As with most things in Pakistan even recognition and accolades are controversial. One can argue the more subjective of these awards are those for film, television, fashion and music with jury’s consisting of experts from the respective field making decisions to the best of their abilities. Objectivity has little to do with these awards. Reportedly a tinge of politics does play a part in these ‘awards for the arts’ but who are we kidding, even the Oscars are political.
One would assume therefore that when it came to awarding industry and business leaders or corporations for their success it would be a straightforward matter of going over the various financial performance indicators available to objectively arrive at a conclusion as to who is better than the other and best of the lot.
That assumption, for Pakistan, would be dead wrong. We take a look at some of the most dubious awards out there being organised by self-serving glorified PR junkies with little understanding of what actually makes a business stand out amongst others.
Top 100 Business Leaders of Pakistan
“When I enter the office of any CEO, I say I am not a journalist, I am a business psychologist. I never say I am here for an interview, I tell them I am here for an inner-view,” intoned Ijaz Nisar, president Management House, founder CEO Club and Manager Today magazine, and author of multiple editions of a book titled ‘Top 100 Business Leaders of Pakistan.’
Through “inner-viewing” quite a few people over the years, he has somehow found the secret to his own success – cashing in on the vanity and narcissism of the interviewees. Such attributes are found in almost everyone but are especially manifest among those who have the least to show for it. Most people loathe this part of human nature, but in Ijaz Nisar’s bag of tricks, it presents itself as an opportunity knocking at the door to milk. And milk it, he does.
He has made the most of that culpable human failing: the craving to be recognised – through awards, no less. And this in people who should otherwise be best equipped to see through such fawning sycophancy.
Ijaz’s hold over hundreds of CEOs and managers in the Pakistani business community has allowed him to not only make those otherwise shy of the media eating out of his hands, but also build a whole new enterprise purely catering to the psyche of these very people.
Every year he publishes and releases a new volume of his book with a hundred new names, and launches it in no less than six leading capitals.
On the one hand, it provides a consolidated account of some true success stories in Pakistan, while on the other it also humors the persistent need of sycophancy among many unworthy businessmen and CEOs, all the while making enough hay for Ijaz in the process.
Before delving into the book and its merits, let’s take a look at Ijaz Nisar’s career. “I am a former government servant, I teach in IBA Punjab, and at the LUMS, and also coach new qualifiers of central superior services exam in the Civil Services Academy at Walton,” said Ijaz. According to his assertions, his last assignment as a government officer, before his resignation, was as Human Resource Training and Development Director in the State Bank of Pakistan. Profit’s inquiries from LUMS however revealed no record whatsoever of him being on the university’s faculty, permanent or otherwise. His linkedin profile also mentions him as a team leader in national institute of banking and finance which is a subsidiary of SBP, and not the HR director of the whole SBP. Equipped with four master’s degrees [his claim] – including one in psychology – and some rudimentary understanding of management needs and businessmen’s dispositions, he tried putting forth several proposals for training and teaching civil servants and preparing them for management and leadership roles. But his ideas were mostly ignored due to what he calls financial, political, or sundry reasons.
In November 2010, he decided to go on his own – never looking back.
Now he is the proud owner of Management House, claiming it to be first purpose-built training center in Pakistan. Painted in undertones of grey and blue from the outside and complemented by black flooring and blue colored sitting chairs inside, this three-storey building with additional basements situated in Johar Town offers a lavish environment for ‘C’ level managers to hold their conferences, trainings or meetings.
This management house includes training halls, auditorium, lecture theater, computer lab, meeting rooms, boardrooms, library, a corporate cafeteria, radio station, online TV as well as residential rooms according to the Management House’s social media pages.
‘The secret to success’
Called the ‘Leading Edge’, he opened shop with a consultancy company. Using his contacts as the starting point, he began training upper tier management at some of the corporates in the country. Not much later he launched a magazine, Manager Today, which to him remains ‘‘the secret to his success’’. After interviewing a couple of dozen people, he decided to publish them. That’s when the title ‘Top 100 Business Leaders of Pakistan’ took shape. Among reasons for launching this book, in his own words, his experience made him realise that “there was no professional record of business success stories of Pakistani people”.
