Batting to the last ball

Khaled Ahmed celebrates a life well-lived lived on the occasion of Syed Babar Ali’s election to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Batting to the last ball
(Syed Babar Ali is the second International Honorary Member from Pakistan in the Academy’s 240 year history. The first was Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Abdus Salam. Members of the Academy are elected in different areas of expertise, from mathematics to poetry. Mr Ali was recognized within the category of “Business, Corporate, and Philanthropic Leadership”.)

His recently published autobiography celebrates the people he has treasured all his life, and self-reference is only his way of explaining what they helped bring about. The trick is to latch on to people you sincerely rate as your superiors - and you may call it “learning from others” – resulting in your own rise “by association” rather than “by competition”. Ordinary mortals see self-promotion only in being surrounded by lesser people, but not Babar Ali. A back-of-the-book couplet from Saadi reads: “My companions’ virtues elevated me/Otherwise I am the same humble creature that I was”.

But there are other secrets behind the success of this self-effacing empire-builder.

Starting small

In the post-Mutiny period, the British Raj needed massive provisioning for troops on the move. Babar Ali’s grandfather, Syed Wazir Ali ran a shop in Rang Mahal in Lahore’s Walled City and expanded it in 1858 to the Lahore Cantonment, selling “food, clothing, furniture, and household goods, combined with a business as contractors for individual regiments of the British Army.” The key passage in Babar Ali’s book is: “My grandfather developed a reputation as a reliable businessman…this enabled him to own the property where the shop was located and the adjoining house. He also made money from property in Ferozepur that was rented out to the British Army.”

Francis Fukuyama would exclaim that this was the first chemistry of “trust” felt by a Lahore shopkeeper, which had transformed Europe after Protestantism linked “ethics” to “work”. Wazir Ali and his sons had understood the new work ethic and were recognized as “reliable”. But old Lahore was not yet ready to recognize this epiphany. The local elite called Wazir Ali’s sons “the progeny of a contractor” and Babar Ali’s older brothers could not make it to Aitchison “Chiefs” College.

Sir Syed Maratab Ali

Babar hero-worshipped these elder brothers, Amjad Ali and Wajid Ali, long after he became a tycoon in his own right. The folded-hands reverence he shows in his book to his Aitchisonian class-fellow Harcharan Singh Brar and the Swedish inventor of Tetra Pack, Ruben Rausing, seems only to lift him above his contemporaries. This self-subordination never prevented him, when he was the first in his family to get to Aitchison Colege, from scoring the highest marks in class and winning the college blazer.

Syed Amjad Ali was clearly the first flash of brilliance which took the “shopkeeper” family, to which Babar Ali was born in 1926, out of its low social rung. While in the Punjab Assembly with the Unionists, Amjad Ali developed an interest in “industrial production”, partnering with a fellow member of the Assembly, Sir William Roberts - who was to be the first Principal of the Lyallpur Agriculture College, and a successful cotton grower from Khanewal with business contacts in Lancashire - in setting up a textile mill in Rahim Yar Khan. After that got going, the Alis persuaded Lever Brothers of Bombay to join them in setting up a “ghee and soap factory” in Hyderabad. Syed Amjad Ali constantly gave Babar the leg-up he needed, including hosting his marriage to his cousin Perwin in Washington DC in 1955 when Amjad Ali was Pakistan’s ambassador to the US. The personal triumph for Babar Ali, 29, was getting “reluctant” Perwin to overcome her fear that he had been a bit of a playboy during his Karachi days –“my father disapproved of my lifestyle”. They were married in DC, with Vice President Richard Nixon attending.

Perwin & Syed Babar Ali with Mr & Mrs Richard Nixon, at their wedding at the Pakistan Embassy, Washington DC”

The Faqir connection

Syed Wazir Ali had got his son Maratab Ali to marry Syeda Mubarak Begum, the daughter of the distinguished Faqirkhana family of Lahore, illustrious courtiers of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Faqir Syed Iftikharuddin, Mubarak’s father, was no ordinary man: he was from the Indian Political Service, had various important postings including as British Agent in Kabul, from 1907 to 1910, with the special credential that his mother was from the Afghan royal family, and ended up bagging the title of CIE (Commander of the Indian Empire). Thus began the gene pool that was to give rise to one of the most respectable entrepreneur families of the Punjab.

