CEOs,Kashmir

On the outskirts of Baramulla town was once a match factory,the Valley’s only such factory that employed hundreds of locals. Then,in the late ’80s,militancy struck and the match factory shut down. Today,it houses a BSF camp. With the Valley torn apart by militancy and counter-insurgency operations,the story of the match factory—set up in 1934 and believed to be the first such local enterprise in north India—was,for many years,the story of Kashmir’s entrepreneurship. That narrative could now be changing. In 2011,when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi visited Kashmir,a group of students asked him why industrialists were unwilling to invest in Kashmir. That prompted Rahul to come back with a delegation of business tycoons—Ratan Tata,Kumar Mangalam Birla,Ashok Reddy,Rajiv Bajaj and Deepak Parekh. They met university students and discussed career opportunities for Kashmiris. Nothing concrete has come of the visit so far. But now,a handful of Kashmiris aren’t waiting for anyone to invest in the Valley—they are doing so themselves. “Many Kashmiris who lived outside the state are now investing in the state and the government is providing them incentives,’’ said Bilal Ahmad,Kashmir’s Joint Director Development,Industries and Commerce.

Written by Mir Ehsan | Published:June 23, 2013 4:09 am

Manzoor Ahmad Wagay,36

MD,Noora Hospital,Srinagar

It was a holiday that didn’t go according

to plan. Six years ago,Manzoor Ahmad Wagay had come home to Srinagar from the United Kingdom to spend time with his family. But his father Mohammad Ismail Wagay,a retired headmaster,fell ill and Wagay had to stay back. Every weekend,he would travel with his father to New Delhi for his medical check-ups. The trips were exhausting but the Wagays didn’t have much of a choice. The Valley’s government hospitals were overburdened and there was no good private hospital that offered specialised treatment—the kind the senior Wagay needed. That was the first time Wagay thought of setting up a full-fledged private hospital in the Valley.

“I had done my Masters in Business Administration from De Montfort University in Leicester,United Kingdom. I was planning to take up a job in London,though my parents always wanted me to start a business in the Valley. I was initially hesitant,but the idea of setting up a hospital made me stay back,’’ says Wagay,36,now the Managing Director of the 60-bed Noora hospital that has come up on the outskirts of the city,on the Srinagar-Baramulla national highway.

“It is not easy to set up a hospital in Kashmir—no entrepreneur wants to take that kind of risk. Besides expertise,it requires a lot of money. I had started off with a small project in mind,but it turned out to be bigger than I had planned. I run this hospital on a business model. We charge less than what patients would pay for similar care outside the state. Patients with low income can also afford our treatment.’’

Wagay now wants to convert Noora into the Valley’s first multi-specialty hospital. “At present,we can take 60 patients, but soon it will be a 100-bed hospital equipped with state-of-the-art equipment.”

He says he will put in more money over the next three to four years. “The situation in Kashmir can turn volatile anytime. Yet,I dream of that day—hopefully,not too far away—when my hospital will carry out neurosurgeries,and kidney- and heart-transplant operations.”

When Wagay began work on the hospital in 2009,it was largely a family-funded project. The family sold vast chunks of their ancestral land and Wagay raised the rest through bank loans. “To invest Rs 15-20 crore in Kashmir is risky,but we took this plunge,’’ he says.

After a few hurdles—the agitation in Srinagar in 2009 and 2010 held up construction—the hospital was finally inaugurated last year. Besides 24×7 emergency services,the hospital boasts of specialties in general medicine,paediatrics,general surgery,orthopaedics,trauma,ophthalmology,neurology,cardiology,nephrology and urology.

Wagay hopes that in the coming years,his business will break even. “For me,this hospital is a business venture as well as a platform for social service. Nobody from outside the state has so far invested in the health sector. Maybe in the future,more private hospitals will come up. Kashmir needs them badly,’’ he says.

Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat,40

Owner,Aqua Impex,mineral water and fruit juice plant,Baramullla

Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat runs Aqua Impex Food,one of the Valley’s biggest plants processing and bottling fruit juices and mineral water. Bhat belongs to a business family—they own a wholesale grocery business in Baramulla—so it was only natural that he would start one himself.

“Five years ago,I discussed the idea of setting up a mineral water and juice plant in Baramulla. My family supported me wholeheartedly but I had to face a lot of bureaucratic hurdles,’’ says Bhat,sitting in his office in north Kashmir’s Baramulla town.

The plant came up in 2009 and today,in eight-hour shifts,it processes more than 30,000 litres of juice and water. “I know I am competing with international brands. Our main emphasis is on the quality of the product. Anyone can walk in and inspect our product,’’ he says.

“Our juice and mineral water are marketed under 14 brands and are even sold in Punjab and Himachal Pradesh,’’ he says. “Though I had to run around a lot to get approvals from different authorities,it has been worth it.”

Sanam Mehjoor,31

Owner and chief executive officer of

White Valley dairy,Pulwama

In the last one year,Sanam Mehjoor has made a few giant leaps of faith—from London to Srinagar,and from a career in law to one in the dairy business. The 31-year-old is now the owner and chief executive officer of White Valley,a fledgling dairy company in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

“My parents are from Doda and moved to the United Kingdom three decades ago. My in-laws are here in Srinagar. Though I took a degree in law from the London School of Economics,I have always wanted to set up a business of my own. Initially,I thought I would start one in London,along with my husband,but later we decided we would set up a business in the Valley where it is needed the most,’’ says Sanam,monitoring the operations at her milk plant where she has employed 25 people so far.

