Dhaka, Saturday, 12 June 2021

In a special interview with the Managing Director of MASCO Group

Bangladeshi professionals are much more effective & efficient than foreigners : Ahmed Arif Billah

Bangladeshi professionals are much more effective & efficient than foreigners : Ahmed Arif Billah

Wearing of clothing is exclusively a human characteristic and is also one of the basic needs of humankind. In this context Bangladesh is now the second largest Ready-made Garment (RMG) exporter of the world. Bangladesh accounts 5.7 percent of the global market share. China stands in the first place, occupying 31.3 percent. China ranks number 1 and 4 in the world in terms of population andland size. On the other hand, Bangladesh is in number 8 and 92 respectively. In view of a country like China, Bangladesh is relatively very small and far behind; but in world RMG exports, Bangladesh is just behind China. Our main export item is garment. Today we earn around 23 billion of US dollars by exporting this goods. We have about 4,500 garment industries. 83% of GDP gained from this sector. About 4 million of workers are working in this industry and 80% of them are women.
It is remarkable that women empowerment of our country mostly depends on this sector. The success of ready-made garment industry is impressive. Many industries and trading activities have been expanded such forward and backward linkage industries due to the expansion of garment industry. Now the whole society and economy are the beneficiaries from this sector.

To attain this stage, State has less role than that of some of the most enthusiastic people like late Nurul Quader Khan (Desh Garments), Mohammad Reazuddin (Reaz Garments), M Shamsur Rahman (Stylecraft Limited, the first president of BGMEA) and later M A Sobur (MASCO Group) and others formalizes our apparel industry. Bangladesh’s apparel industry flourished in world
through the hand of these legendary people is in number 8 and 92 respectively. In view of a country like China, Bangladesh is relatively very small and far behind; but in world RMG exports, Bangladesh is just behind China.
Our main export item is garment. Today we earn around 23 billion of US dollars by exporting this goods. We have about 4,500 garment industries. 83% of GDP gained from this sector. About 4 million of workers are working in this industry and 80% of them are women.
It is remarkable that women empowerment of our country mostly depends on this sector. The success of ready-made garment industry is impressive. Many industries and trading activities have been expanded such forward and backward linkage industries due to the expansion of garment industry. Now the whole society and economy are the beneficiaries from this sector. To attain this stage, State has less role than that of some of the most enthusiastic people like late Nurul Quader Khan (Desh Garments), Mohammad Reazuddin (Reaz Garments), M Shamsur Rahman (Stylecraft Limited, the first president of BGMEA) and later M A Sobur (MASCO Group) and others formalizes our apparel industry. Bangladesh’s apparel industry flourished in world through the hand of these legendary people.
M A Sobur, a living legend; is now the Chairman of the MASCO Group and his son Ahmed Arif Billah is the Managing Director. Their MASCO Group comprising of MASCO Cotton’s Limited, MASCO Exports Ltd., MASCO Industries Ltd. (Composite Unit) and MASCO Industries Ltd. is one of the largest garment industry of Bangladesh. MASCO is playing a leading role in knit garment export since their inception in 2001. Its vertical set up knit composite factory with all in-house facility and advance technology is the proud of Bangladesh. Current annual turnover of this group is $170 million. MASCO has the world’s largest Apparel Printing House. In a few month time, their ‘State of the Art’ Washing House will begin its operation.
Recently The Apparel News talked with Ahmed Arif Billah, the second most influential person of the MASCO Group, as the company continues their upward journey to the business success and increases their pivotal role in foreign exchange earning for Bangladesh. It is to be noted that The Apparel News was highly interested to meet with the entrepreneurs and stakeholders of the MASCO Group, mainly for two reasons. Firstly, an analysis of our research wing reports that there are no foreign nationals in this giant group, though they have around twenty thousand employees fully equipped with most advanced apparel technology. Recently there are questions frequently raised that the RMG sector of Bangladesh recruits thousands of illegal foreigners and gives them billions of dollar every year. On the contrast, since their inception, MASCO Group never appointed a single number foreigner— certainly it has a special significance. Secondly, MASCO Group is fully managed by domestic management- top and mid level. A bunch of devout Bangladeshis led by the Executive Director ATM Mahbubul Alam Chowdhury, whose motto is ‘SUSTAINABLE CONTINUOUS DEVELOPMENT’. It has achieved a tremendous success in terms of business growth. In just a period of one decade, MASCO’s business turnover reached to $170 million from $17 million— the main credit certainly goes to the entrepreneurs who patronizes the indigenous management; there must be some special ascriptions of the entrepreneurs. Definitely it’s a big deal, where a majority of garment industry owners often moans about the efficiency level of indigenous top & mid-management. In these context, MASCO Group is an exception.
