Leisure, Lifestyle & Wellness
Life Exclusive
Natural beauty and the smart Lebanese people

Learning the art of doing business from the hardworking and smart Lebanese businessmen. The 51st part of a series describing the unknown triumphs and travails of doing international business

As we entered the fag end of 1969 and having spent some six months in the Lebanon, we settled down well. We met a lot of Lebanese people of different walks of life and realised how hardworking and smart the businessmen were in being the conduit for promoting sale of goods from various countries to Saudi customers, who, in order to beat the heat came in thousands to live in the mountains of Lebanon with their families. Likewise, many came to spend their holidays to have fun in the snow-clad Cedar Mountains.
 
Yes, I came to know that Lebanon was one of the few countries in the world where one could live in the plains in the city, feel the mild and enjoyable winter climate and yet, in a couple of hours drive reach the mountains to enjoy the beauty of snow. The cedar tree, an important symbol in the centre of the Lebanese flag, I was told, had a religious reason too, in that Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross made of cedar wood!  There were some rains too in winter in the city, but, tourists, who flocked to take advantage of the climate, would swim in the Mediterranean, enjoy the sun, and travel back to the mountains so that they could skin the next morning!
 
Saudi and other Arab countrymen would come down to Beirut with their families and enjoy their summer vacation, instead of going to Europe and facing the unpleasant truth of not knowing the language, whereas, in Lebanon, they were at ‘home’ and enjoy the hospitality at comparatively cheaper cost. It is at this time the Lebanese agents would also travel up to the mountain resorts and sell their wares. A lot of business was thus concluded, very often, we were able to meet the Saudi and Gulf buyers in the city when they came down from the mountains to do their shopping.  The Lebanese businessmen had the advantage of being able to speak fluently both French and English, and acted as the ‘tarjuman’ or translator into Arabic, thus concluding business and pocketing a commission.
 
Many seasoned exporters, who stopped over at Beirut, en route to UK and Europe would invariably take the assistance of these agents to conclude business. Thanks to the arrangement made by Lakshmipathy, my predecessor, they would stay in the Commodore Hotel, get a special discount, as being members of the Council, and walk it up to our office in the Commestra Building. After my taking over, I continued this practice, and became friendly with all the folks at the front desk so that our exporters did not have problems. Though the Lebanese food had a number of vegetarian items to choose from, for the diehard Indian, we were able to guide them to visit Sirena Restaurant, owned by Bisham Verma and his Lebanese wife. Sirena was also catering to Air India.
 
Thanks to the support received from the Indian Embassy, and spearheaded by Ganga Lal Casewa, the world’s first All-Women Indian Cooperative Society was established in Hamra Street, Beirut, with Pushpa Dewan as president and Pratibha Patel as the secretary. This was the first point of cultural contact between the Lebanese and Indian women where a lot of cultural activities were organized.
 
We had regular visitors from Syria, who were keen to get supplies of agricultural implements, diesel engines, auto parts and a few other items for the construction industry. The problem, however, was the payment, as the Syrian government was not permitting direct imports, and most of the goods were routed through government organisations. They, however, permitted the imports, provided there was no outflow of foreign exchange. Merchants, being what they are, devised ways and means to short circuit the process by arranging for 365 days credit, and arranging for the remittance from Lebanon, which had no exchange control regulations.
 
The labour supply in Lebanon came mostly from Syria; thousands of workers would cross the Masnaa Border everyday by bus and share-taxis, work in Beirut on agricultural lands, return back once a week or so.  The earnings, in Lebanese pounds or lira, were locally converted into dollars, etc, and this was bought at a premium for remittance to meet such imports. This practice was known to all, but as there was no objection for receiving remittance against exports effected,
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) apparently did not make any ruling.
 
Our joint venture committee, meanwhile met regularly and other Indian expatriates like Capt Bedi (representing LN Thapar), Fakir Chand Karani (king of pearls who had a jewellery factory), Zaveri and Lalwani keenly watched the progress. I was able to get some good contacts and advice from these people, which I was able to use to advantage.
 