Once Sanam and her husband had made up their minds about moving to Kashmir,they had to decide on the business to invest in. “First,we thought of the hotel business,but later zeroed in on milk production,’’ says Sanam. “We had been reading a lot about spurious milk being supplied in the Valley,so we thought we would set an example and bring quality milk to our people,’’ she says.

Sanam later visited several dairy units in the United Kingdom to understand the best industry models. “I have tried to implement the best of what I saw and learnt outside the country,’’ she says.

Sanam’s unit is only four months old and its production is gradually picking up. “We produce 50,000 litres of milk every day using scientific methods,’’ she says. “We use machines to clean the unit in which the milk is processed and have developed a quality-testing lab inside the unit. We do not use imported milk and source our milk from homes in Pulwama. Almost every family in the district owns a cow.’’

Sanam has also roped in experts from Gujarat and other states. So far,she has invested Rs 8 crore in the project. Though a few of her friends and relatives tried to dissuade her from investing in the Valley,Sanam says she went right ahead. “Three years ago,when I first announced my decision to start a business in Kashmir,my family and friends were shocked. Some even told us that our business would prove disastrous. But I am glad to have proved them wrong,’’ she says.

Ehsan Javeed,31

Owner,Golden Apple cold storage,Shopian

Javeed had grown up hearing stories of apples. Not very happy ones,though. His grandfather and uncles owned a few apple orchards in Shopian,south Kashmir’s apple belt,and they would often discuss their rotting crop,how the price they got for their produce wasn’t good enough and the losses they had suffered. But his father was a sessions judge and Javeed knew a career in law awaited him. Apples were nowhere on his mind.

In 2001,he went to Pune to study law at Symbiosis Law School and five years later,joined TCS in Mumbai. The money was good,but after two years,he missed home and decided to come back to Shopian.

When he returned in June 2009,the Valley was on the boil,especially the town of Shopian where two young women had been killed. The Valley witnessed frequent curfews and agitations. “Those were tough days. Many of my friends advised me to go back to Mumbai,’’ says Javeed.

The fruit growers of Shopian were among the worst affected during the unrest of 2009. The only cold storage in the state was in Pulwama but with the strikes and roadblocks,there was no way the farmers could transport their produce. Mounds of fruits lay rotting in orchards. That’s when Javeed decided he would set up a cold storage in Shopian.

Over the next two years,Javeed devoted all his time towards the construction of the cold storage,and in 2011,his Golden Apple cold storage,with a capacity of 2,000 metric tonnes,was ready. “I have already invested Rs 15 crore in the project. Now I plan to beef up the capacity by another 3,000 metric tonnes as the demand is growing,’’ he says.

The peak season for the cold storage starts in mid-June,and so this is among the busiest times at the plant. “We have more than 50 people,including engineers and technicians,working here,’’ Javeed says.

When his cold storage is full with apples,he arranges buyer-seller meets for the growers. He now plans to procure refrigeration trucks to ship apples outside the state.

When Javeed decided to set up the cold storage,many of his friends and relatives laughed at him. “They said,‘Kashmir doesn’t need cold storages. Your money is gone’. Now people want me to set up more such units,especially in north Kashmir.’’

Shahid Kamili,38

Owner,Himalayan Rolling Steel Industries,Srinagar

When Shahid Kamili first spoke of quitting his government job and setting up his own business,his friends and family were horrified. What would a middle-class Kashmiri know about doing business? After all,his father and grandfather both held government jobs. And business in Kashmir,of all places?

Thirteen years later,sitting in his plush office in Srinagar’s Sanat Nagar industrial estate,Kamili has proved all those fears wrong. The 38-year-old is the owner of Himalayan Rolling Steel Industries,a steel mill on the outskirts of the city that started operations in May with an investment of Rs 60 crore. “It is a very big project,the first of its kind in the Valley,’’ says the young entrepreneur. Once it’s fully operational,he says,the mill will produce 2.5 crore tonnes of steel a year and will employ several hundred people.

After doing his civil engineering from Chennai,Kamili came home and joined the Roads and Buildings Department of the J&K government. But he was itching to do something on his own and finally in 2000,he quit his job to set up a business of supplying pre-fab huts to government departments. His business helped him gain both contacts and confidence and finally,in 2004,he decided to scale up and start a steel mill.

But it wasn’t an easy ride. “We started the steel mill project in 2004 after the government gave us a marshy piece of land on the outskirts of the city. We had to fill it with 14,000 truckloads of soil,’’ he says. Even after the land was ready,three years of unrest in the Valley—in 2008,2009 and 2010—delayed the project. “We finally managed to complete it this year,’’ he says.

“A lot of people advised me against setting up the steel mill in the Valley. They said Jammu was a better option since it is less volatile and has favourable business conditions. But I am glad I didn’t listen to them. Though the factory was a personal goal,I also wanted to create job opportunities for the youth in the Valley. Unemployment is a growing problem here since everybody waits to land a government job,’’ he says.

Kamili is hopeful that once the unit starts full production,it will have more than 600 skilled and unskilled employees on board. “We now have more than 250 people on our rolls and the majority are locals,’’ he says.

Kamili is now planning to set up another plant to produce saline fluid to be supplied to hospitals. “I have already completed the formalities for the project. Hopefully,the plant will be functional next year.”

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