Life’s Work: An Interview With Ashraf Bin Taj, Managing Director, IDC

Life’s Work: An Interview With Ashraf Bin Taj, Managing Director, IDC

Green-Tea credit banner Ashraf Bin Taj is the co-founder and Managing Director of International Distribution Company Bangladesh (IDC), a fast-growing marketing and distribution company based in Dhaka. Started four years ago with 26 people and one brand, today IDC is a team of 330 people, works with four international brands, has a growing business and eyeing the next phase of expansion.

Ashraf Bin Taj has seen both sides of the aisle. He has decades of experience in working with leading international and local corporations and for the past four years, he has been building his own business. Mr. Ashraf is a people’s person. He says his people skill, developed through extensive participation in extracurricular activities during his school life, has significantly contributed to his career. He speaks slowly often absorbed in his own train of thoughts but with a sense of certainty that emits weight and wisdom of living.

In this interview, Ashraf Bin Taj illustrates his journey to what he is doing today, how IDC came into being, its expansion plans and product strategy to difficulties he had to face due to the lack of support system for early stage companies to how openness and horizontal structure defines its internal culture and why finding right people remains a key challenges for his company and shares his ambition for IDC over the next few years that includes launching its own brand and greater automation and reflects on his management philosophy, hard work of entrepreneurship and why deeper meaning and greater satisfactions of life comes from giving and helping fellow human beings.

Future Startup

Where did you grow up? Tell us about your journey to what you are doing today?

Ashraf Bin Taj

I spent my childhood both in Chittagong and Dhaka. I started my schooling at BAWA School (Bangladesh Women’s Associations School), a co-education school in Chittagong, where I completed my second grade. It was basically a girls school but they used to allow boys until class five.

My father was a service holder in jute industry. In my grade three year, he got transferred to Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporations in Dhaka. We moved along with him and settled in Mohammadpur, Tajmahal road, where I spent almost five years of my childhood.

When I was in class eight, my father again got transferred. This time back to Chittagong. We followed him. Upon returning to Chittagong, I got into Chittagong Cantonment Public School and College from where I did my SSC. Cant. Public had an outsized influence in my upbringing. We had great teachers and equally brilliant students. I made great friends, who even today are very important parts of my life. We had an empowering education, not only in the classroom but also outside the classroom. We were taught discipline and the value of hard work.

Later, I did my HSC from Govt. Haji Mohammad Mohsin College of Chittagong. After my HSC, I decided to go to the City College for a B.Com. This was back in 1989. I ultimately wanted to pursue an MBA from IBA but before that, I had to do a B.Com. My parents were very supportive of my decision.

After B.Com, I remember a group of us attended an IBA admission test coaching center run by Kamrul Ahsan bhai, currently the MD of Inpace and Halim bhai where we largely attended model test exams. They used to prepare students for IBA, SAT, GRE exams.

On the exam day, we found out that our two teachers, Halim Bhai and Kamrul bhai, were also attending the same exam they prepared us for. We later discovered that they dropped out from a previous batch and was giving readmission test. I have to say they were very entrepreneurial. Many of us from that group got into the IBA including Halim bhai and Kamrul bhai.

I had a wonderful childhood. We are two brothers. My brother, Adnan, who is 8 years younger than me, now stays in Australia. My parents took very good care of us. We did not have many luxuries but we had a very good life. My parents made sure that we received a good education, had entertainment, traveled across the country.

From a very early age, my parents encouraged us to read. We did not have the freedom to buy all the trendy dresses but we had all the freedom to buy books. It was a different time. The social outlook was materially different than what it is today. Today, we have luxury but we fall short in values. We have a growing consumerism but we lack contentment. We had a strong social bonding back then but today, our social fabric is falling apart.

I had been very active in cultural and extracurricular activities throughout my early life. I actively took part in our cultural activities at school and attended competitions at the national level. During my time at Chittagong Cantonment Public School and College, I was the assistant editor of our Wall Magazine and my friend Md. Khorshed Alam, who is now at Citi N. A.Bank, was the chief editor. In IBA, I was equally active in extracurricular activities. I was an active member of IBA Cultural Club from the day one when Alamgir Zafar sir started it.

This active participation in out of classroom activities had helped me to develop a superior people skill and make valuable connections with people. I can easily get along with people regardless of their positions and status which have been of tremendous help throughout my professional career.

From a very early age, my parents encouraged us to read. We did not have the freedom to buy all the trendy dresses but we had all the freedom to buy books. It was a different time. The social outlook was materially different than what it is today. Today, we have luxury but we fall short in values. We have a growing consumerism but we lack contentment. We had a strong social bonding back then but today, our social fabric is falling apart.

I got married right after my graduation from IBA. My wife, Shamima Siddiky, and I are from IBA same batch. We got to know each other when we were doing MBA. I did my major in Marketing and my wife in Development Management. We graduated from IBA in 1994 and got married in December of the same year. She is now a Senior Official at UNICEF and looks after their Urban Program.