During the interview Ahmed Arif Billah speaks about various topics relating to apparel and textile industry, specially RMG sector of Bangladesh i.e. export-import situation, human resource & management, sustainability, current & future challenges, new markets as well as the economy of Bangladesh. Amit K. Biswas, Editor & Publisher of The Apparel News and Special Correspondent Farzana H. Neela have taken the interview:
The Apparel News: MASCO is one of the largest business group in apparel & textile sector of Bangladesh. Tell us something about the emergence and business succession of your organization.
Ahmed Arif Billah: In a sense, you are right that we are now a large company. But it’s seems to me that we are still new in the garment industry, especially in knit sector. Because, when my father thought to come in this sector in 2001, there seemed to be many opportunities, facilities. But when we decided to collect orders, it was very difficult to get in. We didn’t have any dyeing division. At that moment, if you didn’t have dyeing or knitting in primarily stage top buyers didn’t want to give order. then time the government incentives were 25 percent in RMG export. It was the prime time most likely to be benefited. When we appeared in this market owners have already sold their product in the top price range with the help of trade facilities. They have already got `cream’ of the incentive. When our company appeared, government dropped down the incentives to 5 percent. So, it was very difficult and tough time for us. You can say it ‘downward journey’ in the dawn. However, our hard work and with the grace of Almighty Allah, our company starts to moving a little bit onward and the staffs of our management told, it’s running well and we ought to expand; we need dyeing division. We decided to expand. We set up our dyeing division. When they said that the dyeing is going well, more expansion is needed we went to the expansion again. The decision we make is taken jointly with the management. We never thought that the decisions are just proprietary; we take decision with the concern of our top level management. This is how we move towards printing sector. We started printing with just two tables. When our Printing Management said that it was going well and need more table. We increased. Thus, now we are the largest printing house in the world probably. Same thing happened in the embroidery sector. So we are very close-knit management. As it is today, we all sit together; my father, brothers and sisters, our Executive Director Mahbubul Alam Chowdhury— all sit together. We never too late to make a decision and we are very transparent about this. We trust our management. We don’t believe that all decision has to come from the owner, we do not think so. Whoever we trust, we trust them cent percent. And we always want that our company to reach a better corporate management level, a better position such as Square Group. We don’t want to be a typical garment management or like that; we want to get out of that concept. We want that the operational system of our company runs on systematically. Even if we have not been here for a long time, our industry will be continued as it is today. And that is why our decision is always be immediate and in just time. Thus our expansions are going on and on every year. There are still five to six site under construction. It is all going through the decisions made in with the concern of everyone. That’s how we’ve been going so far. Sometime, it seems that we’re just doing expansions. Sometimes we think— when it will be stop, we will stay cool; sometimes we think this year or next year we will stop, but every year five to six site are putting up. That’s how everything is actually going. Still we are growing, we are learning. However, my father was long in the apparel sector. He was in Maxim Garment of Chittagong in late seventy. Maxim was established with the people of the Desh Garment. But now Maxim is not in good shape. Our MASCO group have been in the knit sector since 2001.

The Apparel News: We have heard about your father and the emergence of MASCO Group. Your father is a legend in the garment industry of Bangladesh. You are the Managing Director of MASCO Group and second most influential person in this large company. In terms of age, you are quite young yourself. We would like to ask you what qualities really worked and generally needed to be a successful industrialist. Say something about this for our young generation.
