a successful businessman. He was an advisor of the former caretaker government in 1996, in charge of the communications, shipping, civil aviation and tourism, post and telecommunications, and housing and public works ministries. In 2001 he was an advisor to the caretaker government again. Outside of that, he is an adept organiser. He has been the Dhaka president of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI). From 2004 to 2013he was the president of the Dhaka University Alumni Association. He is also a member of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) trustee board.

During a two-hour or so conversation with this Prothom Alo correspondent at the Apex office in Gulshan, Manzur Elahi talked about his childhood, his job with the multinational company, business and more. He will be 80 years old this September and as young as ever. He laughs aloud as he talks about his life, “I have no regrets. What more does a man need? You have to draw a line somewhere.”

‘I never wanted a job’

Syed Manzur Elahi was born on 26 September 1942 to a prominent family in Kolkata. His father Sir Syed Nasim Ali (1887-1946) was appointed judge to the Calcutta High Court in 1933. A bit over a decade later he was made Chief Justice. After World War II he was knighted by the British government.

Manzur Elahi’s eldest brother SA Masud obtained a law degree from Cambridge University in UK and later he also joined the Calcutta High Court as a judge. He was appointed Chief Justice in 1977. The next brother SA Moudud studied engineering in the UK and joined the civil service. The third brother SA Mansur was a founder member of the Communist Party of India.

Syed Manzur Elahi completed his school and college education in Kolkata. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in economics from Calcutta University in 1962. He then got admitted to Dhaka University for his Master’s degree which he obtained in 1964. He would stay at Salimullah Muslim (SM) Hall. He was involved in Chhatra Union politics as a student. His fellow student Rashed Khan Menon, now a member of parliament, was the DUCSU VP at the time and the GS was Matia Chowdhury, the former minister for agriculture.

“From my childhood I never wanted a job. I aimed at doing business and standing on my own two feet. That was my dream. My brothers would laugh if I ever broached the topic of business, “What do you understand about business? No one down the generations in our family has been in business!” As it was, my family did not have a very good opinion of business. There is a sort of bias against business in our society which was even more accentuated then.”

Job at Pakistan Tobacco

While he had dreamt from a young age of not having to work for anyone, he began his career with a job at a multinational company. That too was an interesting event. After his Masters, he began preparing for the civil service exam along with his classmates. But before the exam, this job suddenly came up.

The CSP exams at the time were held in September. He recalls, “We had planned to stat studying for our CSP exams once our MA exams were over in August. But before the MA exam, the governor at the time, Monem Khan, came to Curzon Hall. Those of us involved in politics didn’t behave well with the governor. He was the chancellor of the university and as a punishment for our behaviour, he postponed the exams by three months and so we couldn’t take the CSP exam. That was in 1964.

“We finally took our MA exam in December. We were preparing for civil service. My family would send me money every month. So I was eating, studying and even dabbling in politics. One day I was walking with a friend down Jinnah Avenue (now Bangabandhu Avenue). Suddenly I heard someone calling me by the nickname, Moni, Moni! I look back to see our family friend Humayun Khan. He said, come here. What are you up to nowadays? I said my exams were over and I was preparing for the CSP exam. He said, is government service any worthwhile job? Work for a company instead. I laughed, does anyone know me that they will give me a job?

“Humayun Khan took me to his office. He said his brother-in-law Anwar Doja was working at the marketing department in Pakistan Tobacco and that I should meet him that very day. I was totally unprepared, but I went ahead. While I sat chatting with Anwar Doja, I learn he would work for my father in the High Court. He asked me if I had my bio data. I was rather taken aback, saying what would be there on my bio data other than my name, date of birth and my educational degrees. He said, write that down. I did and left the paper with him. I forgot all about it.

“About three weeks later in the last week of January 1965, Anwar Doja turned up at SM Hall. There were no mobile phone back then and the phone in the hall was out of order most of the time. He said he had been looking for me frantically and that I had to appear in an interview in Karachi. He asked if I could go the following week and I said I could."

“Everyone on the interview board were English. They asked me to say something about myself. I said, what can I say about myself? I have nothing to say. One of them asked if I was actually interested at all in the job. I wasn’t but I couldn’t say that to their faces. I said of course I am interested. They then asked me what salary I expected.

