Thursday, July 5, 2012

Never underestimate scrap value

A large world map hangs in the boardroom of the Indo Straits Trading Company. The wooden topographical map, which was made in England, is a gift from Mr Zee Chin, a former partner of Mr Shabbir Hassanbhai's father in the timber trading firm Zee Chin & Co.
The company at that time was the sole agent for teakwood, appointed by the Myanmar (then Burma) Timber Board.

The date March 1, 1972, that is marked on the frame of the map is significant. That was the day Mr Chin retired from the company. But he had a request. He wanted the firm's name to be retained even if Mr Hassanbhai and his family were to move into another business.
It has been 40 years since - Mr Chin and Mr Hassanbhai's father Mr Hakimuddin M. Hassanbhai have passed on - but Zee Chin & Co continues as a company.

Timber is not one of the traditional areas of business for the Hassanbhais. Their main business is in trading non-ferrous scrap metal, something that the family has been doing since Mr Hassanbhai's father and uncle arrived in Singapore in 1925 from Dohad, a small town in eastern Gujarat.

Back then, this region was a good source for scrap metal and Mr Hassanbhai's family sourced and shipped it to Europe to feed first the war machine and then the industries that came up in the war's wake. Nowadays, the scrap is heading in the other direction - feeding India's and China's industries.

The foray into timber came about in 1960 when Mr Chin, whose son lived in China and decided not to return to Singapore, and whose daughter, a medical doctor, emigrated to Australia, invited Mr Hassanbhai's father to become his partner.

"He told my father: 'You have four sons, why don't you lend me two of them. I will teach them the timber trade and you can continue after I retire'. That's how the partnership came into being. It is a marvellous story; there were no valuations done or vetting of balance sheets. My father asked him what price he should pay for the shares. A price was quoted and they shook hands," said Mr Hassanbhai.

When Mr Hassanbhai returned from London after qualifying as an accountant in 1970, he joined the timber business with his younger brother, while the other two brothers managed the scrap metal business. The manufacturing part of the timber business - parquet flooring and laminated container truck decking - was later sold while the trading arm continued.

In the 1980s, Mr Hassanbhai was one of the first to export round logs (Gurjan) from Myanmar and other South-east Asian nations to India.
Later, he pioneered the export of African round logs from countries such as Gabon, Liberia and Cameroon to Indian plywood mills. Over time, the timber trading was scaled down and these days the company trades in teak in small quantities to the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the scrap business thrived but costs and sources of supply were a constraint in maintaining its financial viability. So Mr Hassanbhai and his brothers moved the physical side of the business to the UAE in 1988, where they operate from two locations - Dubai and Sharjah. They also have an office in Muscat, Oman.

However it was in Singapore that Mr Hassanbhai learnt the intricacies of the scrap metal business. When he finished his O levels, his father told him to start in the company's warehouse in Havelock Road.

"I learnt from the storekeepers, the labourers... even how to stitch a jute bag," recalls Mr Hassanbhai.

"This is not a business where you can work from an office wearing a suit and tie. You have to dirty your hands. You have to go down and meet the scrap collectors. You need to check the quality of the scrap. This is an experience which no Harvard school can teach you," adds the 65-year-old. His firm ships close to 100 containers of non-ferrous scrap every month from the Middle East operations - a joint venture between his family and their Indian partners.

His family business is not the only thing on Mr Hassanbhai's mind. His years of experience is being put to good use on the diplomatic front too.
He has been Singapore's non-resident high commissioner to Nigeria for the past four years and pushing Singapore-Africa trade is high on his agenda.
He says that though several Singapore companies like Olam, Tolaram, Indo Rama and Comcraft have investments in Nigeria, there is scope for even more business with that country and Africa as a whole.

Mr Hassanbhai is active in several Singapore organisations. He is vice-chairman of the Singapore Business Federation (SBF); chairman, Africa-Singapore Business Group; co-chairman, Singapore-Oman Business Council; vice-chairman of Middle East Business Group.
He also volunteers his time for social work and serves as vice-chairman of the Singapore Indian Development Association, Singapore Indian Education Trust and the Indian Association and is a member of the National Council of Social Services.

He is quite passionate about mentoring, helping mostly family-run businesses in succession planning, handling sibling issues and creating family constitutions.
He does this via the SBF mentoring programme and has so far mentored three companies.
He strongly believes in the principle that a family business does not work because you always get on; it does because you can always sort out not getting on.

Mr Hassanbhai's voluntary role in Parameswara Holdings, the company set up in 1993 to spearhead investments in India, gave him invaluable experience in mobilising the community to get on board as investors.
He says he was the de facto CEO managing the affairs of the company which rewarded shareholders with close to 230 per cent return on their 70 cents per share investment.

He brought about significant changes as chairman of the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2002-2004. Under his watch, the constitution of the chamber was amended to allow only a Singapore citizen to become chairman.

Mr Hassanbhai belongs to the Shia Dawoodi Bohra sect, who are primarily traders. But he has no sons who can follow in his footsteps. His eldest daughter Farah is married to Mr Rahul Kapoor, a professor at Wharton Business School, and they live in Philadelphia with their two children.

Younger daughter Rauzat is a tax lawyer with Sidley Austin and she is married to Englishman Oliver Edwards, a partner with Linklaters. The couple live in the UK with their young son.

Mr Hassanbhai confesses he misses his grandchildren and so he and his wife Shahnaaz try and visit them every year.

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