IJAZ Khokhar has many reasons to celebrate his success. The small company his father had set up in 1969 in his native Sialkot was the first Pakistani producer and supplier of martial arts uniforms to Japanese, American and European brands, stores and judo/karate clubs.

It has grown slowly but steadily as the country’s largest exporter of this specialised garment.

More importantly, unlike most other textile and clothing exporters from Pakistan, each article he makes for his foreign customers has the ‘Made in Pakistan’ tag stitched to it.

Ashraf Industries was the first garment unit set up in Sialkot, known for producing unique products for global markets, with a small capital investment of just Rs180,000 that his father had saved after several years of work in Saudi Arabia.

“Though my father’s ultimate goal was to export some ‘unique and specialised’ garment, he settled for stitching uniforms for Pakistani soldiers in the early years,” Ijaz, whose grandfather and great grandfather had created a name for themselves as finest tailors working for a royal family in the Gulf, told Dawn in an interview. He himself was trained in garment cutting from Singapore before he joined his father’s business in 1976.

The ‘breakthrough’ for the company came in 1974 when it received a $4,000 ‘test order’ for making martial arts uniforms from Japan. The high quality of product impressed the Japanese buyer so much that he not only became a regular customer but also introduced Ijaz’s father to a few Japanese-American importers of martial arts uniforms. Ever since the company hasn’t looked back and is exporting uniforms to every major brand and martial arts club in Japan, the United States and Europe.

“Ever since we shipped our test order, Pakistan’s annual martial arts uniforms exports have shot up to $320m with our share of $60-70m in it. We started the business with 18 sewing machines. Now we employ about 500 people and livelihood of 10,000 people depends on this industry,” he says.

“Not a single customer we’ve worked with in last 30 years has left us because we always deliver the best quality product,” Ijaz says, proudly.

He says the ‘secret’ to the success and growth of his family business lies in their decision to stick to a ‘specialised’ garment. “There’ve been times when we thought of diversifying into other segments but then decided to focus on our core product. Buyers like to procure their orders from companies that specialise in their products. Our focus on producing quality sportswear has contributed enormously to our success despite the fact that Sialkot was never a suitable place for starting a textile business,” he asserts.

Ijaz who took over the company as its managing director after his father’s death in early 1990s points out that it was their success that attracted several other entrepreneurs from the city into this business in 1980s and 1990s, turning the city into a martial arts wear production hub.

The city’s martial arts uniforms export constitutes 22pc of the world’s total trade of this garment, and he expects this share to shoot to 50pc by 2016 as the buyers divert their orders to Sialkot.

“China is becoming very expensive as its per capita income rises rapidly and the country moves into production of high-end fashion garments. It means we have an opportunity of raising our martial arts uniforms exports to $800m a year without any marketing effort,” says Ijaz, who is also a former chairman and now the patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Readymade Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (PRGMEA). He says the martial arts wear exporters’ margins are much higher than the exporters of other garments because of high value addition.

The city has already started preparing itself for grabbing the new business opportunity. The industry is in the process of establishing a technical training institute with funds from the Export Development Fund (EDF) to train 5,000 men and women in the next 2-3 years.

“The best thing about the new opportunity in this particular garment is that we don’t require massive investment to increase our share in the global market. Addition of 3,000 machines in existing or new factories will fetch several hundred million dollars in additional export revenues and create thousands of new jobs in this city. Moreover, the entire production will be completely sold out.”

In addition to expanding his martial arts business, Ijaz is also planning to diversify into hospital-wear. “Hospital-wear is also a unique product, a technical garment. Sialkot, a major exporter of surgical instruments around the world, offers a huge opportunity in this segment as well.”

Hospital-wear is a simple article whose production doesn’t require much precision. There’s no competition in the country in this segment and it fetches higher prices due to the use of high-quality cotton yarn to make it.

“Initially we plan to install 80-100 machines and then keep expanding as orders come in,” Ijaz, who feels that it is time the textile industry diversifies into new, unique items to increase its share in the global markets.

But most downstream value-added textile producers cannot diversify into such items and take full advantage of the trade concessions given by the European Union unless the upstream textile producers start producing ‘technical’ fabrics as well.

“There’s huge growth opportunity for Pakistan in technical fabric and wear.

But we don’t produce yarn or fabric for technical garments at all. Resultantly, I have to spend a lot of time procuring quality yarn and get it converted into fabric and dyed according to the specifications of my garments. If such fabric is readily available in the domestic market, I can focus more on product diversification and procuring orders from foreign companies.”

His advice for the government: Create an advisory unit to encourage investment in high-quality technical fabrics and garments and educate the industry on product diversification.

This is the second article in a 4-part series on Sialkot’s economy.

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