I did my IBA internship at BAT. By the time I completed my internship, I got an opportunity at a World Bank research project on silk marketing under a British consultant named Dr. Ashley Morton. It was a two-months long project. I started applying for other jobs toward the end of the project and got my first job at Berger Paints. Our World Bank project ended in January and I joined Berger on 12th February 1995. Mr. Azam Reza was the Marketing Manager of Berger and was our boss at that time. Azam bhai left the company towards the end of 1995 and then Ms. Rupali Chowdhury, who is now the Managing Director of Berger Paints Bangladesh, was given the responsibility for Marketing on top of her Supply Chain portfolio and became our boss. She was an amazing person to work with.

After working for two years at Berger, I got an opportunity at Unilever. For many reasons, this was a turning point in my life.

Almost 60 of us attended the recruitment exam and I was the only one who finally got selected. But the news came after quite a long time and that too in a very usual manner. They did not send me a letter or anything. Instead, in one evening, Shahab Rizvi, the Marketing Controller of Unilever at that time, came to our house at Chittagong and asked me to meet him at the office the next day. Mr. Rizvi was a very unusual man and used to love breaking the rules.

The next day I went. Mr. Abdullah, Personnel Director at that time and Mr. Shahab Rizvi were at the office. They had an appointment letter ready for me. Mr. Abdullah also called my HR head at Berger Paints to allow me to leave.

But while they handed me the appointment letter, I had one formality left, medical test. They asked me to submit my medical details to office doctor and to their designated diagnostic center in Chandanpura. In the meantime, they also sent me to a short office orientation.

When I did my medical test on the scheduled day, the company doctor found my blood pressure a little high, largely because I rushed to the test center. In the meantime, I gave my resignation letter at Berger Paints. Afterward, I went to a trip with my wife to Nepal and India. Since I would join Unilever the next month, this was sort of a preparation.

When I was traveling a host of things happened at Unilever. They had to shut down production in Bangladesh due to labor unrest in factory. Unilever factory was non-operative for almost two months after that. They postponed all of their recruitments and similar things.

I returned from the trip amidst this unrest. I was supposed to join but there was no notice from the company. After a few days, I went to Unilever office, which was then located inside its factory, to know updates but I could not manage an appointment with the personnel director.

Long story short, after waiting for a while and a few back and forth I was asked to meet factory Personnel Manager, Saleh bhai, in his room who, after some ado, informed me that they had to turn down my employment on the ground of medical conditions and handed me a letter saying that they found high blood pressure in my medical report which was not in line with their medical guidelines. This is a huge case at Unilever as of today where they declined my employment after issuing an appointment letter. This happened in the latter half of 1996.

It was a devastating experience for me. I was recruited. I resigned from my previous employment. And then they turned down my employment. From a very high flying career at Berger, I suddenly became jobless. It was equally disheartening to my parents, particularly to my father. They were very happy about me joining Unilever. When he came to know it, which was quite later, it was a huge blow to him.

Initially, I did not share it with anyone except my wife. Instead of worrying about the problem, I put myself into work to overcome the challenge. I first made a call to Azam bhai, who was the Head of Marketing at Standard Chartered Bank at that time and was my former boss at Berger. I explained the situation to him. He asked me to come to Dhaka and as well as sent me to Helal Bhai, then Head of Corporate Banking at Chittagong operations of Standard Chartered Bank. He also asked me not worry and that he would try to do whatever possible. Don’t get frustrated, instead, face it, he said. When you are in this kind of crisis you actually get to know your friends. When I met Helal Bhai, he made few phone calls and set up a few interviews for me.

The next morning I met Azam bhai in Dhaka. He already set up an interview for me at SCB although I did not have any prior banking experience. After that, I went to Unitrend to meet Zulfiqar Bhai and Muneer bhai. I had worked with them for almost two years while at Berger. Zulfiqar bhai was a very close friend of Azam bhai who Azam bhai asked to help me. When I met Zulfiqar bhai he asked for my CV to place it to the Managing Director of Nestle with whom he had a meeting scheduled the next week.

After doing all this, I returned to Chittagong the next day. I did not inform anything at home yet because I did not want my parents to worry. I would go out in the morning and spend time in different offices.

Mr. Manzur Rashid, now at ACI Trading, was then just joined Berger and was posted in Chittagong. He was a former Unilever executive and was very angry about my incident. When I met him, he made a call to Beximco Textile and arranged an interview for me. I again came to Dhaka and appeared for the interview at Beximco Textile.

While I was going through all this, Shahab Rizvi, who personally came to my house to inform my appointment, was feeling guilty about my incident which I realized later. All of a sudden, one day he sent his driver to my house with a one liner letter which said, please meet Mr. Salman Ispahani tomorrow at 1:00 pm, he would be expecting you. The next day I went to Ispahani. They took an interview and offered me a position as Assistant Manager – Marketing. My finally family came to know about it when I joined at Ispahani.

