Bangladesh’s furniture industry has grown rapidly over the past decades.

For example, in a 25,000 Tk crore market, the industry currently has over 25 lakh of workers and the industry is now enjoying 18-20% annual growth, according to recent reports.

Bangladeshi furniture is also exported to overseas markets and thrives. For example, there has been a 267% increase over the past decade, from Tk 180 crore to Tk 665 crore in fiscal year 2018-19, according to the Export Promotion Bureau.

The industry has more than 80,000 entrepreneurs. However, the market is still dominated by unbranded furniture and local carpenters who account for 65% of all products sold.

But Selim H. Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Furniture Industries Owners Association (BFIOA) and managing director of Hatil, told Business Standard that the market will eventually turn to brands.

“Branding signals quality, service, warranty and credibility. When you buy furniture from a brand, you get it all, especially credibility. That’s why conscious buyers always go for branded furniture because they realize it’s an investment, ”said Rahman.

Hatil is one of the country’s leading furniture brands. Not only in Bangladesh, but the company also has franchises in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Canada.

In a conversation with The Business Standard, the veteran furniture mogul spoke about various aspects of the booming furniture industry.

When did Hatil start? Tell us about the trip.

This was in 1988. After I graduated, I joined my father’s lumber and sawmill business in Farashganj in old Dhaka. Not as the owner’s son, but as an inexperienced worker. There I learned from my father and other workers.

What I noticed there is that customers would buy expensive, high quality lumber from us, but they were complaining about the product their carpenters would make from the lumber.

The quality of a product depends mainly on the drying and processing of the wood more than on its quality. If you let a beautiful piece of Burmese teak sit on the ground for a long time, no matter how wonderful that material is, the piece will eventually rot and get wet.

And this seasoning and treatment depends on the skill of your carpenter.

“For 32 years, the company [Hatil] flourished in the local furniture market. It has already opened franchises in India, Canada, Bhutan and Nepal ”

Through -Selim H Rahman, President of BFIOA and CEO of Hatil

It was almost at the end of 1988 when I thought of a one-stop solution space where customers would get a 360 degree solution for their woodwork – from raw materials, processed wood to ready-made products. And that’s when I found HATIL – a name I got from my father’s sawmill – Habibur Rahman and Anowara Begum Timber Industries Ltd.

For 32 years, the company [Hatil] flourished in the local furniture market. It has already opened franchises in India, Canada, Bhutan and Nepal.

Traditional furniture versus branded furniture – which one do you think Bangladeshi customers prefer the most?

I think over time people will end up preferring brand name furniture more. Because when we talk about quality, it’s not just wood. A piece of wood requires several processing steps for the longevity and quality of the finished product. For example, seasoning – it takes almost a year to season the wood if you follow traditional methods. But with modern machinery and industrial technology, the wood is dried in 21 days in our factories.

In addition, in an industrial area, each part is cut, maintaining a distinct thickness and precision. Internal carpentry is kept precise in every part we manufacture. We take into account size, functionality, weather and climate, material, price range, ergonomics issues, etc.

Not everyone can afford designer furniture. And if they do, it’s not something people buy every day. So how is this business holding up? Who is the target customer group for branded furniture?

Furniture is no longer a luxury here in Bangladesh.

Earlier and even now, we believed that teak was the best wood to choose for furniture. While this is true to some extent, if properly dried and treated, furniture made from “koroi” or even “aam” (mango) wood will also last you for years.

We have to change the perception because before, when we didn’t have the technology, using the strongest wood made sense. But now, with better machines and technology, why not get creative?

If you look at the market, on average our purchasing power has increased with economic growth. And with the evolution of social structures, we no longer think of a larger family where a piece of furniture will pass to successors as a piece of heritage. With the growing cosmopolitan culture, we are thinking more about functionality and maintenance. That’s why I think people will turn to furniture brands more.

There is another reason for this industry to develop more in the future. You see, as a brand, when we do business we have to pay taxes to the government. Besides VAT and other taxes, in the industry we have to follow compliance rules and environmental protocols, a local carpenter may not do all of these.

Apart from wood, what are the other raw materials needed in this industry? Where do you get your supplies from?

For the wood, we use FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified beech and red oak that we import from Germany and the United States. Apart from that, hardware (handle, lock and key, screw, latch, etc.), lacquer and most of these materials are imported from other countries.

Hardware is imported from China and Malaysia, lacquer from Italy and Europe, fabrics from India, China and Indonesia.

We have to pay import taxes for all of this – 16% for wood, 58% for hardware, and 89% for spray lacquer. Since we don’t receive incentives, we often have a hard time reducing the price.

What have been the government’s policies regarding this market?

The government has already announced that it will be an industry. But it’s not enough. My 32 years of experience say this industry has enormous potential. The cost of labor is low here in Bangladesh and we have a huge labor market.

This is the factor that has contributed to the growth of our RMG business. I have 3,000 workers employed in the Hatil factory alone. Here, too, there is enormous employment potential. If the government recognized its export potential, it could grow further.

Amid the global concern for the environment and the climate, do you think the wood furniture industry is sustainable?

If we are talking about sustainability, the first thought that comes with buying local. But Bangladesh already has limited forest areas.
So what do we do? Hatil therefore imports FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood from Germany and other countries. The number of greens we use to make furniture, are we giving back to nature? I do not think so.

Again, if you look at traditional designs, you will see a huge waste of material and wood. Large ornate headboards, intricate craftsmanship – it all feels like a waste of wood, time, and labor.

Of course, traditional bespoke furniture will always be valuable and a lifetime investment, but it is mass production for mass people that we are talking about. As an industry, this sector requires precision, creativity and functionality.

We opt for elegant and creative designs that are functional and practical for users. The parts can be packed in a box and all you have to do is assemble the parts.

And our forestry department should have a research section that will come up with smart solutions for sourcing raw materials. We also tried to bring bamboo furniture to the market.

Bangladesh has the perfect climate for growing bamboo. But the outer layer of our bamboo is thinner. If we could bring some species of bamboo from China that has a thicker wall, we could use them. So there is a lot of room for innovation here.

What is holding back the furniture industry the most?

Designers. Prominent architects and designers around the world pursue their careers in furniture design. But here in Bangladesh, this profession is still seen as a “carpenter”.

If we don’t realize the importance of local creative designers, it will become a huge problem if we want to export our furniture. Southeast Asian countries share the same kind of aesthetic taste.

But beyond that, if we want our pieces to be bought by Western countries, we will need our own designers. But unfortunately, we don’t have such an institution or even specialized courses to encourage furniture designers.

RMG is Bangladesh’s largest export sector. And as a result, we have so many local brands, fashion designers competing internationally. This should also be the case for our furniture industry.