It was the worst of times; the world was in the throes of unprecedented disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic. Then, on April 17, 2020, came the news of Ali Suleman Habib’s sudden and untimely demise due to pancreatic disease. It was a devastating blow to his family, his friends, colleagues and associates. Pakistan had lost one of her finest and most dedicated sons; an entrepreneur par excellence, a humanist, a philanthropist, a brilliant strategist, a charismatic leader, a doting family man, a sincere friend and above all, a man of integrity and impeccable honesty.
Ali received his early education at Habib School. He then studied mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota in the US. He also attended a management development programme (MDP) at Harvard University – but it was his love for engineering that was paramount and the motivating force behind his drive for constant innovation and investment in manufacturing projects.
Ali’s passion in the pursuit of excellence was ingrained. He constantly challenged himself and others to excel in any project they took on and thereby achieve their full potential. Never one to sit back and enjoy a cushy life, he believed in positive action. It was his hands-on style of management that saw him at his Toyota plant at least once a week, if not more – and despite his outwardly relaxed demeanour, discipline was at his core. He would be at work at nine in the morning every day and observed all office rules like a regular employee.
From his early days, Ali was a force to be reckoned with. His traits as a natural leader were already apparent when he was in his teens; traits he honed later when he took on the task of reviving many of the Habib family companies that had been adversely affected by the nationalisation policies of the 1970s. His ambition was to re-establish the House of Habib as a premier player in Pakistan’s business world.
To this end, he set up the Indus Motor Company (IMC) in Port Qasim in 1990, by partnering with Toyota Motors to assemble cars for civilian use and 4-wheel drive vehicles for rural and military use. IMC became one of the few companies to acquire a majority shareholding globally from Toyota. The company was considered to be among the most professional and profitable in the automobile manufacturing industry in Pakistan. Another significant achievement for Ali (and after much effort) was his success in obtaining the licence to operate Habib Bank AG Zurich (a Swiss bank established by the Habib Family in the 1960s) in Pakistan. The bank started operating in Pakistan as a foreign bank and later spawned Habib Metropolitan Bank. He also served as a member on the board of directors of Thal Limited, Shabbir Tiles & Ceramics, Habib Metropolitan Bank and Metro Habib Cash and Carry Pakistan.
As one of Pakistan’s leading entrepreneurs, Ali was instrumental in setting up the Pakistan Automobiles Manufacturing Association and was the founding chairman of the Pakistan Business Council and headed the Young Presidents Organisation’s Pakistan Chapter.
Apart from his pursuit of business excellence, Ali was passionate about contributing to Pakistan. To this end, in 2012, he founded Habib University, a liberal arts university in Karachi. One of his last acts in this direction was in 2019, when at a meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan, he commented that a major hurdle in increasing Pakistan’s export potential was the fact that many exporters did not fully understand how to promote the ‘Made in Pakistan’ label. As a result, the PM asked him to work with Razzak Dawood, the Minister of Commerce, and draw up a strategy to address this issue, which is how Ali found himself travelling to Islamabad frequently as an honorary adviser to the Government of Pakistan. He submitted his project report on the project in February this year.
Ali’s determination to push boundaries is best reflected in his love for mountaineering. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at the age of 55 in 2011 and last year, at the age of 63, he climbed Mount Fuji. His love of climbing was mirrored in his business life.
Ali and his wife Munizeh were an integral part of Karachi’s social and cultural circuit, although he often preferred the company of a few close friends. He was a devoted and involved father to his children Alizeh, Imran and Mikayel.
Pakistan has lost a visionary and patriotic industrialist, blessed with a warm and charismatic personality. He leaves behind a proud legacy for Pakistan to follow and a shining example of how to achieve excellence with integrity.
Behram Ahmed is Chairman, BA Group of Companies.
Semyne Khan is a creative & communications consultant.