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Building the ‘Harpo’ empire


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From cycling to events on a push cycle as a DJ at a time when DJs were unheard of in Sri Lanka and the line of work was frowned upon, to becoming Sri Lanka’s very first Entertainment Manager and then building brand ‘Harpo,’ Harpo Gooneratne is a man who has always passionately believed in following his dreams and making them come true. His success story is founded on sheer dedication and self-belief, unwavering commitment to realising his goals and his love for creating concepts – thanks to which Sri Lanka today boasts several venues where people can relax and unwind, each different from the other, providing an eclectic mix with someone for everyone. Harpo is nothing if not hands-on at all hours. From The Bay Leaf, The Commons Coffee House and The Park Street Mews to Colombo Fort Café and Harpo’s Pizza, he manages it all and is seen at all his properties on a daily basis, if not twice a day, ensuring that people walking out of them leave pleased, which he considers his greatest achievement. With all his properties doing well, right now he’s focusing on his hotel school, in order to bring out confident young people who are able to understand basic customer service requirements, which he says is key. Above all else, Harpo is a happy man. Despite the Harpo brand being relatively young, it’s right up there at the top and he’s thankful to God, his family and staff for everything he’s achieved. Following are excerpts of an interview on his life and journey through the years to where he is today:   Q: Going back to the early years, could you tell us about your childhood – where you grew up, went to school, about your siblings and parents and what life was like? A: I have a brother, who is one year older to me and my parents are living. I was born in Dehiwala but I lived most of my life in Boralesgamuwa, from where I went to college – S. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia. I was in Boralesgamuwa till I was about 25. I will be 51 in May this year. Life was superb; it was really nice. Thankfully and thank God my parents weren’t strict as parents per se. They let me do what I liked doing and knew I was a bit of a scamp as well. We had good times. Many years ago when we were growing up we used to play marbles – I don’t think kids today know what it is. They are so tuned into different things. My teenage life and growing up was good and we came from an Anglican background. Q: Upon leaving school, what did you do and how did you get into DJing? A: After I left school, I went to hotel school and did a three-year course. I had a friend who asked if I would like to do something with music and I said I’d love to be a DJ. She told me to come and meet her boss Gabo – the late Gabo – and he took me on. It was a hobby. At that time nobody knew what DJs were – we were like the disowned generation of Colombo. When you say ‘my god, my daughter’s seeing a DJ,’ no chance! It was a part-time job of mine and I enjoyed it. I used to work a lot in the hotels down south at that time in the early ’80s and there was no civil war. I would travel after hotel school by bus and I go on a push cycle from Bentota to Aluthgama, cycling from Bentota Beach Hotel to Neptune to Palm Garden in the night, finish at four in the morning and take a bus back and go to school. I hardly slept but I loved it and it was something which was a part-time thing that became a profession. DJing is a profession now. In our time there was only SLBC but eventually private radio stations opened up and DJs came to stay. Today it’s a profession and a good career to be in. Q: Could you outline your entry into and experience in the hospitality industry? A: After I finished hotel school, while I kept on DJing as a hobby, I did a small stint in advertising as well. Then there was an opening at the now Cinnamon Lakeside, which was then the Ramada Renaissance under international management. I set up The Library there; I used to work in the daytime at the hotel and DJ at The Library in the night. With my hotel school background, the hotel wanted someone to manage the place and offered me a job as manager of The Library. From there onwards, I used to do mobile shows and stuff but my mainstay job was as The Library Manager and Resident DJ. From there I moved on to be the first entertainment manager this country ever had. At that point of time the hotel realised the importance of having an entertainment manager. Many years ago no one knew what an entertainment manager was. They hired me as the Entertainment Manager for the Renaissance and my I was responsible for bringing events into the hotel, coordinating fashion shows and musical shows – many international fashion shows were held at the hotel and many international bands were brought in. My job was to coordinate and make sure everything was done and profits were made for the hotel – basically everything an Event manager does. I never stopped DJing and I was continually DJing at The Library. I was there from 1986 to 1996. I then moved to the Colombo Hilton as Business Development Manager cum Entertainment Manager, where I worked with Mr. Fernando. I was there, then I moved to Deli Market at the World Trade Centre because that was a part of the Hilton and we were going to set up the Windows on the World restaurant on the 36th and 37th floors of the East Tower. I was hired to do that and I was working with Hilton