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Cover Story

Hereditary Foundations

Shovon Islam of Sparrow Group, Mahreen Nasir of Mir Tel and Shams Mahmud of Shasha Denims on the cover of Colors December 2020 issue. Photo: Kazi Mukul.

As a third-generation business figure, Shams Mahmud fills big shoes and walks in pride with them. The family business originated with tin, and then during the erstwhile East Pakistan days, his grandparents’ businesses were the main providers of bitumen and tannery for the government. His grandmother was a visionary about how she saw her progeny and the business she had. Later, Anisul Islam Mahmud, father of Shams Mahmud, joined the family business of textile trade. Originally an academician, he wanted to contribute back to society, and this leads to the birth of Shasha Denims in 1996.

Initially, when the concept of denim fabric production looked for investment, it was outright rejected. The reason was that the level of investment required in garments is not that significant; however, investment in textiles is of a high level. Upon further research and looking into the needs for the project by Anisul Islam Mahmud, the project got the investment required to take off. Bringing in the latest technology for denim manufacturing during the 2000s, began the production for Shasha Denim fabrics.

Shams Mahmud: Tech-savvy. Photo: Kazi Mukul.

Always the latest Human and Technological infusion

An integral part of fabric production is the time it requires to produce the output for clients with minimal delay and with efficiency. The groundwork for Shasha Denims was laid by Anisul Islam Mahmud. Shams Mahmud improved efficiency and strengthened the position in the denim fabric producer sector. Having the best technology and ensuring that precision and efficiency is maintained becomes normal for Shasha Denims. Even as a business, it holds the fastest repayment to banks, showing the strength of its principled leaders. Even though technological integration is easy, utilizing technology at hand became a big question. This question arises because of the human capital Bangladesh possesses and whether they will be able to use the technology. Over time, the labour force learned with hands-on experience and eventually learnt the ropes of using the technology. 

Shasha Denim’s strength lies in the technology that it employs, the R&D (research and development) team it has, and its relentless willingness to improve the quality of human capital in hand. Having an all Bangladeshi workforce, the cultural association helps the institution to have a sense of belonging throughout.

Imbued with the ethos that his father injected into the institution, Shams Mahmud took it to the next level by ensuring the members of Shasha Denims lived by the same principles, and even more. He has ensured that the workers took ownership of the company and never settled when it came to efficiency and quality. The open chained communication enabled the firm to have accountability across the board, making individuals answerable for any of the flaws that the production may encounter. There is a caveat to this entire scenario though. Shasha Denims and its leaders do not take a counterintuitive approach to mistakes made in the process. Production processes are bound to encounter troubles and mistakes are inevitable.

Shams Mahmud with his father, Anisul Islam Mahmud

Shams Mahmud has created an environment where the individuals come up and talk about the mistake. The approach to mistakes is to fix them as soon as possible. This helps to ensure that the mistakes are not repeated again, thus, reducing the delay, as well as minimizing costs. This significantly improves the morale of the workers. To maintain international quality, these aspects become pivotal as businesses become veterans of the game.

In the denim fabric sector, Shasha Denims and Shams Mahmud have been working smart rather than hard. Meaning, Shasha Denims has one of the strongest R&D team possible, ever since denim fabric manufacturing became a focal point. The institution prides itself on how it maximizes the utility of resources and minimizes wastage. Sustainability and reuse is a normal practice.

Using the bark of the eucalyptus tree, ocean plastic, and waste water colour recycling is common for Shasha Denims, especially after receiving the Nordic Swan Ecolabel Certification, having the Tencel certification and often being a part of technological innovation globally. The thresholds that Shasha Denims set become the industry standard, to the degree that future mills employ the same technology.

