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As a boy, Safwan Sobhan grew up watching his father take the brand name of Bashundhara Paper Mills (BPML) to new heights. This was despite the limitations they encountered as a private company in a field that was largely government-owned. By the time Safwan took on the reins of BPML as CEO and Managing Director, the world had entered a digital age that automatically reduced the demand for print paper.
But this did not discourage the young leader, for he saw exciting new fields where paper could be introduced and interesting new grades of paper that would redefine the industry. “I can go on and on about paper, there are a few hundred different kinds of it,” Safwan says. It’s the promise offered by these new grades that provide him with the impetus to keep exploring, researching and developing new possibilities for the company.
“To be focused on my family really drives me to be where I am and how I am.”
The business of paper has drastically changed in recent decades. While the demand for A4 has reduced, Safwan sees an increase in the demand for industrial grade packaging paper, for tissues and for specialised grade paper. He also understands the immediate need to make the industry more environmentally friendly.
“Since I’ve taken over this plant, my key input has been about the consumption of our energy, our water, our steam, and how to make it more environmentally friendly. We have now made our paper mill factories have zero discharge and for all the machines to be close-looped.”
Added to this, Safwan has instituted a system of research and development as well as staff training that aims to constantly improve the working mechanism and quality of products.
The closure of schools and universities for the duration of the pandemic was not good news for paper mills. Yet, the Bashundhara Paper Mills kept going by capitalising on the increase in demand for tissues during COVID-19. He says, “The only way we survived was through our tissues. In fact, sales went up.”
Another obvious difficulty during this time was when borders were closed and transport options were shut down. This could have posed a serious challenge to BPML since it got its pulp from Indonesia. However, Safwan could overcome this barrier as BPML had its own shipping fleet to transport pulp from Indonesia to Bangladesh.
While many of Safwan’s passions lie with BPML, he also values keeping a balance with his personal life. “My idea is family first,” he says. “To be focused on my family really drives me to be where I am and how I am.”
Safwan is also enthusiastic about aviation, cricket, football and golf. His belief in maintaining a work–life balance is carried forward to his business. BPML allows its employees to work from anywhere; he believes that this flexibility is important to keep employees connected to work and follow their interests at the same time.
This isn’t the only way BPML differentiates itself. “We do not look at what the competitors are doing,” Safwan explains. “Our main focus is the customer, ‘What is their need?’ You see what the customers’ needs are and how they want them to be addressed. Then you go back to the board and try to deliver that.”
Safwan also believes that BPML’s rapport with its suppliers has been crucial to the company’s success. “Even during the pandemic, when there were machinery breakdowns, we were able to work with them. They were at home in Europe, but we set it up in such a way that our issues were solved,” he reveals.
“Our new projects are going to be landmark projects for Bangladesh.”
Safwan is upbeat about not only the company’s future but that of Bangladesh too. “Our new projects are going to be landmark projects for Bangladesh, with two types of green steel and chemicals,” he explains. This, he believes, will go a long way in ensuring self-sufficiency in the country and reduce dependence on chemical imports.
The CEO is passionate about paper’s potential to replace plastic. “We are upgrading our machines in such a way that plates, cups, straws, knives, forks, all of those sorts of products, can be made with different paper. This will be the key raw material for one-time use materials, as plastic is going to be banned in Europe,” he says.
The possibilities offered by paper are endless, according to BPML’s passionate leader. “I think of it like this,” Safwan says. “The day you are born, you are given a piece of paper. The day you die, you are given a piece of paper.”