The French Connection: Master Tiles and Raja Martinez

How Sheikh Mehmood Iqbal is perpetrating a mega scam with Le Paris Housing Society

UPDATE: A tweep reached out confirming the cash flow crunch rumor. His tweets have been added to the section.

UPDATE 2: Another tweep reached out with info of Master Tiles doing in IPO. That tweet is appended just before the end.


At first, there was an ad

The project was announced with two full-page ads in Business Recorder, the financial daily of Pakistan, on Jan 24, 2021.

Page 1

What is not to like in the announcement.

1. It has the picture of the Prime Minister of Pakistan.

2. The project is in response "to the call of Prime Minister Pakistan Imran Khan's Futuristic Economic Vision" and presents "Pakistan's Largest Project for a Buzzing Economic Activity".

3. The project is being marketed as "Le Paris - A City of Love. The signature masterpiece by Sheikh Mahmood Iqbal".

4. The project will be "Happiness Spread over a Mammoth 4800 acres".

5. There is gratitude for GCCI (Gujranwala Chamber of Commerce and Industry?) and specifically of Ali Ashraf, Chairman Gujranwala Development Authority who "owing to his political background was highly concerned about the economic well being of the people in Gujranwala in particular and of Pakistan in general".

6. The company carrying out the project Le Ville De Paris Housing Scheme Limited will be a non-listed public limited company and Mr. Martinez, the French guru, has been elected as Chairman Board of Directors. "It was his mere love for Pakistan and passion for Le Paris concept that he instantly consented to be part of the project as Chairman."

7. The message from the Chairman starts with "Master's corporate structure coupled with Mr Iqbal's clarity of vision inspired me to travel all the way from France along with a bunch of most celebrated professionals to join the Le Paris team."

8. "He (the Chairman) will not only bring in all the necessary material and human resources required for successful and timely completion of this mammoth project but will also bring investors, brands, franchisees and other strategic collaborations meant to introduce French products, Cafes, Restaurants, Pefrumeris, Fashion, Cosmetics etc."

With the amount of responsibility on the shoulders of Mr Martinez, it should be a signature project of Raja saheb Martinez.

Page 2

If it wasn't clear that this is a scam from the exaggerations on Page 1, it should be clear from some of the features of the project mentioned on Page 2.

1. World's second-largest Eifel Tower.

2. Arch De Triomph will be replicated in its original size

3. ShanzeLize Street. I am speechless on this one.

4. One of the largest mosque in Asia

5. World-class educational institutions. In collaboration with Center Pompidou and muse d'Orsay, making Le Paris a dream destination for higher education.

Then we are back to the usual scam that Bahria Town and ARY Laguna pulled with their limited membership forms. Le Paris is calling it registration certificates. Like Bahria and ARY Laguna, no prices have been announced when selling these forms. In the case of Bahria Town Karachi, they didn't know where the project will be launched. In the case of ARY Laguna, they didn't announce the prices as the interest would have been significantly lower (already the form buyers of ARY Laguna are upset that the announced prices are significantly higher as much as by Rs.10 lakh than what the Platinum agents unofficially told them).

Le Paris is being smart. They are seeking refuge behind that they don't have approval from GDA yet and will announce prices and sell units only after approval from GDA is received. Homebuyers are encouraged to buy the Registration Certificates to become part of this dream community. "After the launch, only those registered with us will get an opportunity to be of part of this one of its kind dream community. Registration slots are limited so hurry up before its too late. Remember! It’s once in a lifetime opportunity!"

There is also a paragraph drawing attention to Master Tiles being a law abiding corporate citizen (why was there a need of mentioning this?) and one of the largest tax payers.

Then there were rumors

Cash Flow Crunch

I was talking to a friend who has business interests in Punjab. We were shooting the breeze and I asked him if he is buying the registration certificates of Le Paris. He says that he is no longer supplying products to Master Tiles as they have been delaying payments to their suppliers. According to my friend, Master Tiles is facing cash flow issues.

The most expensive wedding

Master Tiles and Jalal Sons recently celebrated the most expensive wedding ceremony. The Profit wrote a feature piece on it. The Jalal Sons and Master Tiles wedding: the corporate event or family affair? Reportedly laddoos accompanied the invitation card and the invitation card stated that the laddoos are wrapped in 24K gold paper.

The fanfare of the wedding resulted in FBR issuing notice for taxation. Please forgive the small digression as the news report makes for interesting reading.