While working at Ispahani, one day I got a call from Nestle for an interview. It happened in a very interesting way. I used to visit Manzur bhai a lot at his office in Chittagong. One day, M. Zulfiquar Hussain bhai, then HR manager of Nestle and later HR Director and now Founder and CEO of Grow and Excel, came to his office when I was present there. Monzur bhai then asked Zulfiqar bhai that why don’t you call Ashraf for an interview at Nestle which led to the subsequent interview.

In three and half months at Ispahani, I gave an interview at Nestle. After that, I received two appointment letters at once: one from Nestle and another from Beximco. Now I had to make a choice but I was a little confused. While consulted with a few people, especially my friend Shakil Wahed, they advised me to join Nestle because it would provide better career development opportunities.

I joined Nestle Bangladesh on 16th February 1997 where I worked for the next nine years. Four years in sales and five years in marketing. Nestle was a new investment in Bangladesh at that time. As result, we used to receive priority in global training and exposures. It was one of the best organizations at that time in terms of training, developing and giving exposure to its people. I hope it still is.

I had a very rewarding career at Nestle. It tremendously helped in building my professional foundation. I had a rapid career progression as well. By 2001, I was directly reporting to the Managing Director.

But things started to get a little difficult when we were put under the regional structure, moving out of zonal reporting structure where we used to report directly to the Zone Director in Switzerland.

In 2005, I got a chance to participate at Nestle Strategic Generating Demand Unit (SGDU), a nine-month assignment in Switzerland. I applied directly from Bangladesh and was selected through a rigorous process from all across the world. But when my case was getting through the process, Regional HR, objected that I bypassed it without their approval although I applied with the permission from my Managing Director, Carlo Cifielloat that time. They called it a violation of protocol and raised the question that if the opportunity is given only to me than many people regionally who are also eligible for the opportunity would be treated unequally. After much back and forth, they finally decided to turn down my acceptance to the program. It was a heartbreaking experience for me. I felt discriminated and made my mind that I would not continue at Nestle for long.

A few months later, I came across an opportunity at ACI. ACI was looking for a business manager for their consumer brands who would be responsible for marketing, sales, and overall P&L. My friend Shakil referred me for the position. Mr. Syed Alamgir, Executive Director of ACI and who is like our guru, also spoke to few other sources and finally decided to talk to me. Mr. Alamgir interviewed me for the position at Sheraton Hotel. The following month they called me to the office to meet ACI Managing Director and the Director – Corporate Affairs. We had quite a long discussion. Soon after that, they confirmed my appointment. Afterward, I resigned from Nestle where I had a very happy departure.

I joined at ACI on 27th November 2005. For the next eight years, I had worked at ACI and managed a diverse portfolio while amassing a tremendous amount of learning.

ACI offers an incredible opportunity to employees for personal development. It has a strong entrepreneurial culture and empowers employees enormously. In fact, ACI experience prepared me for entrepreneurship.

I was initially responsible for consumer brands portfolio. I built an excellent team and with the grace of Almighty, we did very well in the first year. When I joined, business was bleeding and profitability was under huge pressure. We had managed to overcome that challenge within a very short time. In the very first year, which was 2006, we made a record. In the second year, we did even better. My special skill is around turning things into profit and driving growth through superior cross functional teamwork.

I joined at ACI as a Business Manager. In 2008, I was promoted to Business Director. In the next few years, ACI continued to add more businesses to my portfolio. ACI Salt was a losing concern at that time. At the end of 2007, I got the responsibility to turn it around. It took us a year to bring it to a shape and from 2009, we started delivering profit.

When I was leaving ACI, I was responsible for four businesses including Consumer Brands, Salt, Electrical, and Electronics. I did not do well in electronics for which I had to receive a lot of criticism. It was a great learning for me and made me realize that you cannot succeed in everything.

At ACI, we were responsible for a large team. In my direct vertical, we had over 700 people. If you consider shared responsibility, it was over 1000 people. We had to manage everything for these people starting from maintaining their performance to succession planning to their career development to training. We had to invest in the development of them. At Nestle, it was relatively easier because it had its own training facilities, R&D Centers, and everything. You did not have to do much.

The scenario was different at ACI. We did not have an organized system yet and had to find ways to achieve the goal. This was when I learned how local companies progress. While it apparently looks like a disadvantage but in hindsight, it was not. At Nestle, we had all the opportunities but all of that was within Nestle systems. On the other hand, at ACI, since we did not have any structure yet, we could take and learn from anywhere in the world. It was a limitation but it also opened up a new world of possibilities. It also had led to a new kind of collaboration with my international suppliers and other business partners globally.

One thing that made my ACI experience distinctive is that I had to manage almost everything in a business which was a rare learning experience for me. While at Nestle, everything was compartmentalized. I could not see, most of the time, how other parts of the operations work. But at ACI, I could learn every aspect of running a business.

At ACI, we worked under great leaders from whom I learned a great deal. Working with Dr. Arif Dowla was an incredible experience.

Mr. Syed Alamgir, who was our Executive Director, was very adept at managing a large team and complex negotiation. The lessons I learned from these people have put me in a better position to pursue my entrepreneurial journey. When the opportunity came, I could manage to summon enough courage to take it because I had the practical education.

