Slow Movement

imageAs the story goes, in the days of yore, Iblis was extremely perturbed and frustrated. So he called in all his assistants to discuss the situation.

‘We have a long standing problem. For almost a thousand years now we have tried to make these Muslims fall from grace. Other than isolated success, which they seem to recover from, we have not progressed. Their belief is institutionalised, they have a strong will and the belief system is successfully integrated into all walks of life. They work hard, look after each other, work as communities, practise philanthropy, have a thirst for knowledge and chase progress. On top of this they have no fear, take risks and are not worried about personal success and wealth. How are we going to change this at all?’

So the devils council brainstormed long and looked at all facets of behaviour and after all this analysis came up with a single solution. Time! Take away their allocation of time and their whole system will strangulate. The conclusion was that once time was not available, they will not be able to spend hours or even minutes on nearness to Allah and so will lose their spirituality. Over time this will make them ordinary people rushing around spending their lives, caring little for others, thus the strongly knit social fabric will break, that will lead to fragmentation of purpose. Once fragmentation of purpose occurs, it will be each man for himself, which will lead to selfishness and eventually to breakdown of society. Which in turn would lead to evil, crime and fraud; so Iblis would achieve his goal.

This plan was put into motion by speeding up life and very soon, we found that time was becoming scarce. As time became scarce, the evil plan was set in motion; in the next four hundred years so it has come to pass. So it happened and so does human history record it, post the coming of the Industrial Age.

Look at our Muslim history and eventually human history. Does this story not make sense? Today we run around from pillar to post for our daily sustenance and nary a breath drawn to contemplate why we are human beings at all. It is so animalistic, materialistic and purposeless, because very soon all of us depart this world. When we do depart, we have little to show for our time here, other than a whole lot of material possessions, which do not go with us to our graves.

Speed and lack of time have become the fundamentals of our existence today. Faster technology has driven this world to speed up and we are caught in this web. There is nothing to show that speed is better, but we entrap ourselves in this commitment to speed. Because of this commitment, not only our spiritual relationship to Allah, but our relationships with family and friends have deteriorated. We contemplate little, thus the quality of our performance has itself become shallow. It shows in offices, in the arts and in our sports. In all these the pure quality of input has declined sharply.

Many in this world feel marginalised and rebel against this madness to rush and are working to solve human speed issues. Some thirty years ago the ‘Slow Movement’ commenced in Europe, against the launch of a McDonalds fast food restaurant. It has continued and encapsulates many facets, including food, education, parenting, technology, science etc. SM is a conscientious effort by dedicated people to save humanity from self destructing the very meaning of life. It is a fast growing movement which has spread to North America, Australia and Japan.

Carl Honoré’s 2004 book, In Praise of Slowness, first explored how the Slow philosophy might be applied in every field of human endeavour and coined the phrase “Slow Movement”. Honoré describes the Slow Movement as a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is better. The slow philosophy is about doing everything at the right speed. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.

Guttorm Fløistad, a Norwegian philosopher, theorised that the philosophy is to get off the speed highway, slow down, create nearness in human relations, recover reflection and togetherness and find real renewal.

There is some hope in this movement and many a thinking person is joining it. If you too find little meaning in this fast go around, then I suggest that you should connect with the like minded, find ways to slow down your life and yet be able to survive in this fast paced world. Face this speed issue.

EFL’s Summer of 2006

imageThe summer of 2006 was one of trial. Like the good and bad times indicated by the Quran, I had run into serious bits of difficulty that summer. On the one hand my fathers deteriorating health was well advanced and at work the worldly battle of commerce was reaching epic proportions.

To explain the above, one has to recount some history. We were working in Engro Foods at a very early stage of inception. I had joined the company when Sukkur factory was a hole in the ground. By March 2006, however, defying all odds, we had commissioned the factory in 8 months, collected enough milk for production, created the sales and distribution infrastructure and lastly found a name and launched a brand. All this was done on the back of a most driven bunch of people, who seemed to treat Engro Foods as their piece of the promised land. Precious and worth fighting for,

Olpers! Now what sort of name is that? Is that a milk? What does it mean? A red packaging in a blue/green industry; strange slim packaging and then those advertisements, they just did not show any dairy functionality. These were the barrage of criticism we faced in the first few months. We were firmly established as a challenger mentality brand and even some of my well wishers were looking doubtful.

To top it all, along came the launch of another new milk, with a catchy old jingle and a lot more money to spend in May 2006. They negated the innovation space we had created for Olpers, and were spending lots more money and operating in almost the same fashion, plus they were located slap in the middle of the milk shed, unlike us who were down south and far away.

