Filtering in Success: Retail Success Story of Filter House
When you enter the five-story plaza at Montgomery Road in Lahore, you unintentionally look upward. With the ceiling of the ground floor opening into the roof, your eyes travel far and wide. And then you spot a conspicuous tinted glass window on the second floor. Looking at the window you cannot guess what’s going on in there. But the person sitting behind that window knows you are here, just like he knows about everything that’s happening at any given time in his store.
The tinted glass window is the key to understanding Shahid Nazir’s success secrets: Vigilance, passion, hard work, a keen eye for new opportunities, an ability to make right decisions at the right time. The window sums it all up.
“I was very clear about the design requirements for this plaza. I wanted something that would let me keep an eye on the business activity. Now I can sit in my office and look through the window and remain involved in the entire business activity,” says Shahid Nazir, owner of the Filter House.
However, the journey from the small roadside shack selling filters to a five-story plaza with tinted windows is a long one.
The roots of Filter House can be traced back to the business of auto spare parts (American Automobiles) that Shahid’s father owned way back in the 1950s. The business was well established at Neela Gumbad road and mainly dealt in auto parts of army jeeps. After a decade or so, while the elder son joined the family business, the father planned something else for the younger son.
The year was 1983 and Shahid Nazir had completed his secondary education. His father, the owner of American Automobiles, decided to run an experiment on his younger son. “My father wanted to try out a single product offering. You can think of this as a fruit vendor deciding to sell only apples, all possible varieties of apples. And I was to be that vendor and the filters were supposed to be my apples,” reminisces Shahid.
With no formal training but with a good family name to back him up, Shahid entered the unpredictable world of retail at the age of 18.
“Sometimes, there would be no customers for days and I would just sit there and wait. But I used this time to get to know my product really well. I read everything about filters that I could find, and I studied the market.”
Making of an Entrepreneur
As his interest in business mounted, he soon developed a work routine to work and live by. It was an 11- hours-a-day work routine where he would arrive at his shop by 9: 15 sharp, have a working breakfast at the shop and work late till 8 P.M
“I am meticulous to a fault and tied to my routine. My employees used to set their watches by my arrival time,” says Shahid.
During the 1980s, there was a surge of interest in Japanese cars. Only a particular class could afford cars and most of them were interested in Japanese models. Honda, Mitsubishi, and Toyota were particular favorites. Karachi was the main source for providing the spare parts, including filters, of these cars.
“It was a hectic lifestyle, flying to Karachi and having to meet a number of sellers in a day, traveling back to Lahore via night coach, and reaching office again at 9: 15 A.M“
Having found out what the customers were looking for, Shahid decided to capture the market. He figured out if he could cater to the demand of the Japanese car owners, it would help him live up to the name of his business: filter house.
“I constantly evaluated market demand for various filters. If I didn’t have a particular kind of filter, I would ask my customers to give me a couple of days. And then I would visit Karachi and get them. It was a hectic lifestyle, flying to Karachi and having to meet a number of sellers in a day, traveling back to Lahore via night coach, and reaching office again at 9: 15 A.M. Even if there was just one customer for a particular type of filter, I tried to cater to his demand,” says Shahid.
All this hectic shuffling between Lahore and Karachi paid off, and Filter house soon earned a reputation in the market as a place where you could find any and every kind of filter.
After a while, though Filter House had developed quite a following one thing still bothered Shahid: his customers had to go somewhere else for other auto spare parts. He realized that extending his product line would give his business a stronger foothold in the market, and thus he added various auto parts to its product line.
As the Filter House’s reputation grew, on customers’ demand they also added oils to the product line. Filter House now caters to the complete range of auto spare parts and oils. According to Shahid, “Though oil has never been our main product, it has always delivered positive sales because we make it a point to provide the best quality products.”
For Shahid Nazir, the decade of the 1990s was a climactic one in more ways than one. The early years were happy ones. He got married, was blessed with a wonderful life partner and children, and his business flourished.
“When I got married, my employees were happy. They thought marriage would change my routine and my 9: 15 sharp would extend to at least 10. However, on the contrary, now that I had someone who would prepare my breakfast at home, I could manage to reach my workplace even earlier,” Shahid laughs as he answers the question if marriage in any way changed his work routine.
Once his children started going to school, he would pick them up from school and bring them to the office with him. “Here they would do their homework in my office and take turns sitting on my revolving chair,” he recalls.
Load shedding years and Generators.
It was in the early 1990s that load shedding started and this led to the widespread use of generators. By that time Filter House had been around for seven years and had built a considerable reputation as far filters were concerned. Thus, the decision to add generator filters to their product line was inevitable. “By making this decision at the right time, we were able to capture the generator filter market early on,” says Shahid
Two Important Decisions
In 1995 when Shahid decided to build the current plaza he was scoffed at by the family. They thought he was going overboard by investing a huge amount in a purpose- built building, quality materials and latest technologies and gadgets. The design of the building was especially criticized; open ceiling design was considered a waste of space. “But I was looking at the next 20 years of my business. If I hadn’t done it then, there would have been no time now.”
As far as the design is concerned, “I am a cautious and skeptical person by nature,” confesses Shahid. The design was his way to control the business single-handedly and keep a constant tab on his customers and employees.
Manufacturing or Trading: As his business flourished, Shahid toyed with the idea of starting a manufacturing venture. It was a tough decision to make and took him almost a decade to give up the idea completely. What decided him was the market bent toward branded cars and spare parts. And instead of manufacturing, he decided to boost his business further by entering into imports. While previously, their main supplier was the market in Karachi, they now started to import directly from abroad.
“And now we are the distributors for some of the well-known companies worldwide,” he tells.
Emotional Setback and Illness
The 1990s also saw him dealing with personal traumas. With the death of his father in 1994 closely followed by the death of his kid brother in 1997, and his own brush will a serious illness, Shahid almost lost his moorings.
“It was a very difficult time. I lost all hope and thought I wouldn’t survive.” It was at this time that he made another critical decision: he decided to bring both of his sons into the business. “They were still in college, but I wanted them to learn from me and take his business further. I have spent years acquiring domain knowledge. Product knowledge is our strength and I want to transfer this knowledge to my sons. Life is short, you know,” he says.
Since his two sons have joined the business, Shahid, for the first time in his life, has a more relaxed routine. He now also has time to pursue his other interests like politics.
“I think I can afford to relax now. I have earned it,” he smiles contentedly.
You look at the tinted windows through which he has kept a constant vigil for 30 odd years; you notice the well-lined cataloged items, CCTV cameras, and workers in uniform. And you think, “Sure he can.”