Saturday June 30, 2012
Up close and personal with Abdul Hamid Bhat
By JOHN LOH
Abdul Hamid Bhat is one of those rare people who can talk about saving the world with a straight face.
The Kashmir native speaks with a certain navet with words that might evoke anything between a wince and a smile, but this mechanic-turned-millionaire is no daydreamer.
Maybe his humble roots have something to do with it. At 16, he was a dropout, flunking his high school diploma in the 10th grade.
Abdul Hamid, who prefers to go by the name Rahim in honour of his father, was then jobless for two years.
Coming from a family that lived off the land, Rahim's prospects were not bright and he took up a job as a scooter mechanic.
Nonetheless, ambition throbbed in his veins, and in 1996, he asked to use a portion of his father's farmland in the outskirts of Srinagar, Kashmiri's capital, and for some seed capital to open a repair shop.
Though reluctant at first, his father eventually consented and gave him 25,000 rupees (US$450), with which Rahim set up a simple tin shed and hired two workers.
The business was named Rahim Motors after Abdul Rahim, his father.
“I didn't want to sleep while my father was working,” he says, adding the company bore the Rahim name because “I love my parents, that's why their blessing is with me”.
The Maruti connection
The very next year, he approached Maruti Suzuki, India's largest automaker and a subsidiary of Suzuki Motor Corp, to be appointed as one of its service centres.
Rahim describes simply that he worked with “hard work, dedication, passion, and honesty”, which was what led the business to quickly receive multiple accolades.
He won 10 awards over five consecutive years for, among others, his quality of service, and was promoted thrice from category C to A within a short time.
The icing on the cake was when he achieved the distinction of Maruti Service Master, becoming the first in the Kashmir and Jammu states to do so. A collaboration with Mahindra & Mahindra, another prominent automobile manufacturer in India, soon followed.
The company today makes US$4.5mil a year in revenue, and has 250 people on its payroll and four workshops in Srinagar.
His service centre is no ordinary workshop either as customers waiting for their vehicles can pass the time at its well-stocked library.
Rahim has two other units, Rahim Automobiles and Rahim Engineering Works, at other sites.
Heart for social work
With a thriving business in hand, Rahim could very well have left it at that if not for his yearning to give back.
Calling it the “common man's social responsiblity”, Rahim says: “Every man is responsible for the society. It is not just an environmental issue.”
To this end, he founded Rahim Greens, the group's corporate social responsibility (CSR) arm, some years ago.
About 25% of the company's annual profit is channelled to various initiatives carried out by Rahim Greens.
Rahim even decided to divert the money used to pay for the calendars and diaries the company made as advertising material towards CSR.
One of the first things he did was to help maintain the trees planted by the Government along the roads.
“Then I decided to plant the trees myself. One diary can make 10 trees,” he reasons, “so I stopped making diaries.”
“In 2009, I began with 6,000 trees, then 20,000 in 2010. In March this year we have planted a total of 57,600 pine trees.”
And why pine trees? Because they are the cultural tree and identity of Kashmir, he enthuses. “It is a tourist place, people say Kashmir is paradise on earth.”
“This year I will plant trees in deforested areas. I can create the forest again,” he continues.
Just before this interview, Rahim was locked in conversation with Datuk Paul Low, president of Transparency International Malaysia, on the rampant problem of illegal logging in his country.
“I told him I am concerned about the environment because it is for all humans. We cannot live without forests. Concrete solutions are not good for human beings. You don't compromise on forests.”
Wearing his trademark white sneakers, which he apparently dons to all occasions, Rahim tells StarBizWeek during a recent trip to Malaysia that the customers who frequent his workshop on “environment day” each get a complimentary check up for their car and two plant saplings to take home.
Almost 1,000 saplings are given out during this yearly affair, he points out.
His service centres are also equipped with machines that check and control a car's pollution output.
Not stopping there, he regularly tours schools to speak about the importance of preserving the environment, and has been invited to countries such as South Korea, Thailand and Australia to give lectures on climate change.
Besides this, Rahim sponsors education for underprivileged children and offers free repair services for ambulances. He has even volunteered to drive the ambulance himself.
Out of adversity
Meanwhile, a for-profit solar business is in the offing. This could involve providing solar panels, lights and water heaters.
He has, in the past, donated 50 solar lights to remote village homes without electricity near the India-Kashmir border to be used for studying.
Perhaps loftiest of all is his plan to build a solar-powered car.
“If it's not possible (to do in Kashmir) I will go to China or other countries. It is a big project, will take three to four years or more,” he explains without elaborating.
Rahim's home state remains, to this day, a disputed territory caught between India and Pakistan.
Although officially under India's administration, resentment against it runs deep among many Kashmiris and separatist groups have fought since 1989 for independence or a merger with Pakistan.
More than 68,000 people have been killed in the uprising and subsequent crackdown by the Indian government.
Although Rahim shies away from the topic of politics, he says the situation is now under control as both countries have begun talking.
Asked how he felt growing up in the midst of conflict, he replies: “It was tough. Yes, we were very scared. But I'm alive.”
Rahim is a firm believer in informal education. Saying, on the one hand, that he does not feel the need to obtain a proper degree, he then adds: “My passion is education.”
“It is not necessary to have a degree, you need to have passion,” he proclaims adamantly. “If you have passion, dedication, you can do anything.
“I'm sorry to say that now we are learning only to get a degree, not for knowledge. You can go anywhere when you have knowledge.”
His two children have also heard this advice, and according to him, they agree. His son will pursue engineering while his daughter is studying computer science.
Neither of them intend to helm Rahim Motors, he says.
Rahim, who speaks halting English, is clearly very conscious of his command of the language, enquiring several times throughout this interview whether he could be understood.
Laughingly, he shares that in an attempt to practise English, he once tried to talk to some people from China as they, too, were not proficient.
“I start from there. I talked to them at an exhibition in Bombay because I was shy that I could not speak English well. He tried and I tried. Both of us benefited.”
The 47-year old was here to give a talk to students at the Albukhary International University in Alor Setar, Kedah, which was founded by media-shy billionaire Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Albukhary.
Rahim credits his Islamic faith as a key pillar in his life. “In my office we start every morning with a prayer.”
On his business, he says the aim is to grow it to have 10,000 employees. As for Rahim Greens, he intends to create a helicopter rescue service as well as a charity hospital.
“We are living in hilly areas where lot of people die because there are no resources,” he explains.
Asked whether he would like to start any other business ventures, Rahim shakes his head.
“God gave me a lot. My dream is to serve the nation. Money is not my dream.”
BORN: March 3, 1965
HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: High school dropout
CAREER: Chairman of the Rahim Group
NOTEWORTHY: Scooter mechanic-turned-millionaire
FAVOURITE FOOD: Mutton
FAVOURITE PLACE: Kashmir
HOBBY: Social work
VALUES: Hard work, dedication, passion, and honesty
INSPIRATION: Prophet Muhammad