M RAMZAN Sheikh likes new challenges in life and business. The gritty entrepreneur in him ‘always stays open to opportunity and isn’t afraid to explore, experiment and grow’.
His uninhibited ‘spirit of entrepreneurship’ has forced him to step out of the safer family business of construction, and venture, invest and expand in a relatively newer but growing sector of the economy: leisure and entertainment.
This shift hasn’t been without its troubles. But he says adversity has been his best teacher. “True grit is something you learn…acquire…when you face challenges,” he notes during an interview with Dawn.
The chairman of the Mainland Group of Companies, which has an annual turnover of Rs2bn, is not much pleased with the way our society mocks and scorns the ‘spirit of entrepreneurship’. “This is despite the fact that entrepreneurs generate economic activity, create wealth and jobs, and pay taxes (to run the state). Yet they’re viewed as a bunch of thugs.”
He believes that “the best job in the world is to work for yourself even if only three out of 100 new enterprises succeed worldwide. If you want to create a legacy for yourself long after you are gone, you have got to take risks. But the poor public view of our businesspeople and entrepreneurs discourages our younger generation from venturing into business. If you ask Lums students, less than 5pc will tell you they want to become entrepreneurs.”
Unlike some of his peers, Ramzan didn’t have to struggle much to create a place for himself in the world of business. The harder part of the job had already been done by his father — the son of a hide and wool trader from Jhang — who founded a thriving, profitable construction firm in 1967. His job was to diversify and grow the family business.
‘If we give our entrepreneurs the respect they deserve, they can do miracles for this country and its people’
When Ramzan joined the business in 1988, his family was diversifying into textile manufacturing. It fell upon him to manage this segment of the business for a couple of years, before joining the construction business to rapidly grow it.
By 1997, he had turned the construction company into the largest private contractor in the country, specialising in planning and construction of mega infrastructure projects, including motorways and highways. His strategy of forming joint ventures with foreign and local firms also helped him modernise construction techniques and equipment and win several large contracts.
“The construction of the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway (a section of which was built by his family) by Daewoo brought about a radical change in the way construction was done here and introduced us to new techniques and modern construction machinery and equipment,” he points out.
The major shift in his business interests came in 2001 when the government, on the advice of multilateral lenders like the World Bank, decided to commercialise the ‘dead assets’ of Pakistan Railways to revive the oldest but collapsing transport company. A consortium of three Pakistani and Malaysian firms formed by Ramzan won the bid for converting the Railway’s rundown, old golf course in Lahore into a modern, luxury sport facility — now known as Royal Palm Golf and Country Club — and is operating it.
“It was a big challenge for me to take over a large space and convert it into a world class sport facility good enough to host major international and regional golf tournaments,” Ramzan says. “My passion for sports (he wanted to become a cricketer) helped me accomplish this job.”
His family didn’t like the idea; nobody in the private sector had done it before. His strong determination to execute the project finally made his family to relent.
The deal was embroiled in a controversy from the outset. Some senior former and serving Railway officials — angry over losing perks and privileges with the ‘privatisation’ of the golf club as well as large housing facilities on it — created a controversy about the project. Several probes and scrutiny by NAB and FIA have, nevertheless, failed to find any wrongdoing, at least until now.
“The controversy over the club deal has damaged the Railway’s interests more than it has hurt mine. No investor wants to sign up a deal with the Railways anymore,” asserts Ramzan.
Although he isn’t happy with the ‘environment of extortion’ created by the taxmen and the scarcity of quality human resource, he has a strong faith in the country’s economy and its businesspeople.
He continues to invest and has now become the country’s largest super cinema operator with 10 screens in Lahore, Sialkot and Gujrat, as he sees tremendous potential and scope for investment in the leisure and entertainment industry. His future plans include the construction of multiplexes in Lahore, Sialkot and Multan, complete with shopping malls, hotels and food courts, over the next two years.
He feels that Pakistan could galvanise massive investment to revive its slowing economy.
“We are a very resilient people. Can you imagine that we had built a large industrial and financial base literally from nothing in 20 years after independence? We can do it again. For that, we will have to ensure policy consistency, revamp the tax system, identify new areas of high growth potential, train human resource and rebuild the Brand Pakistan. If we give our entrepreneurs the respect they deserve, they can do miracles for this country and its people.”
Published in Dawn, Economic & Business, September 29th, 2014