In an exclusive interview with the Managing Director of Rangs Motors Ltd, Ranks Motors Workshop Ltd, Ranks Construction Ltd, Sohana Rouf Chowdhury, Dhaka Tribune’s Zisan Bin Liaquat finds out what it was like breaking the glass ceiling as the only woman executive in the commercial bus and truck industry.
She is currently leading Rangs Motors, established in 1998, as a second-generation leader, inheriting it from her father, the founder, Abdur Rouf Chowdhury. She has been an active player in the Bangladeshi vehicle market, introducing some of the top global automotive brands including Volvo-Eicher, Mitsubishi and Mahindra.
When and how did you start leading the brand’s businesses? Which units are you currently leading?
Since it’s a family-owned business, I always knew I would be inheriting the responsibilities. However, when my father had decided to pass on the torch, I hardly had any prior experience in the informal sector. But, joining the group in 2005, I have been learning, growing, and implementing ideas ever since.
I have been leading different business units of Rangs — Rangs Motors Ltd, Ranks Motors Workshop Ltd, Ranks Interiors Ltd, Ranks Dolonchapa Express Ltd, Ranks Construction Ltd, SASH Ltd, etc as the managing director.
How has the business scene changed from the time of your predecessors?
Attaining the market leader position in the pickup and bus business of Bangladesh with a significant market share and growth amid the globalized competitors was not easy. It had taken much effort and overcoming several challenges.
With a globalized and digital world, the scenario has changed by many folds. Although my predecessor had garnered a reputation for the brand prior to me taking the lead, there had been several challenges in sustaining, adapting, as well as addressing prejudices.
What are some of these challenges?
At first, it was difficult as the industry was very male-dominated and I was the only woman in the business when I took the lead. There were existing prejudices.
One day, a man walked into my office that had my designation written, and despite that, he walked into the room and asked, “Where is your MD?” He could not believe that a woman had been given the controls of the company.
Although that narrative had decreased over time, it still exists in the industry.
In terms of competition, it was fierce! Global brands and foreign investments in the sector would mean standardization, and with a prejudiced perception being existent, I had to do everything to stand out and work very hard to improve the efficiency of my staff and customer service to sustain my predecessor’s good name.
With the consumer base becoming more aware, it was essential to enhance the experience by making clients feel important and valued, for which we were humbled by the excellent feedback.
This kind of support is like an unpaid, word-of-mouth advertisement. People value opinions, and when they hear the Rangs name, they know we are someone they can trust.
Although I believe constant change is the only pathway forward and automation is part of it, the informal industry has a very big bias to automation. So there has been a challenge in terms of digitizing the business in segments.
However, being the first woman leader to have driven through an ongoing pandemic, I had to enable adaptability among the workforce by digitizing our operations and adapting work from home modules to safeguard them.
My staff now believes in digital adaptation and its fruitfulness.
What would be some of your proudest moments?
Well, I was able to establish the state-of-the-art assembly plant called Rangs-Mahindra Vehicle Assembly Plant in Sonargaon, Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s first vehicle assembly plant in Sonargaon was a move to tap the fast-growing local market and reduce the cost of vehicles in the country.
Knowing women must inspire one another and be fully aware that they belong in every decision-making space, I believe I was able to diversify businesses and social initiatives persistently and diligently work towards establishing equal opportunities for women and empowering them for a brighter future.
Dolonchapa, the first privately operated women-only bus service in Bangladesh, as part of the move, helped provide a safe public transport service for women. The women-only bus service provides round-the-clock video surveillance, female-only commuters, and a female-only staffing policy that has inspired others to launch only public transportation services across the country.
One more proud moment that I feel mentioning is being given the right to franchise on my own identity and merit, where my predecessor had only played the part of grooming me well.
I was among a long list of bidders who had owned the rights to a UK-based organic beauty brand that is solely known for its hard stance on ethical operational standards.
Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics franchise in Singapore, which champions against animal testing and promotes ethical and environmentally conscious business practices globally is my venture.
The luxury jewellery brand Amisheé, which brings globalized designs and trends to the local consumer, is also one of my proud ventures outside my existence of the Rangs brand.
Being one of the leading incumbents, what would you say are the challenges and growth opportunities for the automotive industry of Bangladesh?
I would say that manufacturing commercial vehicles in Bangladesh poses both a tremendous growth opportunity as well as a big challenge. As a leading industry incumbent, we at Rangs would like to begin manufacturing parts for trucks and buses as the country plans to become a manufacturing hub in the future.
There is great potential in the global export market and our neighbouring countries India and China already have their manufacturing plants for manufacturing commercial vehicles.
However, it is quite a challenge to ensure a large enough market for exports as well as developing a skilled workforce for manufacturing our vehicles. Nonetheless, if we as a nation can overcome these challenges, domestically manufacturing vehicles would not only contribute to upskilling our workforce but also benefit our trade balance and help reduce complete dependency on imports.
In that regard, light engineering is a very promising sector and holds a huge opportunity of grabbing a significant share in the global market.
Even Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recognized its potential and deemed it the “product of the year” this January. The local technology-based sector is reportedly manufacturing products worth Tk250 billion, including 3,815 different types of machinery, spare parts, and other accessories.
This promising sector accounted for 1.5% of the country’s exports and provided substitutes for around 50% of imported items, thereby increasing Bangladesh’s foreign exchange reserves.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the automotive industry?
Businesses have been flourishing due to rising demand and digitalization. Improved logistics have also led to higher demand for commercial vehicles.
However, the growth of the vehicle market has been lower compared to many of our neighbouring economies. The outbreak of the pandemic has worsened the situation and like most other industries, incumbents of the automotive industry are also resorting to alternative and more sustainable solutions to keep their businesses afloat.
Nonetheless, demand for smaller commercial vehicles, especially 1-ton trucks, has increased due to the rise in logistics companies, small entrepreneurs, and e-commerce stores like Daraz. However, compared to previous years, the overall market size has decreased.
Where do you see the organization in the upcoming years under your leadership?
Past successes are never a guarantee for future success. With new technologies, and a new millennial workforce pool joining the organization every other day, the group is undergoing radical changes to ready itself for an exciting future.
The organizational culture built around “Shaping for Excellence” is at the heart of transforming the entire organization into an agile, customer-oriented, and engaging organization that promises to take the organization to where it wants to be — from a successful and historic group of businesses to an agile and tech-savvy organization geared for the future.