Financial Times

Abdul Rahims – 136 years of trading

A family company standing up to the challenges of time
By Duruthu Edirimuni Chandrasekera

I.L.M. Mohammed Cassim may not have dreamt his small trading business which he established in 1872 in Galle Fort would see its fifth generation – but it did. Mr. Cassim, who had four sons decided to name his business after his oldest son, M.C. Abdul Rahim and also include ‘brothers’ in it, at the time. As such he called it M.C. Abdul Rahims and Brothers.

A native of Galle, Mr. Cassim's decision to start the business there was with a lot of insight. At the time Galle Fort, with the Galle Port on one side was a bustling city of trade in the 1800s with a lot of British influence (as Ceylon was a colony of the British Empire).

Buzzing trade

Speaking of the inception of their business, the grand nephew of Mr. Cassim, Ruzly Hussein, now Chairman Abdul Rahims, reminisced what he had heard from S.M. Hussein (a son of one of Mr. Cassim's sons) saying that by the 1870s, there was a need for a retail and trading outlet of household items. "The trade was buzzing at the time in Galle Fort. What Mr. Cassim did was seize that opportunity." He said during the latter part of the 1800s, M.C. Abdul Rahim and his three brothers took over their father's business.

Cutlery at the store

"Many products that were traded at the time were British. In the early part of the 20th century such as the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the company represented brands like Prestige, Wedgewood and Johnson Brothers. Also at the time the company had evolved to wholesale and retail," he said.

Mr. Rahim did not have any children. "But he was very much involved in the business till he passed away in 1930," Bary M. Jaleel, Managing Director of the company, who is Mr. Hussein's nephew, said joining in the discussion.

"The third generation who were the sons of Mr. Rahim's brothers who had joined the business during the first half of 20th century took over the business after Mr. Rahim. “There were seven brothers and cousins who joined – S.M. Hussein, my father, Cassim Jaleel, Zain Jaleel, Razik Cader, Nizam Cader, Dr. Zain Cader and S.M. Mashoor," Mr. Hussein said.

By this time, Abdul Rahims had expanded into the main street in Galle Town. "By the 1930s we branched out to Kandy and then to Nuwara Eliya – probably in the 1940s. Then we went to Wellawatte in 1958. This year we are celebrating 50 years in Wellawatte," Mr. Hussein said. "We expanded to Pettah as well - this may have been in the 1930s," he added.


So how has Abdul Rahims survived for the last 136 years and onto the fifth generation? "I believe it is all to do with integrity and ethical dealings, through which we built confidence among our customers," Mr. Hussein said.

He recalled an incident which took place four years ago during the Sinhala-Hindu New Year at Abdul Rahims' Galle Branch. "A customer wanted six lemonade glass sets, but they were not available at the time. The man insisted saying, 'We always buy from Abdul Rahims the first purchase for the New Year (Ganu Denu) and it has been a custom.' So I called Bary (Jaleel) in Colombo and got him to get the lemonade sets across to Galle. I asked the man to visit the store in the evening and pick them up. Around five o'clock in the evening he came, picked his ware and was elated," he said. Mr. Jaleel noted that it is a southern custom in Galle to conduct Ganu Denu at Abdul Rahims.

Ruzly Hussein Bary M. Jaleel

Mr. Hussein also asserted that in the 1930s, Abdul Rahims was dealing with international suppliers. "Petromax Lanterns from Germany and Aladdin Lamps from England were the most popular. This international exposure in business may have taught them how to conduct business with professionalism early on."

Mr. Hussein said that during the Second World War, Abdul Rahims opened a furniture manufacturing and selling outlet in Trincomalee to cater to the British Naval base. "After the war we closed it," Mr. Hussein said. He added that the fourth generation, his generation, took over a decade after the Second World War. "I joined in 1964 at the age of 17." By then import licences had been introduced. Exchange control was in place. "Social ism had taken root, which at the time was very fashionable," Mr. Hussein recalled.

Worst times

However he said the worst times were from 1970-'77. "This was a more invasive kind of closed economic society that took root with three economic-related cabinet portfolios in charge of leftists – Ministry of Finance (Dr. N.M. Perera), Ministry of Constitutional Affairs (Dr. Colvin R De Silva) and Ministry of Housing (Peter Keuneman) together with draconian laws which were economically counter productive," he said noting one such policy was the ceiling of Rs. 2,500 on income.

"One needed an exit permit to leave the country and there was the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) which allowed for people to be taken to custody without being hauled before court. These types of economically deterrent laws were in place which inhibited the country," Mr. Hussein said. He said it was the 'worst' era for businesses but Abdul Rahims survived with a lot of difficulty. During 1964, Abdul Rahims branched into industries. Diamond Ceiling fans, Diamond Kerosene cookers, Diamond enamel ware and Diamond glassware were some. Abdul Rahims did this with Hong Kong-Chinese collaboration "We had these industries till 1994-1995, but we realised that manufacturing consumer items with a limited market was not economical due to Indian and Chinese product influxes and we exited this segment in 1995,” he added.

He said that Abdul Rahims started two corrugated carton plants which they sold to Munchee (due to the same reason) in 1995. "After this we just concentrated on retail wholesale and institutional sales. We aggressively did tableware and kitchenware catering to the hotel and the food industry during the last 10 years, "Mr. Jaleel said. Abdul Rahims changed into a limited liability company in 1995. "This was easier to function than a partnership than before and also easier to trade in the stock market,” Mr. Hussein said.

What now?

"We want to do something completely outside trading. We are looking at options in the food industry such as restaurants,” he said. He added the company is also looking at the Maldives for some ventures. He said the company was trying to start housing projects during the last two years, but has put it on hold for the moment due to the current economic downturn. "We also want to enhance our brand network. We have aligned with Singer Mega outlets for cross trading, "he said, adding the company is planning to bring in professionals to the company in a bid to be professionally managed.

Stock options

"We would like at some point in time to list on the Colombo Stock Exchange, but a lot of other things need to come into place. That is why we are on the process of professionalizing the company to keep in line with this idea,” he noted.

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