Cover Story

The International Apparel Maker

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.

Sparrow Group of Industries begin with Dr. Mahzharul Islam, the former Vice-Chancellor of Rajshahi University, an eminent academician and an important cog in the struggle for independence of Bangladesh. The idea of starting a garment factory came to Dr. Islam when he felt that business and business personalities get a bad name because they are capitalists. The notion of business persona was that they pay minimal wages to workers and extract maximum production possible.

However, Dr. Islam had a different philosophy. Business is similar to being an art; it is dependent on how you run things. Moreover, business and art had the same Bengali translation, “Shilpo”. And thus, began the journey for Sparrow Group, to clear the bad repertoire that some businessmen had and to establish that, businesses are like the leaders that lead them, being the only university vice-chancellor who was also a businessman.

Shovon Islam, the son of Dr. Mahzharul Islam, was completing his computer science degree from the University of Texas at Austin, USA. He also later did an MBA from one of the Top Business Universities of the world Sandford Business School, USA. While being in the USA, he worked for Hewlett Packard (HP) and Microsoft for over 20 years. Shovon Islam worked directly under Bill Gates, symbolizing the talent and drive he had for technology from the get-go.

However, due to the death of his father, he had to return and take over the family business and became the Managing Director at Sparrow. Shovon Islam always remembers his father’s last words, “I want to make sure my people in the factory are taken care of, even when I am not here.” A man who wanted to give back to the people who are always overlooked, Shovon Islam lives by the principle of giving back to people and ensuring the members of the factory are taken care of regardless of circumstances.

Shovon Islam: A great believer of green technology

Talent, Techniques and Ambitious

The switch from academia to business maybe difficult for most people; however, it was smooth for Shovon Islam and ultimately became a part of his identity. “Experiencingthe tech boom in Silicon Valley and the Bangalore IT boom, I realized, technology can help make garment manufacturing faster and more efficient.” Readymade garment (RMG) is a combination of labor and capital-intensive procedure. And machine usage became more common as access to technology became easier.

However, Shovon Islam had an edge in all of this. Hailing from a Computer Science background, he understood the requirements for an efficient factory and what is needed to make a big splash in the industry. The first was technology. High end products require precision; women’s clothing requires the utmost care and precision as they need delicate measuring. “I asked buyers, why can’t we make women’s pants? We might not have done it before, but see a few samples and then make a call on it.” Shovon Islam’s persistence and drive opened up opportunities for more buyers, as convincing became easy with his products.

Businesses prefer certainty from the producers, and most international businesses and top Brands of the world like Banana Republic (Gap INC), Marks and Spencer, American Eagle, Talbots, JCrew, JJIL, Mango, ANN Taylor and many more. Their main suppliers hailed mostly from India, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia, where they get products at a low cost and production on time. To bring these very buyers onto his side, he researched how these nations did so. Learning from these places, Sparrow Group eventually became the number one supplier to Marks & Spencer, supplying 23 per cent of their Women products.

An issue that the garment industry has to grapple with is the problem of garment wastage. On average 4-6 per cent of the total garment is always wasted. From every 100-fabric needed for producing anything, 4-6 of them have to be discarded. “This cost is something that had to be incurred from us. This cost may appear small, but it piles up and becomes a significant cost at the end of the day. What we do now is, I use my data knowledge and computer science background to minimize these costs. Utilizing technology to make those few garments useable, only when materials are cut and stitched properly.”

Internalizing technology usually implies, environment is a tradeoff. Sparrow Group and Shovon Islam have LEED Certification for Green, highlighting their use of green technology and waste minimization to degrees that are rare for RMG producers. “We track all our orders using various software. We use data analysis to ensure all the products are cut accurately and almost nothing is wasted. All to ensure, fast reaction, to minimize cost, waste, downtime, and maximize production.”

Shovon Islam and Sparrow Group do not worry about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR); they live by it. The institute never had to think about what they have to do to meet CSR thresholds. They looked for opportunities to help society and its workers, the principles taught by Dr. Mahzharul Islam. “During the pandemic, it had become a challenge on how we will run our factories. We all were not sure what we will be producing. Moreover, to ensure safety precautions are up to the mark, we made a comprehensive guideline for factories to reopen. Since my factories in Jordan had opened up, using those guides and others, it made things easier.”

Shovon Islam identifies that giving the workers courage and to ensure that they will be backed up by their leader, is something that ensures Sparrow has the lowest attrition rate. Workers change jobs whenever they get marginal wage rises, and that entices them to leave. Sparrow, on the other hand, provides its workers with incentives, opportunities and provisions so that they do not dissociate and disconnect themselves from Sparrow Group. Training the workforce, ensuring they are motivated all the time, and expanding in the process.

For Shovon Islam business is art

Growth and the Future

“The RMG sector has a few tiers of businesses – big producers, medium producers and small producers. The big and medium producers are capable of investing in technology and human capital as their income levels are significantly high, and they are few in numbers. The small ones will face a dilemma. They won’t have the access to the technology they need to survive, as they have to prioritize where to invest and where not to.”

The small producers may be earning less; however, they are multiple in numbers. This gives them a larger number of voting rights when it comes to policymaking. Policies are only useful when it benefits the most. Adding to that, the producers need to expand on their variety of products so that they can compete against international competitors. Quality control, proper training and opportunities for investment have to be improved.

In the long run, infrastructure development will be the key to improved efficiency. Bangladesh has to improve its cargo facilities, deep seaport and develop an off-dock clearing and forwarding facility for Dhaka Airport air cargo handling so that backlogs do not occur in of these critical important places for the supply chain. Enabling product diversification policies, customs policies to help manufacturers, training policies to reduce production lag, and worker incentive policies – all these may be something that does not exist yet.

However, Shovon Islam believes in a simple idea that he was told while he was in the US: “If something does not exist, why not make it. Everything we see now previously didn’t exist, but now it does. It is the desire to make something, rather than the lack of existence of the idea.” Giving back to the community may be something that businesses are forced to do to meet standards. For Shovon Islam and Sparrow Group and of course late Dr. Mahzharul Islam, helping people and giving back to the community comes organically.

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