Babar Ali was at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor when Pakistan came into being. The family was close to Mr Jinnah besides the Unionists who had all flocked to the Muslim League. As denizens of old Lahore, his parents had hosted Allama Iqbal at their home, apart from many others of learning and leadership. So, the Muslim cause was close to Babar Ali’s heart just as Shiism was always the font of non-demonstrative spirituality mixed generously with charity, giving rise to his almost secular worldview. His enlightenment was probably triggered by his gradual disenchantment with the “Islamic republic” of Pakistan. His best friend from Aitchison remained Harcharan Singh Brar, the horse-breeding Sikh who finally arose to be the chief minister of Indian Punjab. As a student in Ann Arbor, “Ali Barbar” was reported in the local press as an ardent supporter of Pakistan before the partition of India.

Owning a lot of real estate – from Ferozepur to Bhopal to Bombay and Karachi - came in handy when the Alis went into industry. Looking after ghee and soap factories spread over Punjab and Sindh, Babar Ali was based in Karachi, thinking he would be there for good, linking up with Ford Motors that was to result in the well-known Ali Automobiles.

From soap in Hyderabad to making blades in partnership with Treet of America was another step typical of Babar Ali. (Babar Ali and Treet blades is difficult to imagine today!) His four years at the Bunder Road office gave him invaluable experience supporting the industrial units in Hyderabad and the textile mill at Rahim Yar Khan, while importing textiles and exporting cotton and oil cake, his biggest buyer being the Soviet Union! But the game-changer move was to come just then. He had built his house in Karachi but he was advised to buy the furniture for it from Finland. This was to change his life.
“Incredibly, he later got the Americans, who were giving US$3.2 billion to Pakistan as assistance, to give him a part of it (for LUMS). ‘Does US$10 million frighten you?’ Ambassador Deane Hinton asked. ‘Not really’, replied Babar Ali, in the understatement of a lifetime”

Treet blades to Packages

It was 1954 and he had to go to Finland through Sweden and thought he could also look up Akerlund & Rausing, a packaging company in Stockholm, who had offered him packaging material for his Treet razor blade plant in Hyderabad. Talking to the managers of the company he made his move: why not get together and set up a packaging plant in Pakistan? Thus was born the idea of Packages Limited, the near-monopoly headquartered in Lahore.

Ruben Rausing, the founder of the company, then in his 60s took the young Babar Ali “under his wing”. He listened to Rausing with rapt attention as he told him why he put up the plant in a small city which had a university. “All the brains are here,” he said. And that was why Babar Ali put up Packages Ltd in Lahore: to be near the universities. Logically, when it began to dawn on him that Punjabi academia was not nearly at par with the way world knowledge was growing, he determined to set up a new institution matching global standards.

But in between the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto interregnum arrived in the early 70s and the economy was nationalized. Bhutto soon sensed the destruction involved in his ideological takeovers and offered Babar Ali the chairmanship of the nationalized fertilizers sector. Babar, 50, didn’t want it but was advised by friends not to rebuff socialism’s vengeful captain and took up the job for a stipulated three years. Thus was the family’s incipient empire was saved from total state grab. He was full of energy then, as The New York Times noted, calling him “a huge bear of a man”.

Bhutto was hanged in 1979 by General Zia who offered Babar Ali missions he could politely say no to because he was less scared of the courteous dictator; but he did join the general’s “shoora”, the beginning of the next luckless pendulum swing called Islamization that Babar Ali was to decry later in his interviews. Finally it is moot who harmed Pakistan more, Bhutto or Zia, because both scuttled the economy through ideology. Babar Ali noted the slump in efficiency among managers involved in debates over blasphemy and “riba” (bank interest) and realized he needed a lot of good professionals if his companies were to survive. It was then that he thought of his own business school.

Syeda Mubarak Begum, of the illustrious Faqirkhana family

Wisdom of spreading thin

Did Babar Ali spread himself thin because of his hunger for enterprise? The list of peripheral interests he gives us is forbidding. Once enriched by the experience of establishing and running the Lahore University of Management Sciences, he was approached by institutions struggling to survive in Pakistan’s not always friendly environment. Sympathetic to Christians who have selflessly educated Lahore’s Muslims, he joined the Boards of Kinnaird and Forman Christian College, later helping out the Lahore School of Economics, and Aitchison College, too. He built a beautiful library at Aitchison, planned by architect Nayyar Ali Dada.

