The recent Arab Spring where so much changed reminded me of a life changing experience of a friend Sanmeet and his dear friend and business associate Rashid.
Sanmeet exports from India quality engineering goods and automotive components all over the world. Africa was and remains a good market.
He used to export to Mr. Rashid in Khartoum( Sudan) for over 30 years.
The manner in which he developed his business and built relationships makes for educative reading.
Coming in as refugees from Burma in 1964 where the family were successful importers of auto parts from all over the world, Sanmeet's family decided to export automotive components.
Relatively neglected and not so demanding in terms of performance Africa was considered a good entry market. Yemen and Sudan provided good opportunities.
In 1971 Sanmeet landed in Khartoum and looked around and learnt of a very small trader called Rashid. Moving around on a bicycle Rashid had a ramshackle shop. Logically it made little sense to choose Rashid as a customer or counterpart, but good entrepreneurs also go by instinct. Sanmeet opted to work with Rashid.
Rashid was young, bright and enthusiastic. He appeared to have a great deal of knowledge about the requirements of the local market and a good plan to meet that requirement. However Rashid was cash strapped as are many start up organisations. he needed someone to support him and supply him goods on favourable credit terms.
Though it appears that business is transacted between organisations, in reality most business is transacted between individual people in the name of organisations.
There was a good chemistry between Rashid and Sanmeet. Both felt good about each other.
Sanmeet decided to extend credit to Rashid. The credit was 180 Pound Sterling. Many people would laugh at this seemingly small amount, but in 1971 it represented a big risk for Sanmeet.
The risk was rewarding and Rashid paid up promptly. This set the ball rolling for a very successful relationship and with each transaction the friendship and business grew stronger.
The credit to Rashid went up to 30,000 pound sterling and eventually tapered off to zero, Rashid now had more than enough cash in the business and goodwill allowed him to get better payment terms from his own customers.The business grew by leaps and bounds and eventually reached about 300,000 Pound sterling annually.
Every visit to Khartoum and India by the two men only strengthened the bonds of friendship and commerce.
In 1996 after a pleasant evening and dinner with the family Rashid escorted Sanmeet to his car. The two friends and partners stood apart and made small talk while the rest of the large family chatted near the doorway of their home.
Rashid suddenly became hostile. He said "Sanmeet you are the biggest *Harami I have known. You have been charging me overinflated prices for the past 30 years. I never negotiated any prices with you and you have cheated me simply because I have trusted you". He continued "I never want to see you again or do business with you ever again".
Sanmeet was shocked and surprised. He responded. "Rashid, I do not know what has brought about this sudden change in you and why you believe I have cheated you. We have done business together and both have profited from it immensely."
You have yourself admitted that 80% of your business constitutes what I sell to you. From a small apartment you now live in this magnificent mansion, you have three Mercedes cars in your garage, and your children have received excellent education from amongst the world's most prestigious and expensive educational institutions" "Would this have been possible if I was cheating you? I did not earn that money from our relationship as you have. I do not grudge you your success and you should not grudge me mine"
Rashid was adamant. In his mind Sanmeet was a cheat and a villain. He turned his back on Sanmeet and stomped off, shepherding his rather large family indoors.
Sanmeet was stupefied and sat down at the doorstep. He had lost a friend and a great business partner for no apparent fault of his own. Deeply hurt and saddened Sanmeet returned to Mumbai.
A few months later he returned to Khartoum on business and went to the office of Rashid to meet him, hoping that the misunderstanding would have sorted itself out. Unfortunately the status quo was maintained. Rashid refused to see him, though his staff and manager were their usual courteous selves.
It transpired that the Counsel General of India in Khartoum had introduced a gentleman from Phagwara in Punjab to Rashid a few months ago. With great charm and finesse the gentleman had painted a good image about himself and his organisations capabilities. Rashid was impressed with the glossy catalogue and sophisticated manner of the seller. The clincher was he had produced a price list for the entire range of Sanmeet's products at a price approx 40% lower than Sanmeet's current selling price.
Sanmeet realised what had happened and told the manager "You are a customer and you have a right to buy from whoever you want". Only time will tell if I have been a good supplier and friend to Rashid or not".
Sanmeet returned to Khartoum every three months and always tried to meet Rashid. Rashid refused to meet Sanmeet. He however always offered the services of his office and staff and the use of one of the Mercedes car and driver for the use of Sanmeet. Sanmeet never accepted the kind gestures because it somehow did not feel right.
About a year later when Sanmeet visited the offices of Rashid he discovered the warehouse cum office stacked to the roof with cases of rejected goods. Not only were the products of poor quality the quantity was also 15% less than those stated on the invoice.
A competitor would have rubbed his hands with glee, but not Sanmeet. He felt saddened that his friend and associated had been mired in such a big mess. Rashid's credibility in the local market and the huge financial loss to Rashid was devastating.
He continued to visit Rashid's office in the hope to meet his friend, but now Rashid was ashamed to meet his friend having been so acidly judgemental of his friend and associate.
It is wise to choose one's words carefully. Words once spoken can never ever be taken back. Now Rashid was deeply burdened by his own acts.
A few years later Sanmeet learnt that his friend Rashid had taken seriously ill. Sanmeet could not contain himself and he rushed to Khartoum to meet his friend. While he sat outside the hospital room he prayed for the health and survival of his friend.
Rashid wept when he saw his friend. They hugged each other for several minutes sobbing like two little children and a love that comes from something deep that good people possess. Rashid tried to explain himself. Sanmeet hushed him and said that friends do not need to explain themselves to each other.
Rashid recovered from his ill health but he had lost all desire to conduct business in his traditional areas. It was too embarrassing and painful for him.
A broken rope may be rejoined with the help of a knot, but somehow does not feel complete. Time the greatest healer is slowly bringing the friends closer but closing this gulf will take a long long time to bridge.
* Harami - This is an Arabic word used interchangeably for bastard, thief or burglar
The names have been changed so as not to embarrass the people involved.