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Sun 5 Jun 2011 12:42 PM

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Mansha's millions

As Pakistan’s richest man — with interests in almost every sector — Mian Mohammed Mansha says that media pronouncements about the state of his country are exaggerated

Mansha's millions

As the richest man in a country with the seventh-largest population in the world, Mian Mohammed Mansha wields a heady mixture of both power and responsibility. Money counts for a lot in Pakistan, and Mansha’s billions — all five of them — go a long way in one of the planet’s poorest countries. But that largesse is tempered by responsibility; the tycoon is Pakistan’s largest private-sector employer, providing jobs for 40,000 people in a country that has recently been characterised by the global press as an international pariah.

But Mansha wouldn’t have got to where he is now without a strong flow of optimism running through his veins. Quietly spoken but also sporting a steely gaze, the businessman has clearly had enough of journalists writing Pakistan off.

“Pakistan has its problems; we’ve had this war going on in Afghanistan and it’s basically a spillover on our side,” Mansha says. “But I also feel that the press generally gives us a picture that is more dismal than the reality. The reality is that there are some businesses that are prospering and I think we are coming to a great transition in our country.”

If it’s flourishing Pakistani businesses that you are after, then you need look no further than Mansha’s conglomerate, the Nishat Group. From banking to cement, from textiles to power plants, and from agri-business to education, the businessman certainly has his finger on the pulse of the country’s economic health. And despite the recent revelations about Osama Bin Laden and the mudslinging that has taken place at the highest echelons of Pakistani politics as a result, Mansha is confident that the country can finally live up to expectations.

“The media is completely free now, and if you look at our judiciary, it is asserting itself much more than any developing countries,” he says. “Democracy is also taking root, and ultimately there’s a lot of opportunity. But there needs to be patience, because of this war that’s been going on for 20 years in Afghanistan. It’s a constant, but the reality is changing and Pakistan is going to benefit from the shifting epicentre of the world.”

So what, exactly, is Pakistan’s wealthiest citizen actually doing in Dubai? Although Mansha’s business empire has long had various interests in the emirate, it has yet to establish one of its key lines here. Nishat Group, the conglomerate which Mansha runs, has cut a deal with various malls in Dubai to launch Nishat Linen, a luxury fashion brand which seems tailor-made to go down a storm with well-heeled members of the emirate’s shopping community. But given that merchants from Pakistan and India have found rich pickings in the UAE for decades, isn’t his move to Dubai a little late in the day?

“Primarily, we’ve been very busy in other markets such as the US, Europe and so on, and obviously there was the turmoil here from three years ago, which shook the whole market,” Mansha says. “So I think now is the right time. This region is very lucky that all this turmoil is going on in the Middle East and it is now a haven for tranquility. This, I think, is the second renaissance of Dubai.”

Naturally, Dubai is just the starting point for Nishat Linen. The company already has a warehouse in Jebel Ali, and Mansha says the brand will launch into Abu Dhabi, Oman and Qatar once “three or four” stores are open in Dubai. Saudi Arabia is also on the wish-list, and the long-term goal is to have 20 stores launched in the Gulf within two years’ time.

Think of textiles, and you think of cotton, prices for which have been on a rollercoaster ride over the last few months. The noise in the media may be about the surging gold price, but cotton has jumped to three times its previous value before sinking southwards more recently. Mansha says that prudent purchasing decisions have left the bigger Pakistani firms capable of honouring their contracts with major Western brands like Wal-Mart, while textile buyers in China and India suffered.

“In our business, normally the increasing price of cotton would have hit us very badly, but we are very lucky in that we have covered our cotton in good time,” he points out. “Normally, we keep a very large inventory because the crop comes once a year. The cycle hit us on the right side because cotton runs from November to about February, and the prices went up after that, so we had already bought most of the cotton. Now prices have come down and we will have some inventory losses, true, but that’s business.”

But textiles are not the only industry in which Mansha is looking to expand his interests in the GCC. He is perhaps best known at home for his stewardship of Muslim Commercial Bank (MCB), in which Nishat Group took a majority stake when the lender was privatised in the early 1990s. MCB is now recognised as one of Pakistan’s strongest banks, with international operations in Sri Lanka, and over 1,100 branches. It’s no surprise, therefore, to hear that Mansha is eyeing up the Gulf’s banking sector with some interest.

“We already own an insurance company here, which has been very successful and has been here for more than 40 years,” he says. “We have an office and permission here to do restricted banking. But I want to consolidate the whole thing and we wouldn’t mind — after the dust has settled — to obtain a proper banking licence and get into the full business.”

But Mansha doesn’t anticipate expanding his operations in the Gulf organically; instead, he is planning to take the acquisition route, even though it has its pitfalls. However, he remains coy as to which bank he is aiming to target – although he does cite Habib Bank Zurich’s local operations as being the most successful in the emirate.