Ahmed Arif Billah: In fact, I was very young when I knew about apparel sector. As a kid, I used to attend boarding school in India. I started studying abroad at the age of four. When I came home on vacation, my father worked with spinning in Chittagong. It was nice to be with my father to go his workplace. My father used to show me how to make a yarn— twisting together of fibers from cotton. I relished the process. Today, I’m in this position because our parents. However, it’s seems to me that the young people of our current generation is very aggressive (of course it’s not in negative sense). I will not speak for myself, but they are very aggressive, very motivated and surely they are very honest. They are more advance in this case than our previous generation. If we acquire money from the bank, our first tension is to reimburse. It is always works in our mind that how to end the debt. In this case our generation is very committed. If they commit to a buyer, they are committed to honor it. As it has been seen before that a number of orders or stocks gone to lot, the factory was over, that factory was sinking; but now such things happened rarely. Many people would have greedily taken orders before, but they could not finish. Now it is very rare. We the young people are taking order for two factories; we complete the task, then think for another. Our young generation is really very honest, committed and their communication with the buyers is very good. In earlier time, our owners might not have talked with the buyers and the people involved in the process. But the current generation, I think they are working very honestly and they are dedicated. In these days, where there is second generation, they are doing very well.
The Apparel News: As far as we know, the amount of the investment of your company is increasing day by day. In that case, which areas are you most emphasizing?
Ahmed Arif Billah: There are four sectors in our company— knitting, dyeing finishing swing, printing and embroidery. We will not raise anything in the swing sector in this year. We are now investing in dyeing, printing and embroidery sector this year and washing sector also.
The Apparel News: You were talking about second generation. This second generation is doing a lot of work on intellectual issues. You talked about Square Group, where the Managing Director visits the factory once or twice a year. But still, most of our garment entrepreneurs are staying at the factory for late nights. You are talked about your father, you have learned a lot from him. So, when you were out of the industry, you saw this sector as a son of an industrialist. Now you are also a successful industrialist. What do you understand or seeing the difference from these two perspectives, when we are talking a lot about the sustainability of the garment industry. Where do you think we really should be focusing on in terms of sustainability?
Ahmed Arif Billah: In fact, we should do expansions and focusing where we really need to. All aspects should be scrutinized and well planned. But to these days and in most cases, everyone is hungry and there is no unity among the entrepreneurs. There is no unity among the owners. I think this is a huge weakness for us. I gave a price quotation; another took the order by giving two cents less. We snatch the order without thinking about what the loss would be, what the profit would be. It is because there is no unity between us. Our appetite is increasing day by day. Moreover, it seems to me that the western world is taking the most advantage of this weakness. One of my buyers tells me, you want this price; then he mailed to another factory and told my price; the factory owner snatch the order from me with a lower price. That’s the way We are responsible for our ill fate. Our appetite has increased, so that we are eating anyway.
But the money that come srink, who is the real beneficiary? Of course the western world. The main beneficiary is the buyers of US, EU, Australia and so. But the question is— what did we get from this ill practice— the money went out of Bangladesh.
There brings the term of ethical business practice. Our second generation, are well educated and they are thinking about this ethics. They are trying their own way to get into a position that is sustainable for this industry.
The Apparel News: In the media, it is often said that foreigners are taking eight to ten billion dollar per year from our industries, especially the garment industry. The figure may very slightly. But it is true that many foreigners are working in this sector. Is this the reason that we don’t have skilled manpower to run this sector? What do you think?
Ahmed Arif Billah: No, not at all. It’s not a matter of skilled manpower. There is a mentality in our country that foreigners are always good. But think about me; Once we had a new factory, we hired a consulting firm called Spectrum Lanka from Sri Lanka. Everyone says they are very good. But they are not so good. we are still now doing new factory, but we don’t take foreign consultant. Now we ourselves are consultants. We’re doing it ourselves. Each factory has its own consultant. I don’t like the idea of recruiting foreigners at all. Foreigners who work in Bangladesh are leading very gorgeous life. On the other hand, Bangladeshis suffer a lot. They are working hard. But we are paying thousands of dollars to a foreigner; they are staying in nice hotel, eating, going abroad in the country’s money. They are spending a very luxurious life. But the Bangladeshi people suffer, they do not do half or even a third of the problem. But we do not want to give the Bangladeshi even a third of their salary. That’s a big problem. And some quality institutes need to come in to improve their skills. Yes, there were fewer people at one time, but gradually the experience of Bangladeshis is also increasing. I think we need to change the perception that people are less efficient than foreigners. I say from a lot of experience - I am very happy with the Bangladeshi consultancy and work direction. Frankly, in the case of a foreign consultant there has been such a situation that I don’t pick his phone, feel unnecessary.
