Former Engro CEO Asad Umar is a revered figure in the corporate world. At just 50 years of age, he has achieved more than what many achieve in a lifetime. Having served as the youngest CEO and President of Engro Corporation for eight years during his 27 year career with the company, he literally transformed the business from a fertiliser company to a giant conglomerate. Undoubtedly, he was a vital force behind the companyís expansion.
With a well-paid job and an illustrious career, itís hard to imagine someone at the top of the corporate ladder to quit it to join politics. But Asad did just that. In April 2012, he resigned from his post at Engro and joined Imran Khanís Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). Needless to say, he is a true patriot who has inspired many and made his countrymen proud of his remarkable achievements.
Us: Can you tell Us a little bit about your early life?
Asad Umar: Well, weíre six brothers and one sister, with me being the youngest of the lot. Since my father was an army officer, we moved from one city to another and for that reason, all of us were born in different cities. I was born in Pindi in 1961 and after my fatherís retirement, we decided to move to Karachi. While growing up, I wanted to be a GD pilot. In fact, the F104 Starfighter was the first love of my life.
Us: What was it like growing up in an army household?
AU: The environment in which I grew up in was the most unfauji. My parents were amiable, supportive and always allowed us to make all the significant decisions ourselves.
Us: How were you as a student?
AU: I had decent scores throughout school and college. They were good, but not outstanding. Eventually, I graduated as an MBA from the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) in 1984 with the highest GPA of my class. I guess the semester system that emphasises on learning and understanding worked for me much better, rather than the rote-learning of the matriculation system.
Us: What made you pursue business education at the IBA?
AU: Actually, my two elder brothers studied at IBA, so I just followed suit.
Us: How was the experience there?
AU: IBA was unbelievable. Itís a great place where I had an excellent learning experience. I also met my wife there with whom I have two sons today.
Us: Did you ever think of going abroad for your higher education?
AU: I couldnít afford to go abroad. In my last semester at IBA, the tuition fees was Rs2,500 back then and my father couldnít even afford to pay that! So, my elder brother, who had started working in a bank, paid it. Having said that, there was a time when all my friends applied to foreign universities as studying abroad was a new trend in those days. I also applied to a university in the Unites States in 1980, and my parents and I decided that they would pay off the first semester fee, while I would work to pay off the rest. But I came back to Pakistan after spending a week abroad. When I was abroad, I kept on wondering Ďis this what I want to do in life?í and I knew in my heart that I didnít.
Us: What values did studying in a government college instill in you?
AU: Throughout my 16 years of schooling, I studied in government institutions including the Government Commerce College in Karachi before I went to the IBA. I think that studying in a government institute connects you to the reality of Pakistan very profoundly. In such institutions, one gets to meet people from diverse backgrounds. On the one hand, you study with kids who come to school in their cars and on the other there are those who use public buses as well. Therefore, in my case, I got to comprehend the reality of Pakistan from different perspectives.
Us: What is your opinion on the brain drain from Pakistan?
AU: I donít think thereís anything wrong with children going abroad to pursue higher education. A lot of people from my generation who went abroad ended up acquiring excellent education and are doing well for themselves now. A few of them have even created tremendous value for Pakistan.
Us: Do you think people should eventually come back and work here?
AU: Thatís a personal decision and there are two different perspectives in this scenario. From a national standpoint, these are the most gifted and brilliant people you have in your society who have what it takes to get into the most distinguished universities abroad and then get excellent job positions. In this regard, we must create favourable conditions where it makes sense for them to come back and meaningfully contribute to the countryís development.
At an individual level, though, itís up to each person to decide for themselves. Every parent would want their child to acquire the best education and thereís nothing wrong in what theyíre doing.
Us: What is the most crucial issue being faced by the countryís education system today?
AU: In Pakistan, we have four completely different educational systems: the elite system, the matriculation system, the madrassa system and lastly, a central part of the country which doesnít go to any school at all. With such distinct educational systems, we have four entirely dissimilar worldviews, which as we have witnessed in the last four years have translated into conflict and social inequality. I reiterate what I said earlier again: thereís absolutely nothing wrong in sending your child to an elite, O-level school because every parent wants the best for their child. Although, from a public policy standpoint, this creates grave problems in the society since education doesnít just instill skills for the job market, but it also shapes their mind and creates the worldview for them.
Us: How can this problem be addressed?
