The Melody of Colors painted by the brush strokes of passion turn the tides of time. Lucky are the ones who are able to embrace their inner calling and act relentlessly upon it. From a professional career spanning decades across Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, Mr. Noor Haidri embraced the various challenges that are part and parcel of a corporate life with a warrior’s grit while stealing time to paint his passion for music. Something he calls an inner trance of the soul like the dancing dervishes of Rumi in Konya. We spent the day chatting away in his apartment in Dubai where a blank canvas in a dedicated corner lay silent, waiting for the melodies to spread across in all hues and shades of love. These are stories of individuals who had refused to hang their boots, well paintbrush in the case of Mr. Haidri and committed themselves to create a difference to the world at large and to themselves as well. Please join our conversation and enjoy the learnings and experience of decades.
Najib: Thanks a lot for sparing some time for us Mr. Haidri.
N Haidri: The pleasure is all mine and it’s a great opportunity for me to share my life and times with your audience.
Najib: Who is Noor Haidri?
N Haidri: I was born in Lucknow in 1942 in united India. We were 4 brothers and 2 sisters. I was enrolled in Hussainabad Government school from grade 6th to 10th and my registered name was Noor Ul Hasnain Haidri and everyone called me Noorul. I went to Christian College to complete my 12th grade and my peers used to call me Haidri and my family would relate to me as Nazar. I enrolled in the NCC Air wing and was selected as a Junior officer for the commission but later decided to move to Pakistan while my parents stayed back in India. P
akistan was a newly formed country and one of my aunts had advised me to move there and become a part of the nation building.
Najib: How were the initial days in Pakistan for a newly migrated young man?
N Haidri: It had been tough, for a pampered young man surrounded by servants, family, and siblings the initial days had been lonely. I stayed with an uncle but because of being innately independent took up a job at a local petrol station at just 120 Rupees per month, the money was paltry and the job was menial and difficult but it did prepare me for the future adventures of my life.
Najib: What triggered your interest in art?
N Haidri: I had always admired art and music; in my spare time I would visit advertising agencies to see if I could get some work. During this time Pakistan Arts Council in Karachi announced arts classes for the first time and I eventually enrolled at fees of 40 Rupees per month and used to take off from the Petrol Station from 4 to 8 pm. It had been hard but I got to learn from the best. The famous Internationally acclaimed artist like Hamidur Rahman, Zainul Abedeen, Nasir Shamsi and Ajmal Husain was my teachers. Apart of those Azer Zubi, Sadeqain and Nagi used to be our visiting professors.
Najib: Did you continue working at the gas station?
N Haidri: I met Mr. Sardar Mohammad during my classes, he was the art director in National Advertising and I requested him if he can give me a job in his agency, he had seen my work, therefore, he hired me right away to work with them. From there on I had an opportunity to work for JW Thompson, Lintas, and W.S. Crafford, the leading advertising agencies of the time. I was always encouraged by the art directors and was able to apply my learnings at these great organizations while chiseling my skills at the Art Council. I worked around the clock and used to live in YMCA that was in close proximity to my office. Mr. H N Effendi was my Art Director in J. Walter Thompson, who until his demises always appreciated and acknowledged my efforts.
Najib: These must be interesting times, what kept you going?
N Haidri: The initial breakthrough came when Karachi Art Council sent paintings of 5 selected artists to Lahore for an exhibition and I was one of them. Three of my paintings were purchased by the renowned poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and another was bought by an enthusiast; this was a high time in my life as I was getting established as an artist. The Director of the Art Council had appreciated my work and I started signing my paintings as Nazar. Now I have started my journey once again after years indulging full time in this hobby and maintaining the same signature, a nostalgia of sorts.
Najib: Did you stay with W.S. Crafford or moved on?
N Haidri: I left the advertising companies and started as a freelancer through my various contacts, I won a competition held by the Burma Shell Oil company for “Eid Cards” where the prize money had been 1000 Rupees. I also started my own advertising company after winning a large contract from Esso Oil for their “Road Safety Campaign”. Unfortunately, the personal and family expenses compelled me to look for a job and we had to close the company soon.
Najib: This is where your corporate career kicked in?
