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Matiur Rahman: Did your siblings help in running the grocery shop?

Fazlur Rahman: They were too young to give a hand. It was a joint effort of me and my elder brother. My elder brother would work at my cousin’s shop at Kamalapur, but he got irregular meals there. My father asked him to come home. Then we started our own shop.

Matiur Rahman: So did you have a natural inclination towards doing business and something on your own since your childhood?

Fazlur Rahman: Certainly. I dropped by my uncle's place once. He asked me to join his business. I replied that I could have kept his request had he asked me to continue my studies and paid for my education. It is improbable that we would have risen by joining his business. If I had joined him, my cousins would not have treated me the same way.

Matiur Rahman: So you started the grocery shop back in 1958. What happened after that?

Fazlur Rahman: We started a mustard oil mill at Gandaria in 1972 with 9 oil extraction machines. We had savings of around Tk 50,000. Then we got a bank loan of Tk 5 million in 1973-74. We did well in that business. We established a re-rolling mill in 1985. We set up more factories in phases.

Matiur Rahman: You started the journey with a mustard oil mill and then reached such heights. Was there anything else except your persistence and initiative?

Fazlur Rahman: Becoming successful is not tough if the effort is correct. All the people in our locality were well off. Like Bangshal and Posta, rich people would also live in Gandaria once. Whenever I got some spare time in the afternoon, I would go to the Dhupkhola ground to spend time with college and university students. At that time, students would lodged at every house. I used to chat with them. I tried to learn from the students as I could not study myself. We would buy one anna worth of peanuts and spend an hour gossiping.

Matiur Rahman: So what did you learn from them?

Fazlur Rahman: Some of them became bankers. They had suggested I open a bank account. They helped me open bank account for Tk 10. I started saving money in the bank. I learnt some more things from them.

Matiur Rahman: Where did you muster the courage to set up factories? Initiating such an enterprise needs guts.

Fazlur Rahman: To be honest, I did not have the courage. The Pakistan businessmen would spread out a white sheets, cushions and do their business. They had safes, telephones. I would wonder why we can’t do business if they can coming here all the way from Karachi. Our expenditure was relatively less—we could live on stale rice or gulgula (a traditional sweet). Rice, dal lentil and milk—that was the best food for us at our house. I've already told you that we would go to my maternal grandfather’s house to have a decent meal.

Matiur Rahman: What was your plan behind doing so many things?

Fazlur Rahman: My business was actually on a very small scale. The bank loan was Tk 70 to 80 million in 1988. We had some savings. The flood that year inundated our warehouse. I thought some sacks of mustard would rot but the remaining sacks would remain unscathed. But I was wrong as all the sacks were ruined. The putrid smell from rotten mustard spread all over as the floodwater receded. It was extremely troublesome cleaning the warehouse.

We gave away fifty thousand taka to the local poor people so that they can survive after the flood struck. Our warehouse was left empty after the flood. We bought mustard again. Luckily mustard seed husk was on high demand that year. Bangladesh used to export betel leaves to Karachi. Betel leaf (paan) plantations require mustard seed husks. The price of husk surpassed that of rice. We would preserve oil in drums. Mustard oil’s demands rose that year, so we were able to pay the loans and break even.

M Hayatur Rahman was managing director of Janata Bank at that time. He was very affectionate towards me. I asked him what would we do if the flood hits again. Give us a loan so that we can set up a soybean oil refinery. We got the loan. And our soybean oil refinery was established in 1992.

Matiur Rahman: What did you do then?

Fazlur Rahman: We are continuing with that still (laughs).

Matiur Rahman: We know you also own a tea garden.

Fazlur Rahman: I was a guarantor in sales of a tea garden. The person who was supposed to buy the tea garden informed after making the advance payment that he would not buy it. The seller then asked me to buy it. I paid the money and thus became the owner of the tea garden. Now I own three gardens—three in Sreemangal and one in Chattogram

Matiur Rahman: You then set up an economic zone. One or two?

