The accidental businessman
In memory of Mir Alauddin Ahmed
I landed in Dhaka on June 4, coming home after a year and a half. As is with many of us expatriates, our visits to Bangladesh tend to be short, busy, eventful, and memorable.
After reaching home, I met my grandfather, hugged him, and in a sense of immediate disbelief, recognized how frail Dada looked compared to the last time I saw him. You see, for a man above 90 years of age, he looked healthier than most in his generation — but to me, the small differences were defining. Dada hugged me and said: “I was waiting for you,” and for some reason, I felt a sense of eerie gratitude.
The next day was Eid and when I returned home from Eid prayers, I saw Dada struggling in his bed. I had never seen him like this, but my family was reassuring me that his struggles were temporary and that he would be alright if he ate some food.
His daughter, my fuppu, and his son-in-law arrived at our home. In this time, my Dada took my mother and my hand, and said “Baba, Ami ar partesi na” — we took to him to Apollo Hospital and the doctors immediately told us about the severity of his condition.
The next day, on June 6, Dada passed away — none of us, especially my Dadi, who stood by him for almost 7 decades, could comprehend what just happened.
Ironically, for 40 long years, Dada had managed to assemble members of our extended family, friends, and colleagues to our residence on the second day of Eid for an open house lunch. Even in his death, Dada managed to do the same.
To look back at his life is to look back at a very different era where people had very different priorities. Dada hailed from a small village in Patuakhali — he lost his father at a very young age, and in even greater disbelief, saw a sibling disappear and never found.
With such pain in his heart, he became a self-made entrepreneur. Starting off as a small-scale producer of steel products with a fervent sense of experimentation and innovation, Dada established Chittagong Steel Works Limited in 1956.
He then founded several other establishments, including Alpine Group, Meer Ala Limited, and his beloved Baitul Aman Trust to support orphaned and rural children. He lived through changing socio-political tides.
Through these turbulent times, Dada established himself as a respectable, well-known and successful entrepreneur — pioneering, with others in his generation, the idea of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
SMEs have been pivotal to the development of the modern Bangladeshi economy, and my grandfather put his foot in several sectors — particularly civil engineering and steel fabrication, as a means to support the growth of these industries, but more importantly support the people around him.
Dada constantly reminded me of the importance of community service superseding any idea of profitability – his philosophy, whether he recognized it or not, was in public welfare, rather than business growth.
A relative who Dada worked with, told me recently, that back in the early period of independent Bangladesh, the minimum wage rate for workers was set at Tk300 — as the chairman of his company, Dada made an executive decision to set the wage rate at Tk700.
His accountants were in utter shock, given such would increase labour costs by over 100%. In response, Dada simply said: “300 takay ora khabe ki.” In hindsight, maybe it was this very philosophy which did not allow him to reach the high and mighty echelon which we see business tycoons stand on today.
Dada always had a soft corner for his friends. At his Doa Mahfil, Dada’s closest friend, the former finance minister Mohammed Syeduzzaman, reminded us of the close affinity between himself, my Dada, and noted Barristers KZ Alam and TA Bhuiyan — they had fostered friendships since the late 1940s as students of Dhaka College, and as Syeduzzaman put it, my Dada was the binding force which kept it all together.
My Dada had no official titles, neither did he represent an iconic business venture — yet to the people of Patuakhali, he was known as their golden achievement, their ardent supporter, and a community developer.
Politicians, whether they were from the AL, BNP, or the Jatiyo Party, would run to him to get his assent and support when running for elections — nevertheless, Dada refrained from publicly endorsing a political symbol, and sought to understand which candidate would enhance the welfare of his beloved communities.
My visit to Dhaka has been marred with sadness but I am grateful that I got to see the man who I loved from the very bottom of my heart, one last time. He was a man who represented the very best of a generation which dedicated their lives not for themselves, but for others. They prioritized moral conscience over the lust for wealth or power.
In the words of his dear friend Mohammad Syeduzzaman, Dada gave a majority portion of the wealth he earned away to his relatives and communities. In the words of my cousin, he became an accidental economist — a man, like many in his generation, responsible for creating wide-ranging multiplier effects across society. In my opinion, he became the “accidental businessman” — because in retrospect, he represented the very idea of public service.
Mir Alauddin Ahmed was a humble businessman, who had experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. But to me, he was my best friend, my biggest supporter, and the singular icon who I look up to each day — I will miss him dearly.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a graduate in Economics and International Relations from the University of Toronto.