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Optimism, appetite of a billionaire

October 14, 2013

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MIAN Mohammad Mansha is the face of Corporate Pakistan. When he speaks, everyone listens.

Politicians and policymakers seek his advice; foreigners consult him on their decisions to invest in Pakistan and readily give him their money, and fellow Pakistani businessmen take cue from his investment choices as they try to emulate him.

And why shouldn’t they? He is arguably the richest Pakistani and the most successful businessperson, who has single-handedly built a $10 billion business empire almost from scratch — a feat that few, if any, can boast to have accomplished.

Today, Mian Mansha’s Nishat Group exports more textile products than any of its rivals; produces more cement than any competitor barring one; generates 10 per cent of the country’s total electricity output; owns the fourth largest and best capitalised commercial bank; is the biggest non-life insurer, and has been expanding rapidly into hospitality, retail, agriculture, dairy, aviation, and other areas.

Nishat has already gone global, with direct and indirect holdings in the Gulf, America, England, Central Asia, Hong Kong, South Africa and Sri Lanka.

Mian Mansha is the largest private employer and the biggest taxpayer in the country, and his companies — with a combined market capitalisation of about $3 billion and with foreign direct and portfolio investment of $2 billion in them — churn out over half a billion dollars in pretax profits for their shareholders each year.

The Muslim Commercial Bank (MCB), with a current market capitalisation of $2.5 billion, or a quarter of the total capitalisation of the entire banking sector, was the first Pakistani bank to list its GDRs (global depository receipts) on the London Stock Exchange (in 2006), and managed to raise $150 million. It then sold 20 per cent of its shares to Malaysia’s Maybank two years later, for almost one billion dollars.

Indeed, Mian Mansha’s journey to the top of Pakistan’s business world hasn’t been easy or comfortable. His family lost a major chunk of the business that his father and uncles had helped create in 1951 because of the separation of East Pakistan and Bhutto’s nationalisation policy.

“I had a tough time between 1971 and 1977 after the death of my father in 1969. First, the family suffered because of the fall of Dhaka and lost its textile, jute and soda caustic business there, and later the government nationalised part of whatever was left of it here,” Mian Mansha reminisces during a rare interview with Dawn.

A young Mian Mansha, who was barely 22 and studying in England when his father passed away, inherited one textile mill in Faisalabad from the family business. In 1975, he left for Saudi Arabia to set up a business there, but returned home two years later. It was then when things started to turn around for him in 1979.

By then, he had realised that money in the textile business could be earned only by creating economies of scale and developing a vertically integrated supply chain. In the next 10 years, Mansha set up the country’s largest textile complex of seven mills in Nishatabad in Faisalabad. Another textile complex followed in later years in Chunian, near Lahore. Today, Nishat textile mill is the largest vertically integrated plant in the country.

The real ‘breakthrough’ for Mansha came in 1991, when the first Nawaz Sharif government aggressively deregulated the economy and started selling state-owned banks and other businesses. What started as, what he describes as a joke, turned out to be a windfall for him and his group. He, along with his businessmen friends, bought the Muslim Commercial Bank.

“It all started as a joke when I and my friends decided to bid for MCB. The highest bidder, the Tawakkal Group, faded out of the competition because of corruption cases [against its owners]. Ours was the second highest, followed by the Crescent Group. Both of us were told to match the highest bid. We did. The Crescent Group didn’t. This was how we acquired the bank,” he recalls. “It was done through a totally transparent and honest deal. Even the courts ruled that the deal was fair and transparent.”

He hasn’t looked back since; expanding his existing businesses and venturing into new ones. After buying MCB, he partnered with Tariq Saigol to buy Maple Leaf and DG Khan Cement.

Mian Mansha’s rise is attributed to his hard work, his ability to take bold and timely decisions and then sticking to them, and his preparedness to grab an opportunity when it comes his way.