On the surface, two of the turning points in my life sounds terrible. But when you observe closely things are not that simple. The first one came when Unilever declined my employment. Although I became jobless for a while then I got a job at Nestle which was an incredible opportunity for me. I received a lot of opportunities to learn and expose myself that I would not get otherwise.

The lesson I took from this experience is that when things don’t go according to your plan, it does so for a reason and because Almighty has a better plan. Your responsibility is not to get disheartened by the momentary setback and plow forward.

The same lesson from Nestle experience. I did not make it to Strategic Generating Demand Unit assignment but it led to something even better. I joined ACI where I got all the training to become an entrepreneur. Although I left ACI in 2013, I maintain a strong relationship with ACI even these days. I’m a board member in their joint venture with TATA Global Beverages where I’m a signatory director.

People often get frustrated and give up easily. But as saying goes when one door closes, many doors open up.

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We started with 26 people, for Ferrero. All the initial investment came from Bashir. I had a little bit of savings which I offered but that was nothing compared to the requirement. That’s how we started. Today we are a team of 330 people.

Future Startup

How did IDC come into being?

Ashraf Bin Tell

Starting International Distribution Company (IDC) is yet another interesting story. I had been a job-holder throughout my life before starting IDC. Naturally, you could save only so much while doing a job. I did not have a lot of money but I had connections, ideas, and management capabilities gathered through years of experience.

That said, running a business and managing a business are two different things. I nowadays see people arranging entrepreneurship seminars and the likes but unfortunately, many people who speak in these seminars have no experience in building businesses, sorry to criticize, and most people talk about the rosy side of the journey but entrepreneurship is about pain. The share of struggle and hardship easily out-weigh everything else. There are too many things to take care of while running a business.

I have seen both sides of the aisle. I have experience of working in leading corporates in the country. And for the last four years, I have been running this company. I can give you a long list of hurdles one goes through doing business in Bangladesh. Let’s not go there. It would take yet another session!

Let’s return to the IDC story. Since I did not have enough capital, it was a hard call for me to start a business. But then my friend Bashir Ahmad, who is now Chairman and equal share holder of IDC, came forward. He came from a business family and is a fourth generation businessman.

In 2013, Bashir proposed me to do something together. He did not explain fully what he wanted to do. He just said I have this passion for building a consumer goods marketing company if you take responsibility for this, I could arrange initial investment and we would have an equal share.

At that time, my wife, who has been working with UNICEF since 1995, got an overseas assignment in East Timor. The situation was that I would have to visit her and my kid every two months.

I was a Business Director at ACI where I was responsible for over a thousand people and a business of almost 500 crores. It was a big decision. I was considering each option.

One day while I shared the idea with my friend Sufian, who is the Country Manager of Ferrero, he then informed me that Ferrero was looking for a new distributor in Bangladesh and gave me the idea to pursue distributorship of Ferrero in Bangladesh. He said, with your experience at Nestle and ACI, if you take responsibility, I could make a proposal to my company. I could not guarantee that you would get the business but I would try my best.

After much thought and discussion, I finally decided to move forward. I and Bashir joined hands and IDC came into existence in the middle of 2013. I formally resigned from ACI on 24th March 2013 and was finally released on 6th August.

Later in August, top management of Ferrero including Sales and Finance Director came to Bangladesh. By that time we took this, current IDC office, facility. They interviewed us along with a few other potential partners. Eventually, we got selected. My previous experience and connections both helped us in winning the business. At that time Sales Director of Ferrero was an Ex-Nestle who also checked my background through his network which, to some degree, helped us to win the business.

We started with 26 people, for Ferrero. All the initial investment came from Bashir. I had a little bit of savings which I offered but that was nothing compared to the requirement. That’s how we started. Today we are a team of 330 people.

Ashraf Bin Taj | Photo by IDC

Ashraf Bin Taj | Photo by IDC

Future Startup

You started IDC in 2013, please give us an overview of IDC and a little bit about early days of your journey.

Ashraf Bin Taj

We started with Ferrero, four of Ferrero brands including Kinder Joy.

Then we started working for Amul from December 2013,

In 2014, we launched our trading business. We are a listed supplier to Bata and supply non-shoe items to their non-shoe business unit.

In 2015, Nivea was reviewing their distributorship in Bangladesh. They shortlisted five companies including us. After multiple meetings and through a rigorous process, finally, they decided to award the business to us.

The performance of Nivea and Ferrero chocolates like Kinder Joy that you see in the market today, we are happy to say we have contributed to that.

This year we are working with Unilever Asia, a company of Unilever that deals with brands that are not available through Unilever Bangladesh in our local market but available in other markets. We have already been awarded the distribution rights for Ponds Talcum Powder, Pears Soap, Camay Soap and Kissan branded food products. There are few more that will be added to the portfolio.

In terms of people, we have grown almost 12 times, from 26 people to 330 people. We have dedicated teams for each brand. We currently cover 26 thousand outlets all across the country. We cover all the modern trades.

