April Issue 2009
Interview: Asim Buksh, CEO, Buksh Group
“This is the land of opportunity” — Asim Buksh
Buksh: the name is synonymous with retailing. It started in 1948 with cloth, but over 60 years later, the family business has grown into a burgeoning empire. After finding success with tailoring and department stores, the Buksh Group looked overseas for inspiration, bringing European labels like Armani and Gucci to Pakistan for the first time. From designer apparel they moved into everything luxury: hi-fi, jewelry, cosmetics, automobiles. Talking to CEO Asim Buksh reveals that the expansion plans are far from over — and high-end retailing may be only the beginning. Publishing is something he’s interested in, but so is banking. Plans to establish a microfinance institution under the Buksh Foundation are already in high gear. “It will provide financial services to the country’s un-banked,” he says. “And there are tens of millions of them.” These plans mesh perfectly with his Pollyannaish perspectives on the nation: Pakistan is not only here to stay, its potential is untapped.
Q: What does luxury mean to you?
A: To me it is things that I enjoy. A good night’s sleep is sometimes a luxury.
Q: Men’s Store was really the first of its kind, specialising in foreign designer labels. Do you consider yourself a pioneer?
A: That’s how it has turned out to be. And even today, across Pakistan, nobody represents high-end fashion brands, at least the ones that matter, like Men’s Store. The big names, the ones that matter in the fashion industry today — Gucci, Dolce, Armani, Dior, Brioni, Zegna — are all with us.
Q: Which businessperson, from anywhere in the world, do you respect or admire the most?
A: I like what Richard Branson does. And I like what Larry Ellison does. Larry Ellison heads Oracle, but he owns a MiG that he flies himself.
Q: Are you a pilot?
A: I’m not, but I’ve always wanted to be one. I think very soon, I’m going to take it up. These people, like Richard Branson, are a little more flamboyant than your average businessman. Bill Gates is, comparatively, dead.
Q: So do you have a personal motto that you do business by and live by?
A: My own inspiration comes from within. Personal motto: believe in yourself.
Q: I know you are a bit of a motorhead. So if you could only choose one, which, out of all the cars you deal in, would you want for yourself?
A: I am mostly about change. So if you ask me today, I just parked my Bentley to get my Jaguar XKR out because I am so enjoying driving it. It’s a convertible with an aluminium body. And it’s very, very fast. It’s a really fun toy.
Q: What is more important to a man’s image, the clothes or the car?
A: His mind. But after that I would say both.
Q: You have brought a number of high-end products to Pakistan. If you were forced to close all but one of your businesses, which one would you keep and why?
A: Men’s Store. It’s the first one we started. And even today, it is still our largest business. I have a special attachment to it.
Q: Is there one foreign brand here in Pakistan not under your control that you wish you brought into the country and had the exclusive dealer rights to?
A: I have my eyes on a couple of names.
Q: If you could introduce any brand into Pakistan tomorrow, what would it be?
A: Louis Vuitton.
Q: Do you have any fashion predictions for 2009 and 2010?
A: I think it’s going to be about service this year. People are looking for something extra.
Q: Competition, I imagine, is much more fierce than when Men’s Store started out …
A: We still have a monopoly.
Q: But what about local designers?
Q: Ammar Belal sells some nice clothes …
A: He has some nice clothes. We have a brand called Exist, which more or less competes in the local market and does very well. But if you had $100 to spend and you wanted to buy yourself a tie, would you buy a locally designed tie or would you buy an Armani tie?
Q: I would buy what I like.
A: Fair enough. But predominantly, people will buy luxury brands. And they will select what they like from the luxury brands. They are not going to put a certain amount of money on a local product. Some might. But the positioning and pricing is very different. Secondly, the quality: some of these companies are hundreds of years old. Armani is a five-billion-euro company. Now if you were to say that the technology, the quality of production and the luxury fabric that they use is available in any local brand that would be a fallacy. A lot of people will go around and say, “We do this and then we find that factory and then … ” That doesn’t really happen.
Q: But that is exactly the marketing being done.
A: It doesn’t work. I mean, take this suit [touches his jacket]. It’s a Zegna suit. The fabric is exclusive to them. The factories they make it in, the costs of production are very different. So when you say that I can have this jacket made in a Zegna factory and it can be at one-tenth the price of a Zegna jacket, one or the other is not true.
Q: With rampant inflation, depressed real estate prices, a near-bankrupt government and rising security problems, do you think Pakistan is still a good place to do business?
A: I don’t watch TV and I don’t read the newspaper. Does it affect my life? No. Does it affect my thinking? No.
Pakistan at the end of the day is a $350-billion-dollar market. Now if you want to look at it purely as “this is happening and that is happening, so there is no business to be done,” then that is your personal perspective. I look at it as a $350-billion-dollar market and I want a share of it.
Q: You specialise in luxury items. And in the current financial landscape, people around the world are consciously moving away from conspicuous consumption, reining in spending and fretting over the future. Have you seen this trend in Pakistan?
A: No. There are people who are talking about it. But if sales are any indication …
Q: You haven’t felt it in your stores?
A: No. Besides, economies like Pakistan’s are cushioned because we are not leveraged. Here, people own their houses, they own their cars. In western economies, it is exactly the opposite. So when they’re hit by a bit of a crunch, it really hurts.
Secondly, most businesses in the US have already expanded to the teeth. If there is space for 100 stores, they already have 110. Our market is virgin. So there is no recession. This is a growing market. The US market is a saturated market. This is the land of opportunity.
Q: Some people think that Men’s Store has a lot of fake designer merchandise. How do you respond to those rumours?
A: How do you respond to people who think Pakistan is going down the tubes? It doesn’t necessarily have to be true.
Q: When there are so many knock-offs available, what is the best way for any consumer to test the authenticity of any product, be it a suit, a watch or a handbag?
A: First, people who are buying know what they are buying. Secondly, they buy from credible stores. And over the last many years, people have come to see us as extremely credible. We have seen that, generally, the people who can’t afford to come to us are the ones that will talk about us.
Q: In Pakistan, many of the well-to-do in society have one foot in the country and one foot out. Are you worried about how your businesses will fare if political instability worsens and a good share of your target market flees?
A: None of those people are going to flee. What are they going to do in the US now?
Economies everywhere are in terrible shape. And this is where they have made all their money. Do you think they are going to leave all that and go somewhere else?
Q: But this is not where they keep all their money.
A: Unfortunately, yes. But at the end of the day, no matter how much money you’ve made, you need to keep occupied. After five days or 10 days or one month, you’re going to say what the hell do I do with myself? Besides, with the opportunities, success, status and connections they have here, they are never going to leave. Not one of them.
Q: So you are an optimist when it comes to Pakistan?
A: There is no other way. Everything I have is because of this country.
Q: And are you optimistic about the luxury brands you sell because Pakistanis are essentially a materialistic bunch?
A: The whole world is.
Q: Are we more materialistic than the rest of the world?
A: I think we are the same. And it is a myth that the luxury business has fallen. Worldwide the luxury business has gone down from $172 billion dollars to $165 billion. Compared to what is happening in the rest of the world that is nothing.
Q: Could you imagine doing anything else?
A: I will be doing other things. Going forward, it is going to be financial services. I am very excited about it. Through the Buksh Foundation, we are going to focus on microfinance banking, microleasing, microinsurance.
Q: So is this your dream job?
A: I think it’s my dream life.