Still, he candidly admits that ‘luck’ has also played a major role in his sterling success; just as it had helped his family earn a lot of money in the first post-World War II commodity price boom in the wake of the Korean War and to expand their textile business to Faisalabad, Peshawar and Dhaka and venture into jute and chemical projects in Dhaka and Chittagong.

But Mansha’s success didn’t come without a cost. He has been put on the Exit Control List (ECL) three times; his businesses have been subjected to government and court scrutiny, and he was forced to leave Pakistan to live in self-imposed exile in Boston for three years. More importantly, he has been denied many opportunities to expand his businesses in recent years.

Yet he doesn’t want to talk about that. “Let bygones be bygones. Let’s not get stuck in the past. We must focus on the future, and make Pakistan a better place for its people,” he says.

Mian Mansha, who was on Forbes’ list of billionaires in 2010, is a quintessential optimist, who has a very strong faith in Pakistan’s economic potential and its people.

Neither a hostile government nor the poor economic and security conditions in the country could deter him from investing in new projects and expanding his existing businesses. When others were waiting for the economy to recover, terrorism to subside and energy supplies to improve in the last five years, he was investing in textile, power, retail, dairy, and other businesses.

Mansha’s future plans include starting banking operations in Europe and the Middle East; acquiring the Bank of Kenya; setting up a separate Islamic bank in Pakistan; listing ADRs (American depository receipts) for MCB Bank in New York; establishing Nishat Linen’s retail business outside Pakistan, and adding new textile capacities from spinning to garmenting and home textiles. Besides, he is also planning to set up a cement plant at Hub.

However, his more important projects are in power generation. He is ready to put up a 6,000 mega watt coal-based generation capacity plant at Gadani if and when the government starts work on infrastructure development and announces the tariff. He also has a hydropower project to put up, but is not sure if he wants to do it.

Unlike many others, Mian Mansha believes that the economy can be fixed and put back on a growth trajectory, provided a right set of policies is implemented. “The government should pursue right policies and let the market work; everything else will automatically come together,” he argues.

What are those policies? Privatise the state-owned businesses and sell state land without delay; remove energy and other price distortions; unlock the potential of cities to boost domestic commerce; eliminate subsidies; improve infrastructure; liberalise trade with India, and facilitate the export of value-added textile and agriculture products.

Mansha likens subsidies and price distortions to opium, saying the continuation of such policies has created a class of rent-seekers in our society.

“We have 8-10 different tariffs for gas, for example. Who would want to work and put up factories when he can make huge profits without working and by just setting up a CNG station? We must price things right. Help the poor, but don’t create distortions in the system,” he wonders.

“Once these distortions are removed, domestic and foreign investment will start flowing. It is not a big deal to bring in foreign investment. We have done it in the past and can do it again in the future. We just need to restore their confidence in our economic policies and their continuation.”

Mansha acknowledges that poor security conditions and the growing energy crunch are impediments to investment. Yet, he adds, there is a lot of potential in many sectors, like retail and garmenting, where “you don’t need too much electricity”.

“Pakistan has great potential and offers numerous opportunities to those who want to work. It is just that the people are making up excuses for not working. Only rent-seekers want subsidies and protection so they can make easy money. The government’s policies are also a disincentive for those who want to work and invest,” he says.

Is the present government headed in the right direction?

Mian Mansha, who calls Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a messiah for deregulating the economy in his first tenure, backs his political and economic policies, but warns that the next three years are going to be very tough for the people as the government implements policies and reforms. “History shows that people make difficult choices for a better future. We should also do the same.”

“Nawaz Sharif has done something very smart politically by letting the PPP rule Sindh; the PTI Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the nationalists in Balochistan. There are no reports of corruption (so far). General Kayani is retiring. All the state institutions should work within their respective jurisdictions. The issue of terrorism will also be dealt with soon. The prime minister has already begun implementing economic reforms, like recovering the full cost of electricity, and has all the intention to have good policies.”

“All these developments are sending the right vibes across to investors. The movement is slow, but just look at the enormity of the problems. We must show patience. I expect things to start turn around from January next year,” asserts Mansha.