The Apparel News: You talk about management is very promising, inspiring for the people of the country.
Ahmed Arif Billah: I can’t talk about others. But there is no foreigner works anywhere in our organization. Our total manpower is now 20,000. We have started knitting with 25 workers, but we have not recruited a foreigner so far. However, the design is different. Our country is actually far behind in this regard.
The Apparel News: Foreigners working in our country are coming as a technical expert. But, as it turns out, they are working as a director, general manager in many organizations. It is heard that this foreigners do not give taxes. What do you think about this?
Ahmed Arif Billah: Look, there is no any foreigner works in our institutions. So I don’t have a good idea about it. but may be it is happening. Such a mentality is actually more common among people from third world countries like Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. However, maybe a little more in our country. But the consultant we hired, we told at that time - that would be the true figure of money. And since we don’t work with foreigners, it doesn’t make me sense.

The Apparel News: According to you, the native people working in your management are now very efficient. Still, do you have any plan or initiatives to enhance their skills? Do you have any allocation in this sector ie management training and development in the annual budget?
Ahmed Arif Billah: In fact, no separate allocated budget is needed. But if there is an opportunity in development, if necessary - we must do it. We do not hesitate to accept any training or development proposal from anyone and if it can really play an effective role. We always try to encourage employees of all levels in these matters. We try to get all the costs and facilities our organization can offer for training and development. Another thing, we can train very efficiently in our establishment. The labs we have are sophisticated. Those who works, are fully equiped. We do our own audits, we have efficient management for that. We get so many orders every year, about fifty percent of those excursions but we do it ourselves. For this, lab workers have to be well-equiped, aggregated. Like, we have a big buyer. He told us about Compliance a few days ago, to do a self audit. We already have a self audit. They want me to do no external audits, so that we have our own audit management. And in many cases it takes training, not one day. There is a lot of work going on in these matters under our Executive Director. Then suppose, about the staff. They do not know much, awareness is low. We provide regular training for them on health, business development, waste management etc. We provide them many health care materials free of cost. There are many things that seems very common; But from a broader point of view is crucial; our top to bottom is always aware of this things. Let’s say, the air conditioner in my room is off when I leave the room. There are many things like this, which are always top to bottom. Training programs are underway in our daily affairs. Many outside training activities also start from our management department where staff are participating when needed. As long as our Executive Director is in service, we also monitor them; In order to ensure that these activities are working properly. However, it is often seen that many training or courses that are done by outside companies marketing, does not add much efficiency or output is not very productive. However, if any of our staff says that I want to go, I want to participate; so we take that very seriously and they are supported in all kinds of ways.
The Apparel News: We are second in the export of clothing, an index of our expertise. In the first place, China’s efficiency index is 1. We are far behind in product development. Marketing is occupied by westerner. Buying is occupied by Indians. The Sri Lankans occupy the field of industrial engineering. Third-placed Vietnam may soon overtake us. Exports are declining. Many challenges before us. In such situation, do you think the opportunities and assistance that the government of Bangladesh provides in this sector is sufficient?
