Interview with M. Anis Ud Dowla, Chairman — Advanced Chemical Industries (ACI)
M. Anis Ud Dowla, Chairman of Advanced Chemical Industries (ACI), one of Bangladesh’s largest and most successful companies, provides an insight into his firm’s activities in pharmaceuticals, agribusinesses, fast-moving consumer goods and retail.
The Bangladeshi media has referred to you as one of the most successful personalities on the country’s corporate scene. Can you tell us something about yourself and your company, ACI?
I started my career in 1960, 57 years ago, working for British Oxygen in Pakistan, East Africa and Bangladesh. In 1987, I became managing director of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) Bangladesh. When ICI decided to divest some of its operations around the world, Bangladesh was on the list. I was asked by ICI if I would like to take over the company on condition that its 350 employees were taken care of and ICI’s image remained good. I accepted the offer and, in 1992, ICI Bangladesh became ACI. It was a moment of truth for me. I was on my own.
Quality was my first concern. We undertook a number of measures, and in 1995 we became the first company in Bangladesh to obtain ISO 9001 Quality Management Systems certification. To ensure the environmental sustainability of our operations, we also obtained certification under ISO 14001 Environmental Management System. Again, we were the first company in Bangladesh to obtain this endorsement.
From the beginning, these certifications have been very important for ACI, because they lit the path for us and safeguarded our key values of quality, excellence and protecting the environment. At the start, we asked ourselves what our mission should be. We decided that the force to drive us forward would be improving the quality of life of people through responsible application of knowledge and technology.
Since then, every time we make a business decision we think about its likely impact on people and the environment. As a result, today our customers associate ACI with quality, sustainability and trust. Once we had found our mission, it was clear to us that to harness our full business potential we should expand and diversify. We chose agriculture as a priority sector and got involved in agricultural inputs like seed production, fertiliser, pesticides and, most importantly, farm-mechanisation: from tractors to power tillers, and from threshers to harvesters.
As a result of our efforts, around 25% of the land in Bangladesh is now cultivated mechanically and owning a tractor is a game changer for a farmer, because it cuts the cost of ploughing land by 30% and has a major impact on land productivity. We employ over 600 mechanics spread throughout the country, capable of attending to any tractor-related issues within six hours, anywhere in Bangladesh.
ACI’s net sales have doubled in about six years. What have been the key drivers of your recent performance?
There are a number of contributing factors. Firstly, our country has done very well economically in the last decade, so growth opportunities were there. Secondly, Bangladesh is a huge consumer market and once you have the right product at the right price, the huge population will take care of the volume. Finally, ACI has built a strong brand image, which is associated with quality.
We take a long-term approach: when we seize an opportunity, we stick with it through good times and bad, and make it work. At the end of the day, our deep-rooted desire to benefit the consumer and improve people’s lives has touched the right cord with our customers.
Bangladesh is often regarded as one of the cheapest countries for drug production, but ACI seems to focus on the quality and sophistication of its products.
Absolutely. Our commitment is to provide uncompromised quality at a fair price. Although profit is certainly important, we are not obsessed with it. We have to remember that we are here for the people: a moderate but sustainable return on investment is always better than a higher return without taking care of the customer.
Pharmaceutical exports from Bangladesh are rising sharply. What plans does ACI have for its own international expansion?
Bangladesh currently exports pharmaceuticals to around 40 countries and, naturally, along with others we are also stepping into the international arena. Our most ambitious target is the US market. A year ago, we set up a marketing and distribution company in Florida.
That company has already started distribution of one product for which we have obtained US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. More molecules are in the pipeline and we hope to have a good base in the US. We are also setting up a pharmaceutical plant in Bangladesh, which will be capable of producing medications to FDA standards.
Over the years, ACI has kept diversifying its business. Pharmaceuticals now account for around 50% of revenue, but what sectors are going to drive future growth?
We are committed to becoming a supplier of goods for Bangladesh’s almost 170 million people through countrywide, neighbourhood retail chain outlets that will provide a pleasurable and affordable shopping experience. We have developed a retail business and I am convinced that retail will be a flourishing business for the group.
In 2017, ACI celebrated its 25th anniversary. What has been its greatest achievement over that time?
After 25 years, we believe that our greatest achievement has been retaining the trust and confidence of our consumers in the same way that ICI enjoyed as a multinational.
Our emphasis on the quality of our products and services has created a loyal customer base that is our greatest asset, which is something that gives us great satisfaction.
We have operated the company in a socially responsible manner and tried to implement the principles of good governance and sustainable business operations.
As a company, we are extremely fortunate that we have been active during a period when Bangladesh has fulfilled the conditions necessary for its graduation from a low-income country and it is now eligible for admittance into the club of middle-income countries.
Great opportunity lies ahead for Bangladesh in its journey to becoming a higher-income nation by 2041. ACI wishes to be an active partner in the progress of the nation towards this goal.