Perhaps it is fitting that the lighting and stage at the event were reminiscent of an Apple product launch, because the Allworld Network’s inaugural Pakistan Fast Growth 100 summit seemed to be no less than the coming out party of Pakistani entrepreneurship.
Held on Friday and Saturday at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Lahore, the summit was meant to help highlight the successes of some of the fastest-growing unlisted companies in Pakistan. Yet it ended up doing much more than that: it allowed the entrepreneurs behind those companies to yell out in messianic unison a message that they all clearly seem to believe – that Pakistan is very much open for business.
Indeed, so committed were the attendees of the summit to continue promoting their message that when an electrical fire broke out on stage, the event just kept going even as some of the maintenance staff struggled to put it out, much to the bemused admiration of the two American founders of the Boston-based Allworld Network: Anne Habiby and Deirdre Coyle.
“These are companies that have been growing at an average of 55% between 2008 and 2010, the pit of a global recession. And they are willing to share their audited financial statements, which means they have done this without bending the rules,” said a visibly excited Isfandyar Shaheen, an executive at Cyan, the private equity firm that was the lead sponsor of the event.
There were of course several speeches by the organisers and the sponsors. But that was not even close to being the heart of the summit. The real summit took place in between the speeches and the sessions, where the entrepreneurs of the 106 companies on this year’s list met with each other and discussed possible collaborations and partnerships. (Indeed, so keen were the entrepreneurs to meet with each other, that many did not attend the Hadiqa Kayani concert on Friday night, preferring instead to network amongst themselves.)
It was also in those gaps that representatives of investors could be seen walking around the room, meeting with each CEO and asking them detailed questions about their companies. They tried to be discrete: none was prepared to declare a commitment to invest and none wanted to scare off what appeared to be a fiercely independent group of entrepreneurs resistant to the idea of diluting their own equity in the companies they had founded.
The conversations between them, however, were fascinating. There was the gentleman representing the Olayan Group, perhaps the largest industrial conglomerate in Saudi Arabia, talking to the young LUMS graduate who runs a company that provides the software for vertical search engines like the travel website Kayak.
The person from the International Finance Corporation seemed interested in just listening in on the conversations the entrepreneurs were engaging in. And the person from Riyada, the small and medium enterprise investment arm of the Dubai-based private equity firm Abraaj Capital, seemed to already have familiarised himself with just about every firm on the list.
And yes, there was even a stall by the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan, manned by a remarkably helpful staff that was willing to guide anybody who asked about the legal process of how to start a company.
The entrepreneurs themselves were a mixed lot, with some seasoned professionals who had set up companies during the middle of their careers and others more the young buccaneers who had decided to take on the world a little earlier in life.
The sample, however, was skewed towards the younger side. Many of them were serial entrepreneurs who would feel right at home in Silicon Valley. (Indeed, many of them seemed to be from there, given the disproportionate representation of Stanford University graduates amongst this year’s winners.)
Their stories, however, were uniformly inspiring. The founders of Pacific Exim, for instance are from a village in Thar that does not even have a water well, and have founded a company with revenues well over $50 million. There was the gentleman who started a training company with just Rs700,000 about four years ago and now has three companies with revenues touching nearly Rs100 million. And there were the doctors who run a hospital – and soon a medical school – in Peshawar, providing scholarships to less privileged students to study medicine.
Their passion for what they do appeared to be contagious. Take Abid Butt, for example, the rock star of the summit who founded E2E Supply Chain Management, number one on this year’s Pakistan 100, with revenues expanding 1918% over the past four years to reach Rs6.5 billion. “You wouldn’t think of logistics as particularly exciting, until you talk to Abid,” said Anne Habiby.
And a theme consistently running through all of the entrepreneurs: the belief that the Pakistani market was big enough not just for them but for any competitors that may come up. Indeed, most of the companies seemed rather keen on getting even more competition.
“I am funding two or three companies that will become my competition,” said Hasan Raza, the founder of alternative energy solutions provider Egas. “The market would be better if we get more players.”
Some of last year’s Pakistan 25 winners advertised jointly in a newspaper inviting companies to apply for the Pakistan 100 this year, which resulted in Pakistan having the highest number of applications for any Allworld country list. Judging by the enthusiasm of this year’s crowd, an even stiffer competition for next year’s Pakistan 100 is entirely likely.
For the list of the top 100 please click here.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 12th, 2012.