Few people look forward to their post-retirement lives as enthusiastically as Asad Umar. Arguably the most celebrated CEO in the corporate history of Pakistan, Umar, 50, took early retirement from the largest local conglomerate Engro Corporation on April 16 to join political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
“The greatest men are those who walk away at the top,” says Umar, while talking to The Express Tribune about the key ‘decision points’ in his corporate life that spanned over two and a half decades.
CEO at 42
“You never set a field for bad bowling,” says Umer, drawing on his vast cache of cricket quotations. After 17 days of becoming CEO of Engro Corporation in 2004, Umar laid out his long-term vision for the company in a presentation to its employees.
Engro Foods, which was set up during Umar’s tenure at the helm, suffered losses for four consecutive years. “Yet, our shareholders didn’t panic. We had shared our long-term projections with them, and that’s why they had full confidence in our management.” Engro Foods is now the highest revenue-making subsidiary of the corporation with net revenue of Rs9.67 billion in the quarter ended March 31, more than double of fertiliser subsidiary’s Rs3.20 billion.
In addition to establishing many successful subsidiaries and building the world’s largest single-train urea manufacturing plant, Umar says he has made many mistakes in his long career. The biggest of them all, he thinks, was the imperfect feasibility report he came up for Engro Polymer. “We lost Rs300 million because of that. I was also its first CEO, and the loss had not been planned as in the case of Engro Foods.”
Departure from Engro
For someone who became CEO at 42 and increased the company’s revenues from Rs13 billion to Rs114 billion in about seven years, the decision to retire at 50 did not take many people by surprise.
“I always had this number in my mind. I knew I’d retire around 48, 50 or 52,” Umar says. The decision to join politics, however, resulted from his consistent engagement with the federal bureaucracy which, he believes, is responsible for many a bottleneck holding back the economy of Pakistan.
Referring to his two-year stint at Exxon in North America, Umar says he came in contact with the Canadian government only once a year. “But here we don’t operate in a market-based economy. It’s practically an Islamabad-controlled, rent-seeking economy,” he says, adding that any fundamental reform in Pakistan can only be achieved by taking part in the political process.
However fit he may appear to hold public office, Umar says he is least interested in having a portfolio. Referring to the Pakistan People’s Party of the 1970s, he says J A Rahim was one of the most influential central leaders of the party, yet he held no public office. “I’d be far more interested in being part of the policy formulation team.”
The PTI central leadership has asked Umar to formulate the party’s energy policy, industrial policy and skill development policy. In addition, it has asked him to jointly lead the macro-economic and poverty alleviation teams with Jahangir Khan Tarin.
Coming back home
A major ‘decision for Umar came when the employees’ buyout of Exxon was announced in 1991. “I was the only employee of Exxon Pakistan who was working in Canada at the time. I drove a 3,500cc car and my salary was 100,000 Canadian dollars. But I chose to come back and happily accepted a monthly salary of about Rs20,000.”
The day he was leaving for Pakistan, Umar says his plant manager told him to just make a phone call if he ever regretted his decision to go back to Pakistan. “I told him, you’re never going to get that call.”
Published in The Express Tribune, April 29th, 2012.