N Haidri: Yes, I got a job with Premier Tobacco Company as an Assistant Advertising Manager. I was selected for my work and talent and had negotiated a salary more than my immediate boss. Two tobacco conglomerates used to fight it out for the market share during those days. Pakistan tobacco had a share of 42% while Premier tobacco stood at 58% in the low price segment. Those days one of the major activities used to be the direct consumer contact and most FMCG companies would participate in the local events such as “Jashne Khyber” in Peshawar, “Horse and Cattle Show” in Lahore. Apart from these were the Annual Urs, Sehwan Shareef and Bhit Shah in Multan, there were more than 2o events across the country which we used to participate by having own stalls and sales outlets. I used to travel to these locations to design attractive stalls with a local touch through company appointed painters and carpenters. In the meantime, I would also go to small towns in the vicinity and recommend our products and appoint distributors for future growth. The quality of my work used to mesmerize the crowds and I built a cult following. Soon afterward Philip Morris purchased Premier tobacco and the VP, International business appreciated my work.
Najib: You then moved to the sales division and business development?
N Haidri: As I never liked sitting idle in the office I would visit the market and gather useful information that would help my work in marketing. I traveled to interior provinces and in cities that my colleagues would not go normally. I was identified as a key resource and then transferred to the business development division.
Najib: How did the transition to the Middle East come into play?
N Haidri: Philip Morris had an intention of moving into the Middle East especially with the K2 brand that was popular among the lower to the middle class market in Pakistan. It was understood that the Pakistani diaspora in the Middle East would love to have the brand available locally as well. The plan was to manufacture K2 in Switzerland and have it available as a Swiss brand in the Middle East. I was selected to go to the Middle East for a market survey and had an opportunity to visit all GCC countries during that period. These were the early days of the oil boom. I was able to conclude fairly quickly that consumers would throw away their K2 cigarettes as soon as they would arrive from Pakistan and buy the more popular brands available in the Middle East primarily from the British American Tobacco Company.
Najib: Did you finally make a move to Saudi Arabia?
N Haidri: The local partners of BAT (British American Tobacco), Bin Zagr Group had identified my activities and aggressive moves in the market and the CEO had requested me to join his company. I had politely declined his offer but kept the conversation open. Premier Tobacco used to pay me 1200 Saudi Riyals Per Month during those days, initially, this was a good amount of money but the inflation in the Middle East had skyrocketed in the months that I was there. I had taken my own 10,000 Riyals to the Kingdom to buy myself a new Mazda car but ended up spending this money on personal expenses. Premier Tobacco would not agree to increase the monthly payment disheartening and pushing me to make a decision to leave them.
Najib: Please relate your job interview with Sheikh Bin Zagar?
N Haidri: Sheik Bin Zagar called me to a 5-star hotel, took out his cigarette pack and asked me to scribble the package that I was looking for. I wrote the amount and the accompanying facilities. He not only improved upon it but also asked me to join from the next day. That was the whole interview including a nice cup of coffee as well. I was the only Pakistani in the management team and people did not believe when I would share my salary package as it was unheard of those days.
Najib: There must have been something that you had said that had clicked with the management, do you recall anything special?
N Haidri: Well I could have chosen an easy location and stayed and worked in Jeddah or Riyadh. I asked them about their most challenging location and to be transferred there, so I ended up being in the eastern province; this had been my trump card and a tangent of growth in the organization. Saudi Arabia had been a booming market and supply just couldn’t keep up with demand. My passion for travel took me all across the Kingdom and I loved the beauty and diversity. I also increased the product portfolio to the whole range of FMCG products and not just confined to cigarettes. All my children were born in the Kingdom so I have beautiful memories of the place.
Najib: Any special memories from the Eastern province.
N Haidri: During my initial days in the Eastern province I stayed without my wife. I had plenty of time to paint and I made use of this as much as I could. I painted a beautiful portrait of Shah Faisal. A friend of mine saw it and informed Sheikh Zagr who had this painting installed in his office, would you believe that this painting is still there in his office and I saw it the last time I went there a couple of years ago. You are talking almost 40 years that this painting has adorned his office.
Najib: You mentioned the training programs that you had attended at Bin Zagar, why did these programs hold a special place for you?
N Haidri: I always felt a void as I could never finish my University Degree. I got a clean chit from the owners to attend any program for personal improvement no matter what the budget. I attended courses spanning from 3 days to 3 months all across Europe and ensured that my personal skills were at par with any MBA from any International Management institute. Also the parent company, British American Tobacco used to organize specific programs for the management teams of their Middle East Distributors on specific subjects such as, controlling the sales force, Train the Trainer, Accounts for Non-Accountants to name a few. The idea was to improve the professional skills of the individuals in a fast growing market where the level of human resource was limited.
Najib: Please share some more memories from your stay in Saudi Arabia.
N Haidri: I lived a life of fun and joy in Saudi Arabia as it gave me an opportunity to fulfill my dreams. I used to invite the famous personalities in sports, poets, musicians and singers of the sub-continent and held programs at my place. I was living in a fairly big house that could accommodate 40 to 50 couples for these private gatherings. I also had good relations with Pakistan and Indian diplomats and was active in community affairs sponsored by the Pakistan Consulate. Due to my lifestyle and active participation in cultural activities, embassies of other countries would also invite me to their National events. I used to drive the best cars that I could afford, the favorite being BMW’s and Mercedes.
