Construction and agriculture – these industries evoke opposing images of urban and country development, hard to imagine working in harmony, and yet these are the two pillars of Suriname’s Baitali Group. In reality, both industries are cornerstones of civilisation, and one cannot exist without the other. For the Baitali Group, this is especially true: we spoke with Farsi Khudabux, company CEO, to talk about the two faces of the company, and what it is that pulls the Baitali Group together.
The Baitali Group run a regional operation, working in Suriname and its neighbouring Guyana as well as throughout the Caribbean. Like any group, it is the umbrella for a range of companies, some of which were founded almost 40 years ago whilst others have only stood for four. This range of experience and services is the product of a long and evolving tale, including venture in construction, manufacture, agriculture and even mining. With these many strings to their bow, Baitali Group are a jack of many trades – but that hasn’t stopped them mastering some, too.
Breaking the Group down, the umbrella covers the following companies: General contractors Aannemingsmaatschappij Baitali (AMB), manufacturers Baitali Pavement Products (BPP), testing company Baitali Pavement Testing & Technologies (BPTT), Batali Mining and the agricultural Machinale Landbouw Nanni (MLN). Their customers range from rice exporters to government bodies, their contracting work covering everyone from local groups to multi nationals. Their collection of services first began to take form in 1960, with the construction company Surinaamse Constructie Maatschappij N.V. (SCM). SCM stood as the sole company in the Baitali Group for 20 years, until AMB succeeded it in 1980. The second company would serve as a replacement to the first, rebranding the efforts and experience of the last two decades into a new and smoother machine.
AMB’s core operations revolved, and still revolve, around infrastructure, performing engineering, construction and project management on major projects within road construction, dewatering, dike construction and irrigation works. It is a field that comes laden with wide-spread implications for Suriname, and that’s a responsibility that AMB take seriously. In their own words; “Purposeful, smart and sustainabley designed infrastructure is key to well-being, economic growth and prosperity.”
AMB have delivered some of the largest and most complex civil infrastructure projects in Suriname, ranging from major irrigation projects to work on heavy duty pavements for the country’s ports and harbours. Not stopping at construction, AMB are also involved in the design and operation of the infrastructure they help to create, including services in traffic planning, utility relocation and sustainable infrastructure design: “AMB combines smart planning, resilient design, technical know-how and an integrated approach to make visions become a reality. We have helped customers bring ambitious concepts to life, like large-scale urban development projects.”
AMB’s extensive works represented the entirety of Baitali’s activities for six years, but as is often the pattern after six years of success, it became time diversify. Mr Baitali did so in a drastic direction, not complimenting his contractors with a manufacturer or expanded construction services, but instead branching into agriculture. To forgive the pun, the founder didn’t want to put all of his eggs in one basket – however, the agricultural company’s main output was in fact rice.
MLN took on rice production head-on, launching into this new field by tackling every aspect of the industry, all the way from sowing through to processing and sale. Today, the company’s annual production is approximately 5000 tons, most of which is exported to Europe, whilst the remainder is sold on the local market.
This two-pronged company continued in its approach, growing in expertise and experience, until 2012, when the diversification bug struck again. This time, three new companies were founded in the space of two years, more than doubling the number of companies under the umbrella in a sudden burst of activity: Baitali Pavement Testing & Technologies, Baitali Mining and Baitali Pavement Products were all founded consecutively. These three companies worked in co-operation to streamline a new range of operations that all built upon AMB’s origins: road laying, asphalt and concrete.
Founding three new companies hot on each other’s tails is a costly and ambitious move, but in doing so, Baitali set themselves up with a smooth, well-integrated series of operations. BPP specialise in asphalt, soil cement and subbase production, whilst Baitali Mining produce aggregates perfect for this process. Their mines, currently operational in Apoera and Upper Corentyne (Kabalebo), also produce different sizes of dike stones that are essential for the Baitali Group’s infrastructure works, with enough left over for profitable trade with the Apoera and Wakay port. Meanwhile, BPTT is a certified research laboratory, providing geotechnical engineering and testing on all types of materials needed for road construction. Between these triplets and AMB, the Baitali Group is able to support, monitor and cover its own operations essentially head to toe – a position that results in consistency, reliability, and significant savings along the way.
At the cusp of this game-changing expansion for the Group, Farsi Khudabux took over the role of CEO. He has held the position for the past five years, part of a total 12 with the Group. As an overseer of this change, we asked Farsi what he felt Baitali’s key to success has been. For him, it is always the people. “I started in 2005 as a Junior Engineer and worked my way through different positions and departments to the position that I have now. I think this is a good example of how the company facilitates personal growth.”
An inevitable part of any expansion, and particularly the founding of new companies, is a growing body of staff. Farsi sees the protection of these assets as top priority, and what enables Baitali to achieve the range of quality services they offer: “We employ 400 people and we consider each one of them as the most important asset of our company. Our vision is to give employees all the possibilities and opportunities (especially training) to develop themselves in a professional way. Ultimately, they shape the organization.”
Despite this dedicated workforce and a wide and well-connected series of operations, Baitali’s market has thrown the company several challenges. Farsi explained:
“The industry Baitali Group operates in is currently experiencing difficulties due to the economic recession in Suriname. Due to price drops of the country’s leading commodities (gold and oil), there has been a drastic cut in government earnings. Since the Government and government related institutions have been the prime market of Baitali Group, this development also had its influence on our company.”
When keeping afloat in difficult waters, attention can end up turned on the competition. However, Farsi is more concerned in seeing Baitali being the very best that it can be, rather than focusing on undercutting its rivals. “As a large-scale company, we certainly face competition in Suriname, but our approach to competition is positive. In our industry, and certainly in an economy as small as Suriname’s, we don’t consider competitors as rivals. We believe that competition is a positive impulse to raise your bar. We just try to do everything with an extra touch of our core values and always try to be one step ahead.”
The Group has already positioned itself well to achieve this goal, with so many of its branches supporting each other, whilst still operating in their own rights. However, they aren’t stopping there – with local funds an issue, the Group’s companies are starting to look abroad: “Baitali Group is attempting to spread its wings beyond Suriname. We are aware that at some point, the small society and scale of Suriname might become an obstacle in the expansion that we aspire towards.”
Yet despite local strains, Baitali’s success in Suriname is far from over. Quite the contrary – they have a slate of plans at home as well as for abroad, including designing, building & financing a project for reconstructing the East-West connection road into Suriname, launching their own rice brand, and investing in ocean-going vessels for the export of their aggregates. Most notably, they have recently won a contract for rehabilitating one of Suriname’s busiest shopping streets. Suriname has been the home of Baitali’s success since the 1960s, and the Group are far from flying the nest – more, their home is a country they will continue to benefit and improve through their infrastructural expertise, and from that foundation, can reach out to the wider world and see just how far their ambition takes them.