International, which was overlooking the WTC. Mr. Fernando was then the Area Manager for the Hilton and he hired me as Club Service Manager and we were going to have this funky business centre and beautiful fine dining restaurant. But then the deadly bomb went off in 1997, the project was abandoned, Mr. Fernando passed away, I moved on, I left the Hilton – I was there for four or five years – and I set up the Millennium Park, the first entertainment complex this country had ever seen, with bowling alleys, parks, restaurants, pool parlours, children’s play areas – you name it. I coordinated that and put it together. While I was there I was offered a job to work with Hilton in China so I did a stint in China in Dalian in the northern part of China, where I set up an Irish pub for the Hilton and worked there for a few months. From there I was offered Osaka Hilton and I worked there, also at Windows on the World, where I did the whole marketing and entertainment plan for the hotel properties. Then I came back to Colombo and I was offered the General Manager position at Crescat. I was at Crescat for about three or four years. At the time people used to ask me why I wasn’t doing my own thing, but I used to say the time would come and then the time came and I set up Harpo Productions. Then I took on The Commons and The Bayleaf, which were owned by separate parties and I managed them. That was the starting point; then the owners moved out, sold out and I took over. The Commons turned seven this year and The Bayleaf will be seven in August. While doing this I never stopped entertainment; I coordinated events and I was always involved with them though I was doing restaurant and hospitality because I think it kind of goes hand-in-hand. From there onwards the brand Harpo was being created and then came Harpo’s Pizza, which was a fun thing we were talking about which actually happened. Today it holds its market in Colombo and I am happy to see how it has grown. In August this year it will be five years since the launch. Many of my careers started on 1 August – including my DJing and a lot of my restaurants. I don’t know why this is, maybe the influence of a hot August night! The brand kept growing. With The Commons we created the Roti Cart and brand. That was another crazy idea, but today people like it. Then came The Park Street Mews and it’s a unique venue now. It was an old warehouse turned into a restaurant. The Mews brand kept growing and today it’s a brand people know. Now we have launched ‘One Street, Three Venues,’ with banquet and conference facilities and everything down the street. Not many people have a private alley where you can sit on the street – it’s a very Singapore kind of thing. The Mews is now three years old. Then we moved on to Colombo Fort Café, which is very few – not even five months old. It’s a funky little Mediterranean style place and I think it’s a brilliant concept. Let’s be honest, Sri Lanka lacks venues. You go to Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia or Singapore, they have venues. In Sri Lanka today, we have a handful of venues we can hang out in and I think we need to create more venues now that tourism has picked up and things are happening. More venues opening up will be better to market Sri Lanka. Q: Weren’t you nervous or uncertain when you set about opening so many different restaurants? A: We did this during the war and it just finished three years ago. When we set up The Mews, The Bayleaf, The Commons and Harpo’s Pizza, it was all done during the war. I must tell you, the locals supported and still support us and without them we won’t be anywhere. But no, I was not nervous. I always had confidence. If there is a down, there has to be an up. It cannot always be a down. Yes, we invested lots of money, but today we are seeing the results. Q: So what’s the story behind your name? A: I am christened Lalith and my dad called me Harpo because of the Marx Brothers. Apparently when I was a toddler I had lots of curls up to my shoulders and a mischievous looking clownish face like Harpo Marx. When I went to college, everybody referred to me as Harpo. My initials are L.C.P. – Lalith Clarence Peiris Gooneratne – and some people used to call me Ladies College Principal! Harpo was my nickname and it stuck. I only sign for my bank account as LCP but not for anything else. See my pizza box, the name Harpo on it is my signature and that logo shows the sunglasses on my head, which is how you might see me even at four in the morning. Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement? A: Being able to do something for which I am appreciated. What we are doing is pleasing people. I like to please everybody walking out of my properties. That’s why I am a hands-on person. When I finish an evening and I know all my clients are happy, I know I have achieved something. I have achieved all this with the staff around me – I would not have been able to achieve this alone. I have got great people working for me and great friends who have supported me over the years and of course, my family has always stood by me. Those are the key components in being able to achieve something. Q: Looking back, do you have any regrets? A: I will never do anything I will have to regret. I have no enemies and no regrets. I always believe in doing something I like. I always tell people to do something they like and not for the sake of doing it. If you do something you like, money comes. Money is not the be all and end all of life; you