Lunch with the FT

August 10, 2012 6:19 pm

Lunch with the FT: Mian Muhammad Mansha

Over salad and strawberries at his private estate in Pakistan, the country’s wealthiest man tells Henny Sender his hopes and fears for the 65-year-old nation
illustration of Mian Muhammad Mansha©Patrick Morgan

Mian Muhammad Mansha, Pakistan’s wealthiest man, has invited me to lunch at his home, an estate outside Lahore he created some years ago by purchasing almost 250 acres from 50 smallholders.

There, he and his wife, Naz, have created a lush paradise, with a small lake stocked with fish, and young guava, lychee, peach and pear trees dotting the man-made hills. A yellow sandstone mansion with the dimensions of a boutique resort sits like a fort on the highest hill, its red-tiled roof visible from the road.

The effect is rather more luxuriant and well maintained than Emperor Jahangir’s Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, one of the capitals of Mughal India. That garden, like the state of Pakistan itself, has fallen on hard times but this estate – and the wealth behind it – suggest that Pakistan has been kind to the Mansha family.

Today Mansha, 65, heads one of the most important industrial conglomerates in Pakistan, which, with a population of about 200m, is the world’s sixth-largest country. Only the government and the army employ more people than Mansha’s Nishat Group, in which his three adult sons all play prominent roles.

His textile plants, the largest in the country, generate more revenue than anything other than the $11.2bn in remittances that Pakistanis living abroad sent home last year. He owns MCB, the most profitable bank in the country; his Adamjee Insurance is the largest general insurer in Pakistan. He is also – since his discounted purchase in 2009 of two power plants from American producer AES – one of the biggest providers of power in a country where power shortages remain one of its most intractable problems.

And, should peace ever come to Afghanistan, the cement from Nishat’s DG Khan Cement Company, Pakistan’s largest cement maker, will go into repairing its neighbour’s broken infrastructure.

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Lunch with the FT

Mansha greets me in casual attire: a checked grey shirt, V-necked cardigan and denim slacks, with Asics running shoes peeping out below. Although it is Saturday, his day hasn’t been exactly leisurely so far.

He has, he says, already received an unnamed general, a former cabinet minister and an opposition politician. In other words, Mansha is a man to whom others, particularly politicians, come, especially as Pakistan gears up for a fierce election campaign either later this year or next.

“The elections could be a turning point for Pakistan, a crossroads, a defining moment,” he says as he ushers me on to a woven cane seat on the verandah and we are served fresh orange juice. “Good governance is all we need. The rest of the puzzle will come together itself.”

Mansha says the military, which has intervened three times in the country’s 65-year history, is more remote now. “It is a good thing,” he adds. “Every time they intervene, they leave a mess behind. Pakistan has come a long way.”

Yet it was not always like this for either the man or the country. Mansha’s personal history echoes the ups and downs of Pakistan itself, both born in 1947 – the year when the subcontinent was divided in the bloody partition that followed the end of the British Raj.

The Mansha family had migrated to Bengal from Punjab in the 1930s but, following partition, abandoned Calcutta and returned to the Punjab, where Mansha’s father established a cotton ginning business, the core of what would later become the Nishat textile empire. The business prospered, thanks in part to the Korean war, which had led to soaring cotton prices as the American army sourced cotton across the continent for its troops’ uniforms, enriching huge swathes of aspiring Asian industrialists in the process.

Later, when various Pakistani governments embarked on nationalisation programmes, many of the family’s assets were seized but, during subsequent rounds of privatisation, Mansha, who came into the business in 1969 following the death of his father, bought aggressively. Initially, lacking adequate resources, he put together buying consortia, which he later bought out. In 1991, for example, he was part of a group of businessmen (all tracing their roots to the same region of the Punjab) who combined to purchase the then obscure Muslim Commercial Bank (MCB), which Mansha now controls, having in 2008, at the peak of the market, sold a 20 per cent stake to Malayan Banking Berhad, or Maybank. “I always seek economies of scale,” he says.

As we chat, a flock of huge swans materialises on the far side of the lake. Mansha’s wife joins us. She is wearing black trousers and an elegant black kurta, with white embroidery, beneath an embroidered pashmina shawl. Like all the women in the family, she works in the family business. She oversees Nishat Linens, which supplies bedding to some of the biggest hotel chains in the world and is slowly becoming a flagship brand for the group, with retail outlets both at home and in the Gulf. (A daughter-in-law has responsibility for the group’s St James’s Hotel in London.)

“It helps to have the government’s blessing,” says Mansha, before adding that he has had a difficult relationship with every Pakistani government he has had dealings with. Indeed, in the mid-1990s, during Benazir Bhutto’s second term as prime minister, the couple fled to the US and lived in Boston, in self-imposed exile, just as 50 years earlier their parents had fled Bengal.

