In Conversation with ASHRAF BIN TAJ, Managing Director, International Distribution Company Bangladesh Pvt. Ltd.
Ashraf Bin Taj is the co-founder and Managing Director of International Distribution Company Bangladesh Pvt. Ltd. (IDC), a fast-growing marketing and distribution company based in Dhaka. Starting with British American Tobacco Bangladesh as an intern, Mr. Taj has worked with renowned organizations such as Berger Paints, Ispahani, Nestle Bangladesh and ACI Consumer Brands. From collecting retail database in early career to looking after multiple marketing portfolios of brands, Ashraf Bin Taj is one of the most celebrated marketing experts of the country. Consequently, he is the President of the Marketing Society of Bangladesh.
After almost two decades of corporate career, Ashraf Bin Taj moved into his entrepreneurial career in 2013 by co-founding International Distribution Company (IDC). Starting with only 26 people, IDC has grown into one of the celebrated distribution companies now, having almost 500 employees. In February, IDC has held its third annual conference at the Bangabandhu International Conference Center, with the theme ‘Lead the Future’. In this exclusive interview with Bangladesh Brand Forum, Mr. Taj shares his insights on sales and marketing, and the journey of IDC.
BBF: How has been the journey of IDC over the last 4 years?
Ashraf Bin Taj: We started our journey in August 2013, with 26 people. Our first principal was Ferrero chocolate company. They have been supporting us like a friend from the very beginning. Ferrero is extremely careful about hygiene and quality control; as we could meet their expectation, this helped us to get Amul as our next principal. For the first one year, they two were our principals. In the middle of 2015, we got Nivea on board. Latest we got Unilever International as our principal last year. We are also an enlisted supplier to Bata Shoe Company. Today, we are a team of almost 500 people. By the end of this year, around 650 people will be under IDC’s direct payroll.
BBF: Shade some light on IDC’s way of keeping the salesforce of 500 employees motivated.
Ashraf Bin Taj: We have a large team. We have different teams with supervising managers for different businesses and different zones. There is a national sales manager for each of the businesses and under his guidance, there are numbers of regional managers. We have formal meetings on a regular basis. Other than that, we have weekly review meetings where we give performance feedback. Alongside, throughout the year we initiate number of training sessions where we bring in regional experts with the help of our principals. These trainings are for both the leadership team and the sales team. For example, to sell Ferrero products a salesperson needs to be more aware of the shelf life and technicality of storing chocolates. Therefore, Ferrero send their expert to train our people. For Nivea, a very experienced trainer from India comes every year to train our salesperson and beauty advisors. All these frequent interactions help the team-members to stay true to the objective. On top of these, we practice a fair remuneration policy; unlike many local companies, our employees get their salary on the first day of the month. Also, there is a variable pay policy and recognition practice. We practice a flat and horizontal communication across the company up to my level to drive speed and transparency. So, this whole package, I believe inspires IDC employees.
BBF: Nivea, Unilever International and Ferrero product lines have many more than 100s SKUs. How do you manage the complexity from demand planning to sales execution?
Ashraf Bin Taj: The no. of SKUs are much more actually. We exercise couple of rigorous process of sales and operational planning. We try to look a bit forward to forecast zone-wise demand. We have all the store location outlined, from which we plan for future expansion. We categorize our SKUs in multiple parts, as in priority SKUs, must-have SKUs and our sales people maintain a memo for every shop which their supervisors monitor. Since different teams are there for different product lines, it’s quite efficient for my team to meet the demand. Over that, we have recently adopted digital automation for our distribution work. We have integrated an app which is helping us to keep track of our orders more efficiently. We are trying to reduce the manual dependency and as of now, our business for Dhaka is largely automated with the app. So, this fast-acquired data helps us to manage this large demand more adequately.
BBF: For advancing in a career of Sales & Marketing, what are some of the key things someone should focus on?
Ashraf Bin Taj: For marketing, you must understand people’s behavior and psychology. What makes them happy, what makes them sad, what makes them take a decision – you have to have good analytical capability of understanding these. You have to be good with numbers because you have to work with data to take strategic decisions. Lastly, of course, you need negotiation skills. No matter how great of a product you have, if you cannot convince the buyer, your sales effort will not succeed. If you lack effective negotiation and communication skills, take up a soft skill course. For example, you can develop sustainable negotiation skills with Scotwork’s solutions which are tailored to meet specific business approaches.
For sales, you have to walk an extra mile with the people – you have to be really great at going along with them. You are going to a stranger, who happens to be a shopkeeper or distributor, you are selling a proposition and you have to realize money in exchange – it is not an easy job. So you must be very good with getting along with the people. Alongside, in sales you may need to lead a team of hundred people or even more. There comes the necessity of leadership. You will also have to be responsible with your delivery. You must be prepared for delivering you results on everyday basis. You have to be responsive as well. Emergency can come any moment and you must respond to that immediately. Lastly, you should treat your customer, who can be your distributor or shopkeepers, as your partners. Think about their business as well. If they are not making money on your brand, they will not be able to support you. For today’s world, you must have digital skills for both marketing and sales.
BBF: Do you ever personally visit stores to check on the distribution scenario?
Ashraf Bin Taj: Yes, I do it pretty often. My core focus is business development, so at least once a week I am out there somewhere. Not just superstores, I go anywhere any day – for example, if I have a meeting in Uttara, I start a bit early, and get off at Nikunja to visit some stores. I talk to the shopkeepers and try to get an insight of what has been the scenario of that area lately. Then I send feedback to my team; often I just take photos of the stores and Whatsapp it. This is almost a regular task of my daily life. I believe it is a must for the sales people to have that drive to explore new stores. A sales person must have that inquisitiveness.
BBF: Where do you see IDC in 2025?
Ashraf Bin Taj: In near future, our business will revolve around food and personal care products. For now, we want to be the most admired distribution company. For becoming the most admired distribution company, you need not to be the biggest – rather you have to maintain quality and best practices. So, our immediate concentration is on that. We want to be the game changer. May be 5 years down the line, we will launch our own brands. But that is not the priority right now.
I personally want to bring in global distribution practices to Bangladesh, through IDC. I am trying to learn from the big distribution companies all over the world. I am hopeful, IDC will be a global standard distribution company in very near future.