We supply our goods to many institutions. We have a B2B department that looks after our institutional sales. We now have a network of 91 distributors across the country. Our business size has also grown substantially.

It is hard for the new and early stage companies to get support from the existing system. It only supports the big companies, that too at times without collateral. But where would new entrepreneurs go, who need support more than existing big guys? The entire system designed without keeping small and early stage growth companies in mind. But in an ideal world where progress is taken seriously, early stage companies that have potentials to grow big should have all the support to fulfill their potentials. I was hurt and disappointed by this experience in my first year when I was running around for support without any luck.

Future Startup

Tell us about challenges you had faced in the early days of IDC and the way you outperformed those challenges. What challenges do you anticipate in the future?

Ashraf Bin Taj

The first challenge for any business like ours is having right kind of brand portfolio. We have been lucky to have it from the day one. As I said, we started our journey with Ferrero which already had a good market presence in Bangladesh. Moreover, most of these brands have a heavy presence in international media, particularly in Indian channels that have strong penetration in Bangladesh. Consequently, initial product awareness was not a challenge.

For us, the first challenge was designing the right kind of sales and distribution structure so that we could reach the right customers because we found out that these products were not reaching to the right kind of customers.

When we started we found out that the modern trade, superstores, and the likes, was there but payment system of the trade was (is) totally credit driven. When you supply to them, it often takes a long cycle to get paid which slows down your cash flow which was a big challenge for us, initially.

So we had to find an alternative which, I found, was having a general trade business. If I could have a strong business in general trade, say if I could get 80% of my business from the general trade, it would keep my company fluid and strong. That finding saved us and we then designed our entire distribution strategy accordingly.

We mapped all the premium stores, general stores, and pharmacies in the country. We also planned our manpower allocation accordingly to have a strong general trade business. We had our entire product display planogram designed for general trade. We took help from our principles in India. That really helped us to keep the liquidity of the company well.

In the first year, we could not make money. This is common. You learn a lot in the first year. But we could feel that the foundation we laid putting together a strong team, having the right kind of structure and outlet reach would benefit us in the long run. From the second year, we started to see an early sign of that.

The business was a handover to us, so the other challenge came along with it. There were market and product hygiene issues. We had to do a lot of clean up in the market because arteries in the market got clogged. We had to take a hit in terms of cleaning the market which we took consciously and purposefully to ensure a better future. It helped us to build a good image in the eyes of our partners as well as customers that paid off later.

The other challenge that I faced came from overall support system which is unfriendly towards early stages companies. Our entire financial system is based on collateral based financing.

When I started, I had great companies with me, globally top ranked companies in their respective areas such as Ferrero, Amul, and Nivea. I had a brilliant business plan and great principles in place. Despite having all of that, banks were not financing me without collateral. Managing working capital was a huge challenge initially.

If you are a small company and your ambition is limited, that is okay for you. You can manage with a small capital but if your ambition is higher and have the potential to go far, you need capital and facilities to grow your business.

It is hard for the new and early stage companies to get support from the existing system. It only supports the big companies, that too at times without collateral. But where would new entrepreneurs go, who need support more than existing big guys? The entire system designed without keeping small and early stage growth companies in mind.

But in an ideal world where progress is taken seriously, early stage companies that have potentials to grow big should have all the support to fulfill their potentials. I was hurt and disappointed by this experience in my first year when I was running around for support without any luck. It was an extremely stressful experience for me. We had a great business. Cash was coming in every day. Our record was clean but we could not get any facility.

Another thing that I did not know until I started my own business was that if your business is not 2-3 years old, preferably 4 years, you don’t qualify for almost anything.

There is SME scheme and all that but all those schemes require high collateral which is infeasible for SMEs in the most cases. I understand there is risk in our banking system. Bad precedences have been set but most of those incidents are done by big companies. Small did not contribute to this problem but, unfortunately, they suffer the consequence of it.

We badly need policies that support small businesses and early stage entrepreneurs otherwise we would not have new thriving businesses in the country.

That said, there are exceptions and institutions that take a long-term view. For us, Lanka Bangla Finance took a chance on us in the initial days when they gave us a factoring facility without any collateral. Towards the end of 2013, we managed to arrange a meeting with the Managing Director of Lanka Bangla Finance, Mr. Nasir through my friend Asif and my Chairman who had business with Lanka Bangla Securities. After looking at my documents, they offered us a factoring facility against our modern trade and institutional sales which was a big support for us at a time when almost no one was betting on us. They came forward and gave us a facility against zero collateral. Today, within three years, our business with them has grown manifold.

I’m thankful to my Chairman, Bashir Ahmed, who actually inspired me to get into entrepreneurship and supported me in the initial days. I’m greatly indebted to him.

I see a few big challenges for IDC in the future. We now have big brands with us and all that. But our business is mostly import driven which is becoming increasingly expensive due to the tax and duty structure. Unless we come up with a solid plan to tackle this challenge it will become a major challenge for us in the next few years. We may explore manufacturing options in Bangladesh, which many international brands are doing now, in collaboration with our principles and explore other similar options. That said, this is not about us alone. Our principles have to agree that they want to explore such options in the form of FDI or joint venture.

