07 November 2021


Aziz Khan at the Summit of Bangladesh's infrastructure

Chairman of Summit Power International Muhammed Aziz Khan pictured at his office on Nov 3, 2021.

In so many ways, the success story of Mr Muhammed Aziz Khan, chairman of Summit Group, Bangladesh's largest infrastructure conglomerate, is interwoven with the modern history of his country. Soon after gaining independence from Britain in 1947 amid the blood-soaked Partition of India, as the eastern wing of new country Pakistan, Bengali nationalism began asserting itself against the western twin - separated by the Indian heartland in the middle. A series of missteps by Islamabad and increasing repression of Bengalis by the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani armed forces set the stage for a liberation movement that, in 1971, saw East Pakistan morphing into the new nation of Bangladesh.

Then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose sympathies were with Pakistan's generals, famously dismissed the desperately poor, densely populated new state as a "basket case". Today, that "basket case" has emerged as a South Asian success story. Social indicators in the Muslim-majority country are better than that of Pakistan and India. So, too, per capita income, which, at US$2,227 (S$3,000), exceeds that of both Pakistan and India. Exports are burgeoning and foreign exchange reserves are rising. Prudent management has kept public debt below 50 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), while both Pakistan and India are expected to emerge from the pandemic with more than 90 per cent debt to GDP. What's more, its fertility rate, which was more than six children per woman in 1971, is now lower than India's 2.2 - a feat achieved without using coercive measures, and partly a function of the access to education the state provided to girls.

When right-wing Hindu nationalist politicians in India rail against a purported influx of Muslim economic migrants from across their common border, Bangladeshis have reason to be bemused. Still a teenager when the West Pakistanis vacated his land with the birth of Bangladesh, Mr Khan - whose military man-turned-businessman father preferred he joined the bureaucracy - seized the business opportunities that arose with the change of elites. His first shot at it was by being a trader. Travelling to Singapore in 1974, he set up the High Street firm Lekhraj & Brothers to import thermoplastic moulding compounds and, later, goods from the big Japanese companies such as Sumitomo and Marubeni. As his business skills grew and ambitions widened, he began exporting fertiliser - Bangladesh's abundance of natural gas was great for producing urea - to Vietnam and elsewhere.

Then, he became a manufacturer, successfully bidding at an auction of so-called enemy-owned property - assets previously held by Pakistanis - to buy a plant that would make PVC shoes, audaciously selling them under Batta, a label perilously close to the quality Czech brand Bata. Intellectual property rights in South Asia had not taken root as a concept at the time, and such things were not uncommon. The folk at the Bata company were alarmed. And the managing director took him out to dinner. "He convinced me to supply him all the shoes I made, but maintain his quality and at a fixed price," recalls Mr Khan, who is based in Singapore. "I couldn't become the industrialist I wanted to be, but a vendor. They even kept a quality control manager in my plant. Slowly, I turned to importing plastics, supplying even to Bata."

Then came one of those pivotal moments which lead to destiny. No longer a small importer, Mr Khan's goods had begun arriving by the shiploads. But delays in port, sometimes caused by power brownouts, proved vexing. It also led to demurrage charges, hurting margins. So, one day, he walked into the offices of the port management with an offer: Let me build a power plant and supply you assured power, thereby ending our endless arguments. He helped draft Bangladesh's policy allowing private players into power generation. And thus was born Khulna Power Co in 1997 - Bangladesh's first independent power producer - which was promoted by Mr Khan in collaboration with Wartsila of Finland and El Paso Corp of the United States. Mr Khan is Finland's honorary consul-general to Bangladesh. "That took me to the larger global players," says Mr Khan, who, at 66 years, cuts a tall, sprightly figure, a hint of the champion badminton player he used to be during his student days.

The private power supply business took off after the Awami League returned to government in 2009. Bangladesh used to have outages 50 per cent of the time. Today, Summit's 18 power plants - fuelled by natural gas and, in older plants, heavy fuel - produce 2,000MW of electricity, and another 1,000MW is to be added soon. That means about a fifth of Bangladesh's electricity generated by the private sector is by Summit. The group is also involved in other infrastructure projects, for instance, a 47,000km-long fibre optic network spanning the country, ports, oil and gas terminals, and even a technology park. It also set up Bangladesh's first private off-dock port facility. The group's most established arm, Summit Power International (SPI), is headquartered in Singapore and has attracted Jera, the largest power generation company in Japan, as a strategic shareholder.

Mr Khan's daughter Ayesha Aziz Khan, who has a Master of Business Administration degree from Columbia University in the United States, is chief executive officer of SPI. Unlike some Muslim-majority countries, Bangladesh, which has been ruled by women for most of its independent history, is not reluctant to give women an education. All three of Mr Khan's daughters are superbly educated. Besides Ayesha, another daughter, Azeeza, who is a qualified chartered accountant with a bachelor's in economics and business from University College, London, is a board member of Summit. A third, Adeeba, is a fellow at Wolfson College, the University of Cambridge.