There is more but you can read about it by visiting the news site ایف بی آر نے ٹیکس چوروں کی فہرست جاری کردی. فنکاروں میں راحت فتح علی خان، مولانا طارق جمیل، ابرارالحق اور عاطف اسلم کا نام شامل - ۔آئی بی سی اردو

Cash crunch or something else

Rumour has it that the wedding cost around Rs.20 crore which doesn't seem unreasonable considering the amounts mentioned in the FBR notice. Is he really facing a cash flow crunch? Master Tiles isn't a public company. The best way to find out is some financial investigative journalist doing fieldwork by calling other suppliers to Master Tiles feel if they are facing similar issues. In addition, the investigator can call up their friends in commercial banking world and see if Master Tiles is having cash flow challenges in making loan/interest payments (assuming Master Tiles borrows money).

UPDATE: Below is the update which wasn’t in the original post that went out.

Now that FBR has its sights focused on Master Tiles, the cash flow crunch can be an elaborate charade by Master Tiles, to only use documented cash for making payments till heat from FBR dies down.

Only time will tell.

Master City

The Sheikh family had earlier launched Master City. The logo shares the logo of Master Tiles so the developers must be related.

Buyer beware

The Sheikh's of Master City don't want to be associated with Le Paris. They issued a warning that people dealing with Le Paris will themselves be responsible for any loss (no one issues such a statement if there was a chance of profit).

Overseas block

As is the case with all overseas blocks in housing societies of Pakistan, whether DHA or Bahria or anybody else, overseas investors are the first ones to get the shaft and the last ones to get anything.

I love this comment on their facebook page where Master City page manager talks about beauty of Kashmir around Kashmir Day and the comment says that please do something about overseas block before concerning yourself with international issues

Other issues

There are also complaints about the non-availability of Sui Gas and Wapda power. Presumably, page admin keeps deleting such comments as someone had commented "for how long can you continue deleting the comments of the complainants."

Bottomline

The point of this digression is that Master City, which is no utopia itself, has its own issues of non-delivery in overseas block and non-availability of gas and power for its residents, is also distancing itself from Le Paris.

Raja Saheb Martinez

As mentioned earlier, the success of the project relies on the Chairman, Jean Louis Raja Martinez as he is supposed to arrange the material and human resources as well as investors and all the collaborations. He is also a French management guru. He must be famous on the interwebs.

A simple google search for his name throws up only a record of his divorce proceedings in the County of San Francisco. If one searches for "Jean Louis Raja Martinez urban planner", Google shows him as a Partner in Earth Partnership Consulting - Seattle with his ex-wife as the owner.

His personal life doesn't matter but for the Chairman who, left "France" merely for the love of Pakistan and Sheikh Iqbal's vision, is supposed to bring all the good French things to Pakistan, and is the French Management Guru, there is absolutely nothing about him (except for his divorce proceedings), his experience, his french connections or his thought leadership on the internet.

I swear LinkedIn was mentioning his Earth Partnership Consulting when last time I checked it. Probably he found out and since deleted it. For such an accomplished personality, it is weird that his LinkedIn is completely blank.

Be that as it may, no one can deny that Raja Saheb is a master of fluff. Here is a message from him from the Le Paris website.

The below picture has a lot going for it. The CEO is sitting while the town planners are standing. Even the Chairman of the company Raja Saheb Martinez is also standing and playing with his cell phone.

Registration Certificates

I had covered in my earlier posts about Bahria Town and ARY Laguna that membership forms are marketed as a tool to measure the interest of the general public in the projects but in reality, are a mechanism for developers and real estate dealers to raise funds by scamming prospective buyers.

ARY has appointed Platinum Agents (PA) to market and sell the apartments on ARY's behalf. PAs invest significant time and capital in marketing a project. PAs make money in the following manner.

1. A developer (ARY) sells booking forms in advance to PAs for cash at a price that is at a discount from the market price. For example, the market price of a form announced by the developer may be Rs.15,000. The developer will sell the forms in bulk to PA for Rs.10,000 cash. This provides developers with cash infusion right away. It motivates the PA to market the project aggressively as they will now get Rs.5,000 whenever a purchaser buys a form from them.

Master Tiles’ pitch is the same. The purpose of the certificate is to gauge interest.

An effective measurement tool to guage public interest

In order to have a realistic assessment of the interest of people in this unique project from all across the country, process of registration of the prospective buyers have been initiated. To gauge the seriousness of those expressing them interest, a Prize has been attached to Le Paris Registration Certificate against which valuable benefits and cash prizes through a Lucky Draw are being given as an incentive.

The registration figures will assist us in evaluation of our planning and working on the magnitude of the overall project and the facilities being provided in the scheme.

Bigger scam than Bahria Town and ARY forms

But Master Tiles has dialed up the scam by going 10x.

By taking the price of the certificate to Rs.115,000

Whereas Bahria Town and ARY Laguna were selling membership forms for Rs.10,000 to Rs.16,500, Master Tiles is charging Rs.100,000+ for it.

