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Who’s the richest of them all?

Updated February 11, 2019

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Configuration of top holding companies has only recently started to become visible as the aggregate market capitalisation of the stock market has topped $8 trillion. — File photo
Configuration of top holding companies has only recently started to become visible as the aggregate market capitalisation of the stock market has topped $8 trillion. — File photo

MANY have tried but found to their dismay that it is almost impossible to figure out the richest individuals and conglomerates in Pakistan.

No one is really sure of who owns the greatest amount of wealth in the country for it is in no way verifiable. The reason being that most conglomerates are into everything: industries; real estate; shipping, trading, the list goes on.

Take a look: Fathoming wealth of the rich

Since assets of only listed companies are exposed to the public eye the entire wealth of a person, family or conglomerate (both listed and unlisted), is almost impossible to determine. There is also the flourishing ‘parallel or black economy,’ the trails of which can never be tracked.

Publicly listed companies are an entirely different breed that pay taxes and prepare and present their audited accounts to corporate regulators and shareholders.

The brokerage firm Topline Securities recently prepared a list of the biggest holding companies in Pakistan. Among the nine that met the criteria, two conglomerates stood aloft with over $1 billion in market capitalisation.

When shown the list, many old-timers shook their heads. An old-fashioned Seth whispered and winked: ‘This is just the tip of the iceberg’

According to the carefully calculated numbers, Engro Corporation (Engro) turns out to be the biggest with $1.24bn in market capitalisation, followed by Lucky Cement commanding a market cap of $1.06bn.

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The other seven made it to the ‘hundred million-dollar’ club with Dawood Hercules’ market value at $403m; Nishat Mills at $349m; Fauji Fertiliser Bin Qasim at $285m; DG Khan Cement at $252m; Thal Ltd at $247m; Packages group at $237m and IGI Holdings with market value at $211m, calculated on recent stock prices.

Engro is a holding company with subsidiaries and joint ventures in a wide spectrum of businesses which include fertilisers (Engro Fertilisers); PVC Resin manufacturing and marketing (Engro Polymer Chemical); Food (Engro Foods); Energy (Engro PowerGen Qadirpur/Engro PowerGen Thar), LNG (Engro Energy); Chemical terminal and storage (Engro Vopak) and Coal mining (Sindh Engro Coal Mining).

The second billion dollar holding company Lucky Cement, one of the largest producers of cement and a leading garment exporter of the country, is owned by the Yunus Brothers group which also holds stakes in textiles (Lucky Textile, Yunus Textile, Gadoon Textile and Fazal Textile) and energy (Lucky Energy). The group has partnered with Korea based KIA Motors to set up an automobile facility in Pakistan with equity injection of Rs14bn.

The other seven companies which stand out among the top Pakistani holding companies also command major influence among the 558 companies traded on the Pakistan Stock Exchange. They have numerous corporations (listed and unlisted) under their fold which encompass almost all major segments of the economy — banking, insurance, hospitality, real estate, energy, food, autos, mining, cement, textiles and pharmaceuticals. You name it, they have it.

But the configuration of top holding companies has only recently started to become visible as the aggregate market capitalisation of the stock market has topped $8 trillion. And since all of the above stated are publicly listed group of companies, it cannot be said with precision if they are the richest.

When shown the list, many old-timers shook their heads. An old-fashioned ‘Seth’ (the term used for the rich men of Mumbai) whispered and winked: “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Also read: Pakistan and the unequal distribution of income and wealth

He said that removed from the public view are the assets of feudal lords and owners of privately held industries in money-minting sectors such as fertilisers, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, capital market and real estate.

The earliest attempt to track down all wealth accumulated by the rich and mighty in Pakistan was made by the late Dr Mahbub ul Haq who sifted the few rich and mighty families from the millions of poor.

On April 21, 1968, Dr Haq, the then Chief Economist of the Planning Commission, identified Pakistan’s 22 richest families that, according to his calculations, controlled 66 per cent of the industries and owned 87pc share in the country’s banking and insurance industry.

Find out: What they never tell us about Ayub Khan's regime

Those 22 super rich families had flourished during Ayub Khan’s era, only to be swept away by the wave of nationalisations that followed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s coming into power.

A veteran industrialist recalls that in the six years of his iron-fisted rule, Mr Bhutto pulled into the nationalisation fold as many as 31 key industries; 13 banks; 12 insurance companies; 10 shipping companies and two petroleum companies. Out of those, at least two dozen industries and almost all the banks and insurance companies belonged to the 22 families.

Some of the families managed to keep their head above the water during the storms that lashed the country’s financial scene. Those that were unable to swim sank to the bottom of the sea. The Beco, Arag, Milwala, Khyber, Fancy, Valika and Hyesons groups — which were among the identified 22 — are now alive only in history books.

One is reminded of a proverb: “Great fortunes do not see the third generation.” Old timers recall that many of the 22 families that were unable to escape the natural divisions and disintegration, which follows one generation after another, saw a collapse of their business empires.

The ravages of time now see grandsons and granddaughters — of the then young heirs of the ‘filthy rich’ who frequented Karachi’s famous five-star hotel ‘Columbus’ and drove around in shiny red Chevrolets — toil quietly at 9-to-5 jobs in the US and Canada.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, February 11th, 2019