Ahmed Arif Billah: No. Government support is scarce now. Our garment industry and those who works abroad are the key to our economy. Our bread and butter come from their income. The growth that is taking place in the private sector of Bangladesh is also taking place automatically. The advantage of the government here is that it does not do much, but in many cases the disadvantage is greater. I think patronization is very low. In addition, the price situation of the product in the world market, the incentive should be given serious consideration. Because everything else is seen, three percent do not survive. Many people say that five percent, not all the costs are 3 percent. In addition, those with an efciency or aptitude think a little modern; they do it on their own initiative, at their own expense. We have been doing a lot of work on our own, always wondering how to improve. But even then, in one place, that pushing entrepreneur to the wall. As we have been trying for a year, if anyone take leave from the top level, we do not take new person from outside. We do not expel anyone from employment. But if anyone is leaving, we try to fill that void from in-house by doing multitasking. In such way, we are trying to narrow the cost, to save money. But if you go to one place and see it, there will be no chance of saving it. I see that in terms of increasing efficiency and overall effectiveness, we are doing it on our own, not much is being done by the government. Nothing big is coming from the government. Yes, something is currently being done in the field of gas. But if it had been done five years earlier, our Masco group alone could have created employment opportunities for at least five thousand people. In addition, more work should be done in the field of product transportation. But now there are various initiatives, including fly-overs, that will benefit if they are completed. But most importantly, we need urgently update our seas and other ports, say smoothes like a Mercedes-Benz car. Because, our trade, whether it would be imports or exports, is directly involved with the port. Import and exporting goods through the airport is very expensive. All sides, including Bayer, the supplier are therefore sensitive to the seaport. A lot depends on the garment industry. The garment industry is involved in almost all sectors of the economy of Bangladesh. So we need to be more developed at every step of the product transportation. There is a lot of misery around customs at the port. But using modern technology, it’s only a matter of minutes. Some people have this problem of wealth due to their loneliness and ignorance. Why does service user will not spend money if the service is improved. But day-to-day things can not be done in lead time only if the product is in port. In this the export order is canceled, the cost goes up; which has an impact on export targets. Some people are suffering a lot. But who benefits from the harassment of those who work honestly? Loneliness in decision making is doing a lot of harm to our nation. We need to reduce the bureaucracy of customs.
The Apparel News: Well, our apparel sector is now in such situation, it is time to take a look at our backward linkage or technology. Suppose there are other sectors such as machine tools, assembling.
Ahmed Arif Billah: That will be slow. If we do not meet the deficiencies we have, then it will be a problem. The government is encouraging to build up plant. encourage works. Some parts and assembling work are being done. Honda Already is going, Yamaha is coming. We have a Honda motorcycle dealership. What the government is doing for raise taxes on motorcycle imports, reducing imports of machinery. Assembling this, the products produced are available at much lower prices than imported products. Samsung is planting in the country. In a few days, Samsung will make up to 5 percent of our demand in Bangladesh. We hear that BMW cars will also be manufactured in our country. Our country is still dependent on imports. We can only assemble here, because of the raw material shortage. But we need more time to go into A-Z production. It won’t happen in a day. This requires a long-term plan. It will take a lot more time to acquire our technical expertise. Long-term plans will be needed.
The Apparel News: Do you have any plans for the Masco Group to deal with such a sector?
Ahmed Arif Billah: We have no such plan at this time. We are doing a lot of work related to Knit Art. You know that we are doing a lot of work on printing, embroidery, not only knit. Construction of a state-of-the-art washing house is underway, which will begin officially in few months. Beyond that we are thinking about footwear industry, have done a lot of studies about footwear. I’m not talking about leather footwear, I’m talking about Sports Shoes. It is RMG related. this industry has great potential. I think the footwear industry can be one of the most potential earnings sectors in our country, Especially sports shoes. Sport shoes is part of the apparel industry. This will require a worker. And wherever the worker needs, we will have employment opportunities. We have to look into such sectors if we are to employ the people of our country with such a huge population. But in this case we have a problem with good brands like Nike, adidas; their materials are synthetic, which is not available in our country. They are now taking it from China. Bangladesh can enter this market. Our MASCO group has come a long way in this regard. Now let’s see.
The Apparel News: The textile and textile industry of Bangladesh is going through a very difficult time in recent times. Exports are declining, some factories are closed, many worker losing work. What do you think we should do to get out of this situation?
Ahmed Arif Billah: Good question. See, the Accord and the Alliance have worked, they make the overall situation much more difficult and complicated. Such a beautiful building and infrastructure; But the Accord does not approve. they Say, do it that way. I did. But after a while they said, it is not that, do it. I did that too. Still they say, it is not so. In fact, they are only increasing our costs. But if I say raise the price a bit, then there are a number of locksmiths. the price did not go up, but vice
versa, they talk about other countries and take the reduce price . On the other hand, the government increased the salaries of all workers. Those who spend so much money for business, how will they survive. I don’t want sixty bucks by spend fifty bucks. I can ask for money. If you do not get it, then why invest. Many people think a lot of income. But you have to take into account the fact that the entrepreneur’s expenses are increasing due to various pressures. We have so many world renowned buyers, 3-5 brands. When I told them Compliance, I increased the payroll; You increase the price a bit. Then there are various excuses. Only the Dikey brand has told us that you have increased workers salary, and I have increased the price. Most of the brands say, reduce the price. But our salaries are in excess of billions. No idea where from the money will come. This way, many factories will be closed, workers will be unemployed. We take many decisions politically and make people happy before the vote. But in a broader sense, you will see that it is actually more harm to us.