“My idea is always to take a majority stake…but initially, we could even take a minority stake with an agreement with the sponsor that we would ultimately take a majority step,” he says. “So it could be a two-step or one-step process. But we are on the lookout, yes. I think it should happen in the next two or three years, because we are already in contact with certain people in this market.”

Mansha’s enthusiasm for the acquisition is somewhat balanced by what he sees as an over-protective attitude on the part of many countries towards the banking sector. His solution to the soul-searching that has been prevalent in the industry over the last three years or so is relatively simple.

“Particularly in the West, what has happened is that large banks have suffered a lot, and in my view that is because they don’t have very long-term investors,” he says. “Take Bank Santander, for example. In spite of the problems in Spain, it is now the largest lender in Europe and rated to be one of the best banks in the world. It is run by people who have been at the helm a long time, and they are long-term shareholders. The chairman of the bank is about 75, and his family controls the major operations all over the world.”

That’s a model that Mansha has followed with MCB, which saw net profits increase by 21 percent in the first quarter, year-on-year. But it’s not just his bank that’s performing well; Pakistan’s five major lenders are all progressing well, with non-performing loans at a relatively insignificant level. The billionaire puts the sector’s performance down to prudent policies maintained by the central bank, and believes it is also a strong advert for privatisation.

“Look at their balance sheets today,” he says. “And the good thing about our banks is that we employ more people today than we did before privatisation — it’s normally the other way around. Now we have new products and new branches, and we’ve learnt lessons a little bit earlier and we have been able to take our knocks.”

The billionaire also sees other opportunities at home. Mansha’s Facebook page is littered with requests for donations; from mosque-building funds to new business ventures. There aren’t that many sectors in which he isn’t involved already, but it seems he might be tempted by a further push into aviation, should the privatisation of flag-carrier Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) finally take place.

“Yes, I think Pakistan International Airlines needs to be privatised,” he muses. “It has a very long history, and a very strong engineering department, and this hub needs all the facilities. So if there is an opportunity, we would like to look at acquiring it, rather than setting up a new company.”

But other than PIA, the airline industry holds no attractions for Mansha. Citing Carl Icahn — another indication of the rarefied atmosphere in which he moves — Mansha points out that aviation is “not a business worth investing in”. While Emirates is making a tidy profit, the same is not the case for most of the other, less well-funded airlines in the region.

So where does the path lead next? Mansha is not alone in his concerns over future food production and cost, and is planning to devote his considerable resources to dragging Pakistan into the 21st century. This strategy has a two-pronged approach; the generation of electricity from agricultural waste materials and boosting agricultural production by introducing greater efficiencies into an archaic farming system. Pakistan is in the top five countries worldwide for the production of commodities such as cotton, wheat and milk, but the country is not seeing the true benefits of that production.

“If you look at our yields, they are very low,” he says. “In a country like the US, in 1944, it had 30 million cows. Now they have 9.4 million cows and yet their milk production has gone up by four times. We need to become much more productive, and that’s why I’m very excited about what we can do with food, and with agriculture.”

The Nishat Group currently produces around ten percent of Pakistan’s electricity from four power plants, but the businessman sees this increasing significantly further as agricultural by-products — like rice husks and corn sticks — are burnt to produce electricity.

“When you produce corn, the cob has 4,000 calories, so you can burn it — and that could be power to drive our cement factories, for instance,” Mansha points out. “I was looking at the figures and we have 27 different agricultural products and we can produce so much electricity in an agricultural country like ours.”

National growth is all very well, but Mansha believes that much will depend on Pakistan’s future relations with the economic powerhouse lying on its eastern border.

Again, he says that relationships between the two countries are not as bad as they are often depicted in the press. At the recent cricket World Cup semi-final between the two countries in Mohali, the entrepreneur says he was surprised by the welcome he received from his Indian hosts. Mansha clearly managed to get good seats for the sporting spectacle of the year as well, too; he has a good line about Sonia Gandhi trying to prevent her son Rahul from getting too overexcited during the match.

“We have now formed a Pakistani business council, and we’ve been talking to the businessmen on the Indian side,” he says. “We will increase our contacts but the border needs to be opened for trade — on paper it can be done. Person-to-person contact in Pakistan and India is much better than you think. For example, some of the Indians who were born in my home town of Chiniot but who moved over to the other side after Partition came to me and said they wanted to see their home town before they died. So I have invited them and we’ll have a big get-together. There is a great interaction going on.”

With the wealth, the power and the contacts, it seems Mansha is destined for the political scene, alongside other Pakistani tycoons such as Asif Ali Zardari (currently president) and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. But he disagrees wholeheartedly; it’s the private sector that retains its strongest hold over him.

Once considered for the governor’s role in Punjab province, Mansha turned the job down because of the restrictive nature of the role. With his thoughts turning towards the construction of an engineering university in Lahore, not to mention the development of the Pakistani agribusiness industry, it seems that the billionaire can serve his country best by remaining exactly where he is.

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