AU: What we need to do is to establish a high standard educational system within the country and everybody should be a part of it. There will be a single curriculum for everyone, thus everybody will have a similar worldview or a shared sense of what the world is about. Studying under the same educational system would also allow the children residing in lower income localities, who donít belong to distinguished schools but are hardworking and smart, to compete with children from elite schools. Let me elaborate my point here with an example. Two school children apply to a college; the A-levelsí kidís result was 1 A, 2 Bs and a C, while the matriculation student scored 80 percent. You really canít gauge whose result is better, but implicitly you think the A-levelsí kid did better when he didnít. With a single educational system in place, thereís a greater opportunity for equality and competition. I strongly believe that you cannot have one nation unless you have one educational system.
Us: Can you tell me about the beginnings of your career?
AU: After a seven-month stint at HSBC Pakistan, I joined Engro in 1985 when the company was still a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. I started off my career as a business analyst and was later appointed the president and chief executive of Engro Corporation Limited in January 2004. The rest is history.
Us: You had a 27-year stint at Engro...how was the journey?
AU: Phenomenal! Itís an amazing company with a strong commitment to ethics, integrity, safety of the people and teamwork.
Us: What motivated you to join politics?
AU: One of the most severe predicaments confronting Pakistan at the moment is the failure to bring about fundamental reforms on account of lack of political will. I personally believe that thereís a dire need for change in the prevalent political system to make substantive changes in Pakistan. Thereís an immense scope for reforms here and thatís what motivated me.
Us: Why PTI?
AU: PTI is the platform right now for any mainstream political party which is most committed to fundamental reforms. For example, its draft policy for the local governance is the most fundamental devolution plan ever produced by any party. It takes power out of Karachi, Lahore, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Quetta and even Islamabad for that matter, and devolves it to the local level, even villages. Devolution is essential for the country to progress. The policies of PTI are in line with my thoughts and ideas, and the party has successfully demonstrated its willingness to bring about the kind of reforms that would change the fate of this country.
Furthermore, I thoroughly believe that the single biggest contribution of PTI is that it has reignited hope amongst the youth that they can take charge of their destiny and make a difference in Pakistan.
Us: Politics is a dirty game, so werenít you apprehensive about entering it?
AU: Iím not in it for money, power or fame. That doesnít interest me at all! My only apprehension would be that weíre unable to develop a policy platform for PTI which focuses on fundamental changes and true reforms. As far as winning the elections is concerned, only time will tell and that would be the real measure of whether weíve been able to connect to the people of Pakistan or not.
Us: What role can the youth play in todayís tumultuous socio-political conditions?
AU: The youth is the strength of Pakistan and it can play a constructive role in the prevailing circumstances. I would encourage all the youngsters to join political parties, whichever they feel is right for them. This is because they must be cognizant that by not permitting themselves to be a part of the political process, they just allow others, whoíre very often not as passionate, sincere or educated as they are, to take charge of their future. Those who canít commit themselves to politics should get engaged in public causes, whatever is closest to their heart. If we can convince the youth to play even the parts that I just mentioned, it would be the beginning of the countryís transformation. Young people should avail quality education and really learn rather than just score top grades. They should also be innovative and give back to the society, as this would not only give them personal rewards, but would also be the most significant contribution from their part.
Us: What are the three qualities required to be a good politician?
AU: Having integrity, passion and the skills and know-how to make a tangible difference in the society. If you combine all these qualities together, you end up with just the right kind of politician a society should have.
Us: Whoís your political role model?
AU: The great Jinnah!
Us: What does happiness mean to you?
AU: Material things and financial achievements have never been the source of happiness for me. True happiness comes from within and is all about people and relationships. So, the memory of the first time I set eyes upon my 10-month-old son after an extended work trip abroad is priceless.
Us: What does politics mean to you?
AU: To me, politics is about making the lives of the citizens of Pakistan better. Thatís precisely what politics should be all about.
Us: If you had not joined PTI, which party would you have joined and why?
AU: Honestly, I donít think I would have entered politics.
Us: What is your greatest achievement?
AU: I am not much of a believer of individual achievements. Iíve always been a part of a team. So, whatever Iíve achieved so far, the credit goes to my team.
Us: Which book are you reading these days?
AU: Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven.
Us: The future of Pakistan is...
AU: Extremely bright! By the time the present youth takes over the nation, the country will be dramatically revolutionised. In only one generation, people can witness tangible changes in Pakistan provided the right leadership sets a strong foothold in the country.
Us: What message would you like to give to the youth of Pakistan?
AU: Live your life to the fullest, believe in yourself and in your country.