Shasha Denims vary significantly from other firms through a few aspects. It maintains capacity production as it is, given the competition from Turkey and Pakistan, and rather than significant price reductions, it goes for quality improvement and marginal cost minimization. More simply, it produces the same quality of fabric that Turkey produces at a reasonable cost, rather than undercutting to sell in large volumes. Quality over quantity from firms is an unconventional strategy, but Shasha Denims functions best with this strategy, retaining all clients and having they invested in the ethos of Shams Mahmud and his institution.

Giving back to them all

“We treat our workers with the credit and respect they deserve. If they don’t allow them to learn, they are limiting their own skills,” Shams Mahmud saying echoing the belief he has in his members and in their loyalty to Shasha Denims. Most firms live in the fear that sending their workers to improve their skills abroad would lead to them eventually leaving. For Shams Mahmud it is vastly different: “We give them the opportunity to go abroad because we don’t want them to limit their abilities. We learn every single day, and if they have the faith in the institution, they will return without convincing.” Holding the decision-making ability for so many members means giving them the aspiration to do more for themselves through the institution that provides for them. Shams Mahmud excels in this with flying colours.

Responsibilities as an Industry Leader

Covid-19 has created a lot of troubles to the economy and industries as a whole. Denim fabric itself is a very unique type of product. The 4th industrial revolution may be sweeping across the world; Shasha Denims and Shams Mahmud have already integrated AI into their process, staying steps ahead of everyone. In order to test the durability of the fabrics under various conditions, Shasha Denims test their fabric under multiple conditions to ensure that the quality is up to the mark. Along with this, the demand end has sustained despite the disruptions. Because of the lockdown, shops have emptied up and had to be refilled.

Thus, the supplies regained momentum as soon as ports opened up again. Moreover, the online and e-commerce boom catalysed the demand for goods and services, as well as making the global market more interconnected. All these growth trajectories are contingent on how the next wave of Covid-19 affects the European market, as the circumstances are still fearful for all.

Shams Mahmud identifies that individuals need to have a reality check when comparing Bangladesh to developed nations. “It is possible for developed nations to have social safety nets; welfare states can provide that thanks to the amount of taxes they charge. Bangladesh does not have the same luxury. Bangladesh operates as a circular economy where money multiples as it moves from one agent to the next. Furthermore, the economy of Bangladesh grew in part to the manufacturing sector. This helps to sustain the growth regardless of downturns.”

Shams Mahmud: There is unmistakable confidence in his body language

However, the psychological impact on individuals is that people are assuming that everything is just fine and back to what it used to be. These form of assumptions harm the flow of work harmony. If individuals do fall ill, it would instantaneously halt the production process. Ensuring that the flow remains steady can only happen if the members of Shasha Denims are taken good care of, he believes.

As the DCCI President, Shams Mahmud believes that there have to be better policies in place for SME growth and opportunities for all. “There is a significant discrepancy in access to resources, both finances and opportunities.” Individuals who are endowed with resources prior always have an advantage. Those who have to garner resources over time usually face hindrances or are even prevented from starting off their business. Disenfranchisement of entrepreneurs due to lack of financial statements prevent them from gaining investments from banks, whereas businesses with historical track record with supposedly only breaking even, will have the access, purely because of banks realising the benefit of taking the risk. This disparity leaves many entrepreneurs to not even start businesses. Women entrepreneurs even face disincentives.

In order to fix such backlogs, policies have to be directed a bit more specific to certain industries rather than all industries. The water-down effect leaves all industries in a worse position, especially those firms down the pecking order. Shams Mahmud suggests that it is essential to have SME (small and medium enterprises) linkage policies to FDI (foreign direct investment). These will help to cater SMEs to start off and build from the group up. Enabling the development of various entrepreneurs through policies and ensuring skill development will lead to an improvement in the entire ecosystem of the business.

In order for inclusive growth in the business, the interlinked chains of business have to be catered to better, according to Shams Mahmud. He emphasizes making resources accessible for all, policies directed to improve existing businesses and empower and enable future businesses. Strengths in quality rather than numbers should be the foundational principles if the manufacturing sector wants to compete with the likes of Turkey and Pakistan. 

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