To see a different face of Bangladesh manufacturing, a country that has earned notoriety with its ready-made garment plants, one drives 25 miles north of Dhaka city to Gazipur district. Amid a predominantly industrial enclave of garmentmakers is a 24-acre site where 5,500 workers, mostly women, are busy stitching not clothes but a range of stylish leather shoes.
This is the factory of Dhaka Stock Exchange-listed Apex Footwear, Bangladesh’s leading footwear exporter. It started manufacturing leather shoes more than two decades ago. Today it is among the largest shoemakers on the subcontinent, shipping 4.5 million pairs annually to 130 retail customers in 40 countries, including Macy's M -0.11% and J.C. Penney in the U.S., ABC Mart in Japan and Deichmann in Germany. Additionally, it produces 3 million pairs for the domestic market that are sold through a chain of 550 outlets across the country.
Visiting Apex Footwear’s factory in Gazipur one hot and humid June morning I quickly grasp that this is no sweatshop. The complex includes, among much else, an effluent treatment plant, a purification plant for drinking water, a medical clinic and a day nursery. Workers, I’m told, get an average monthly wage of $100, which is higher than the $75 mean in the garments sector. In addition, they are covered for medical and life insurance, and get bonuses twice a year plus a share of profits.
Thirty-year-old Rawshona Khatun, who works on the shop floor, says these benefits and an 8-hour workday drew her from a previous job at a garments unit nearby where a 12-hour daily shift was the norm.
“Since shoemaking is a very labor-intensive business and we operate in the heartland of the ready-made garments industry, we have to remain a step ahead. We see our compliance standards and worker benefits as our competitive advantage,” says Manzur Elahi, founder-chairman of the $200 million (sales) Apex Group, whose other listed entities are leather-producer Apex Tannery, Mutual Trust Bank and Pioneer Insurance.
Seated in his Dhaka office in the tony Gulshan area, Elahi points proudly to the gold certification received by Apex Footwear from Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, a U.S.-headquartered social compliance monitoring organization.
A former tobacco executive, Elahi, 71, along with his son Nasim Manzur, 45, who runs operations as managing director, is spearheading Bangladesh’s charge into the global footwear trade. While China still has the biggest footprint, with a 60% share of global shoe production, its rising labor costs have made big retailers look elsewhere, to countries like Vietnam and Indonesia.
The time is ripe, say the father-son pair, for Bangladesh–where the cost of labor in shoemaking, at less than one-fourth that of China, is the lowest in Asia–to gain a significant berth as a profitable manufacturing hub.
The country’s annual leather exports, including footwear, have been climbing lately, doubling since 2010 to just over $1.1 billion, though its global share remains less than 1%. The Apex Group accounts for 15% of those.
“Apex has led the way in the shoe sector and been a source of inspiration to others. It remains well ahead of the curve on several counts,” says Farooq Sobhan, a former diplomat who is president of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, an independent research outfit.
Elahi, who hails from a family of legal luminaries, stumbled into the shoe trade. One of seven siblings, he grew up in Calcutta, India where his Muslim father was the chief justice of the high court and was awarded a knighthood. In 1962 Elahi immigrated to Dhaka (then part of East Pakistan) to enroll in Dhaka University. After graduating two years later, he joined the local arm of British American Tobacco in Karachi.
But Elahi, who says he admired Jamsetji Tata, the legendary founder of India’s Tata empire, was nursing a dream to start his own business. A chance meeting with a French trader, who was sourcing Bengal Black Kid semifinished leather from Dhaka that was much sought after by France’s shoemakers, sealed his fate.
In 1972, a year after Bangladesh won its independence, Elahi quit what he calls his “golden cage” on his 30th birthday to become an agent of the French firm. He recalls that his siblings, who were vehemently opposed to his plans, stopped speaking to him for two years. “They were hopping mad as they saw businessmen as crooks and said I would bring disgrace to the family,” he says with a smile.
