The news of sudden death of Dr Toufiq M Seraj was a bolt from the blue, no doubt. Country's one of the leading real-estate businessmen and urban planners died aboard a Doha-bound flight from Dhaka in the early hours on June 21. He was accompanied by his long-time friend and business partner Kutub Uddin Ahmed on their way to Spain.
Being a founder and managing director of Sheltech, one of the leading real-estate firms in the country (and its associated companies), Dr Seraj also played a critical role in establishing Real Estate and Housing Association of Bangladesh (REHAB). He was the founder president of the association and led it for more than half a decade. His areas of work, however, went beyond real-estate business. Being a highly educated and trained civil engineer and urban planner, he also served as a president of Bangladesh Institute of Planners (BIP), the professional body of the country's urban and regional planners.
This scribe personally got himself in touch with him and there was an occasional communication with him. Sometimes it was professional media-interaction, and sometimes it was simply chit-chat over wonderful lunch at Sheltech office in Dhaka. No doubt that this scribe enjoyed the having informal conversation much where Toufiq Bhai always tried to paint a positive outlook about the future of the country. It was not only this scribe, but also a number of journalists with whom he maintained a good rapport and invited them personally on different occasions. His idea was to exchange opinions and try to know the different thoughts and perceptions prevailing in the different spheres of society.
It was probably two years back, when Toufiq Bhai invited me to join him at a lunch at Sheltech office. There was a lively discussion and I got an overall picture of the sector as well as some fresh ideas for writing. Later, I prepared a brief story for the newspaper. At that lunch, we were accompanied by his elder daughter Dr Saamiya Seraj, also a director of Sheltech. Ripon Bhai (S A Shahriar Ripon, media consultant of Sheltech and an enthusiastic photographer) was also present. In fact, it was Ripon Bhai through whom I most of the time reached Toufiq Bhai as I preferred him not to be disturbed during his busy schedule. Nevertheless, whenever I directly called Toufiq Bhai or approached him for any comment or analysis, he always responded positively except that he was outside the country and so unreachable over telephone.
Being a very social and cultural-minded person, Toufiq Bhai's networking with the cross-section of people was just admirable. On the eve of Pohela Boishakh (The Bengali New Year's Day), it was Toufiq Bhai who used to send me and many of my fellow journalists wonderful Boishakhi gifts which included sweets and books. The gifts were his friendly social gestures and nothing to do with our professional areas. Moreover, on some occasions he personally called to wish us directly.
Toufiq Bhai always believed in quality things and he built the brand value of Sheltech in that way. His motto of business was simple: providing the good quality of products and services to clients and charge accordingly. That's why Sheltech never propagates that it offers housing solution for middle-class. Instead, the leading real-estate firm attracts the clients with creative and transparent marketing. But, deep at his heart, there was always an urge to provide affordable housing for limited income people. On several occasions, he told me that the amount of money we used to spend for monthly house rents in Dhaka, if accumulated in 12-15 years, should be enough to purchase a modest apartment. But a number of regulatory barriers along with distorted market keep many people at bay to own his or her dream apartment.
No doubt Toufiq Bhai, through REHAB and Sheltech, continuously worked to make policymakers, developers and consumers aware about the importance of vibrant real-estate market in the country. He also contributed to outline different legal and fiscal frameworks in this regard. Again, he knew it very well that long-term viability of real-estate business relies on planned urban development. At many public events, he therefore expressed concern over the wrongly designed and uncoordinated urbanisation in the country.
To keep the progress of the country's real-estate sector on record, Toufiq Bhai wrote a number of books and papers. These are now serving as important references for those who want to study on the sector as well as urban planning.
Toufiq Bhai was a graduate in civil engineering from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). There he also served as a teacher at Urban and Regional Planning Department for a short period. Being a brilliant student, he also obtained his Ph.D. in civic design from the University of Liverpool in the UK as a Commonwealth scholar. Blessed with an entrepreneurial zeal, he didn't hesitate to leave the academic life and enter into real-estate business with his friend Kutub Uddin Ahmed, also an engineer and eminent business leader of the country. Tapan Chowdhury, another business tycoon and managing director of Square Pharmaceuticals Ltd, and Samuel S Chowdhury, joined hands. Thus they formed Sheltech in 1988. From the very beginning, Toufiq Bhai led the venture and diversified the business. That's why Sheltech is not only an apartment builder, but also a professional consulting service provider.
Toufiq Bhai had confidence in the new generation. He also inspired them to contribute to their motherland. It is clearly reflected when he brought his elder daughter Dr Saamiya into the business who is now a director of Sheltech. Saamiya obtained her Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in the United States after completing graduation from the same university. She may opt for better opportunity abroad, but decided to join her father and stay in the country. Similarly, Tanvir Ahemd, son of Kutubuddin Ahmed also joined Sheltech as a director. He obtained his higher degrees from the US and the United Kingdom. Thus, Sehltech has strong second generation footing now.
Toufiq Bhai was also involved in a number of social-welfare programmes but he never wanted to focus on those as he believed that bearing social responsibility is not for publicity.
It is really very shocking to write on Dr Toufq M Seraj in such a way. He was only 63 and it is in no way the perfect time for an end to such a vibrant life.