The second challenge is people. We are growing fast. In to order manage the growth, we would need people with different skill sets, with superior analytical and communication skills. We will also have to invest in the development of our people. Putting right kind of people in the mid-level management will be a major challenge for us.

The third challenge would be moving beyond distribution. We can’t remain a distribution business for long. We have to develop our own brands and put importance on strategic diversification.

Future Startup

What were challenges you faced as a person in the early days of your entrepreneurial journey?

Ashraf Bin Taj

I converted this office into my home. Personally, I’m a workaholic type. When I started IDC I worked 7 days a week for the first two years. Since we’re a distribution business for international brands, our Fridays and Saturdays are weekdays for our partners. I had to maintain the communication in those days. Since my wife was in abroad, I did not have to worry much about time management but it was an experience.

The second one was, I had these 26 people which became 40 in a very short time, how do I ensure on time payment and arrange other expenses for my people. When I was a corporate executive, I never had to worry about paying salary. This was a completely new experience for me.

In the early days, our business volume was not great because as a distributor you get a small cut of total sales which is nominal if your scale is not big. But by the grace of Almighty and with the support of everybody we have never been late in paying our people. Our people get paid first and then our stakeholders and debtors. We are strict on this principle. Because of that probably our top line has grown significantly. It gives confidence in people.

When I was an executive, it was a different kind of responsibility. Here everything was on me. Let me give you an example. In the first year when Eid vacation came, we had no plan in place to ensure the security of our warehouse and office. We did not any formal security system for warehouse yet. After much discussion, we had one of us who stayed in the office. I used to bring meals three times a day for him. That’s how we managed in the early days. But when I was at a job, vacation is vacation but now there is none. You are working almost all the time.

Things are better now. We have systems in place but in the early days, challenges were more difficult.

The third challenge would be moving beyond distribution. We can’t remain a distribution business for long. We have to develop our own brands and put importance on strategic diversification.

Future Startup

Any particular incident from your early days when you thought okay this is the end of it? A kind of major challenge or disastrous event?

Ashraf Bin Taj

In early 2014, one month we had a consistent shipment delay. As a result, we could not supply products to the market and our business suffered. Our revenue failed to meet our expenditure because of the shipment delays.

We are an importer. For us, no supplies mean no business and no revenue. It was huge pressure on our cash flow. On the other hand, we had to make sure that we deliver products on time to our partners. Otherwise, it would risk our reputation. In fact, we could lose some valuable customers.

We usually have some stock but in 2014 we were a relatively new company and did not have a strong stocking mechanism.

It was a very stressful month. I felt the weight of my responsibility as the managing director of the company at that time because it was (is) my responsibility to manage it well. But I did not allow it to affect my work. Later I thought that although I’m having a problem this month, it would not be in the next month. In fact, we would have this month’s products as surplus. And if we could increase sales, we could recover the deficit.

We did overcome that challenge. To manage our expenses, I, in fact, worked with Nokia as a supplier.

Future Startup

How does your business process work? How does your collaboration with your principles work?

Ashraf Bin Taj

We are the national distributor for all these brands. We represent them as their exclusive sales, distribution and marketing partner in Bangladesh. We import and distribute.

All these companies have country representatives as well. For Ferrero, they have a Country Manager, who happens to be my friend Sufian. Nivea calls it Country Sales Development manager. They work and collaborate with our team and directly supervise people in our team for their respective brands.

Our marketing plan is a yearly joint exercise. Every month we also do S&OP process and work accordingly.

Our principles have plans for Bangladesh market which they express to us. We take data from research firms as well as our own sources, based on that we decide on how much we could go and put together our plan. We receive products accordingly and go into execution.

We maintain a very personal relationship with our people. Having an emotional connection with your team members and employees helps you to become a better leader as well as increase productivity and dedication of your people. When someone gets sick, our team personally communicate with the person and offers help where needed. We don’t know how much we would be able to do as we grow but we have been able to continue doing it from 26 to 330 people.

Future Startup

Please tell us about how people work at IDC and your organizational culture.

Ashraf Bin Taj

We are an open organization. We maintain a horizontal organization structure and have very little bossing. Part of the reason is probably we are still small. But then and again, I have seen companies with 200 people to be very hierarchical and bureaucratic.

Our monthly sales planning process is a collaborative effort. Everyone attends the meeting which is open in nature. Everyone contributes, debates and discusses before coming up with a plan and once it is locked it is a responsibility of everybody to make it happen. Our accountability system is also very strong.

I talk to almost everybody in the company starting from field sales officer to factory man in order to get an understanding of the things. That applies to others as well. We are a growing company. In order to maintain a consistent progress, we have to maintain a good communication loop with employees to know what’s really happening in the market and in the company.

