Expert’s Insights: An Interview with Fahim Rahman

Expert’s Insights: An Interview with Fahim Rahman

4724 2657 Saanjaana Rahman

Mr. Fahim Rahman is an Executive Director, Corporate Strategy at the New Asia Group and was a guest speaker at the OPD Workshop 12 arranged by BYLC Office of Professional Development (OPD).

Why did you choose your career in the finance sector? Was it because you were passionate about it or was the decision based on the job market condition?

As a dual major in Economics and Accounting, I basically had three broad career paths to choose from: a) auditing (e.g. Chartered Accountancy), b) management consultancy, and c) investment banking. Having declared my major by the end of my first semester of university, I was able to utilize my Summer Holidays productively and pursue internships in each of these disciplines. This allowed me to develop a better understanding of what each career path entailed so that I could be more certain of my career choice once I graduated. In the summer of 2004, while interning with Merrill Lynch, I was very fortunate to work on India’s largest IPO at the time (the TCS IPO in 2004) and that experience made me excited about pursuing a career in Investment Banking. It was a very analytical role, which gave me valuable insight into how C-Level Management raises capital to finance strategic projects.

I started my career as an Analyst in Lehman Brothers’ Mergers & Acquisitions Division in the Bay Area (California), which was the hub of America’s Technology and Biotechnology Industry. My focus was on the ‘Biotech’ industry and it interested me because we helped raise money for businesses that were focused on developing treatments to fight terminal illnesses like cancer and HIV. Learning about how cutting-edge, innovative technologies were being utilized to help save human lives on a daily basis, also helped me develop a creative mind – which is where I truly started to think about how business strategies could be utilised to make an overarching social impact, as opposed to simply a wealth impact (through profit-maximization).

What made you shift from Lehman Brothers?

Leaving Lehman in the summer of 2008, was perhaps the greatest risk I have taken in my career. I left 3 months before the crash, for a small private equity company (which at the time) had not even fully-raised a fund. But, I am a strong believer in acting on my ‘gut instinct’ and I believed strongly in Pioneer’s (the new company) investment strategy, which was more aligned with my creative nature and personal value system. Luckily, the decision paid off for me as we successfully raised the fund, despite the September 2008 crash.

That said, it was a difficult decision to leave Lehman Brothers and that incredibly intelligent community of people. In hindsight, those years represented a period of immense personal growth in my life and put my career on a trajectory, which otherwise would have been hard to reach. So, I am grateful for the platform that institution provided me.  

How did you decide to pursue this career in New Asia Group? Was there any pivotal moment?

Honestly, when I moved back – everyone thought I was crazy and I would be lying if I said I didn’t have doubts about my own decision even after I committed to it. Not many people would consciously choose Dhaka over London, under any circumstances. However, in late-2013, my father had unexpectedly fallen ill and, despite receiving a promotion in my exciting career with Hugo Boss Group (at the time), I decided to move back to support my family. It was my way of repaying my parents for the sacrifices they made while raising my sister and I. That was really the pivotal moment for me.

As far as my decision to join New Asia, I felt it was a very unique opportunity. Not many people can say they have expertise in managing both apparel retail and manufacturing operations, so from a career development standpoint – I felt it was a step in the right direction. But, most importantly, one is seldom presented with an opportunity to lead a transformational project for a company. If you are lucky, it may happen once in your career. Hence, I was excited by the prospect of working directly with the founders to develop the new vision for our organization. Though the Bangladesh textiles industry has been a polarizing topic in the public debate in recent years, we aim to change the global perception of the ‘Made in Bangladesh’ label through the work we have undertaken (which for confidentiality purposes, I cannot disclose now).

Finally, a long time ago, I promised my father that I would leverage the skills I had acquired through my multi-cultural upbringing to help improve the lives of the underprivileged Bangladeshi people. Due to the social impact that this industry generates for our country, accepting this role also allowed me a chance to keep my word to him.  

Is there any specific accomplishment or failure that shaped your career?

In 2012, when I switched from the financial services industry into the fashion industry, I was hired into the business development team at Hugo Boss UK. My role was to propose new strategies to the managing director of Hugo Boss UK so that we could improve our market share versus our competitors. However, I quickly realized that the strategic insights I was sharing with my boss were too superficial to be transformational; this was because I lacked the depth of knowledge in fashion operations since I was a lateral hire from a different industry.

So between April 2012 and June 2013, I worked tirelessly to improve myself in all areas of business operations in the fashion industry, which I was inexperienced in handling: brand management, merchandising management, distribution strategy, wholesale operations, retail operations, warehousing operations and store expansion operations. I even volunteered to work at the stores on Saturdays for three consecutive months, to understand how we could improve the customer experience. Being able to initiate and sustain this level of commitment not only allowed me to improve my depth of knowledge of operations, but also allowed me to gain the respect of my colleagues, as they realized how serious I was about helping the company achieve new heights. Finally, in July 2013, I was rewarded for my commitment by being promoted to the European regional business development team reporting directly to the senior vice president of Europe, which I consider one of the most significant achievements in my career so far.  

Though I only realized it in retrospect, what this experience really taught me was the difference between ambition and commitment, and the importance of having both in order to succeed in a transformational way. Ambitious people are abundant in today’s world, but people whose commitment is aligned with their ambition are rare.