Najib: Talking of cars, you took some interesting trips across Europe with the family.
N Haidri: Well the first time was in 1977 when my son was 6 years old and the third daughter was 6 months, I flew to Frankfurt with the family, bought a Mercedes and drove through Benelux, London and then back to Jeddah and Al Khobar. The journey was around 6000 miles in a month and it was a trip of a lifetime. There were no visa problems and if time permits, I would write a book of this adventure. We tried once again and the family had been ecstatic, but unfortunately while flying over Istanbul we came to know that Iraq had invaded Kuwait and it was risky to drive so we spent the vacation in London and shipped the car from Germany back to Saudi Arabia.
Najib: You made a decision to get on with your own business during this time, please share some details.
N Haidri: I would personally like to call it the biggest mistake that I had ever committed in my life, it was a bout of overconfidence I would say. I always liked going to Dubai because of its open culture and ease of movement. I got an offer from an investor to set up a factory in Jebel Ali where he would invest 2 million $ and I would be running the facility and would also be responsible for the marketing and distribution. The plan had been to sell the world famous “Basmati Rice” under different brands. I had negotiated with the Swiss company for the state of the art rice cleaning and processing plant including packaging facilities but little did I know was that the investor had already purchased an inferior plant from Korea and had it shipped to Dubai. I was devastated as he also pulled back the 2 million $ and asked me to generate the funds from the sale of the product. It was the first time that I felt lost and left the company.
From the onset, I was asked by the management of Al Zagr to stay back and they were even willing to sponsor a family paid 2 year MBA program but I had already committed to the investor and could not go back on my words. One has to be careful while making these decisions but then this what life is all about.
Najib: What did you do next?
N Haidri: I was fortunate enough to have been reemployed again at Bin Zagr but they did not have a position in the distribution of FMCG products. I joined their fashion division called Rubayat and worked for another 6 years but somehow I had lost the steam. This was not the kind of business that I enjoyed as there was a lot of corruption and pilferage in this vertical, most of the work had been in retail.
Najib: who had you always idolized?
N Haidri: It was the Indian actor and singer Talat Mahmood. I always admired well dressed and articulate personalities and he had a persona that had an angelic aura. He was related to me so I had an opportunity to spend some time with him as well. My dress sense till today has been inspired by him.
Najib: Where did the journey take you next.
N Haidri: I went back to Pakistan after a full circle of 29 years in the Middle East. I had built a beautiful 5 bedroom house in the best locality of Karachi and had new cars at my disposal. I decided to have an independent entrepreneurship venture and signed up a few major distribution agreements with International FMCG brands. Little did I know that the mechanics of working here were opposite to that of the Middle East and I literally got ripped off by my employees and customers. Receivables became a major challenge and my employees also conspired together with the customers and suppliers. I ended up losing around 500,000$ and on top of that had to sell my house and cars to pay off the banks. Maybe some people are not meant to be entrepreneurs, we are all made different and should be careful what business or job we take on in life.
Najib: This would have been very difficult.
N Haidri: I thought I was done for and finished and that nothing in the world would bring me out of this situation, I had been knocked down with a punch right on my face. I had really given up but as they say that it’s not about how hard you fall but it’s about how soon you are able to stand back on your feet. Music and painting brought me back to my feet.
Najib: How did you overcome these odds.
N Haidri: It was the support of my wife, she took me one day to the market and I bought art material for 15,000 Rs. I brought it home and it just sat there for a month as I did not know what to paint. Then one day I told myself that I would paint music, no one other than my wife believed that this was possible but the determined Nazar had been jolted back to life.
Najib: Our dialogue on painting music.
N Haidri: One doesn’t need to get intoxicated to produce a decent work of art, we were talking about his friend who cannot draw without the bottle in a close vicinity. I was always of an opinion that there seems to be a close link between the arts and wine, a sort of interdependence. But then if he doesn’t drink then how does he produce his art, the colors of music. I heard the most awe-inspiring statement when he said that good music produces a high-pitched trance in his spirit that stays with him for days; a drunkenness of the soul that numbs the senses and makes one sway near the unknown. Just as a drunk stumble and gives away his imbalanced state to the passer byes finally falling off and dozing in a sad corner of an alley, Mr. Haidri’s elation is liberated through the tremors of his fingers where the bottle is replaced by the paint brush gushing forth a rainbow of colors running riot on a plain canvas. A masterpiece of music is then displayed once the trance is broken converting the melodies into colors and shapes.