We maintain a very personal relationship with our people. Having an emotional connection with your team members and employees helps you to become a better leader as well as increase productivity and dedication of your people. When someone gets sick, our team personally communicate with the person and offers help where needed. We don’t know how much we would be able to do as we grow but we have been able to continue doing it from 26 to 330 people.

We are constantly trying to add more benefits and securities for our employees. We could not offer our people PF yet but we are bringing all of our people under group insurance policy from this fiscal year.

Future Startup

What are the future plans for IDC?

Ashraf Bin Taj

We now cover 26 thousand outlets. By the end of 2018, our ambition is to make this number 50 thousand.

We are looking into launching our own brand (s). Diversification is a long-term strategic priority for us.

Exploring international market with our local products is an option we are looking into. We want to see what Bangladeshi products we can take to the international market and what international products we can bring to Bangladesh using our knowledge and skill set that we have gathered over the years.

Technology is changing very fast. We have to make sure that we understand the changes and adapt. Automation is one of our major priorities. We have made significant progress over the past years in that direction. We plan to do more in the coming days.

We have developed an automation system to manage our entire sales process. We are about to launch it. Most companies still operate manually when it comes to managing final sales order except multinational brands. We believe we shall be the first local distribution company to launch such system at this scale.

We are now in our fourth year and this is one of the remarkable progress we have made. Our tech team and partner have done a wonderful job.

From the day one, we have been working hard to implement best in class practices in the company. We are a small company but our ambition is high.

We now cover 26 thousand outlets. By the end of 2018, our ambition is to make this number 50 thousand. We are looking into launching our own brand (s). Diversification is a long-term strategic priority for us.

Future Startup

You are the currently the president of Marketing Society of Bangladesh (MSB). Please tell us about MSB and works you are doing there.

Ashraf Bin Taj

Marketing Society of Bangladesh (MSB) is a non-profit, non-government and nonpartisan organization. Our ambition is to become the platform for Marketing and Sales professionals in the country. It was founded by our respected teacher of Institute of Business Administration, Dhaka University Prof. Syed Ferhat Anwar. Currently, the Executive Committee has 12 members, represented by renowned academicians, professionals, and entrepreneurs.

MSB is a member of Asia Marketing Federation (AMF), the apex networking body of all the marketing associations in Asia. We actively promote Bangladesh to the world through the network of AMF.

Last year, we participated in the Asia Marketing Excellence Award competition for the ‘Marketing 3.0 Company of the Year’ with the case of BRAC, Aarong, and it won! This enhanced the image of Bangladeshi organizations big time at Asian level.

Besides AMF, MSB also works as the strategic partner of Bangladesh Brand Forum (BBF) where it actively provides thought leadership in many of BBF’s projects and events at local and international level.

As I mentioned earlier, we plan to play the role of catalyst in the industry for enhancing the knowledge on marketing and branding and promote the application of responsible marketing practices which can transform the society, country and the world at large.

We have a host of initiatives and collaborations in the pipeline that we would unveil as we go.

Helping the industry through spreading knowledge and developing skills is my personal commitment and a cause I am very passionate about. My role at MSB and my close association with BBF gives me the opportunity to work towards my commitment. When you are passionate about something, you can always manage quality time for that. Moreover, MSB gives me the opportunity to connect with the network of AMF and keeps me updated on the best practices in business all across Asia which also helps me in my entrepreneurial journey.

The most important thing, however, I believe is hard work. We are a developing economy. We have a lot of catching up to do. I’m not of comfort-seeking, holiday mongering camp, I believe in working hard. Achieving anything worthwhile takes a lot of hard work. I come across many young people who seek extra holidays, extra comfort but if I don’t work hard how would I make a difference. Good work is what makes all the difference at the end of the day.

Future Startup

You have seen both sides of the aisle, you have years of experience in helping business to grow and now building your own business. What are the biggest lessons from all those years?

Ashraf Bin Taj

I’m a big believer in attention to details. I feel irritated when people leave out important things denoting them small. I prefer my people to prepare things in details and when planning, prepare plan A to C.

A good plan is imperative to success. If you plan well, visualize well, and execute well, you are bound to succeed.

People make all the difference in every organization. You alone can’t do much. You must have right people around you. That said, finding good people is not enough, you also have to take good care of them, provide them personal development opportunities so that you could get the best out of them.

It is hard to overstate the importance of our values and principles. You can seek shortcuts and easy way out but that is not sustainable in the long run. If you want to achieve the success that lasts you have to be honest with yourself and others. You should maintain a high integrity. Honesty and integrity, I think these two things are of supreme importance.

This sounds cliche but I still would like to add it. Love your work or find something that you love. If you don’t love your work it would be impossible to do your best work. We spend a significant portion of our life at work if you don’t enjoy your work you joy in life would greatly diminish. I enjoy my work. I feel emotionally connected. As a result, it does not feel like work and I often spend extra hours at work and sacrifice a lot of comforts.

The most important thing, however, I believe is hard work. We are a developing economy. We have a lot of catching up to do. I’m not of comfort-seeking, holiday mongering camp, I believe in working hard. Achieving anything worthwhile takes a lot of hard work. I come across many young people who seek extra holidays, extra comfort but if I don’t work hard how would I make a difference. Good work is what makes all the difference at the end of the day.