What does success look like to you?

That’s a tough question. The whole utopian image of success: material wealth, an extravagant lifestyle, awards, and high-society status, is nice, but it has never quite interested me. I am a very simple person, and I believe success is a journey about personal growth, more than it is a destination. As a society, we put a lot of emphasis on the achievement of a goal, rather than the process of achieving that goal. Personally, I believe that is a real travesty as people lose sight of the bigger picture, which is how much self-improvement they have achieved through the process of pursuing a certain goal, regardless of the outcome.

What are the most useful resources that you would recommend to someone looking to gain a better perspective on his/her career strategy or navigation?

The best way for anyone to research their prospective career is to do first-hand research. It takes more effort, but it will allow you to gain a sound understanding of what the job entails, how to prepare for an interview in that role, and how to improve your qualifications to secure a career path in a given field.

By first-hand research, I mean a) informational interviews, b) attending career fairs, and c) pursuing internships (whether paid or unpaid). For students preparing for a career in the Tech industry or other industries that are not so well established in Bangladesh, pursuing unpaid internships is the best way to get your foot in the door. However, for more traditional employers such as a) the banking sector, b) the pharma sector, c) the multinationals (Unilever, BAT, Coca Cola, etc.), and d) the manufacturing sector, most have structured, paid internships and are looking for off-cycle interns all year round.

Apart from these options, students should take advantage of the resources on the internet to do some secondary research. If you are pursuing a career in finance, you must read the Daily Star or Prothom Alo’s business sections every day, you should also consult the Yahoo finance website, and watch CNBC Analysts’ talk shows on YouTube. Seeking out relevant knowledge in your chosen field will only help you appear more prepared in interviews and also impress your prospective employers by highlighting your level of commitment.

How do you decide who the best candidate is for your team or organization? Do you go for the first impression rule?

No, I don’t really believe in that rule. I like to give people more benefit of doubt. My criteria, in order of importance, is a) cultural fit, b) substance of relevant work experience and c) relevant technical abilities. This is because we feel that one rotten apple can spoil an entire batch, so people who are technically sound at their work, but not a strong cultural fit for our organization will not make the cut. For us, it is about a balance between EQ and IQ.

What are the most lacking traits among the youth/employees today?

Well, let’s call these “areas of improvement” because I think all the ones I will list can be improved over either the short- or long-term. In the short-term, I believe our youth need to focus on better work-ethic and attention-to-detail. Every new employee should be hungry to learn and make an impact, and I believe having an attitude where they are the first ones in and the last ones out is really a good way to maximize the learning opportunity. Further, having strong analytical skills, presentation formatting skills, and written communication skills (especially when writing in English) are all very important because doing these little things are a sign of strong commitment, which will catch the attention of your prospective employers.

For the long-term, I believe employers, universities, secondary schools and the Ministry of Education need to work together on developing curricula that a) improve critical thinking ability, b) provide opportunity to build leadership skills, and c) build an education system that teaches students to learn from their mistakes rather than be punished for their mistakes (as it will be a more encouraging form of development, which will help build our youth’s confidence levels).

Do you have a mentor? If so, what traits do you seek in a mentor?

I have been very fortunate to have had many mentors in my life. The most significant one being my father, who has been a constant stabilizing force in my life, teaching me how to keep my passion in check and the value of workplace diplomacy.

My close friend, Gene Kim, who I met at Lehman Brothers, taught me how to develop a relentless work ethic and made me realize that you must work harder the more senior you become (which is contrary to the misconception that being senior in the organization offers you an opportunity to relax).

My previous boss, Mr. Bernd Hake (Chief Sales Officer of Hugo Boss Group), was also extremely influential in my career by teaching me how to value the importance of every employee (from top to bottom) within an organization, how to build a synchronized team that could execute against the most difficult targets, and the importance of being an empathetic leader.

Finally, my current boss, Mr. Matin Chowdhury (Chairman of New Asia Group), who has taught me how to ‘weather the storm’ (in both personal and professional life), the value of open communication and how to manage stakeholders at the Board level.

What qualities or caliber will a candidate need to possess to be successful in New Asia Group’s culture?

Teamwork, passion, commitment, intellectual curiosity and a genuine interest towards making a positive difference for Bangladesh. These are the most important values we seek in our employees. We are a company that is in the midst of a transformation, which will eventually enable us to be recognized as ‘world-class’ organization by 2020. Hence, we would like to attract qualified candidates, who have strong moral values and are willing to commit themselves to achieving the company’s strategy through their roles, even if that means (at times) placing their work as their first priority.   

Any last remark?

Thank you for inviting me for this interview. I truly believe that OPD is a visionary initiative and I would like to extend my continued support to the program. We have one of the largest under-27 populations in the world, and we need to invest in our youth to ensure that our country’s future is secure.

To the youth, I know you are all eager to start earning, but keep in mind that your career is a marathon and it is more important to sustain the pace at which you start than to merely start at a fast pace. Invest in your professional skill-development, it is what will give you the training required to sustain a rapid pace, once you begin. I wish you all the best of luck and be sure to spend your first pay cheque by taking those people who helped you along the way, out to dinner. We must always show our gratitude to those who have provided us the opportunity to succeed.