And he wanted to present an alternate view to the world about Pakistan’s eroding economic image. An unintended, or perhaps intended, consequence was the receptiveness of the people who had no significant success to their credit yet were quite eager to be named as one. Another unintended consequence was the negative impression he was creating on his fellow businessmen while paving his own path.
“I don’t know him, but I have heard of him and he is in my friends’ list on Facebook but I don’t know how he got there,” so said the co-owner and CEO of event management company Klockwork, Arif Jalil Piracha about Ijaz Nisar. It pretty much sums up Ijaz’s presence. He makes his place, sometimes to the surprise and at others to the discomfort of others.
A media company’s chief executive spoke to Profit about the time he launched a new business publication, at an invitation-only event. “Ijaz gatecrashed uninvited, with a load of his books and started distributing it to the guests. For us, it was indeed annoying because it was not just an unnecessary distraction for our guests, which included the likes of Mian Mansha and Hussain Dawood, but also because it was literally a competitor in publication industry distributing his books at our cost and at the launch of our new publication.” Completely oblivious to the impact Ijaz was having on his hosts, rubbing shoulders with the business industry topnotchers, he secured himself a seat in the front row with Hussain Dawood for the rest of the event.
However, his odd conduct is not at all questionable in view of some businessmen familiar with his underhand tactics. To them, it is enterprise. Indeed. For instance, corporate event management company Evenement CEO Umer Saeed Khan said, “Many of us feel, what he does should have been done in a much better way, but we only get to feel that way because someone else got out there and did it. Ijaz saw the potential and he went for it. What he achieved is worthy of commendation.”
The CEOs and managers he chooses to profile in his books, however, have proven to be more than happy and sometimes willing to pay any price for being hailed as ‘the best’. The Top 100 Leaders book is launched in three chapters in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi in elaborate events, funded by sponsors – who happened to be the very people named in these books. Ijaz Nisar chooses CEOs and managers for one issue of his book every year, sends invites to the nominees along with a sponsorship form after ascertaining the company’s affordability. Once they respond to the sponsorship requests, they are bestowed upon with more than a mere mention in the book and are provided with incentives to further their reputation. If they decline, Ijaz still does not strike out their names from the list but sends out a single person invitation to the C-level management to the book launch.
How the undeserving rule the roost
At the very outset, in the initial pages of the book, provided is an elaborate criterion, mostly subjective over which of the nominees are evaluated. To sum it up, in Ijaz’s own words, “Fastest growing turnover (this could also be a startup as long as it’s growing fast), largest operations (such as more than 500 employees), and/or innovation,” are the factors that he accounts for.
Taking the example of India’s Business Today, let’s compare this method with the criteria used and trusted anywhere else in the world for evaluating the performance of CEOs. The business magazine publishes top CEO rankings using a mix of objective and subjective factors, giving the former higher weightage. Since there is no denying that any company’s financials provide the most trustworthy insight to the company’s performance, Business Today uses Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR), Market Capitalization, and Return on Equity (RoE) as their guiding principles for objectively evaluating a CEO’s performance. For the visible, but unaccounted in numbers, developments, Business Today uses the term ‘X-Factor’ which is evaluated by an independent jury in addition to the objective evaluation. This is not just Business Today’s recipe for evaluating the performance of a business head, rather a universally accepted and trusted criterion for objectively approaching a conclusion about the competence and skills of a CEO. Forbes, Fortune, and Inc. are all renowned to keep objectivity as their sole criterion when it comes to publishing performance evaluations. The subjective element is nothing but a cherry on the top of objective conclusions. The companies, and CEOs, who do not provide their financial data for public scrutiny are not included in a majority of these titles, precisely because subjective factors alone cannot determine the performance of a business leader accurately.
Ijaz Nisar, however, is too kind to his chosen names, to the extent that it appears almost ridiculous to label them even as average CEOs rather than among the top. His book mentions the numbers and ratios he chooses to evaluate but then gives no further explanation to the factors considered for innovation, comparison points for revenue, intercompany analysis, nor mentions the existence of an independent and unbiased jury. Notwithstanding the fact that a majority of these CEOs operate in non-listed companies with no publicly available financial data, one wonders about the objectivity in Ijaz’s evaluation. Instead, he insists that his chosen names are not a ranking, rather a highlighting of ‘everyone who performed well’. He accentuated that he came from a “humble background” and he values hard work in everyone, at every step of their career, which is why he strives to look for the positive elements in everybody.
No wonder, then, that there are dozens of CEOs named in successive editions of his books as ‘best’ only to be dismissed by their companies’ boards a short while later, often quite unceremoniously. Several of these ‘top’ CEOs are also renowned to be helpless in the face of losing market share, deteriorating revenues, worsening financials and even plunging their companies from a position of market leadership to a forgotten brand on the lowest aisles of rural supermarkets. A cursory look at the initial pages of any of the annual editions would be enough to bring several such names to the surface.
All said and done, Ijaz himself is under no illusion about the people he names in his book either. “If you take a look at this country, there might not be a total of hundred companies worth noting. But my intention is to focus on the good in everyone, and there is some part of every CEO or manager’s work that needs commendation. I concentrate on that when I decide if they deserve to be counted among the top leaders,” he said. He also accounts for Pakistanis living and doing business abroad, and mentions them due to their Pakistani heritage.
By hook or by crook
While the intentions of Manager Today’s CEO might not be inherently wicked, entitling certain business leaders as the best when they have less than nothing to show for their performance is by no means fair – to the business community, to the students and aspiring entrepreneurs looking up to these businessmen, and especially to those who suffer at the hands of the incompetence and lack of business acumen of these people. Nevertheless, Manager Today has erected an entire chain of money-making opportunities owing to these businessmen most of whom will pay a price to be labeled as the best. Ijaz’s masters’ degree in psychology is certainly paying him dividends.
Today his book is found in almost every office and is considered no less than an award. The book launch also costs Rs20,000 per participant not invited or nominated. Two of his three major revenue streams flow from sponsorship of the events and book sales. The third being trainings to companies and officials. These three put together make up for a nifty Rs50m to Rs60m in annual revenues. Another source of revenue is companies engaging him in branding their business or CEO because of his marketing and audience reach. The ‘Leading Edge’, so claims a full of hauteur Ijaz Nisar, “has morphed into the largest purpose-built training center of the country and I am one of the most expensive and most wanted corporate trainers of Pakistan.”
The leading trainers and HR experts take this statement with a solid pinch of salt – if not utter disdain. “I don’t think any trainer should make that boast because there is no data to validate this for anyone,” said Umer Saeed Khan, mentioning several renowned names from the HR world that included Kamran Rizvi, Ramiz Allahwala (late), Farhad Karamally, Qaiser Abbas, Wali Zahid, Taher Hussain, Nadeem Chauhan (late) and Max Babri.
“When I am competing against anyone for work, I always believe I should be able to serve better in my area of expertise and this is how we all must believe. Give our very best and let the efforts take care of the results,” Umer concluded.
That said, Ijaz Nisar is streets ahead of others in his chosen realm, for he may not be the only one to have realized the potential of cashing in the narcissistic tendencies of the successful and not so successful, but with money to burn, but certainly has put it to good use for his own benefit – employing it ‘efficiently’ with a tangible outcome for those he awards with awards too.
Consumer Choice Awards
The plethora of awards and titles suffocating Pakistan’s industry and people are also in the same business as Ijaz, albeit with much less valid explanations of their intentions. So rampant has been the abuse of such rewards that it was about time one took a critical look at the goings-on.
Let’s start with Consumer Choice Awards. Introduced and organized by the Consumer Association of Pakistan (CAP), these awards are meant for brands that are supposedly highest selling and highly preferred by the general consumers. Kokab Iqbal, Chairman of Consumer Association of Pakistan, boasts, “In the private sector, I pioneered awards, and now everybody is giving these awards.”
On Feb. 1, 2015, a young girl lost her life from food poisoning after consuming a burger of Dilpasand in North Nazimabad, Karachi. Lo and behold, Dilpasand landed the consumer choice award the same year. While it may not be possible to prove that the bakery still was consumers’ favorite, a serious evaluation of an organization awarding businesses for their ‘achievement’ was definitely in order. Iqbal though had a simple explanation. “The area DIG made an inquiry and no poisonous material was found in the burger… Sometimes a brand is opposed without any reason.”
It is ironic that he accepts that the brand was opposed – even if without any reason – yet it was bestowed ‘the consumer’s choice’ award. Who exactly opposed it then and why? The CAP didn’t! If it were the consumers, how was it considered worthy of the award?
Let’s look into CAP’s research tactics now. One may assume that an elaborate survey is conducted where fully aware consumers, a considerable number of them, vote on their favourite brands based on the quality of the products. According to Iqbal, CAP is a volunteer-based organization that neither takes money from the government nor accepts any from its recipients. As a result, it is not surprising that these ‘countrywide’ surveys are carried out by a team of just two dozen people. According to the CAP chairman, “at least 25 people were involved in the last campaign for the consumer choice award who surveyed all over the country to know which product people like the most.”
“We do polling through social media and our volunteers carry out market survey too. We have a memorandum of understating (MoUs) with many universities, including Karachi and Dadabhoy Universities for this purpose. In Karachi, for example, we have chosen markets at Tariq Road, Defense, Nazimabad Water Pump and North Nazimabad where our volunteers speak to consumers,” said Iqbal.
No polls, no surveys
There is no record whatsoever of any polls or voting on any of the social media pages of Consumer Association of Pakistan or Consumer Choice Awards. Despite repeated requests to CAP officials, Profit did not receive any link or proof of whether these polls even actually happen.
Secondly, there is no set criteria to conduct this survey. Responding to this query, all Iqbal had to say was, “Quality of a product or service the company is offering is the major criteria for the award.” How the quality is assessed and whether the surveyed population is even aware of the quality standards is difficult to ascertain. All this makes one wonder about the reason, process, as well as value of these consumer choice awards. In reality, the only benefit this award accrues to the winner is brownie points in terms of marketing.
CAP also hands out three more categories of awards: the CEO of the Year Award, the Consumers Icon Award and the Consumers Demand Award. It is still a matter of doubt what differentiates consumers’ choice from consumers’ demand. For the sake of argument, even if polls had been conducted, what are the factors that make the general public aware and capable of choosing CEO of the year.
Profit conducted its own research and asked representatives of some organizations distributing these awards about the money changing hands in the process. The most common answer received was, “Simultaneous with the invitation to the award ceremony, we also attach a letter for donating to our organization. It doesn’t always have to be money, it could also be in-kind. But it is up to them if they wanted to pay up or not. We don’t demand it.”
Since there is no way to filter out the intent of the givers and takers of these ‘donations’, all that is left to evaluate is the winners of such awards and their standing in the market. Furthermore, the concept of ‘participation’ in awards is itself absurd.
The point of an award is to recognize the performance of a company or a brand with respect to the market, which should mean that every brand in the market is part of the evaluation by default. Alternatively, these award giving associations should be giving out lists of ‘participants’, instead of nominations, instead of fooling everyone into believing that the brand winning the award indeed outperformed all others.
In addition to these corporate awards and honors, there are environmental awards, with the National Forum for Environment & Health (NFEH) holding annual Environment Excellence Awards. “The award has been instituted to recognize and promote the organizations which made an outstanding contribution to sustainable development and economic growth of the country,” says its website.
Before getting into the processes of nominations and awards, let’s look into the concept of environmental damage and the sectors that are globally considered to be most environmentally harmful – directly or indirectly. The most common industry polluters include companies involved in production of chemicals, pesticides, oil refining, petrochemicals, metal smelting, iron and steel, and food processing industries. As ironic as it may seem, NFEH has been able to award environmental awards to companies belonging to almost all these sectors. Companies that indirectly add to the pollution include automobiles and food packaging, which have also been among the winners of NFEH awards.
The list of 2014 NFEH Environment Excellence Award holders includes Lotte Chemical Pakistan Ltd., National Refinery Ltd., OGRA, Pak Arab Refinery Ltd, and Sui Northern Gas Company Ltd. In 2015-16, the recipients list extended to include Engro Fertilizers Zarkhez Plant Karachi, Fauji Fertilizer Bin Qasim Ltd., Fauji Oil Terminal & Distribution Company, Mughal Iron & Steel Industries Limited, Packages Limited, Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited, and Sui Southern Gas Company Limited. In earlier years, Indus Motors and Pakistan Tobacco Company have also been awarded environment excellence awards.
Let’s just look at the refinery activities first. According to research conducted in MIT, “Refining process introduces a set of environmental concerns, mostly revolving around the release of metal byproducts into the environment. It is very easy for metals to enter the air, ground, or water in an environment, and once there it is nearly impossible to remove them. The metals in an environment can also prove devastating to organisms.” According to the WHO, every year 30,000 to 35,000 people in Pakistan die – the number being greater to deaths from terrorism in the country in a decade – due to diseases caused by air, food, water and other environmental pollution.
Another study published by Hazardous Substance Research Center says, “Petroleum refineries are a major source of hazardous and toxic air pollutants such as BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene). They are also a major source of criteria air pollutants: particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen sulphide (H2S), and sulphur dioxide (SO2).” Some refineries use deep-injection wells to dispose of wastewater generated inside the plants, and some of these wastes end up in aquifers and groundwater.
Contamination of soils from the refining processes is generally a less significant problem when compared to contamination of air and water. However, the report added that such contamination including some hazardous wastes, spent catalysts or coke dust, tank bottoms, and sludge from the treatment processes can occur from leaks as well as accidents or spills on- or off-site during the transport process. Readers may now evaluate the legitimacy of these recipients for of these awards.
That said, an award to such companies will make sense if it is given for minimizing the damage that was bound to happen in any industry. But in that case, NFEH is also required to publish the details of the damage being incurred by any particular company, the costs going into the achievement of this minimization, and the possible impacts resulting from such compliance. However, the wording on NFEH’s website says: “These [award winning] companies are working tremendously towards achieving economic and social development without harming the environment and natural resources.”
In a conversation with Profit, Naeem Qureshi President of National Forum for Environment and Health, who is also CEO of public relations company Publicity Channel and Editor of an energy-related magazine Energy Update, said: “Every company pays Rs50,000 as registration fees and we tell them in case you are not nominated for the award you can get a refund.” If we multiply the registration fee Rs50,000 per company with 80 (number of companies that got registered for the award) it becomes Rs4,000,000 which Naeem says they spend on further environment protection related trainings, seminars and ‘image building’ of the companies that win the award.
The procedure of nomination application includes the companies submitting their company performance and reports on their compliance with the environmental laws in place. Naeem says, an environment-related award is easy to evaluate as technical people judge it. There was no further explanation given by the forum for the criteria to evaluate the applicants, apart from the absence of any conviction over environmental laws violation.
The chief guests or culprits in chief
There is one more party outside the realm of givers and receivers of the awards, which is probably most responsible for uncontrolled growth and success of such fake honors and awards – regulators and authority figures gracing these events with their presence. Their fault is not just in failing to curb this unethical practice, but also in lending undue credence to it.
These regulators are responsible for ensuring that business in the industry is operating according to legal requirements, such as hygiene and cleanliness for food-related businesses, strict abidance to accounting laws for banks, tax compliance and employee protection for the manufacturing industry, and so on. But instead, they send their representatives as chief guests for such events without doing any due diligence whether these businesses are keeping up with the laws and whether such awards hold water. In fact, this year’s Consumer Choice Awards ceremony took place in Sindh Governor House, in Karachi.
Terrabiz CEO Hamza Wasi Hashmi shed more light on the matter. “The legitimacy and credibility are solely provided to such events when the likes of commerce minister, the finance minister, the State Bank governor etc. show up as chief guests. While these officials have legitimate credibility, they don’t put it to good use when they get an invitation to appear at such awards. They show up merely to raise their political or public profile. Some of them don’t even need publicity, they are public figures, but they just agree to go without even asking for the criteria for these awards or basis for distributing such titles.”
The vicious cycle
There are, of course, a few exceptions. In September this year, Institute of Bankers Pakistan (IBP), AF Ferguson & Co (AFF) and a media group organized ‘Pakistan Banking Awards’ for the second time. “They made it clear from day one that no money was involved. Their criterion for choosing the winners was already briefed to the stakeholders and the entire event went without any sponsor or payment from any party. State Bank’s governor was present at that occasion, and it made sense for him to be there. But money is not the only bad thing. Paid awards happen all over the globe and they are not all necessarily corrupt. Winners pay the participation fee, but money is not the path to land the award. Having a fee for the award isn’t bad, but if these regulators don’t do proper vetting before agreeing to attend and distribute these awards, then the point of having credibility in these awards vanishes altogether,” explained Hamza Wasi Hashmi.
When such leaders and authority figures appear to these awards, then the brands winning these awards receive instant credibility – adding to the clout of the company dishing these out. And it doesn’t end there. It is the start of a vicious cycle.
For instance, if a bakery gets the consumer choice award, it is not just a title for one-time publicity. Wasi added, “The next time a conference is held on workplace hygiene or safety policies for food production, the award-winning bakery will obviously be at the top of the invitees’ list. A few of the attendees of the conference, or the conference itself might get that very bakery to do the catering as well. And next time someone from the health and safety department goes to inspect the bakery’s kitchen, the owner will simply turn him away saying that the highest authority handed me the award and you still dare to question my practices.”
It’s the easy way out
The amount the award winners should be spending on improving their workplace and practices goes into buying these awards. This, in turn, creates marketing opportunities and possibly more customers from these award ceremonies, as well as a ticket to bypass the legal inspections. The same thing happens with businesses in every sector, only because someone who was responsible to keep a check on the industry was ignorant enough to hand the award lending credibility in the public’s eyes giving two hoots whether the entity deserved it.
“The entire fake awards business is thriving because the regulators are not doing their job. If a common man decides to make an organization or distribute such awards, no one in the market will even consider paying a hefty amount to buy that award if there is no political or government personality present at the event. If a governor or a minister is not at the event, the winning brands would get no benefit out of the award – save a possible one-time marketing advantage. Once a few ministers’ or big shots presence is assured, anyone can go to a hundred brands out there and tell them that you will receive the award from so-and-so, and we will do branding for you, include you in post-event press release and will also allow you to use this title for your marketing. But if no regulator or important head honcho is present at the event, these awards would have no credibility whatsoever”, said Hamza Wasi Hashmi.
“It is shocking to see that these high-level officials cannot spare fifteen minutes to check the antecedents of the awards or the company handing them out before giving their consent to be a part of it,”said Wasi.
Another spillover effect of regulators’ indulgence with fake entities is that the few legitimate awards in business feel discouraged. If anyone can get as much publicity and credibility without going through all the time and cost that intensive procedures of evaluation of the recipients entail, then why bother? The end result is going to be the same at best.
“I believe that there is no point in protesting against these fake awards, but to convince these regulators and authority figures to vet these awards before giving consent to attend. Without their participation, this shady business will die its own death,” concluded Wasi.
Regulators’ disregards spawns mushroom growth
In a nutshell, the regulators’ complete indifference to the legitimacy of these awards and agreement to attend ceremonies without vetting, makes a lot of sense to start an awards business. No surprise there that it is on the rise. Naeem Qureshi admits, “In general awards, there is a mushroom growth, creating a problem for early players to make a headway.”
However, the concept of displaying it as an achievement or advertising based on the awards a company received, most likely, because other contenders did not ‘apply’ or because other businesses could not ‘afford’ to apply, is duping innocent consumers.
There is no accountability mechanism for these awards and no transparent processes for choosing a winner, but there are magazines, press releases, and, of course, shiny trophies everywhere labeling companies and people as winners – proclaimed as the best of the best in any industry.
As long as these companies can afford to purchase an award and pass right under the nose of the very regulators supposed to keep a check on them whatever they do to their employees, consumers, or the environment doesn’t really matter.