Future Startup

What is your management philosophy?

Ashraf Bin Taj

As I mentioned earlier, we practice a horizontal organization structure at IDC. We are open and connect emotionally with each other. That is also a large part of how I operate as a person.

I believe in empowering and enabling people. I’m skeptical about the power of exercising blind authority rather I try to make sure that people who are working in my team are passionate and self-motivated. Often good work comes from our heart

Future Startup

Building a business from scratch is hard work and often full of challenges. A growing literature suggests that founders often go through a tough psychological journey. Do you feel down personally when things get tough? How do you deal with stress that comes with running a growing business?

Ashraf Bin Taj

You can reduce stress by design. For instance, if you plan things well and execute properly your source of stress would automatically reduce by fifty percent. That said, there are things that we can’t predict or prepare for.

When I’m under pressure, I pray. Prayer has incredible power to heal us. I also believe in the power of blessings of parents. This sounds old school but this is something that happened to me. I share with my wife and close people whatever is the reason of the stress and seek assistance.

When my team is facing a problem, I spend more time with them addressing and solving the problem.

It is never a good idea to be conclusive of anything. There will be challenges and difficulties. That is the nature of life. In the face of challenge, we should try to get through it instead of looking for a distraction or avoiding it. I actively resist any idea of giving in to despair, instead, I put myself into work.

It is never a good idea to be conclusive of anything. There will be challenges and difficulties. That is the nature of life. In the face of challenge, we should try to get through it instead of looking for a distraction or avoiding it. I actively resist any idea of giving in to despair, instead, I put myself into work.

Future Startup

What advice would you give to people who are starting out?

Ashraf Bin Taj

Contrary to the current popular wisdom that portrays doing business as something fancy, entrepreneurship is hard work. It is not for faint of hearts. You have to know when to act and when not it. Timing is, in most instances, everything. You have to develop a sharp observation capacity and be able to recognize patterns and identify opportunities and challenges.

You have to put together a solid business model in place, understand your customers, understand the nitty-gritty of the business and then you have to translate all these understanding into execution. No matter how good your business plan is, failing to execute often leads to trouble. When you are doing business, you can’t think like an executive. You have to, to some extent, think like a dokandar.

There are a lot of seminars and programs on entrepreneurship nowadays, sometimes what I feel is that most of these programs are designed to inspire and motivate young people to become entrepreneurs and all that, which is good, but you also need to develop skills. If skill is not there then motivation can take you only so far.

People often don’t think much about the challenges they might face when they actually start a business or underestimate the challenges and overestimate the positive scenario. It is very important to be able to visualize what is going to happen in the future. Although it is impossible to do that accurately, it can give you a head start about how to approach it.

Self-doubt is a common plague for many ambitious people. We sometimes fall prey of our self-doubt when our journey becomes fraught with difficulties. This limitation causes failure to more people than anything else. Invest in developing clarity and have faith in yourself- the greatest remedy to self-doubt- and believe in your work. You will succeed today or tomorrow.

For marketers, you have to be good with people. I think this is equally important when you are designing a product or innovating. You have to be empathetic towards your users and understand them.

Develop a knack for observing consumer behavior. See your consumers first as human beings and then as consumers. Only then you will be able to come up with great ideas to solve their problems. Without having a deep understanding of your consumers, you will not be able to come up with winning ideas or propositions.

Be hungry for knowledge. Internet has brought us the unprecedented advantage of access. Take full advantage of it. Read, read some more. Reading is the most joyful form of intellectual exercise.

Finally, never ignore your creative self. Always nurture it.

Living for yourself alone is not always a bad idea but life amplifies when we make a difference in the lives of others. Giving is incredibly satisfying an experience. The joy and meaning of life lie in our ability to help fellow human beings.

Future Startup

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

Ashraf Bin Taj

A long time ago I took a leadership course from an organization called Maps and Grow. During the course, we were asked to draw how we would like to be remembered. I drew a banyan tree. That is how I see myself even these days and that is the legacy I want to leave behind. I do try to help young people and people in general when they come to me. In fact, mentoring young people is something that I take seriously.

When we started IDC, one of the things that we wanted to do is creating employment for a couple of thousands of people. Business-wise, there are things like revenue and growth. But creating opportunities for people has been a priority for us since our inception.

Future Startup

How do you think about life?

Ashraf Bin Taj

We are in this world only for a finite time. My grandmother died at the age of 57 and my mother died at the age of 67.

These are not long lives but seeing the impact they had around them, people caring for them, the number of people attended their funerals, I often feel that our life is not about ourselves. It is about others.

Living for yourself alone is not always a bad idea but life amplifies when we make a difference in the lives of others. Giving is incredibly satisfying an experience. The joy and meaning of life lie in our ability to help fellow human beings.

(Interview and edits: Ruhul Kader, Transcription: Ruhul Kader and Arifa Sharmin)

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