Down The Exxon Lane — 1
Graduating from Peshawar University, I won a scholarship, unexpectedly, to study in the US for a Master’s degree in Soil Science. It was unexpected because I hadn’t applied for it, and I had only a vague idea of what Soil Science was about. I had majored in Chemistry.
It was a generous scholarship, with all travel, tuition, and books paid for, and $250 a month for living expenses. This was a lot of money for a student in the 60s. There was a string attached to it though. That on completion of my studies I had to teach at Peshawar University for five years.
The very thought of traveling to the US and spending a couple of years there was exciting enough to disregard any reservations. I signed the contract and went off to the US.
Having completed my studies, I returned to Peshawar to teach Soil Science at the College of Agriculture but soon got bored with the job. It was monotonous, didn’t pay well, and the teachers spent most of their time discussing institutional politics and drinking tea. I wasn’t good at politics and could drink only so many cups of tea a day.
I started looking for a way out.
One of the things we routinely did at the college, other than teaching, that is, was to drop in at the office of the secretary to the Principal to check our mail and, more importantly, sniff for any institutional news.
The secretary, or superintendent as he was officially called, one Mr. Shafi from Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), sat behind a large typewriter and a pile of papers. He was a balding man, wore thick-framed glasses, and a 3–4-day old stubble. He always looked overworked and perspired a lot, which gave him an oily appearance. But he was an amiable person. If you prodded him gently, he would share snippets of “confidential information” about what was going on in the Principal’s office.
Checking my mail one day, I noticed a pale-colored, business-size envelope lying in the usual clutter of papers on Shafi’s desk. It stood out in the pile of papers because of a blue-and-red, oval-shaped logo, embossed in an upper corner of the envelope. Printed alongside the logo was the address of the sender: Esso Pakistan Fertilizer Co. Ltd., P.O. Box 5736, Central Hotel Building, Victoria Road Karachi. (Victoria Road was renamed Abdullah Haroon Road in 1973.) The envelope was addressed to the college principal.
I was aware of Esso as a large multinational oil company, especially because of its then popular and vigorously advertised slogan “Put A Tiger In Your Tank”, but didn’t know it was also getting into the fertilizer business. A little coaxing of Shafi revealed that Esso Fertilizer Company was setting up a Urea plant at Dharki, Sindh, and was looking to hire agronomists before the plant went into production. And that the company had been in correspondence with the principal requesting him to recommend potential candidates for the job.
I took down the address from the envelope.
The principal, a tall man with a dusky complexion and thick glasses, had recently returned from the US with a Ph.D. degree, considerable research experience — and a Chevrolet Impala car. His was the longest car on campus. Few other who owned cars — mostly returnees from the US — had Volkswagens, Fiats 600, or Vespa scooters. The majority of them rode bicycles. I was among the majority and owned a green Sohrab bicycle. I could only save enough money from my stipend to bring a Smith Corona typewriter, a 35 mm camera, and an Omega Seamaster wristwatch. The watch, I remember, cost me $100 and I paid for it in installments, $10 a month. The Smith-Corona came with two LP records containing lessons to learn touch typing ((I still have the three items almost in working condition)
The principal was a hardworking man, interested in science and research, but he played favorites, and I was not one of them. I didn’t know who he recommended to Esso for the job or if he recommended anyone at all, but I applied directly at the address I had picked up from Shafi’s office.
Soon, I received a call for an interview at the company’s head office in Karachi, and a week later received a telegram of acceptance, also indicating a “four-figure salary”, a commonly used term those days for a high salary.
I accepted the offer.
The company had selected six agronomists from all over the country, and we were asked to report to the Karachi head office for an orientation program.
It was a 2-week intensive program, where we learned about the company’s organization, its business objectives, and operating procedures. Experts gave lectures on the agriculture and farming practices in Pakistan.
Among other things, during the orientation, we were also told to come to the office wearing a tie, and not to discuss our salaries with our colleagues. We readily followed the first rule, but the second rule of not discussing our salaries sounded a bit strange in a culture where asking another person’s salary, even from strangers, was nothing unusual. However, we followed that rule as well. We didn’t want to risk losing our “four-figure salary”.
At the end of the orientation program, each one of the six agronomists was assigned to different districts, from Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) in the north to Hyderabad in the south. And each one of us was given the keys to a brand new soft-top Toyota Land Cruiser. Besides the Land Cruiser, we were also given a tin trunk for a “filing cabinet”, and a black leather briefcase, the type that doctors carried in the old days, to carry promotional literature and other papers.
We drove our new Land Cruisers from Karachi to our assigned stations — and to a new exciting career.
I was assigned Multan, where I was to establish the company’s office, which I did. It consisted of my house at 7-A Gulgasht, Bosan Road, a postbox address (P.O. Box 30), and of course the tin trunk and the leather briefcase.
Motivated by our “four-figure salary”, the new Land Cruisers, and the pep talks we had received during the orientation program, we plunged into the task ahead with a missionary zeal.
The mission was to convert the “non-believers” to the belief that their lands were deficient in Nitrogen; that the use of Nitrogen fertilizer along with better farm practices would significantly increase their crop yields; that Urea (46% Nitrogen) was the richest source of Nitrogen; and it didn’t harm crops if used properly.
It wasn’t an easy mission in the 60s. Many farmers had never heard of Urea, and a vast majority was skeptical of its benefits. Many believed that chemical fertilizer would harm or “burn” their crops.