I had no idea about salaries. At the time CSP officers began with a 450 rupee salary. The dollar exchange rate was 3 rupees at the time. I thought a bit and said, 1000 rupees. Then hastily added, but I will accept 900. The board members laughed and I thought I must have asked for way too much, so I brought it down to 600 rupees. They laughed even louder and the company’s finance director said, we can’t pay you 600 taka. I said, that’s all right. He replied, that is not all right. We can’t change our pay scale for you. Will you accept 1,900 rupees? I thought they were pulling my leg. I said, of course I will. They said, join us for lunch.”

“I would take a rickshaw to Hazaribagh and go around buying leather in the filth and odour. But I was enjoying the work thoroughly. I felt free and independent.”

Leaving the job for leather

After joining Pakistan Tobacco, Manzur Elahi spent two years in training at Karachi. The condition was that he couldn’t marry in this period of time. But his future mother-in-law passed away and there was pressure for him to marry. Training wasn’t over. He requested his boss and finally they made his job permanent five months ahead of time. But the workplace would remain in Karachi. In 1966 Syed Manzur Elahi married Nilufar Manzur, the daughter of Mofiz Chowdhury, MP of Joypurhat.

When the political situation became heated in 1970, Syed Manzur Elahi was transferred to Dhaka. During the liberation war the Pakistan army issued a warrant of arrest against his father-in-law Mofiz Chowdhury. They went to his village home and brutally killed a number of his family members though he had gone to India at the outset of the liberation war. He was working for the war there. He advised his son-in-law Syed Manzur Elahi to come to India too, but instead Manzur Elahi took his wife and was transferred to UK. He returned to the country within 11 or 12 days of it being freed and resumed work. He was now transferred to Chattogram.

Saturday and Sunday was the weekend back then. His father-in-law was a minister. On the weekend they would stay over at his father-in-law’s house on Minto Road. Around May-June in 1972, Mofiz Chowdhury one night invited his Lehigh University friend FICCI president, Sanchoy Sen, and his associates who were travelling with him, to dinner at his house. Syed Manzur Elahi was there too. He was talking to a French businessman at the dinner.

He recounts, “A French businessman Raymond Clare asked me at the dinner what I did. I told him I had a job and asked him what he did. He said he did business, importing chemicals from Germany. He also procured leather from Dhaka. There was still unrest in the country and I could hardly believe a foreigner would come to do business here. Chittagong Port hadn’t even started up yet. I asked how he took the leather. He said he loaded an entire cargo aircraft with chemicals and then went back with it loaded with leather. I was astounded. I thought he may be exaggerating and asked why he was telling me all this. He asked, will you join my company? I laughed, I already have a good well-paying job. Why will I join your company? He said, I don’t want you join my company but become my company’s agent and work for a commission.

“I curiously wanted to know how much the commission was and he told me. It was a huge amount. But their problem lay elsewhere. When I told my wife that I was thinking of leaving my job and do business, she burst out laughing, are you crazy? I told my elder brother and he laughed too, saying you already have a good job. But then I got determined. I went to meet my father-in-law. We had a very friendly relationship. I told him my thoughts and he said, good, go ahead. I said, your daughter doesn’t agree. He said, I will convince her.”

On 26 September 1972, on his 30th birthday, Syed Manzur Elahi left his job. He was drawing a handsome monthly salary at the time. He had other facilities like a car, house and more. He had been the BAT finance manager at the Dhaka factory at the time of leaving his job. He said, “I would take a rickshaw to Hazaribagh and go around buying leather in the filth and odour. But I was enjoying the work thoroughly. I felt free and independent.”

Tannery to shoes

Syed Manzur Elahi’s business was doing well, buying leather at Hazaribagh and selling it to Raymond Clare’s Hollander Group. All tanneries at the time were nationalized. After the political scenario change in 1975, the government decided to denationalise the tanneries. The following year Orient Tannery was first put up for auction and Syed Manzur Elahi bid for it. He bought the tannery for Tk 12,22,000 (Tk 12 lakh 22 thousand). Thus began Apex Tannery. His partner in ownership of the company is AKM Rahmatullah (MP of Dhaka-11).

He began processing the leather at the tannery and exporting it abroad. His first buyer was the Japanese company Mizuze. Gradually the number of buyers increased and business continued in that manner for 14 years. He then thought, leather ultimately ends up as shoes, why don’t I make a shoe factory. He set up a shoe factory on a 50 bigha plot of land in Shafipur of Gazipur. When the land was being prepared to lay the foundation of the factory in 1990, his son Syed Nasim Manzur returned from his studies abroad and joined the project.