Fazlur Rahman: A person named Abdur Razzaque helped me in setting up mills and factories. He would work at the investment board. He always wanted Bangalis to establish factories. He would suggest I buy more and more land. He would give me insights. He would always prod me to expand the business. I set up an economic zone in 2015 on the land bought at his insistence. Abdur Razzaque was with me for 30 years but he did not get to see the economic zone.

Matiur Rahman: What are your plans for the future?

Fazlur Rahman: Health comes first now. I envisioned doing industries. Sitting at the grocery shop, some issues popped up in my mind. Establishing a factory was one of them. I also planned to set up a hospital at Gandaria so that local people can receive treatment. I saw on Akshay Das Lane that patients stuck in traffic gridlock are dying on the way to the hospital. A dream to set up a hospital came to my mind then. I set up the Asgar Ali Hospital named after my father. I would now build a medical college. We’ve got the approval recently. I also have planned to set up a pharmaceutical company and a nursing institute.

Matiur Rahman: What suggestions you would give to those who want to do business?

Fazlur Rahman: The most important thing is what a person wants to do. Someone wants a job, someone wants to be a physician, someone wants to become an engineer and someone wants to do business—it depends on the will of individuals. There must be endeavours and efforts. There is no alternative to hard work. You might achieve something by underhand means but that success would be short-lived.

Matiur Rahman: What would you say about remaining honest?

Fazlur Rahman: That is the key. Banks would not give you a loan if you are not honest. Suppliers would not give you products worth a penny. There is no alternative to honesty.

Matiur Rahman: I heard you went home late even on your wedding day.

Fazlur Rahman: I left the mill at around five in the afternoon that day (laughs). The wedding was at night. I rented a sherwani. A man was supposed to give me a car but it did not arrive. So I walked all the way to my wedding ceremony.

Matiur Rahman: How far was the bride’s house?

Fazlur Rahman: Not too far away.

Matiur Rahman: How much was the 'kaabin' (dower)?

Fazlur Rahman: Something around one to two thousand taka. Or it was perhaps five thousand taka. There was no demand to give anything else.

Matiur Rahman: How do you pass your days?

Fazlur Rahman: I used to work a lot but I can’t now. I used to spend some time in the factory and some time at the office. I would also go to the tea gardens. But nowadays I don’t go.

Matiur Rahman: Do you like going abroad?

Fazlur Rahman: I would, especially to visit factories. Before establishing every factory, I gathered experience visiting the factories abroad.

Matiur Rahman: The second generation is taking the helm in big conglomerates. Your son Md Hasan and daughter Shampa Rahman joined with you in the business. Two daughters live in the UK. How do you think the new generation will do?

Fazlur Rahman: The third generation businessmen would be consummate entrepreneurs. We ran errands without understanding many things but they would be self-sufficient. They would not require any assistance in making business deals while we could not do such things without assistance.

Matiur Rahman: What do you think of life now, are you satisfied with the life you’ve lived?

Fazlur Rahman: My immense gratitude to Allah. We could not have become factory owners if the country hadn't got independence. Before independence, I once went to a bank at Farashganj to bring a ‘solvency’ certificate. The manager of the bank was a non-Bengali. I had to think thrice before entering his room. But I can now go to the chairmen and exchange greetings with the managing directors.

Matiur Rahman: You are perhaps aware that we’ve been publishing Prothom Alo for 22 years now. We are moving forward despite various odds.

Fazlur Rahman: (Brings out a copy of Prothom Alo from his desk) I also read Prothom Alo.

We went to Fazlur Rahman’s office at Gulshan in the city at around 7 in the evening. We came out after 9:00pm. In a rather long conversation, he shared with us about his salt factory, paper mill and various other investments and extended generous hospitality towards us. For the whole time, an oxygen nasal cannula was tucked under his nose. He needs oxygen due to a lung infection.

We’ve discovered him to be a very humble person despite being such a big business magnate. He is evergreen in 74. Physical illness could not dent his exuberance, the same gumption which made him one of the leading industrialists of the country from such a humble beginning.

*This interview, originally published in a special supplement on Prothom Alo's 23rd anniversary, has been rewritten in English by Galib Ashraf.

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