“It was a terrible time,” says Naz, the bitterness still palpable in her voice. Given that history of loss and dispossession, I find Mansha’s own dispassionate analysis remarkable.

. . .

Because it is chilly outside today, we are soon ushered into the dining room and offered seats that look out on to a blue-tiled infinity pool. The open design of the house means I can see into a wood-panelled kitchen equipped with the latest gadgetry, though it appears that the water for our tea is simply boiled on the stove in a small metal pot. Piped music, ranging from Eric Clapton to U2, plays in the background.

The dimensions of the dining room are modest, with places for only eight people. The table has been laid with curries of all kinds and fresh salads. Three bearers take turns plying us with fresh deep-fried poori breads while Mansha, a disciplined diner, opts for tandoori roti.

The lunch conversation starts with a reference to Warren Buffett, whom, says Mansha, he has never met but with whom he identifies. “People like me, whose income largely comes from dividends, should pay more taxes,” he says in his disarming way. “The problem is that taxes aren’t used efficiently.” (Mansha, like many Muslims, gives away a lot of money.)

Low tax revenues are only one of the many challenges facing Pakistan. Foreign companies, for example, are wary of doing business here these days, given its perceived – and actual – lack of security. Mansha and his executive team have to fly to Dubai instead, he says. He is, he continues, considering establishing textile operations in Bangladesh, which, though it would signal a devastating loss of confidence in Pakistan as a business environment, is a country that foreign customers seem happy to visit, as well as being a place where wages are cheaper and power is less of an issue. Moreover, I observe, Bangladeshi exports are given preferential treatment in many countries, including in the European Union, in contrast to the lack of access given to goods made in Pakistan.

This leads to Mansha’s observation that Pakistan needs to continue on its intermittent road to privatisation, starting with Pakistan International Airlines. He has no interest in such an auction, though: “Carl Icahn told me to stay away from airlines,” he says in reference to the vulture investor who once controlled the now defunct Trans World Airlines. “In good times, the unions take away the profits, and in bad times, the cost of oil kills you.”

. . .

Mansha concentrates on the beet salad and his tandoori roti, while I pile my plate high with karahi paneer, before folding its red and green peppers and cubes of cheese into a warm poori.

On Monday he has a meeting scheduled with an Indian trade delegation. “I believe I am sitting next to Sunil Mittal,” he adds in a reference to the Indian billionaire who founded Bharti, the most successful mobile phone company in the subcontinent. I say it is noticeable that Pakistan doesn’t seem to have a Sunil Mittal or a Narayana Murthy, the founder of Infosys, the awesome Indian information technology services group. Pakistan’s great fortunes seem, instead, to be concentrated in yesterday’s industries, such as textiles and fertilisers, rather than tomorrow’s.

Mansha shrugs off such concerns. “We need to have industries which generate jobs,” he says. He thinks the country ought to focus on improving its agriculture and its energy, instead of embarking on more glamorous initiatives. And, he says, if it could bring home all the capable people who have left Pakistan – an estimated 8m to 10m Pakistanis now live abroad – then it might even be possible to develop a medical tourism industry. “The movement should be two-way,” he says wistfully and, it seems to me, fancifully.

For, even if one were, eccentrically, to believe the threat of terrorism is exaggerated, there are few guarantees in Pakistan. Its political history is one of corrupt government and military coups. And that’s without considering the effects of the latest war in Afghanistan and last year’s devastating floods.

Moreover, women’s rights are under constant and, perhaps, increasing threat. When Mansha was young, he says, his sister was driven to school in a car but she had to duck down as it left the compound. Since that time, the pressure on girls to stay home has only got worse. (Two days before our lunch, I had visited a Nishat textile plant and, while women and men work together on the assembly line stitching garments that will be sold to brands including Gap and Tommy Hilfiger, they eat in separate canteens.)

Strawberries and vanilla ice-cream arrive at the table. Though some guests are still reaching for more curry, Mansha has long since finished his salad and roti, and the bearers have decided there’s no point waiting for foreign guests to put down their forks. Mansha helps himself to strawberries, giving the ice-cream a miss.

I ask what Pakistan’s worst-case scenario might be. The answer is stark. “If there is no proper election, Pakistan will be overrun ... ” Mansha pauses, choosing his words carefully. “ ... by extremists.” Green tea and coffee are brought to the table. “There is a lot of anger in Pakistan,” he adds.

I am not sure if Mansha is realistic or dreaming when he says he is hopeful that the next government will get it right at last. It is hard not to be mindful of the contrast between the serenity of this world and that lying outside its bamboo-lined white walls.

Henny Sender is the FT’s chief international finance correspondent

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Mansha’s estate

Outside Lahore

Tandoori roti

Karahi paneer

Beet salad

Deep-fried poori bread

Strawberries

Vanilla ice-cream

Green tea

Coffee

Total free of charge

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