Beirut also boasted of the successful running of the AUB—the American University of Beirut, where a large number of students from Lebanon and from all neighbouring Arab countries were admitted. The faculty was both American and Arab and a number of businessmen had their wards here from Saudi Arabia. For the Arabs in general, for education purposes, they either chose the AUB or the Cairo University for higher education.
 
It was only through the regular visits of PD Patel of Sigil India, Kanthibhai of KB Thaker & Co and Muhammed of Kirloskar Oil Engines I was able to get a lot information and support in our attempts to gather knowledge of the Syrian market, which was practically closed due to centralized imports and exchange controls. We did have a bilateral trade with them, like we had with so many others.
 
As the market was developing, I was more and more in contact with exporters who were stopping over at Beirut. I gathered the importance of establishing a working relation with Saudi Consulate.
 
Although I had established a long working schedule for myself, averaging some 12 hours a day, working six days a week, it really became a nuisance when some exporters would stop over for a couple of days, have no contact with me or the Embassy, and then barge into the office and demand service on Saturday evenings. I tried my best to meet their requirements most of the times; but, eventually, decided that I will be out of circulation on Sundays at least to be with my family and kids. Yet, it was only much later that we could take them on site-seeing of places like Grotto or Jeita. Or, for that matter, Mamaari Castle, which was built by a Lebanese engineer and generated its own electric power by the artificial forced flow of water. The other picnic spot was Damour, where a small tributary of Dog River passed by, and from where we could see the Israeli soldiers in the occupied lands.
 
Lebanon was and is a great place to live with its wonderful people, as long as one kept away from religion or politics, which anyway was the keynote for success in peaceful living in this part of the world.

(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts. From being the advisor to exporters, he took over the mantle of a trader, travelled far and wide, and switched over to setting up garment factories and then worked in the US. He can be contacted at anantha_ramdas@yahoo.com.)

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Reorganisation in Beirut: Meeting merchants and discussing their problems

Delay in shipments was the main grouse of merchants in the Middle East. The 50th part of a series describing the unknown triumphs and travails of doing international business

The mail to and from India generally took 15 days arrive, when it was being delivered by the postman; but because of the post box arrangement made, we began to get tonnes of mail within seven days, though some arrived after 10 days from posting in India. It appeared that my reporting was satisfactory, as some of the exporters who had the opportunity to speak to our chairman or secretary had appreciated the good work done and the efforts being put to improve services.
 
In course of my afternoon visits, I was able to meet some leading merchants, most of whom were acting as agents for supplies to Saudi Arabia. They included Globetraders (owned by MS Dewan), Paul Weil & Fils, Jamil Bajk and Amin O Rifai, to name a few. It was through the local agents, I was able to gather more information on the pricing of products by our competitors, and Samir from Paul Weil would happily supply me samples of pipe fittings from Taiwan which were superior in quality. Indian galvanized pipes were good, but he always mentioned that unlike Japan, which had no particular restriction on the quantity of half inch pipes, Indian manufacturers and their agents did not give more than 10% of the total value for this mostly used size in the construction industry.  He did mention that India was unbeatable in cast iron products and diesel engines, but for delayed shipments, we could achieve more!
 
As for imports into Lebanon, he always lamented on the poor shipping facilities and delays in commission remittance. As I regularly met VP Singh, our commercial attaché at the embassy, he had similar stories to tell and he felt that Indian exporters did not take the trouble to approach the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) for permission to remit commission immediately upon booking the order. Besides, as there was no restriction for remittance of commission up to 5% of the fob value, he also felt that it was fundamentally the careless attitude of the exporter that caused delays.
 
Some of the Indian exporters who spent several days in Lebanon pointed out that their main problem was getting a visa to go to Saudi Arabia, though they were not much keen in going to that country, not only because of language, but also for problems created in the past by others in delayed shipments, etc.  
 