From their website

Le Paris Registration Certificate was issued on 1st January, 2021 when its selling Prize was Rs. 100,000/- while the return adjustment was Rs. 125,000/- as per the face value. It gained instant boom with high demands; gradually increasing the Prize. As of second week of March, it was being sold at a Prize of Rs. 115,000/- while the return adjustment stood at Rs. 145,000/-. These Prizes are expected to soar further.

So hurry up! Get your Le Paris Registration Certificate now. Who knows if the mega prize of Rs. 5 Crores was waiting; just for you!!!

I covered this in the ARY Laguna scam post that adjustment value is nothing but a marketing spin. The price of units has not been announced. Le Paris housing units’ prices (if ever there are housing units in future) can be increased by Rs.30,000 with the net result that there is no benefit of the Rs.30,000 immediate benefit.

Offering No refunds

The registration certificate, like Bahria's and ARY Laguna's membership form, entitles you to nothing. ARY Laguna, at least, offered a refund of Rs.10,000 after deducting Rs.6,500 from the Rs.16,500 cost of the membership form. Le Paris registration form apparently offers no refunds. The investors will be stuck unless they can find another victim to buy the registration forms from them. Le Paris registration certificate entitles you to nothing.

Lottery Ticket

Scammers like Bahria Town and ARY Laguna remained within legal parameters (I can't find anything wrong in their membership forms from a legal perspective. I am no legal expert, don't take my word for it). The membership forms explicitly stated that the forms entitled the buyer to nothing with the exception of those who had bought 10 forms for a guaranteed apartment. (Those 10 form buyers will be in for a rude shock if they were hoping for the cheapest one-bedroom unit and the guaranteed unit turns out to be the most expensive penthouse unit that no one can afford. Where will they come up with the installments?) There were no prizes to be won.

Le Paris, on the other hand, is selling lottery tickets with a thin veneer of real estate project behind it.

Where is SECP?

Being a non-listed public limited company, I think this sale of lottery tickets called registration certificates should fall afoul of some SECP regulations. But the toothless regulator that SECP has become, at max, I expect SECP to issue a circular or a tweet that no one will read and SECP will wash its hands off its responsibility. Where is SECP's enforcement? Is SECP only limited to issuing circulars?

Legality

I am not a legal expert but I believe this lottery scheme should be illegal. Below are the results of my googling.

Sind Consumer Protection Act

The activity will also be illegal under Sind Consumer Protection Act 2014.

22 (1) No person shall advertise promotion of services through lottery or attracting the consumers for additional expenditure by way of reward or award in lieu thereof except for the charges for his original product [which that person]

a) does not intend to offer for supply; 0r

b) does not have reasonable grounds for believing that they can be supplied at the price for a period that is, and in quantities that are, reasonable having regard to the nature of the market in which the person carried on business and the nature of the advertisement.

(2) Any person who has advertised products or services for supply at a specified price shall offer such products or services, for supply at that price for a period that is, and in quantities that are reasonable having regard to the nature of the market in which the person carriers on business and the nature of the advertisement.

This first bold part in the aforementioned section clearly prohibits lottery schemes. The second bold part renders ARY Laguna's scheme of buy 10 forms for 1 guaranteed unit scheme in contravention of this law.

The rest of the clause renders Bahria Town modus operandi illegal where Bahria Town first launches a membership form, sells booking forms, and then goes about encroaching or illegally occupying the land.

Personally, I think the whole membership form should be illegal with or without rewards but I am not a lawyer or a consumer rights activist so what do I know.

Punjab Consumer Protection Act

But Le Paris isn't in Sind. Sind Consumer Protection Act won't be applicable to it. We will have to see The Punjab Consumer Protection Act 2005 (PCPA) which is the same as Sind Consumer Protection Act with the exception that it does not prohibit lottery.

22. Prohibition on bait advertisement.– (1) No person shall, in trade, advertise or supply at a specified price products or services which that person–

(a) does not intend to offer for supply; or

(b) does not have reasonable grounds for believing that they can be supplied at that price for a period that is, and in quantities that are, reasonable having regard to the nature of the market in which the person carries on business and the nature of the advertisement.

(2) Any person who has advertised products or services for supply at a specified price shall offer such products or services for supply at that price for a period that is, and in quantities that are reasonable having regard to the nature of the market in which the person carries on business and the nature of the advertisement.

Supreme Court rulings

Regardless of whether PCPA specifically mentions lottery, the Supreme Court has stated that such lotteries are illegal and a punishable crime

Lucky draws, lotteries unlawful: CJP

The chief justice said the people have completely disregarded the legal rules, and asked why the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) was not doing its job. Meanwhile, Justice Tariq Pervez said lucky-draw schemes are a punishable crime, and those organising such schemes as well as those partaking in them are both equally responsible and guilty.