Syed Babar Ali’s involvement with the animal world was passionate and he didn’t mind pulling strings to prevent a retired general from harming the WWF from within the cabinet of General Zia - which must have been tough because he had just refused the general’s offer of chairmanship of PIA: “I am running WWF in Pakistan but your people are hounding me because of General Habibullah.” The next day General Zia issued instructions: leave WWF alone.

For headhunting, he went for the low hanging fruit of the gifted Pakistani youth. Sensing his own future needs, he set up Systems Ltd which later produced the software much in demand, run by Aezaz Hussain, a brilliant scion of Lahore’s Baroodkhana family, later joined by another bright young man who was to rise in the global corporate world, Manzur ul Haq. Then, in 1989, the chemical giant Siemens asked Babar Ali to be their chairman in Pakistan; he agreed “for the sake of experience”. He had had an advisory status with American Express Bank since early 1970, which helped him run his First International Investment Bank Ltd, getting an exceptionally talented person from his mother’s tribe as its boss, Fakir Syed Aijazuddin, who “changed the management style and made the bank pro-active to the needs of the market and increased its activity, previously confined to Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore.”

Babar Ali says his real entrepreneurial bastion is Packages Ltd, where his style of management came into full play. The old style of management was autocratic and it is still impenetrably tyrannical in Pakistan, oriental wisdom saying it works better than the new “mollycoddling” model popular in the West. Babar Ali is close to the modern “collegial” model when he writes under the caption of Business Ethics: “Before regulating your colleagues, you have to discipline yourself. You are not above your colleagues; you are one of them. You have to accept the fact that you are not a privileged person: you cannot break any law, public or private, and whatever the laws and rules of your organization, you have to be the first to conform to them.”

The LUMS climax

Babar Ali was not only looking for companions he could admire, his scent for talent was quite sharp. During a visit to the U.S in 1984, he ran into Javed Hamid who was to change the identity of Lahore as a laidback non-academic town eating more than thinking. Hamid, an MBA from the Harvard Business School, was once in Islamabad’s Planning Commission as an economist but was now with International Finance Corporation in Washington. LUMS was to be Babar’s brainchild, midwifed brilliantly by Hamid.

A nothing-to-look-at campus materialized at Lahore’s Liberty Market in Gulberg in 1988; but such was the “trust” inspired by Babar Ali that President Zia visited it and Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew had dinner there after speaking to only 80 students. Then he did his fundraising, for the sum of Rs 2.5 million each donor. He definitely had the magic “touch”: “I asked about 100 people, of whom 60 gave me Rs. 2.5 million each. In that group were Chaudhry Nazar Mohammad, Yusuf Shirazi and Razak Dawood, who all gave generously”. Of course, he put in the first cheque every time; later, when finally the Habib Fida Ali designed LUMS building was sprawling in Lahore’s Defence in over 100 acres, and money was needed for the School of Science & Engineering, his first cheque was for Rs 100 million. Incredibly, he later got the Americans, who were giving US$3.2 billion to Pakistan as assistance, to give him a part of it. “Does US$10 million frighten you?”Ambassador Deane Hinton asked. “Not really”, replied Babar Ali, in the understatement of a lifetime.

If Europe, according to Fukuyama, was built on “trust” in business, which operates on the basis of uncertainty, Babar Ali’s Northern European partners responded to his perseverance – which he calls “batting to the last ball”. He was genuinely fond of – if not worshipful of – Ruben Rausing and he suggested to his company in Sweden that he wanted to build an Executive Development Centre at LUMS in his name but he would need two million dollars for it. The company gave one million; and then the rest when he went to them for the second tranche. Rausing’s grand-daughter, Kirsten, “visited Pakistan and she made a surprise announcement, without telling me, that Tetra Pack would like to give another million dollars”. Now there is a funded library at LUMS named after Rausing’s offspring: Gad and Brigit Rausing Library. About the future of LUMS, he writes: “I want my family to be involved with LUMS and I hope they will continue to support it from their own resources as well as from my Foundation. I hope they will do well financially and add to what I leave behind as a legacy.”

Saddened at Pakistan’s downward slide, Syed Babar Ali says, “I have only two options. One is to stay at home and do nothing. The other is to go out and bat to the best of my ability and leave the rest to Providence. This has always been my attitude: to bat till the last ball of the match.”