need to enjoy and be happy. Q: Could you describe a day in your life today? A: I wake up and look for my dog now, because my daughter is overseas studying. Even when I go back in the night, no matter what time it is I take my dog for a walk down the street. When I get up in the morning, I have my kola kenda or whatever and just relax. I don’t come to work early but I am a real stickler when it comes to time and I hate people who get late. That is something I drive down to my staff. I like a stress free day and it’s pretty easy since I don’t have stressful days now with things going okay. I visit my properties during the day – I try to visit all of them – and then I go to the gym in the evening. I come back and visit my properties again afterwards and that’s an ideal day for me. Of course there’s meeting up with people and entertaining, attending functions and events. I also DJ for fun sometimes; I love doing it since I love music and I people. Q: So where did you meet your wife Cheryl? Was it at a party? A: Yes, it was at a party. She was working for Ramani’s and I thought I would go and have a haircut one day and that’s how I chatted up Cheryl. Now we have a 21-year-old daughter. We’ve been married for 23 years. Cheryl has her own business and her school as well. She’s a Master Trainer and has her own work style. It’s all well mapped out. Cheryl spent a lot of time with our daughter when she was growing up because although I was there, I was always working. Q: What’s your daughter doing now and do you see her following in your footsteps? A: She’s studying hotel and tourism management and I guess she will follow in my footsteps. She likes what she’s doing and I never forced her into it. I told her to do something she likes doing and she said she likes to do hotel and tourism management. She’s studying in KL now and enjoying it. She’s doing well, thank God, and hopefully she’ll come back and work, not take over. There’s nothing called take over, she’ll have to work for it, like we all worked for it. Q: But you don’t have any plans of retiring, right? A: No… I am so passionate about what I do that I don’t see myself sitting back now. For me it’s just being… no I can’t retire, sorry! Q: So where do you dine and enjoy eating? A: At three in the morning, you will see me at Rahumania! Now I stopped it because it’s not too healthy. I eat in my restaurants at lunchtime and I finish work late so sometimes I take a pasta home but most of the time I stop at Rahumania. I chat to the staff there and have a nice roti or take it home. When we’re going out, Cheryl says ‘please don’t take me to any of your restaurants and if we go to any restaurant, don’t tell them their service is bad – you sit down and eat, just behave yourself!’ When I see people trying to catch the attention of the staff, I tell them to see to that person and Cheryl says ‘this is not your restaurant!’ I don’t generally eat out because of my work and I work 14 to 15 hours a day. Q: So what’s next? A: I am doing a hotel school. With the industry taking off and hotels coming up, I am really concentrating on my hotel school. I want to bring out confident young people who are able to understand basic customer service requirements, which is key. In the Eastern Province we just passed out 70 kids and were are also tied up with an overseas school in an international collaboration. We just passed out another 15 children in Attidiya, as part of a trust where we took these street children and educated them. Now they are working in hotels. With Sri Lanka talking about 2.5 million tourists, you need staff. Now that it has taken off, you can talk about a doorman at a hotel taking a Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 40,000 service charge. You talk about three years ago, nobody wanted to come here. I have been pushing for this to be included as a subject in the school curriculum because it’s a dead industry and with no one coming into it, where are we going to find people to serve? Service levels are so bad now and I am trying to encourage people to come into the business because it’s a fantastic business to be in – you meet and greet and wine and dine. It’s a good business despite the long hours and you need a very understanding family to be in it, otherwise you are history. Our people are good but they need encouragement. Q: So are you happy now, having built up your ‘Harpo’ empire? A: I always say I was just a normal DJ on a push cycle. But I built a brand over the years and I had a passion for it and now brand Harpo is there, people know about it. Yes, I am happy. I should be happy. I always thank God for what he has given me and what I am today. I am blessed with the heads of my properties because they believed in the brand and despite being a young company of just seven years, it’s a strong brand now. I am happy because I achieved this through the dedicated work of my staff. We’re all one family with no hierarchy. We also do a lot of charity where we feed children every morning. This NGO came and asked us to help because the kids’ parents were drug addicts and so on. We also have a Christmas party for them every year with gifts and we are building up some good CSR around the company. Q: What is your advice to young entrepreneurs today? A: Whatever you’re doing, do it with passion. You have to believe in what you’re doing. Building brands takes a lot of time to do – you can’t do it overnight. Pic by Upul Abayasekara  

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