During a hearing concerning prize bond schemes for new landline connections, the court took strict notice of the goings-on, and issued notices to the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) chief executive as well as the PTA, and has sought a statement from PTCL as to why the body announced its lucky-draw scheme in the first place when it was well aware that such schemes were unlawful. The PTA, meanwhile, has been served a notice asking why it has failed to uphold the rules and regulations in this regard.

Telecom Consumer Protection Regulations

PTA is a telecom regulator (with a problem of encroaching on matters it doesn't have to) but at least PTA got this right. As per Telecom Consumer Protection (Amendment) Regulations, 2016 offering lottery schemes is no longer a permissible incentive. Incentives can only be limited to additional telecommunication incentives such as additional talk time or concessionary rates.

In addition, all such schemes should be approved by PTA.

It's scanned print out so hard to extract text. However, it's a short act comprising of 4 pages so you can read it by visiting the above link. The summary of the rest of the clauses is taken from this Propakistani report

Operator, as per new regulations, will be responsible to provide a complete details to PTA about the promotion, including type of the incentives allocated to be distributed to the qualifying consumers, parameters/benchmarks for determining winners and details of mechanism, place and date for selection of qualifying consumers.

Furthermore, under the new regulation, an undertaking regarding inclusion of key features of the offered telecom promotional schemes in print media which shall be published in at least one national and local-language newspaper each as well as on the licensee’s, website in a clear, transparent and nondiscriminatory manner.

Bottomline

It is obvious from the non-refundable nature of the registration certificate that it is a lottery scheme. It is clear that this lottery scheme should be illegal in light of Supreme Court statements. In light of PTA regulations and the regular launch of such schemes by various developers makes it clear that the real estate sector requires the establishment of a strong regulator with enforcement powers similar to PTA. SECP has proven itself to be useless as covered in my earlier post Daylight robberies by Habib Bank, United Bank and others.

Also Punjab Consumer Protection Act needs to be amended to prohibit lotteries.

Pièce de résistance

We haven't talked much about the project. To be honest, there is nothing to talk about. How can one criticize the project which will be a "ditto replica of Paris". There is a city in China that is also a replica of Paris.

A 'fake' Paris you can see in China | CNN Travel

That's the premise of Tianducheng -- an unassuming suburb of the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou that also doubles as a large-scale replica of the French capital.

Parisian photographer [Francois Prost](http://francoisprost.com/) traveled to Tianducheng to photograph the town's recreations of iconic Parisian sights: from the Eiffel Tower to the classic Haussmann buildings and the Gardens of Versailles.

But the Chinese have money. What does Sheikh Mehmood Iqbal have going for this project? Let's summarize

  1. Reportedly Master Tiles is facing a cash crunch and may not have the funds to develop “ShanzeLezee”, Eiffel Tower, Arch de Triomph.

  2. FBR may be reaching out to him for his tax records.

  3. The French Guru is the token white guy (probably not even French) who has the responsibility of arranging all the resources but apparently doesn’t have the qualification and experience to deliver it.

  4. Master City (which is a related concern) which itself scammed investors in the overseas block and has yet to provide Wapda and Sui gas connections, is warning investors that they should not come to Master City if investors lose money.

  5. Registration Certificates are lottery tickets as they are non-refundable and their legality is questionable.

But, but, what about the Gujranwala Development Authority and the town planners looking forward to this project? I am glad you asked that question.

Gujranwala Development Authority is explicitly warning the investors and purchasers, by way of a printout affixed somewhere, that the Le Paris Housing Scheme (Master Tiles waalay) is illegal, GDA has no record of it and the lottery scheme is illegal and fraudulent.

There you have it. A large scale scam being perpetrated by moustache-shaving CEO Sheikh Mahmood Iqbal of Master Tiles, which is a law-abiding corporate citizen of Pakistan, and no one can do anything about it except displaying a print out.

But if you still want to invest in the scheme, there is still time. 13 more days to go till the lucky draw.

IPO

Reportedly the parent entity of Le Paris i.e. Master Tiles is planning an IPO. All I will say is “Buyer Beware”.


Stong Real Estate Regulatory Authority (RERA) needed

I am being harsh on GDA on the printout. CDA used to place ads in the newspapers that Bahria Town projects are illegal but no one paid attention. We need a strong regulatory authority for real estate which lays down the rules and has the enforcement power to do it. India already did this with RERA laws and we can do it too. The printouts and notices in newspapers won’t solve the issue.


Bonus Feature: Virus is spreading

The virus of adjustment certificates scam is spreading. The government has to harshly clamp down on such practices.