Birmingham Chamber of Commerce has just completed an EU-funded project to bring one of the world’s largest business organisations into the 21st century. Ian Halstead reports.

For the last two years, officials from Birmingham Chamber have been advising, guiding, training and cajoling their opposite numbers in Pakistan, to make the Karachi chamber fit to meet the myriad challenges of globalisation.

With 15,000 corporate members, and another 50,000 related businesses, it is much more than its country’s biggest business organisation.

Each year, between 60 and 65 per cent of Pakistan’s GDP is generated through Karachi’s business community, making the city an economic powerhouse to rank alongside anything the Asian sub-continent has to offer.

Despite its current supremacy though, it is evident that the city’s business leaders regard Birmingham Chamber’s support and guidance as a key element of their future strategic expansion.

Khalid Firoz, the Karachi Chamber’s president when the TRIPAK project was conceived, sees it as a pivotal moment in the organisation’s history.

“We have many individuals who are very successful at the personal level, and we also have tremendously powerful industries, notably textiles, leather goods and rice, but we haven’t yet had the business infrastructure which we need,” he admits.

Firoz was the first president in Karachi Chamber’s history to be elected by its members, which he saw as a mandate for change.

“We wanted to make the chamber more dynamic, and also to increase our ability to help our members realise and overcome the challenges of international trade, especially at the SME level,” he says. “Small firms are crucial, for our economy, for the government, and for the people, in terms of generating wealth and employment. Our officers just didn’t have the experience, or the expertise, to manage the chamber by 21st century standards though, until this project was conceived.”

Current president, Shamim Ahmed Shamsi, says exposure to the workings of an major European chamber has had many benefits.

“Our members naturally work in many different sectors, so over the years we have evolved different management committees, ranging from shipping and anti-smuggling, to regional trade and the environment, and taxation and intellectual property,” he says.

“However, we now have 28 different committees. When our officers visited Birmingham Chamber, it made them realise how inefficient we had become. We are now slimming down our committee system, and reorganising our whole operational structure.

“We now understand much more about what services we need to offer as a chamber, so more staff are being trained and recruited. We also see the importance of making our SMEs aware of the benefits of co-operation, and have a much broader awareness of how to trade outside Asia.”

The TRIPAK project was devised through the EU’s Asia Invest Programme, which promotes and develops trade links with the sub-continent’s major countries, and seeks to prepare their corporates and their business organisations for such international expansion.

EU-funding regulations meant the two-year venture had to involve other Western Chambers of Commerce, and Coventry and Naples completed the quartet of partners.

The formal event held in Karachi to mark the successful completion of the project, underlined the key role played by Birmingham though, notably its international trade director, Jonathan Webber, and his international trade officer, Mark Sankey.

Nobody from either Coventry or Naples attended, and even the EU official responsible for monitoring the programme declined to take a brief internal flight, from the political capital of Islamabad.

However, on a baking-hot day in Karachi, some of the richest and most successful entrepreneurs in Pakistan politely queued up, to pay their respects to Webber and his colleague.

Not least Firoz - whose Envicrete business empire is one of Pakistan’s biggest construction companies - and Siraj Kassam Jeli - whose many corporate interests include the Pepsi-Cola franchise for the whole of Pakistan, cotton mills, industrial estates and energy companies.

It’s a tribute to the latter’s status, within the Karachi business community, that his arrival is marked by a whirlwind of action from the city’s media photographers, and a torrent of hand-shaking and head-nodding from other chamber members.

Jeli is a former chamber president, a member of Karachi’s port board, a previous chairman of Pakistan’s Industrial Association, and a former chairman of the country’s beverage manufacturers association.

So when this unassuming, but seriously wealthy individual, reckons Birmingham Chamber’s support and guidance has been invaluable, his words really do carry weight.

“Thanks to Mr Webber and his colleagues, we are now making exactly the kind of improvements which have needed to be made for so long,” says Jeli.

“Some of us realised long ago that the business culture of our country needed to change, but we did not have the contacts at the international level to introduce such changes.”

Jeli concedes that the traditional mindset of chamber presidents - who are appointed annually - has also shifted.

“In the past, each new president has changed the policies of his predecessor, but Khalid’s idea to work with Birmingham in this TRIPAK project has been accepted by those who have succeeded him, as they realise it is the correct course to follow.”

Birmingham Chamber’s Webber was naturally delighted that the effort put into the two-year project had been so well received.

“Such ventures aren’t easy to establish, and then to drive forward; partly because of the immense distances between the various partners, and also because of the complexity of the EU’s funding structure and its operational practices,” he says.

“However, it is very satisfying to see the changes which have been made, and which will be made. It’s my seventh visit to Pakistan, and it almost feels like coming home.”

Webber believes the benefits of the TRIPAK project will also be felt in this region’s business community for years to come.

“Khalid was particularly eager to establish links with Birmingham, because of the strength of its Asian business community, and his successors share his desire,” he says.

“Karachi is by far the largest commercial centre in Pakistan, and if that country is able to enter a period of political stability, I am sure it will become one of the UK’s significant trading partners.”