The 1986 lifting of the four and a half years ban on the importation into Guyana of wheaten flour was of national significance in our economic history. But it was historic too for an individual who not too long after the resumption visited our office with his wife Annetta for a conversation. Nothing was more striking about the young man Naeem Nasir than his modesty, quiet confidence, conviction and focus. Later in a relationship that extended beyond business, other qualities which I came to associate with Mr. Nasir were his unerring flair to identify business opportunities, his ability to lead with inspiration rather than command, his commitment to his faith, his generosity and compassion, his energy and dynamism.
Mr. Nasir’s business acumen and success have been recounted ever since his death on October 9 at the age of fifty-two. But anyone who knew him recognised his life as one of unending generosity and dedication to any and all Guyanese, supporting countless individuals, families, organisations and Muslim communities in Guyana and Orlando. From my limited vantage point, but knowing how he sought to promote the knowledge and practice of Islam I believe that when the modern history of Islam in Guyana is written Naeem and his family will be recognised as pivotal forces behind the increasing confidence in that religion.
But Mr. Nasir was more than an astute businessman or staunch follower of Islam. His prep school colleague remembers his kindness while his workmates from National Bank of Industry and Commerce remember how he would offer to drop them home after balancing the books at 2 AM.
More recently he set a standard of philanthropy unknown in Guyana and a model for others – with bigger organisations and purses – to emulate. But what is perhaps less known is his management style and his relationship with those who worked for him and who showed their appreciation and their loss by some of the strongest expressions of emotions at his funeral service. His lieutenant Rajin Ganga praises him for his style of decision-making and leadership – a readiness to listen to others challenging his views, comfortable with delegating authority but taking full responsibility when anything goes amiss.
As one of the softest touches of businesspersons in town, he was accessible while not craving publicity, raising and giving money for any person, cause or interest. Until the day he was admitted to the Dr. Balwant Singh Hospital complaining of head pains, Mr. Nasir was engaged in several projects including the Soup Kitchen, the construction of the Queenstown Jama Masjid, Church Street, the GPO food outlet and the recently established Doobay Medical Centre at Annandale. One of his associates explained that he managed to do all of these things while supervising a round-the-clock business because for him schedules and routines were sacred.
I never had the impression that it was due to the fact that he was the only of the Nasir siblings to be born at the North Road Georgetown Building that led him to start his business right there.
Seems to me more a matter that his job at the National Bank of Industry and Commerce and in Barbados where he had worked for a short while, did not allow him enough savings to rent any place to start his business. Whatever it was, it was a remarkable coincidence that the bakery empire he launched was only a few doors away from the home of the then President Hugh Desmond Hoyte, the man who courageously lifted the ban on wheaten flour imposed earlier by Forbes Burnham.
In a fiercely competitive industry to which the barriers to entry were not too high or too formidable, in a country where success depends less on integrity and competence than on connections and favours, and in a line of product where reputation can be destroyed by a single production run, Naeem decided that he was up to the challenge.
Background and giving back
Yet, nothing in his background had prepared him for or suggested that this was the direction his life would take. In his primary school education at Baird’s Primary School (a private school) in Robb Street and Central Primary School, his interest was in the numerate subjects – arithmetic, algebra and geometry – and in problem solving. His performance at Central earned him a place at Queen’s College where another great influence on his life came to the fore.
The son of attorney-at-law S. M. A. Nasir, OBE, CCH, a founder and first President of the Central Islamic Organisation of Guyana and Fazeela Nasir, a Trinidadian, Naeem had Islam in his blood and its promotion on his mind from a very young age. He himself was a founder member of the Islamic Society at QC doing Islamic studies in the afternoons at the Queenstown Mosque and at the age of 8 was able to recite the Quran.
More than a bookish student, he never regretted forgoing the opportunity to attend university in Canada. He was an affable, outgoing regular person. At school he played cricket and table tennis, two games he loved with a passion and over the past few years took up tennis and developed into a good doubles player.
In fact he was a founding member of the Le Ressouvenir Tennis Club and in an unprecedented gesture, personally financed the construction of a tennis court at the President’s College.
But while we in the Tennis Association could claim a part of him, he was just as generous with football, cricket and other sports with popular appeal. For him, opportunities to deprived communities to participate in sports took youths off the street corners and on to the playing field where they could enhance their talent and constructively use their energies.
As a kid, like most youngest sons of better-off Indian families, Naeem spent very little time in the kitchen although on visits to Guyana from Barbados where he was employed in the hospitality business, he would drop by his brother-in-law who carried on a small bakery operation.
It would be a great irony indeed if his most lasting public legacy turns out to be the soup kitchen on which he was partnering with the Government spearheaded by then Minister of Human Services Ms. Priya Manickchand.
When operational, the project will serve to the poor and the needy some 2,500 meals per day, three hundred and sixty-five days per year.
Surprised but supportive of his son’s new-found interest and experiment with bread, his father suggested that he could utilise the area with fruit trees in the back of the yard on the southern side of the house to start his own bakery.
His wife Annetta gave up her salon business to join him in one of the most successful husband/wife partnerships since Alston and Lyla Kissoon started their furniture empire in the sixties.
He and his wife would work day and night to push the business – adding both volume and range to the products on offer. It was a measure of his success that eponym worked in reverse with him, many persons referring to him as Mr. Bakewell. His experiences and exposure in Orlando, Florida where Bakewell products were sought after by non-Guyanese as well, led him to set and maintain standards that were first world.
Whenever he and I were in Orlando at the same time we always went to dinner but never at the same place. For him dining was a discovery and an experience to be shared and he always strove to offer Guyanese whatever was available elsewhere.
On any day, at the various food outlets he operated, there are over two hundred products from which the consumer or connoisseur can choose.
There are not many places you can travel in the Caribbean and find a shop or chain that offers all of the following: roti and curry, Danish pastries, Swiss Rolls, fried or curried chicken, English Muffins, chowmein and fried rice, French toast, Jamaican patties, channa, Haagen Dazs Ice Cream and Starbucks type American coffee.
As an entrepreneur Mr. Nasir shunned red tape and bureaucracy and believed in the flat organisation model in which there are few layers of decision-making. He anchored his business in a clear vision, worker empowerment and a simple but uncompromising guide with people as its centre.
For him contributing to social causes was not about promoting one’s products or about photo opportunities but about giving back to society, helping the needy. More informed than many, he stayed clear of politicians.
Yet he was always willing to work with those whose contribution he felt served the public interest: former President Desmond Hoyte was as prominent as acting President Samuel Hinds at the commissioning of the company’s Triumph factory operations.
But life for Nasir was not without its challenges. Throughout his teenage years, he used to complain about tummy aches, and was taken to every doctor his parents could think about. At 18 however, the pain was unbearable, and he soon discovered after a kidney test that one of his kidneys was already gone and the other one needed repairs. He went to Canada at age 20 and removed the failed kidney and had the other one repaired.
At age 40 the repaired one failed, so he had a transplant from his elder brother. Its efficacy started to diminish early in 2011 and many of his close friends offered a transplant. As a result of the medication used to prevent rejection of the transplanted kidney, he gained weight and his mobility was restricted. But Naeem never allowed this to slow him down as he moved from one idea to another, one project to another. For him, complaining was not an option and he continued to live a life of service, optimism and an example of the possible.
Naeem is survived by his wife Annetta, children Anisa, 15 and Ahmad, 7 and his four siblings including his sister Aleema.