INTERVIEW - OTOBI Classy Furniture from Bangladesh

Written by SAO  •  Cover Stories  •  March 2011 PDF Print E-mail

An exclusive interview with Sabbir Hasan Nasir, Chief Executive Officer, Otobi,

SOUTHASIA: Otobi has become a trademark for Bangladesh’s furniture industry over these past decades. It also continues to thrive under your new leadership as the CEO of the company. How do you see this transition?
Sabbir Hasan Nasir: Similar to other South Asian countries, Bangladesh is a blend of semi feudal and semi state controlled capitalism with a recently emerging emphasis on entrepreneurial culture. Leadership roles are crucial when developing a trademark company like Otobi. When water begins to evaporate, few of the molecules remain in the water; when it starts to vaporize, one of them takes responsibility and leads. Otobi is one of the first and foremost organizations in Bangladesh where proper corporate culture and the concept of corporate citizenship were introduced and established. Formerly, Otobi was known as a medium-sized enterprise, founded by a reputed artist and sculptor, where the owner and his family used to control most of the operation. In this transition, we re-engineered the culture to allow it to become one of the most successful large corporate houses in South Asia. Spanning for past four years, the number of employees, the value and volume of the business quadrupled with vigorous expansion into local and global diversified enterprises and portfolios. Numerous global best practices shaped the primary business process providing us with a sustainable competitive advantage and forming a unique business model in furniture manufacturing and retail.

SA: What are the prospects of doing business in a fast growing economy like Bangladesh?
SHN: When compared to many other South Asian countries, Bangladesh is a reasonably investment friendly country with least number of barriers in terms of mode of entry and relative political stability. However, when compared with other developing economies, red ribbon of the bureaucracy is still a major obstacle. Energy and infrastructure are ongoing issues which prevent some businesses from performing at an optimal level. An abundance of opportunities are available for business houses that can combine low level cost with great talent.

SA: Do you face any impediments in furthering your business agenda inside Bangladesh?
SHN: A hundred years ago when we were part of the British colony, some so called educated, elite civil servants were placed to ensure that the British empire could exploit our countrymen and our resources and they were set as symbolic icons for the people to follow. Descendants of these civil servants are the new and current bureaucrats of Bangladesh who set the public policy and control the private sector. Rather than facilitating they fancy themselves the embodiment of the British era civil servants who possess all the power and can do as they wish. Public-Private Partnership, a new notion introduced by the World Bank is just another tool for controlling the private sectors by restricting their business operations through complicated contracts. It still remains a term which is yet to be practiced and we are still to see the potential of true partnerships open up. Our raw material duty was set from 49% to 83%; just imagine the impact on the business! Not enough heed was paid to the private sector and no body of the government discussed the matter during the pre-budget session. Transfer of fund from Bangladesh to any other country in the world is restricted in the name of controlling “terror financing”. I believe great ideas and the spirit of entrepreneurship should flow across the boundaries in this so called free world and free economy. Why can’t we have Otobians across the world? Why can’t we set Otobi everywhere? The local circumstances are imposing fiscal and monetary barriers, especially where regional and global expansions are concerned. Land and energy are the second and third ranked problems; acquiring proper land takes at least a year and is quite a complicated process.

SA: If yes, does it also result in hampering your business activities in the region?
SHN: Yes, it does. We only receive 7-8% of the duty drawback. Rigid bureaucratic control lacks practical consideration; therefore when the government changed the raw material duty it simultaneously crippled the competitive position of Otobi in other regions.

SA: What future do you envisage for your company and how do you plan to go about it?
SHN: I believe race, religion, language and/or culture can never stop human beings from intertwining with one another like the roars of waves united in a sea. Idea matters in this world and particularly in our time. “Otobi life” is a great idea. Keep Reinventing - Otobi’s latest brand positioning is an appeal which is universal and essential. I envision Otobi as a global brand sprouting in ten countries in the form of franchises over the next 10 years and in different continents over 20 years. I see numerous South Asian brands soaring like birds from our subcontinent soil to all corners of the world.

Otobi Profile
Otobi began its journey in 1975 when painter and sculptor Nitin Kundu set up a small woodcraft workshop in Dhaka. Over the years, Otobi transformed into a widely recognized brand, capturing 80 per cent of the branded furniture market in Bangladesh. Known for its superior quality and fine designs, the company today has 16 showrooms across the country and employs 5,000 people. With a wide range of distributors and dealers, Otobi is also present in 7 cities in India. It is a furniture company that does not compromise on its designs or in the quality of wood. In 2006, a new leadership took charge of the company, headed by Animesh Kundu as Managing Director and Sabbir Hasan Nasir as the CEO and in consensus with founder Nitin Kundu.  Later, in 2008 Otobi built its 4th ultra-modern factory in Savar, Dhaka, the first of its kind in South Asia. 

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