Mahbubur Rahman
Bangladesh
Mahbubur Rahman
  • President, International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), Bangladesh (Finance)
Born Cumilla, Bangladesh, 1942.
“The private sector and the government have to work in concert, they have to be hands in gloves.”

Summary

Mahbubur Rahman is President of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), Bangladesh. The interview begins with Rahman reflecting on his family background and his childhood in Cumilla. Instead of following his family’s footsteps into education or politics, in 1962, Rahman started his first business, Eastern Trading Company (now ETBL Holdings), located in Chittagong. During this time, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) had an import-oriented economy with little production. His company primarily focused on importing consumer goods and representing foreign companies who were selling their products in East Pakistan. Rahman describes the early years of his business, which he started in a small cottage built by his father and worked by himself with no employees until 1966. By the late 1960s, ETBL Holdings had become the sole distributor of coconut oil for Sri Lanka and East Pakistan. In 1968, the company was appointed the sole distributor of the Japanese Morinaga infant formula, which had a booming market by 1974. In this interview, Rahman recounts a scandal where a Bangladeshi newspaper falsely declared that Morinaga infant formula contained arsenic and should be withdrawn from the market. Rahman explains that together with Japan, they confirmed that this report was incorrect and that the formula was safe.

In this interview, Rahman explains the turbulent environment in the late 1960s and early 1970s for businessmen from East Pakistan. He describes that entry into the market would have been impossible if he had not combined his efforts with other businesspeople, as they were unable to buy the government issued licenses alone due to lack of capital. Rahman describes that group import started as a result of buying small licenses, joining together, and opening a letter of credit. Rahman explains that before 1971, the entire economy and big industry was controlled by West Pakistanis and tradesmen who migrated from India. Rahman then moves on to describe Bangladesh’s independence in 1971. In this interview, Rahman explains that the state owned all enterprises with a capital of more than $2.5 million in the 1970s and 1980s, and how the industries and enterprises that were previously owned by Pakistanis were taken over by the Bangladeshi government as abandoned property and nationalized. By the 1980s, nationalization was halted and some private businesses were allowed to start. At this time, Rahman started lobbying that private banks, insurance companies, lease financing, and other financial institutions should be allowed to parallel the state-owned banks. As a result, in 1983, Rahman created the National Bank Limited of Bangladesh, Bangladesh’s first fully private sector bank.

In 1993, Rahman radically departed from his past activities by entering newspaper production through cofounding International Publication Limited. He explains the startup process, how he was able to raise capital, how the company gained an edge over other newspapers, and how the company became the second leading English language daily newspaper and even became profitable. The interview continues as Rahman discusses the issue of corruption in Bangladesh, which he claims has its roots in the British colonial rule and a resulting lack of transparency, archaic laws, and political cronyism. Turing to his engagement with the ICC, Rahman describes how ICC Bangladesh differs from other chambers of commerce globally. He provides examples of banking and financial sector reform that he has done with ICC in Bangladesh, including encouraging an opening to private sector activity. Rahman concludes his interview by discussing how Bangladesh reacted to the 2008 financial crisis, issues of succession, and his belief that the biggest priority for Bangladesh and the biggest opportunity for the private sector is to engage in poverty alleviation and explore solutions for climate change.

 Read more

Mahbubur Rahman is President of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), Bangladesh. The interview begins with Rahman reflecting on his family background and his childhood in Cumilla. Instead of following his family’s footsteps into education or politics, in 1962, Rahman started his first business, Eastern Trading Company (now ETBL Holdings), located in Chittagong. During this time, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) had an import-oriented economy with little production. His company primarily focused on importing consumer goods and representing foreign companies who were selling their products in East Pakistan. Rahman describes the early years of his business, which he started in a small cottage built by his father and worked by himself with no employees until 1966. By the late 1960s, ETBL Holdings had become the sole distributor of coconut oil for Sri Lanka and East Pakistan. In 1968, the company was appointed the sole distributor of the Japanese Morinaga infant formula, which had a booming market by 1974. In this interview, Rahman recounts a scandal where a Bangladeshi newspaper falsely declared that Morinaga infant formula contained arsenic and should be withdrawn from the market. Rahman explains that together with Japan, they confirmed that this report was incorrect and that the formula was safe.

In this interview, Rahman explains the turbulent environment in the late 1960s and early 1970s for businessmen from East Pakistan. He describes that entry into the market would have been impossible if he had not combined his efforts with other businesspeople, as they were unable to buy the government issued licenses alone due to lack of capital. Rahman describes that group import started as a result of buying small licenses, joining together, and opening a letter of credit. Rahman explains that before 1971, the entire economy and big industry was controlled by West Pakistanis and tradesmen who migrated from India. Rahman then moves on to describe Bangladesh’s independence in 1971. In this interview, Rahman explains that the state owned all enterprises with a capital of more than $2.5 million in the 1970s and 1980s, and how the industries and enterprises that were previously owned by Pakistanis were taken over by the Bangladeshi government as abandoned property and nationalized. By the 1980s, nationalization was halted and some private businesses were allowed to start. At this time, Rahman started lobbying that private banks, insurance companies, lease financing, and other financial institutions should be allowed to parallel the state-owned banks. As a result, in 1983, Rahman created the National Bank Limited of Bangladesh, Bangladesh’s first fully private sector bank.

In 1993, Rahman radically departed from his past activities by entering newspaper production through cofounding International Publication Limited. He explains the startup process, how he was able to raise capital, how the company gained an edge over other newspapers, and how the company became the second leading English language daily newspaper and even became profitable. The interview continues as Rahman discusses the issue of corruption in Bangladesh, which he claims has its roots in the British colonial rule and a resulting lack of transparency, archaic laws, and political cronyism. Turing to his engagement with the ICC, Rahman describes how ICC Bangladesh differs from other chambers of commerce globally. He provides examples of banking and financial sector reform that he has done with ICC in Bangladesh, including encouraging an opening to private sector activity. Rahman concludes his interview by discussing how Bangladesh reacted to the 2008 financial crisis, issues of succession, and his belief that the biggest priority for Bangladesh and the biggest opportunity for the private sector is to engage in poverty alleviation and explore solutions for climate change.
Download Interview Transcript

Video Clips by Topic

Corruption

Mahbubur Rahman, a prominent business leader in Bangladesh, identifies the persistence of British colonial laws as a cause of the high level of corruption in the country.


Diversification

Mahbubur Rahman, who had already started trading, banking and insurance businesses in Bangladesh, explains why he entered newspaper publishing, and how this business has become profitable despite the experience of peers.


Start-up

Mahbubur Rahman recalls the challenges faced by the start-up in 1962 of what is now the large ETBL Holdings Group in Bangladesh, including how he built his first contacts with foreign firms.
Keywords: Bangladesh, Start-up


Full Length Video (login required)

Additional Resources

Interview Citation Format

Interview with Mahbubur Rahman, interviewed by Prithwiraj Choudhury, Dhaka, Bangladesh, December 17, 2019, Creating Emerging Markets Oral History Collection, Baker Library Special Collections, Harvard Business School.