The factory building was designed by a BUET engineer. Modern equipment was brought in from abroad. The export-oriented factory, with 150 workers, began producing 1000 pairs of shoes daily in 1991. Shoes were exported to Germany. But due to inexperience, low quality and failure to deliver on time, purchase orders began to drop from the very second season. They were worried and began searching for new buyers.

Through Oshan Trading and Mizuze, the Japanese buyers of Apex Tannery, Syed Manzur Elahi met the owner of Japan’s largest shoe retailer Marutomi. After much persuasion, the company finally agreed to order shoes of a particular design and for working men. They would make the shoes in Korea at the time. But in the first order, 97 per cent of the shoes did not pass the quality test. In order to solve the problem, a consultant from America, Greensburg, was brought in and things gradually began to improve. It was finally possible to reduce the number of rejected shoes to 7 per cent.

When Japan fell into recession in 1994, Apex faced a dilemma again. Their buyers had gone bankrupt. Father and son went to Italy together to find a solution to their problem. They met with Mr Adelchi, the owner of Adelchi which bought leather from Apex Tannery. They had a huge shoe factory in Italy. Adelchi was facing difficulties at the time too. Labour costs had spiraled. They were unable to keep up with the competition from China. Manzur Elahi said, “I told him to set up a factory in our country. He paid no heed. He said he would go to China. But I wouldn’t give up so easily. I asked him how he would go. He said he would go via Bangkok to China. I said Bangkok is just two hours away from Dhaka. He said, what will I do in Dhaka? I said, we will set up a shoe factory. If you don’t want to that, then transfer your technology. I will pay you for it. He said, let’s see."

“Adelchi went to China. He telexed me from there, I am coming over. He came to Dhaka and understood what I was talking about. He was amazed at our factory. He said I will give you technical knowledge. I will do the marketing. We agreed to his proposal. People of Adelchi came over from Italy. They changed the entire management of the factory. And Apex Footwear gradually looked up.”

In 2013 Apex parted ways with Adelchi and has been going ahead alone since then. In the meantime, Syed Manzur Elahi and his son Syed Nasim Manzur went into joint investment with Greenland International of Taiwan, investing in Blue Ocean Footwear, another export-oriented footwear factory. For the past 13 years this factory has been exporting women’s shoes to various brands and retailers in the US.

Keeping the local market in mind, Syed Manzur Elahi set up another factory opposite the export-oriented one. That was a new venture. Apex Footwear has around 600 outlets at present around the country, half under their own management.

He said around 300,000 to 400,000 pairs of shoes would have produced and exported every year. Later this went up to 5.5 million (55 lakh). Due to the Covid situation, this is now around 3 million pairs (30 lakh annually). And for the local market, presently 2 million (20 lakh) pairs are produced every month, around 24 million (2 crore 40 lakh) pairs a year. Things were hard in the beginning, but stuck to it, he says. My son Nasim also faced hard times, but that is why we stand here today.

A word to the youth

As a bit of advice to the youth, Syed Manzur Elahi says, you must be patient. You must drop the mindset of getting rich quick. Money comes fast, but goes fast too. You must be focused on your business and stick to it. Another thing is, you cannot go far without bank support. So you must keep your commitment to the bank. That means, you must pay your installments in time. With a reminder about doing honest business, Syed Manzur Elahi said, you have to do business honestly, pay VAT. If you don’t, you will be caught one day or the other. Don’t think you will get away with it. He said, hard work is needed more than luck in business. You won’t have a family life. That is why businesspersons really require the support of their family.

“Thousands of youth are wandering around unemployed, but foreigners are getting the jobs. The education system is out of touch with reality. We need skilled persons. But we do not get the workforce we need. That is very unfortunate."

No regrets, but…

Syed Manzur Elahi has no regrets in life. But midway through his conversation he mentioned he would have been more satisfied if he could have been able to do something to improve the standard of education. He said regretfully, if a country’s education system breaks down, the other systems are affected. He said, earlier a professor of Dhaka University was something big. You would have to have published a certain number of books, have to have carried out research. Now there are so many schools and colleges, but the standard of education hasn’t improved. That is why even today 25,000 to 30,000 people from India, Sri Lanka and other countries work here. They rake away 5 billion to 6 billion dollars out of Bangladesh ever year in wages.

“Thousands of youth are wandering around unemployed,” he says, “but foreigners are getting the jobs. The education system is out of touch with reality. We need skilled persons. But we do not get the workforce we need. That is very unfortunate.”

* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir