Commercial business activity, encompassing all economic and monetary pursuits, from delivering a newspaper to managing a multimillion rupee company in Pakistan, is perhaps like any other developing country but with a difference. Its very own unique blend of moral, religious, cultural and regional influences, making it very interesting and different. To cap it, it is also quite an annoying blend of oddities and international non-conformances with regards to good practices.
We discuss the non-tax paying culture endlessly, its effects on our economy, pros and cons of paying taxes versus the ill-usage, squandering of tax money, corruption, personal gains through public funds, etc. but we do not appreciate, apprehend or calculate the impact of some subtle and some very glaring practices, behaviors and way of conducting business which not only affects our commercial repute, our standing, and our name as businessmen, a nation, and a country.
To someone like me who has seen the market form both sides for the last 35 years, it seems that we are not happy doing whatever we do, may it be one’s own business, a job or an entrepreneurial venture.
Just think of how many shop owners, rehriwalay, cashiers, do you see smiling or greeting you or saying thank you for your business, not snatching the money from your hands or not banging the change for you to collect and pick up yourself. This may be an attitude, below par quality of education or most likely not taking pride in what they are doing for a living. By quality of education, I mean not the number of years but the type of education, so-called, that we are imparting to our people in the scarce, ill-equipped and badly managed institutions.
The finesse… why do we lack it up north?
When I was posted back to Punjab after living and working in Karachi for 11 years, I noticed while shopping that the shopkeeper literally snatched the currency from your hands. Now this means nothing to most of us, we see it all the time and do not even notice, but I distinctly remember, the shop owner on the ground floor of our complex where I lived in Karachi, just holding the currency note with two fingers and waiting for you to let go of the note. This is finesse, this is an art of making someone a feel important, in a nutshell, to quote the famous slogan of a hotel, “we care about small things”.
Why is it that the creditworthiness of businesses shows a marked decline when one travels from south to north of the country? Food chains, superstores, hotels, front-end offices – same chains, same companies – exhibit marked different attitudes, lower levels of service or just turn into plain callousness. Why is that so, what is the difference? On the other hand, why are businesses in small cities like Sialkot so agile, aware, professional and like to improve and take charge of activities good for their business? The city claims the highest per capita income in the country.
Perhaps, in general, it will be correct to state that we have not taken business and commercial activity seriously or at least as seriously as the rest of the world. It has to do with our genetic factor (agriculture/martial race etc.), background, history or some other unknown factor in our sub-conscious, we do not put our heart and soul into our livelihood, we do not enjoy doing so, or are happy doing so.
Just imagine some of the workplaces you see every day, offices, factories, shops, restaurants etc., where we spend the best part of the day and probably our life, are filthy, not illuminated properly, very difficult to sit or work comfortably in. There is a lot of difference between having pride and enjoying what you do and ‘just having to do it’, as if there is ‘no other choice’.
When I retired from the company I had worked for all my professional lifeand took up another line of business, I realized that how lucky I was to be paid always and every time at the end of the month. There are so many companies, including public limited, that I have come across who do not pay their employees for months. In some cases, it is an attitude, a ‘can-do’ exploitation, which is obviously horrendous. Then there is this evil vicious circle where the businesses are not paid in time and hence the employees are not paid promptly either. The basic business principle of ‘running expenses or operating expenses’ is either nonexistent or not understood.
Quite a few local businesses like to and take pride in not using banks, either due to religious reasons or the need to operate under the radar. The million-dollar question is that if the employees and workers sleep hungry and suppliers are not paid in time, the business cycle is excessively elongated and becomes to- tally out of sync with the rest of the world. Is it really ethical? Can we then compete with the rest of the world?
There is a minimum wage by law which the companies are supposed to pay (different levels grade-wise), which I believe is Rs15,000/month for 26 working days in Punjab. My son while doing his internship in HR department of a renowned textile giant told me that the telephone operator at the reception is paid Rs8,000/month. I am told young girls teaching at ‘mohalla or minor’ schools are paid Rs5,000/month. This is today, the year 2017 I am talking about.
Sri Lanka, and its ‘Happiness Economics’
I was posted to Sri Lanka, it is a developing country, lacking in many ways as compared to Pakistan, especially in infrastructure, but I was deeply impressed by their humility, levels of contentment and index of happiness, or ‘Happiness Economics’, which is a formal academic study of the relationship between individual satisfaction and economic issues, such as employment and wealth. Their health care and educational services are enviable. I do not know if this is the sole reason, but Sri Lankans are fun loving, ready to smile, happy and enjoy life. This directly reflects on their business and work ethics. Bad debts are rare, and enforcement is strict, apology and accepting fault/mistake is common, safety in workplace is by personal desire, government offices are helpful. Traffic is chaotic but very well regulated. Trucks by law have six-sides covered containers, so you do not see overloaded, skyscrapers on the roads. Their trishaws or our rickshaws have the left back exit blocked so even if the passenger tries, he/she cannot exit on the wrong side of the road. These minor differences save lives.
I remember an incident where one of our critical raw material consignment, upon special request, was custom-cleared on a holiday and that was without any perks, if you understand what I mean. I needed a driving license, went and joined a line at 6 am in the morning, the queue almost half a kilometer long. It scattered numerous times when it rained, people went for snacks and came back, the order of the queue never changed, no one swore, no fist fights and no arguments, I even noticed that they did not in-form queue members to keep their place, it was so ‘usual’ and ‘common’. I could not help comparing and imagining what would have happened back home.
Once we went to their wildlife park called Yala – a heaven in the woods. I had booked what is called a ‘full board’, which includes all meals etc. We were late arriving at the hotel and missed lunch. The receptionist asked me if she could arrange special lunch for us (shocking, is it not) as the normal buffet time was over. I declined as we had eaten something on the way. Two days later, when checking out, I saw a deduction in the invoice, upon inquiry I was told that since we did not take lunch on the day we arrived, cost of the same has been deducted. It was a pleasant surprise, indeed. How many of us have seen such an occurrence by one of our posh hotels?
But I do remember being almost shoved aside by a politician and his guards at the reception of a Lahore hotel, even more humiliating was the attitude of the check-in receptionist, who promptly forgot all about me and started bowing to the ‘shoving gentleman with a gunman’.
One early morning, being driven to the factory I received a call from my credit card bank, enquiring if I was present in Sri Lanka, I was and asked the lady, why? I was told that my credit card has been used in New York for a shocking amount. Shocked at the amount I said I will come to the bank right away. She said, no sir, no need for you to do that, you are on your way to the office, our representative will visit you, show him your passport and credit card, prove your presence in the country and the fake transactions will be reversed. This is what exactly happened. I am still pursuing my bank which while undergoing a merger with a giant Pakistani bank recently, bounced two of my cheques for credit card payments. The bank has not bothered to reply to my letter and a reminder.
This is a country which is very much like us, these are not examples from developed world where the business ethics and practices are by far better, highly competitive, conscientiously practiced and enforced.
The man at the top sets the tone
In my youth sales and marketing days, while cold calling prospective clients, I could make a very good guess as to how I would be treated by the owner or the manager of the factory by the reception and attitude of the gate clerks or guards. Over time similar experiences strengthened my thinking and belief that the man/woman sitting at the top sets the tone of the business. A good man with a vision, education, courage to delegate, the courage to employ good people, keep them happy and pay them well, will create a good organization and can single-handedly change a low performing company to a center of excellence.
On the brighter side, you do see a change, though subtle and slow, especially in the younger people, who are more aware and enlightened. A major credit is due to multinationals, who have contributed so much. You do see smiling faces, courtesy, better service, more females, same staff mopping the floors, cleaning the tables, this was something not seen earlier, pride in the job, clean shiny uniforms, dedication and the best, in my opinion, the attitude and actions to please and delight. What is making the difference is the new company culture, traveling, awareness, training and livable salaries, the Happiness Economics seems to be improving.
Let me quote a good friend of mine, “it is double jeopardy, the employers are unhappy because they feel they are paying more than the work being done by the employees and the employees are unhappy because they feel that they are not being paid enough for the work activity they are doing”.
The change will come with time, there is no other way, the world is getting smaller, people travel more often, they see better and want better back home. Education and awareness along with appropriate salaries and emoluments will bring about the change.