At the time, only two small fertilizer plants, in the government sector, one at Daudkhel, in district Mianwali, and the other in Multan, produced a small quantity of nitrogenous fertilizer. The former produced Ammonium Sulphate (Nitrogen content 23%) and the latter Ammonium Nitrate (Nitrogen content 35%). Both had difficulty selling their products. They would end up selling it to the Agriculture Department, which would then distribute it to the farmers either at a nominal price or, at times, free.
Selling fertilizer in Pakistan in the 60s was what selling air travel might have been soon after the Wright Brothers’ first experimental flight, in 1903, at Kitty Hawk, Florida.
As missionaries, we started preaching fertilizer in our respective areas, meeting large farmers, planting demonstration plots, holding farmers' meetings and field days, and liaising with research and extension officials.
Soon, salesmen were hired who, after going through a similar orientation course like ours, spread out in the country in their Volkswagens, selecting dealers in the mandi towns.
Salesmen and agronomists joined hands to educate the dealers about the benefits and correct use of fertilizer so that they could pass on the acquired knowledge to their customers.
By the time the first bag of Urea rolled off the conveyer belt at the Dharki plant, we had a network of fertilizer dealers in place and had rented warehouses at key locations.
The brand name of our fertilizer, Engro, an acronym for Energy for Growth, was barely known in the farming community. A bag of Engro, weighing 50 Kg, was priced at RS 20, and we had great difficulty selling it.
After spending about 8 months in Multan, I was transferred to Karachi to the Marketing Services group. I was happy to just escape the summer heat of Multan and to work at the company headquarters — and live in a cosmopolitan city. Karachi was then a peaceful and fun city, with bars, nightclubs, and a lot of entertainment. The prohibition and bans came much later.
The Marketing Services group at Karachi provided oversight and support to the field agronomists and was responsible for advertising, sales promotion, and planning. Vick Sheldon, an American from Missouri, a Ph.D. in Agronomy, headed the group. Everyone called him Dr. Sheldon.
Dr. Sheldon was bald, bald like a pumpkin, even at the eyebrows, a relentless worker and a hard taskmaster. He wouldn’t hesitate to scold an employee publicly if he was unhappy with something or to backslap him when pleased. More often he was unhappy. His booming voice could be heard all over the third floor of the Central Hotel Building.
Dr. Sheldon was keen to launch an advertising campaign to introduce the Engro brand name to the farming public. It was the Sales Promotion Officer’s job to come up with a theme.
The Sales Promotion Officer, MH, a tallish man, with slick hair combed back had lived all his life in Karachi and had limited exposure, if any, to the rural life or agricultural practices of the country. His previous experience had been as a copywriter for cosmetic products. . He always came to the office in a blue suit, a broad floral tie, and wearing black-and-white two-tone shoes.
One day, Dr. Sheldon called MH to his office and gave him a dressing-down for something he was not happy with, while I watched the scene from my room across the corridor. While Sheldon was loud, almost shouted, MH stood with an apologetic smile, wringing his hands as if washing them. Finally, promising to undo whatever he had done wrong, MH collected his papers from Dr. Sheldon’s desk and started to walk out of his office. But Dr. Sheldon wasn’t finished, and shot a verbal arrow at MH’s heels:
“I don’t know where you got those shoes from!”
Dr. Sheldon had no eyebrows but had very sharp eyes. He noticed everything.
A few of us, of the Marketing Services group, would meet for lunch at the nearby Ampi’s restaurant or Grand Café, across the Metropole Hotel, where, among other things, we discussed the projects we were working on and the problems. Sometimes we came up with good ideas, sometimes not so good, and sometimes quite outlandish.
The advertising campaign was the topic of discussion that particular week when MH joined us for lunch with the news that he had thought of, in his words, a revolutionary advertising slogan, which, he believed, would do for Engro fertilizer what “Put a Tiger In Your Tank” had done for Esso’s gasoline. The idea was so good, he said, that he was even reluctant to share it with us. At our prodding, however, he relented and shared his brainchild. It would be a large poster, he said, with a child standing in a lush wheat field, shouting: Abba ke khait main Esso ki khaad!
!ابّا کے کھیت میں ایسو کی کھاد
We all burst out laughing. Translated in English, it simply meant “Esso’s fertilizer in my dad’s field, but in Urdu, it sounded inelegant at best, and obscene at worst. I don’t know what Dr. Sheldon’s reaction would have been, but MH never brought up the slogan again for as long as he stayed with the company, and it wasn’t very long.
Dr. Sheldon opted for a less exciting but informative advertisement, which showed an agronomist and a salesman, advising an Engro dealer in Malir and a small farmer randomly picked up from a nearby farm. An advertising company arranged the photoshoot, with Dr. Sheldon as the director. I played the agronomist and Nafees Siddiqui the salesman.
At the last minute, before the shoot, Sheldon suggested I should wear a field cap to look like a field worker. Those days field caps (baseball caps) were not common in Pakistan. Only attendants at filling stations wore them. We found a filling station in Malir and borrowed a cap from one of the attendants. It was too tight on my head, but I wore it anyway. You didn’t disobey Dr. Sheldon.
The advertisement was splashed in all the Urdu and English papers of Pakistan. This was the first advertisement by Esso Pakistan Fertilizer Co. and the first advertisement of any fertilizer in Pakistan.
Looking back, I like to think that we, in Esso Pakistan Fertilizer Co., (later Exxon Chemical) played a significant role in bringing the ‘Green Revolution’ to Pakistan.
Postscript: After seven years of working for the company in different positions in Marketing, I resigned and joined the Pakistan Foreign Office, but that is another story.