Infrastructure projects are, by their very nature, long gestation enterprises - a world away from the trading environment where Mr Khan started. And even after production starts at a new plant, it takes a few years before profit can be withdrawn. But thereafter, he says, you are assured a steady income over a longer period, and unlike consumer products, it helps that infrastructure projects are not subjected to the shifting fancies of consumers. Mr Khan says Summit has tended to always go for international financing. For the most recent project, which is to go on-stream early next year, Swiss export risk insurance firm Serv stood guarantee, along with the World Bank's International Finance Corp, for the US$350 million loan issued by Standard Chartered Bank. He chuckles that the loan, which carries a 17-year tenor, was given to him at 3.5 per cent, while the Bangladeshi state borrows at one percentage point higher.

SPI incorporated in Singapore in 2015. A share sale in Singapore was contemplated and permissions secured, but the firm found trading levels here a mite thin, and the market was judged to be too focused on real estate investment trusts. Mr Khan does not rule out a future listing here, or perhaps in London.

For all his huge investments in his country, Mr Khan believes that Bangladesh's energy future lies beyond its borders because the pivot to renewable energy is inevitable. Vast rivers that rise in the Himalayas and empty into the ocean hundreds of miles away, some in Bangladesh, have tremendous untapped hydroelectric potential. As for other renewables, given that Bangladesh is prone to flooding and is densely populated, it is not the best place in the world for massive arrays of solar panels or wind turbines. So, Mr Khan has gone next door, to India. For a start, Summit has taken a 23.5 per cent stake in OTPC, which is short for ONGC Tripura Power Co, a firm that operates a 750MW plant that runs on natural gas and was recently awarded a concession for a 100MW hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh, a north-eastern Indian state claimed in its entirety by China. He would like to see such bilateral deals extend to the neighbouring countries of Nepal and Bhutan as well.

Geopolitical risk, he says, is overstated. No country, whether China or India, has the capacity - or desire - to conquer the other. "Whether for solar or wind power or hydel (hydroelectric), we have to think of the whole Indian subcontinent as one," he says. "Electricity consumption cannot be reduced, so we need to find mechanisms for ample, clean power. And that requires regional and global support. Summit must be a part of that."

That is the kind of vision that spawned Saarc - the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation - which emerged from the vision of the late Bangladesh president Ziaur Rahman. Compared with the European Union or Asean, however, Saarc has been barely successful. Given Mr Khan's energy and sense of timing though, his plans for cross-border grids cannot be wished away. Bhutan, after all, has gained enormously by selling power to north-eastern India. And relations between India and Bangladesh are strong despite the pinpricks of India's Hindu nationalists. As impressive as Bangladesh's development has been, analysts point out that its exports, and employment base, are a tad too dependent on garment exports. Next door in India, an industry in which the nation dominates is outsourcing, or IT-enabled services, as it is called. From call centres and code writing, the country has progressed to high-end work for the great global multinationals.

Given the stable environment in Bangladesh and the reputation Bengalis carry for creativity and intellectuality, why has it not been able to capitalise on this opportunity? Bangladesh's birth through the assertion of Bengali nationalism against the imposition of Urdu, Pakistan's official language, had something to do with this, he believes. "In India, the language of government is mostly English," notes Mr Khan, whose group is the largest private sector employer of engineers in his country. "In Bangladesh, with everyone speaking Bengali, the government sticking with the language for political reasons... English language skills have lagged a bit."

Fast facts
The Chairman: Mr Muhammed Aziz Khan, 66, is founder and chairman of the Summit Group of companies and its flagship, Summit Power International. Born in Dhaka as the third in a family of seven brothers, his father was an army officer turned businessman. Mr Khan began his business career trading chemicals, and later, thermoplastic moulding compounds. In 1996, when the Bangladesh government, under his urging, allowed private power producers in the energy sector, he set up the country's first independently owned power plant. He also pioneered off-dock, energy trade and a nationwide fibre network.

Mr Khan has a master's in business administration from Dhaka University's Institute of Business Administration. A Singapore permanent resident, he and his wife Anjuman are parents of three girls, two of whom are involved with Summit, while a third is a fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.

The Company

Mr Khan is placed No. 43 on Forbes' 2021 Singapore rich list with an estimated net worth of US$990 million ($1.34 billion). The Summit Group is Bangladesh's largest infrastructure conglomerate and the country's biggest single employer of engineers in the private sector. Privately held, its activities principally involve power generation across 18 plants that together contribute 19 per cent of the country's power produced by the private sector. It also operates in telecommunications, ports, shipping, terminals (oil and LNG), and energy trading, as well as runs a technology park and convention centre. The group's most established arm, Summit Power International, is headquartered here, and has attracted Jera, Japan's largest power generation company, as a strategic shareholder. In addition, Mitsubishi, GE and Taiyo Life Insurance are equity partners in specific projects. The group has assets totalling US$3 billion, and employs about 5,000 people. It has an estimated annual revenue of US$1.1 billion.