In 1975 Elahi jumped into manufacturing when the government decided to privatize tanneries that had been nationalized postindependence, only to run up losses thereafter. He snatched the near-defunct Orient Tannery situated in Dhaka’s Hazaribagh area in an auction for 1.22 million takas, the equivalent of $100,000. “My lucky numbers are one and two,” says Elahi.
Changing its name to Apex Tannery to reflect his ambition to reach the pinnacle of success, Elahi sought to start afresh. When he refused to give in to the union’s demand that none of the tannery’s 82 workers would be sacked, he was locked inside the factory for a night. A senior union member who turned out to be a school buddy eventually rescued him.
In 1982 he took the tannery public with the aim of graduating from producing “wet blue” semifinished leather to making crust leather, a more finished form that required new machinery and know-how from Italy, Apex’s main market at the time. Thereafter the company expanded into finished leather and new markets such as Japan, China and Brazil.
Today, to meet new compliance requirements, Dhaka’s tanneries, Apex included, are being relocated from Hazaribagh, now a largely residential neighborhood, to the city’s outskirts in a government-built leather industrial park with a central effluent treatment plant.
From supplying leather for shoes to making shoes themselves was a logical step, says Elahi, and he set up Apex Footwear in 1990. Neighboring India, now a major shoe producer, was manufacturing mainly shoe uppers at the time. Son Nasim, who had just completed undergrad studies at Wharton, turned down offers from consulting firms to return home to work in the family “startup” for the equivalent of a $100 monthly salary. (Today he and Dad have listed holdings totaling $32 million.)
Procuring machines and designs from Germany, Apex started making shoes for Europe. But the quality was poor, and the factory struggled to produce 400 pairs a day. (Today it churns out 21,000 pairs daily.) “Quite frankly, we didn’t have a clue back then,” recalls Nasim.
Neither did the world about Bangladesh’s fledgling shoemaker. The first shipment to Belgium was confiscated by customs. “They didn’t believe any company in Bangladesh could make shoes.”
With no new designs in the pipeline, Apex lacked the “software” to export to Europe. “So we went back to the drawing board,” says Nasim. Apex tapped into the International Executive Service Corps, an American nonprofit that sends volunteers to help businesses in emerging markets. A retired shoemaker was assigned to help upgrade quality and improve capacity utilization.
They got a break in Japan with shoe retailer Marutomi, a big buyer of what was known as the formal “salaryman shoe.” Says Nasim: “These were not fashion-forward but rather like the Model T Ford equivalent in shoes–any color as long as it’s black.”
When the Japanese economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, demand for formal shoes tumbled. Elahi took the footwear outfit public in 1993 with the aim of reentering Europe. But it remained a struggle until 1996 when Apex found an Italian collaborator that was willing to provide designs, help with cranking up production and marketing. The company changed its name to Apex Adelchi to underscore its Italian connection.
But Apex’s shoes were more expensive than shoes made in China, since they were routed to the world via Italy. In 2003 father and son decided that Apex had to sell directly to customers to be able compete with China and India. “Once we’d earned our customers’ confidence that we could deliver, our sales took off,” recounts Nasim.
Last year Apex finally parted ways with its longtime Italian collaborator. One reason Nasim cites was the rising cost of making samples in Italy that was hurting profitability. “We wanted to walk on our own and build our own design capability,” he adds.
Apex has set up a new-product development center in Taiwan, which has a long history of manufacturing shoes. Five years ago Nasim forged a joint venture, Blue Ocean Footwear, with Taiwan’s Green Land Group, which makes shoes for the export market from a newer factory in Gazipur. Apex Group holds 51% (see box).
But the challenges of being a Bangladeshi manufacturer are ongoing. The Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in April 2013 that took more than 1,100 lives has put everyone under scrutiny. Nasim insists that Apex aims to go well beyond mandated compliance standards: “We have to up our game. These are the new rules we must learn to play by. ”