Life was tough through late April and May. Our advertising funds were exhausted by now and the sales after the early days were bordering on 20k litres a day. This small sales was supporting a factory and other infrastructure. Worse still, raw milk prices had increased to the extent, that the low production and high costs meant that by June, we were facing negative contribution margins. For the uninitiated, this meant that for every litre of Olpers sold, our loss would increase. We were better off shutting the plant down, rather than selling. In short we were looking down a barrel of possible failure and like in all commercial enterprises, failures eventually find their source. Typically, it is the head or near it. So the reality was quite clear to me, I was standing near the edge of a precipice.

In that rather apocalyptic situation, a silver lining appeared on the horizon, when the two largest dairy players announced price increases in the trade. This meant we could now make a reasonable margin and at least reduce our losses, till we could somehow increase our sales. The Management Committee meeting to discuss what to do and when to increase our prices, was considered a foregone conclusion. It was just a question of when. Except that the oddest idea had lodged in my brain that particular day. It came on the back of a discussion with the Sales Director, who had wistfully mentioned that he would love to sell at lower prices for a couple of months, to get our volume going. When I mentioned this particular idea in the MC, quite predictably and justifiably, the ceiling blew away. But the more the discussion went on, the more I became convinced and later one or two of the other members too, that we needed to stay with the same price. When it was conveyed to our Chairman, he asked me if I knew what we were doing, because it was the oddest decision he had heard of; “that we were ready to sell at a contribution loss, rather than a margin”. To his credit, once convinced, he backed us to the hilt with the Board of Directors.

That decision of keeping Olpers price at negative margins, was the turning point in EFL. Next month in July we jumped to 130k litres a day sales and in August it went to 150k. By September when we finally took a price increase, we had grabbed significant share from our competitors. So much so, that in December 2006, not only did we deliver a much higher sales figure, but our bottom line performance versus plan was much better. By then we knew EFL had arrived, Alhamdulillah.

In the long years of my career, one cannot remember as crazy a move. Infact, I explain it to people, that had I been at a MNC, I would have probably been summarily removed from my position, but to EFLs credit, they allowed a totally left field decision to prevail and the risk paid off.

My very own Engro Foods

imageI feel humbled. I don’t think I can put it better. Fifteen months after totally unexpected events, I write about thoughts, which I wanted to express all along. To explain further one has to tell a bit of history.

Engro Foods started out as a personal dive into Pakistaniat – being a Pakistani myself. For years either abroad or working with MNCs, I had lost that connection…not in the heart, but in the daily rigour of existence. But I wanted it back so badly. This cannot be explained better than by an expatriate, who has been working away from home and has suffered from homesick blues. EFL was a gift which finally arrived in 2006. It changed my life and alongwith a bunch of disparate individuals, we carved out a vision, built a team and created corporate history. Along the way, we won two of the biggest world class level awards, which no other Pakistani corporate has ever done. Not one persons effort, but a team to die for.

Then in 2011, as it is my wont to do, I felt my time was up. The company set, the goals achieved, the awards taken, it was time to move onto new things. A dive into my own world of self actualisation. Frontiers in education to be conquered and my payback to this land of mine. Twenty months of education projects, mentoring so many young people, and blogging about thoughts which I could never express before. My time my own, for the first time in 28 years. However, it was arrogant to think that I control my destiny. I don’t! Allah does. So eventually a return to a commercial calling due to unforeseen events.

It was strange to say the least. What I had done and gained expertise in during my whole life seemed difficult. My apprehension was alive. Do I really have it in me? Can I take this particular stress? Does my mind work anywhere near what it used to. Will I have the drive? I genuinely thought..I was not up to it. But the need was imperative and really I had no choice but to return to a room I had left with some relief a while back.

Enter the office, I felt like I was going to school on my very first morning, or my commencement day when I entered the Unilever offices 30 years ago as a Management Trainee. Days bygone and old apprehensions! But it was strange at this age and time of life, when life’s experiences have given one confidence. How will I be received by old colleagues or the new ones? What will I say to them? How do I justify this U turn? Will the old trust be there? Will the old hand in glove fit be there?

I need not have worried. The capacity of humanity to surprise one is a constant in life. The smiles, the connections and in cases the hugs were all there. These were people after my own heart. They were warm and wanted to show that warmth and affection. I had been humbled. Right from the tea boys, to the drivers, to the secretaries, the younger managers, the older ones and then my senior colleagues (more controlled). This was still home, maybe altered and different in form, but the substance still remained. I still belonged here. And by showing what my colleagues did show, they once more sucked me back into that emotional churn, which was EFL. It compels me today, to write about it. To acknowledge it.

So to the taking up of this challenge. This was a place which was built to be a home, for togetherness and not just about individuals, but an institution. In the decades ahead, Inshallah, EFL teams shall go out and together sustain that very belonging and shall build a dream on top of it.

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