How a 'simple soldier' turned into a millionaire

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

He claims to be at heart a ''simple soldier'' who accidentally became a businessman.

But in the bustling strategy rooms of his multimillion-dollar empire nothing is left to chance. And despite his own modest disclaimers, there is something of a legend surrounding Pakistan's retired Lt. Gen. Habibullah Khan Khattak.

Whether he's a millionaire or billionaire, he's not quite certain. ''How much did we loose in nationalization?'' he asks his Tufts-educated daughter, Nefer Habibullah Khan. ''Yes,'' he concedes, ''my career has been turbulent.''

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He is living testament to the ups and downs of industrial policy which have plagued Pakistan's private sector.

He benefited from the permissiveness of the 1960s, when the government favored the private sector with handsome subsidies and import controls. But then many of his large holdings were nationalized by the socialist government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who came to power in 1971.

Five and a half year after Bhutto's downfall, nearly all of his controls remain. And now the Zia government owns some 60 manufacturing enterprises and oversees two-thirds of the country's industrial investment. An uncertain economic and political climate continues to inhibit large-scale private investment here, despite government efforts.

Why is General Habibullah investing and expanding, unlike most of his contemporaries? ''I have faith in this country,'' the sexagenarian said. ''And, '' he added, with a glint in his eye, ''as the man said who fell from the 10th story, but was cushioned by an awning on the eighth, 'So far, so good.' That continues as my personal strategy.''

Unlike most of Pakistan's business leaders, General Habibullah is a self-made entrepreneur. Scion of an established Pathan family from the North-West Frontier , he is anathema to Pakistan's club of ''the 22'' business families, with roots in Bombay's shipping-merchant class.

He was the youngest chief of staff in Pakistan's history, made his first million dollars by age 46, was arrested at one point by the Bhutto government as a ''danger to the country,'' and has introduced revolutionary concepts of management that unsettled this country's patrician class.

He brought in a highly skilled cadre of Western-educated managers and technocrats - unprecedented in this country of old business houses, where manager, owner, and shareholder are usually the same.

''You can't have aunts and uncles running such a vast undertaking,'' General Habibullah said.

Now overseeing a vast empire, including textiles, chemicals, sugar, fertilizers, and cement, the general has embarked on a three-fold $35 million expansion program for his General Tyre and Rubber Company of Pakistan. The only tire manufacturer in the country, General Tyre now meets 30 percent of Pakistan's needs. With the projected expansion, it will cover 70 percent of the country's needs.

The company now has paid-up capital of $8 million and sales of $30 million a year. And the general, controlling some 32 companies under the group-holding company of Bibojee Services Ltd., has assets in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Bangladesh. His companies are known for their progressive labor policies; he has opened 10 percent of the shares in some companies to the workers.

Why is General Tyre the only private-sector company making such a large commitment to expansion in Pakistan?

''We know the constraints,'' said Dr. Adil S. Mufti, the company's director and general manager. ''But our attitude has been that, if we have to wait for economic direction to make investment, it just won't happen here. We still haven't seen the government's labor policy, although we've been told that the announcement is imminent for the past three years. Yes, in Pakistan one always risks nationalization. Perhaps what we're doing, . . . you could call it industrial risk.''

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