Pakistan opens up to investor interest
Multiple military operations have curbed insurgency, boosting investor confidence
In the northern snow-capped peaks of Pakistan, Zia Chishti disembarked off a helicopter and skied downhill on a mission to convince investors, clients and company executives that the nation once called by The Economist “the world’s most dangerous place” is now safe for business.
Mr Chishti, who grew up in Lahore, gathered a group from more than a dozen countries including Alessandro Benetton, a heir to the billionaire family that owns the iconic namesake Italian clothing company, and Huawei Technologies rotating chief executive Guo Ping earlier this year to Pakistan, the back-end base for some of his businesses. Last month, his artificial intelligence company signed a deal with Huawei, which will help its push into Eastern markets including China, Japan and Australia.
For Mr Chishti, ensuring his clients understand that Pakistan, which has struggled against internal militant groups, has changed since The Economist report a decade ago is critical because many of his employees who provide customer solutions, sales support and marketing to clients including Sprint and Caesars Entertainment are based in the South Asian nation. Mr Chishti has added more people in Pakistan, a move that will also help him keep costs under control as his AI unit prepares for an initial public offering in the US.
“Pakistan by any reasonable and adaptive measure is an extremely safe place to do business,” says Mr Chishti, whose office oversees the White House. “All in all it’s a very favourable place to do business and the world perception just has to catch up.”
Despite a widespread negative perception over the country’s security record, multiple military operations have curbed domestic insurgents after a Pakistani Taliban massacre at a school three years ago shocked the nation. Last year, civilian deaths from terrorism dropped to the lowest in more than a decade.
The army’s drive has boosted the confidence of companies, including TRG, and foreign investment is up 155 per cent to US$457 million in the first two months of the business year that started in July. Mr Chishti’s company has moved into a larger building this year that will fit 3,000 staff in the previously tumultuous port city of Karachi, which has been secured by paramilitary forces against gangsters, militants and political militias since 2013.
Pakistan’s global competitiveness ranking has improved in the past two years, moving above the bottom 20 countries, according to a World Economic Forum report released last week. Crime and theft had the biggest drop in problematic factors for doing business this year along with poor work ethic of labour force.
Mr Chishti's latest focus is artificial intelligence company Afiniti that enhances call flows at contact centres. It uses data and artificial intelligence to predict the behaviour of individuals and agents before pairing them, rather than connecting callers to the first available agent.
Clients include Vodafone, Sky and T-Mobile US for the company that employs three quarter of its 1,000 staff in Pakistan. TRG holds about half of the company ownership.
The company is planning to list on the Nasdaq Composite Index with a valuation above $2 billion next year, according to person familiar with matter, giving it potential to have one of the largest enterprise software IPOs in recent years.
The level of curiosity and interest in AI is similar to “when the Internet was first booming in the 1990s when established companies would just add .com to their name and their valuations would go up by a factor of three,” says Mr Chishti. “Then there is people like us who see artificial intelligence as much more mundane, around optimising enterprise profitability - that part of the business is going to flourish commercially in the next two to five years.”
The group already has a listed unit in Pakistan, which is part of the nation’s top 30 stock index and the only representative from the technology sector, but it is not widely followed by analysts.
There is not much clarity on the business model and earnings are volatile, says Hamad Aslam, the director of research at Elixir Securities Pakistan. There is a lack of understanding of the sector and industry in Pakistan, while the listed company seems to have a “bad track record, loss making operations” says Ehtesham Khan, the head of capital markets at the Karachi-based Pak Brunei Investment.
The profit and loss “is irrelevant that is not well understood”, says Mr Chishti. “The company has no operating business and the only way to look at is the value of the underlying asset. They only have one asset which is TRG Holdings,” which the Pakistani unit owns half of, he says. “We are very focused.”
Updated: October 8, 2017 07:37 PM