Najib: You have always had an affiliation with music, is there a specific reason for that.
N Haidri: When I was in Christian college in India, there were two music institutes nearby, Bhat Khande Institute and Lucknow Music School. I would go there during my free periods and would be mesmerized by the sounds of Sitar and Harmonium, these musical instruments had an effect on my soul that can only be felt if you were there with me. I also used to go to the building of All India Radio in Lucknow and listened to live music.
Najib: What kind of people you admired, personality traits in your career, any names that you would consider as your mentors.
N Haidri: I always admired leaders who would lead from the front like I used to do in Bin Zagr co. It was Shaikh Wahib Binzagr’s training in the early days as he used to visit Alkhobar office every week and after office, he would go alone to visit the market. Next morning, he used to call me and compare his notes of the visit. I was new to the organization and used to be concerned on his feedback. Once I saw Shaikh Wahib in a retail outlet where he was enquiring from the shop owner about business, the shop owner saw me and started admiring me saying that your Pakistani manager visits me regularly and provides a very good service. On another occasion he asked me to take him to Dammam market which is almost 20 miles from Alkhober, at that time I had an old Vauxhall car but due to my nature to keep the vehicles clean, he looked around the interior and asked me who gave me this car, I told him there were few abandoned vehicles parked in the garage and I was given the option to take one so I took this vehicle and serviced it properly, he was delighted to hear that. Another mentor as I had mentioned earlier was Talat Mahmood.
Najib: What personality types did you avoid.
N Haidri: I am averse to unhygienic and improperly dressed personalities.
Najib: You have had some tough challenges while running your own business, what have been some key learnings from that.
N Haidri: Do not trust anyone unless he proves his loyalties and most of all not everyone can be an entrepreneur.
Najib: Why painting and not any other art to express your feelings?
N Haidri: I am always in a trance with a good piece of poetry and music. When you are happy or sad you sing and this support system always stays with you. This is where I believe music and poetry are a second nature of all human beings and I feel that without emotion and sensitivity there is no life. The different moods expressing feelings which speak universally through musical instruments having their own personality, their own language, and a distinct spiritual effect. That is why I tried with paint and brushes to capture the moods on canvas through an aesthetic eye to create an atmosphere of the visual music.
Najib: What would you advise your 20-year-old self now?
N Haidri: Be the best in what you do, do not trust people blindly, be firm in your decisions and that your biggest assets are your parents.
Najib: What have been your greatest regret in life?
N Haidri: My parents had asked me never to leave the vicinity of the holy lands in Saudi Arabia and I did not listen to them. Also, I should have studied art in the college.
Najib: Are you bitter after your life experiences, what do you advise your children how to manage this world?
N Haidri: I am not bitter at all, I sprung up from my failures and now consider myself a happy individual. I advise my children to always work with full determination and honesty. Also, that money would not get you more than your necessities, do not make it your goal.
Najib: What is your message to the new generation?
N Haidri: Be good at what you do and fully believe on three P’s, Planning, Preparation and Presentation and pray to God without worrying about the results.
Najib: If you were given the charge to fix three things in the world today what would these be?
N Haidri: Finish the wars, help the poor and educate the world.
Najib: How important is money in life?
N Haidri: It should not become a central part of your life.
Najib: What 3 traits/habits would you consider as most evil and to be avoided under all circumstances?
N Haidri: Should not do anything that damages your health, avoid alcohol and narcotics under all circumstances and stay away from greed.
Najib: Please tell us a bit about your family.
N Haidri: I have 3 daughters and 2 sons and 11 grandchildren. I live in Dubai with my wife.
Najib: Any final thoughts for our readers.
N Haidri: I consider myself the luckiest person in the world today. I experienced Pakistan during 1960’s and 70’s as it was a heaven on earth surrounded by the best sportsmen, musicians, singers, poets, writers, painters and a great cinema. We had a perfect law and order situation across the country & I pray and wish that the country comes back to its hay days of glory. I am very lucky that I am surrounded by 11 grandchildren and 5 children who love and always appreciate my art. I would always advise everyone to be presentable, to dress up properly. Work hard and with purity and pray regularly.
Najib: Thanks a million for your time and I am sure that these pearls would be of great use for me and for the readers.
Kazi Najib Ashraf likes to call himself a storyteller and is a Tech and Management Blogger who loves chatting with people making a difference and bringing a positive change in this chaotic world. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also see his articles on www.kazinajibashraf.com. So if you are someone with an interesting story to tell then all it takes is a nice cup of coffee and we get on with your story.
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