To the world he is known as the master of an industrial empire, including Packages Limited, and the founder of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). At 89, Syed Babar Ali unveils his life story in his autobiography which sums up him as a master learner and the title “Learning from Others” says it all.
Pakistan’s one of the finest industrialists, Babar Ali, sat in a conversation with intellectual and writer Khaled Ahmed at the LLF on Sunday to share his life and business stories.
Babar Ali family does not come from a feudal family as his grandfather had a small shop in the Walled City and by the time Babar Ali came of age, his father Syed Muratib Ali had become a top contractor of the British Indian army supplying them with services like logistics and all sorts of items used in regiments. The money earned would be invested in land.
Babar Ali’s maternal family - the Fakir Khana family of Lahore – had however royal Afghan blood. His mother, who had never been to school but tutored at home, paid special attention to her children’s education. Babar Ali said he was lucky to be enrolled in Aitchison College, which equipped him with best education, and where he met his best friends - Harcharan Singh Brar (who later became the chief minister of Indian Punjab), and Romesh Thapar. Even though Babar Ali competed with Brar for top position, this never turned out to be classroom rivalry. Instead, they became best friends and the friendship continued till Brar recently died. He said both his friends would go to temple and I to a mosque and once out of the places of worships, we were again together.
“Then religion was a personal matter, and I wish it is practiced the same way today as well,” he said.
Khaled Ahmed reminded him that he was good at math and science in school. “Yes, and besides studies, I performed well in sports with distinction,” he said. He would love horse riding in school days, which later developed a fine polo player in him and he kept on playing till his physical strength allowed him to do so.
After Aitchison College, he did graduation from the Michigan University at Ann Arbor. He briefly studied at the Harvard School of Business, which not only taught him business skills but also gave him an idea of setting up a model business education institution which later translated into LUMS.
Other than fine schooling, Babar Ali gives credit for his successful business and life to his elder brothers - Syed Amjad Ali and Syed Wajid Ali – who focused on his upbringing as well. His brothers would take him to important meetings, teaching him indirectly how to cultivate relations and cut the deals. Among these meetings, he remembers a few when in the 1930s, Sir Khizar Hayat was the chief minister of Punjab and the Quaid-i-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wanted the Unionist Party to support the Muslim League.
Another such meeting was when the Raj wanted the states to reward them for their support and loyalty, and the Nawab of Bahawalpur sought his brother’s advice. His brother told the Nawab to seek permission for setting up industries in areas. The Nawab went ahead with their suggestion, and soon there came up the first factory in Rahim Yar Khan even before the Partition.
An unplanned meeting of his with Ruben Rausing, of Sweden, resulted in the pioneering packaging industry in Pakistan.
Everything was going well, when the Bhutto’s nationalization struck them. He said their five to six factories were nationalised, but Packages was spared. Later, he worked under the Bhutto’s government to set up the country’s first ever fertiliser industry.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and American involvement brought him money from American and Pakistani governments and lots of donors for the landmark LUMS.
Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2016