The Apparel News: Do associations have a role in this, especially associations like the BGMEA, BKMEA?
Ahmed Arif Billah: To be honest, they have role to do. But the question is, do they keep it. Because, with all our meetings, everything is now politicalized. I am a little optimistic about the current leadership of BGME. Those who had been before, most could not do anything politically. But whoever is now, I have confidence in him. Let’s hope for a bit. And I do not comment on BKMEA. Although I am a lifetime member of BKMEA, sponsor. Another point is that there is no similarity between we the owners, we are still affected by the increase in prices of goods abroad. I can not raise the price even with a lot of effort. But our product is no less good in any part. Foreign buyers are taking advantage of this unfairness of the owners.
The Apparel News: Your organization is leading in the garment industry of Bangladesh. Say something about industrial engineering or industrial engineering at garment companies in Bangladesh.
Ahmed Arif Billah: Industrial engineering is very close with the garment industry. But the vary is seen in Bangladesh. We are trying to recruit skilled people in this category by offering many salaries; But not available. However, the garment industry is the biggest work area for industrialists who have passed the Industrial Engineering from Bangladesh. Students should not be unemployed who finish his studies in this subject. But they remain unemployed. I can’t find people even though I have a very good salary. The main reason is that our universities have nothing to do with the curriculum in this subject. It’s very unfortunate for us. Assuring all kinds of assistance to the universities, no change can be seen in the curriculum by requesting to keep something about the garment industry. It’s sad We have the problems because we are a big organization.
The Apparel News: You are one of the second largest entrepreneurs in the garment industry of Bangladesh. Two-thirds of Bangladesh’s working population is now young. You are also a young entrepreneur in Bangladesh, who Moving forward with success. Say something to the young and the next generation of Bangladesh.
Ahmed Arif Billah: Look at us, it is not necessary to say, our garments industry is now the largest revenue sector. But to make sustainable development in the socio-economic field, only this sector is not capable. Because the next generation is coming, they will not spent life with this needle-yarn. They would not go to garment factory for Sewing . China is already in trouble. The garment sector of our country will be in such a high position for 10-15 years, after then what will happen. We will be listed of Developed Country in few years. Then there will be no scope of duty-free trade ie FTA. Going to enter the LDC - it is a matter of joy and fear. Because many facilities will be reduced. we will not get loans from institution like JICA, lose EU GSP benefits. Bangladesh will suffer a great deal if the GSP benefits have gone. But in the world market, everyone has to survive with competition. Nowadays our kids have become very sharp in technology using mobile phones, computers. They would not want to carry this stitch after 10-15 years. So now we have to move towards IT. But if our basic education is not like that, then it will not be. Call centers are a big sector, but our children do not speak English that way. We call here ask for credit card information. kids in Bangalore from india answers it; such way they making billions of dollars. They’re taking money from our pockets. There is a chance of doing good in this sector in our country, but the problem is there are no people, who can speak English properly. There are also opportunities to do better in the Management Information System (MIS). We need to think about these on an urgent basis. We have to find new sectors quickly and prepare ourselves in that way. While it is possible in the garment sector, we have to work on how it would done at the higher level. If the garment industry is very large, it will last for 15-20 years, then it will not work. So we have to work that way. Our education system needs to rearrange in that way; We have to start from the very beginning- from primary level. But hopefully, policy makers are thinking about these, starting works. I want our next generation will build up, there will be no lack.

The Apparel News: Let me finish the last question. What do yoink about the media in Bangladesh, especially working about apparel and textile? Say something about The Apparel News.

Ahmed Arif Billah: Look, I love reading books, magazines. For professional reasons Apparel related magazines, tabloids, books are my favorite. The reason is - there is so much to learn. New technologies are coming, new things are being added; This things are known. The Apparel News, which is being published s