There was mail coming from my head office asking me to plan a visit to this market because of its size and importance. Armed with a letter of introduction and my own application, I submitted my documents for a visa. After a chat with the counsellor, I was given a visit visa for fifteen days, but after I paid some SR100 (riyals) as Religious Tax to SAMA (Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency), because I was travelling during Haj time. I think at that time the Indian ambassador, who had just joined was Mr Abdullah, a former IG of Police from Madras, and Mr Fazul ur Rahman Bijli was the commercial secretary. I suppose it was good luck that all of us became good friends and were able to depend on each other for advice and support.
 
After visiting Jeddah for a few days, when I met leading importers like Ghulam Masood,Unitar (United Arab Agency) manager Karim, Mohammed Abdullah from National Commercial Bank, Bashaikh, Bamoudi and others. I got an idea of the market, its expectations and the problems they faced, which again, revolved around shipment delays, part shipments and poor packaging. Al Rajahi, though a large family-owned company with varied interests, was one of the few which were happy with the quality of diesel engines, but not happy with shipments!
 
I moved on to spend a few days in Riyadh before reaching Dammam, the second largest port, much closer to India. I realized the potential of this market, but the main problems were already known in terms of quality, full quantity, price and regularity of shipments. After a full working day in Bahrain, I moved on to Dubai on the last leg of my first overseas tour covering my beat. This market was full of Indian merchants and I was welcomed by Rohit Patel of Patel Trading Co, who were the sole importers of Sigil Diesel engines and a wide range of other engineering goods like MS pipes, fittings and pump sets, to name a few.
 
The sleepy village of Dubai was becoming a modern town as construction activity was taking place in several areas. I felt and agreed with Rohit that it may be good idea to have at least a sub-office of the council here, as the market was developing.
 
The visitors from India were now increasing, thanks probably due to the great number of enquiries that were being generated. Some of those with whom I had actually gone to negotiate business had confirmed the details to our head office, from where I began to get letters of appreciation for the good work done.
 
I had a chance to meet Munir Haddad, from Dresden Bank who was the owner of Commestra building from whom we had rented our office. I met him in Suleiman's house, a partner of Parekh, along with Meena Ghandour who travelled to Saudi Arabia and sold steel and allied products.  Rajagopalan, who had spent some time in Ethiopia and was associated with the Military Academy of the Haile Saleisse's government, was now with Maliban Glass Works, making bottles for the soft drink manufacturers of the Middle East, became friendly and had lots information and advice to give to make my work even more enjoyable than it was before.
 
Mooted by Casewa of STC, few of us joined to form a joint venture committee with a view to meet regularly and think of areas where India could profitably enter into the area of joint ventures, instead of being shop keepers in opening and operating shops of Indian handicrafts.
 
Although we had spent a few months in Beirut, we had not seen any of the historical sites or places of interest that a visitor would like. I had received a lot of information on Baalbek, the historical site and about the Grotto and Jeita caves in the mountains. Because of the distance, I had not travelled alone to the Casino du Liban on my own, except, when a couple of exporters made a special request that I accompany them. While they went and saw the floor show, I spent more time watching the games being played in various halls, like the slot machines and roulette. I neither had the money nor the knowledge to play in such a large and frenzied atmosphere.
 
As I settled down in the first few months of operation and the year was coming to a close, I was determined to establish my name in getting the job done in the area, and breaking through to increase our exports.

(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts. From being the advisor to exporters, he took over the mantle of a trader, travelled far and wide, and switched over to setting up garment factories and then worked in the US. He can be contacted at anantha_ramdas@yahoo.com.)

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The second most frequent question I am asked is ‘what car should I buy’? And the answer, usually, goes like this—work out things in a pragmatic way; go for VfM (value for money); if you must have size, then go for a people-mover and...

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