Isha’at Habibullah (1911-1991) had a distinguished career in the world of commerce and industry in Pakistan. In a tribute to him, his close friend Syed Babar Ali wrote in Dawn that in the early years of independence he “played a very important role in Pakistan’s industrial development as one of the few professional managers at the time” and in 1961 he became “the first Pakistani to head a major multi-national in the country.” Below is an extract from Habibullah’s unpublished memoir, edited by his daughter, Muneeza Shamsie, describing the challenges of setting up the company offices in 1947.
At the end of September 1947, after finishing my leave, I proceeded via Delhi to Karachi by air to take up my duties. I must say that while flying to Karachi for the first time in my life, I was surprised to see such an expanse of desert shortly after leaving Delhi until we reached the vicinity of Hyderabad and Karachi. I stayed with the manager of the Karachi branch of the company, Charles St. Leger Weldon and his wife, in their house. The next day I was taken by him to the company’s office situated on the top floor of what was then Lloyds Bank Building opposite Mereweather Tower at the end of McLeod Road. From here, we could see practically the whole of Karachi and particularly, the Port.
Ours was the first major foreign investment to be made in the country after Partition. We had already received permission for a factory to be set up at Mauripur in Karachi as an Industrial Estate had been opened there. We were among the first to apply – on August 14, 1947 – and on August 15 were granted permission to build. In this context, I must mention that almost immediately after Partition was announced in June 1947, a message had been conveyed to my boss in Delhi, Bernard Fane Saunders through his neighbour, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan, that it was the wish of the Quaid-e-Azam, that our company should be welcomed with open arms, together with all foreign investments, in the new country. This message was conveyed to me by Fane Saunders as his No.2 in Delhi and also, personally and separately by Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan, who was an old family friend and had been a colleague of my parents in the UP Assembly. I was determined to do what I could in this respect. Accordingly, on arrival in Karachi, I got to know the leading European circles, particularly Burmah Oil, Burmah Shell, ICI, Lever Brothers and Phillips. The Karachi Chamber of Commerce which had not yet been decreed to be a foreign chamber but was composed of overseas companies. Therefore, as part of a team, I freely gave the message, which was also given by government circles, that foreign investment would be accepted and encouraged in Pakistan.
Obviously if we were to set up a company here, we would require more accommodation for the senior staff. Mr. Jamshed Nusserwanji owned the house in Beville Lane which had been let to the company for several years. Therefore, he asked me to buy the house in Beville Lane for the company together with three other houses in the same area, for nine lakhs. The company was also offered by the Chairman of the Port Trust, the main house where he lived and two others, for six lakhs. I urged Mr. Weldon to accept these offers but he felt that the price was far too high. The American Embassy promptly bought the houses in Beville Lane and the British High Commission bought the Port Trust Estate.
Both paid more than three times the price we had been offered. Mr. Weldon seemed completely oblivious of the events taking place around him and the great change that was implicit in the granting of Independence. Being an ex-naval man, his favourite pastime was to observe the coming and going of ships in the port from the office roof.
As far as the office itself was concerned, we had only one lady stenographer. There was an increasing influx of correspondence, coupled with the exit of many [Hindu] clerks, sales staff and distributors. To make matters worse, apart from myself there was no other covenanted officer to help. I had to teach many new clerks their work from A to Z. I had to recruit and train new sales staff and answer all kinds of correspondence without secretarial assistance.
I approached Mr. Weldon in this matter and was told to throw into the waste paper basket any correspondence unless it was important enough! It became clear to me that the entire operative burden of the branch would have to be born by me, if we were to continue with any modicum of efficiency. Consequently from October 1947 to March 1948 there was not a single weekend, or holiday when I was not working.
My wife, Jahanara and our daughter, Muneeza did not join me until December 1947. Fortunately by this time, my brother-in-law, Sahibzada Yaqub Khan (who held the rank of Major at the time) had become the Adjutant of the Governor General’s Bodyguard and had been allotted flat in Fakirji Lodge on Seafield Road with enough space to accommodate me and my family and I moved there from the Weldon’s.
Shortly before this, I had to do several journeys up-country, together with Gerald Henderson, a director from Head Office, Calcutta, in order to survey locations for a factory in the Punjab (where I had been posted for many years before Partition) and assess the prospects of tobacco leaf growing as heretofore, all the basic material came from what was now India. Moreover, Bernard Fane Saunders paid us some visits from Delhi to assess the whole situation and I am glad to say that by 1948 it was decided that he would head and build up the basic nucleus of a new company and organisation, Pakistan Tobacco Company.