Shares key insights into his career, corporate and sectoral issues
Kingsley Bernard, a well-known business leader, a veteran marketer and marketing guru has bid goodbye to the corporate business sector after completing a distinguished career of 35 years, having held senior and top management positions both in the public and private sector institutions in Sri Lanka and also having served as an expert to a few international agencies.
In his final lap of eight years, he served as a Group Director of Daya Group Ltd., Director/Accountable Manager of Daya Aviation and Director/CEO of Bimputh Finance PLC. His resignation has been accepted by the Boards of Directors of Daya Group and Bimputh Finance with the approvals of the Central Bank for his resignation from Bimputh Finance and the Civil Aviation Authority for his resignation from Daya Aviation. His decision to leave the business sector was due to the fact that he wishes to follow his childhood dream of becoming a full time academic and to complete his doctoral degree.
Following are excerpts of an interview with Bernard outlining his views on certain aspects of his career and challenges he had to face in his journey from a young management trainee in 1979 to the top within a relatively short period of time:
Q: Over the course of your 35-year career, how many organisations have you been attached to?
A: I have worked for about eight organisations of which three were in the public sector, namely Agricultural Development Authority, Export Development Board and Sri Lanka Export Credit Insurance Corporation where I held top management positions and five in the private sector, namely Walker and Greig, Unilever, Dankotuwa Porcelain PLC, Capital Maharaja Organisation and Daya Group where I was holding positions of CEO and/or Group Director. Initially, I spent one-and-a-half years as a Management Trainee with Volanka Ltd.
Q: 35 years is a long period of time but one might think that working for eight organisations during the period would be too many. Your views?
A: It depends; in a country like USA this would be considered as ideal, however in countries like Japan, they prefer long-term engagement in a given job. In Sri Lanka, we don’t have a standard norm as such for the length of employment but depending on the employer and employee, duration varies. In my case most of these job changes came as a result of career progression except one or two which were prompted by external factors such as family commitments, etc.
Q: At the end of the day, are you happy about working in many organisations?
A: Yes, as a corporate executive, I am more than satisfied about working in many organisations (compared to two or three) covering many different business fields which paved the way for me to get myself exposed not only to diverse business fields but also to different employers with unique values and corporate cultures. As a result I not only gained knowhow in many diverse fields but also gained experience in working under different conditions, facing new and unique challenges every day.
It was not very easy to get used to new jobs and new organisational environments within short periods of time; this needs hard work and commitment. My first degree in Mathematics and Statistics provided me the analytical framework to adjust myself quickly in different jobs and different organisations. Further, the one-and-a-half years of management training I received under the direct supervision of J.K. Knous, Managing Director of Volanka Ltd., which was fully owned by a foreign company at that time, kept me in good stead in applying myself to any challenging and demanding situation in my career. At the end of my business career, I am extremely happy that I worked for many corporate companies including MNCs and reputed public sector organisations.
Q: Apart from your employment, you also held number of other positions in trade chambers and other associations. Could you give a brief account of your experience with them?
A: I was the Vice President of the Exporters’ Association of Sri Lanka affiliated to the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce from 1998-’99 and was the President of the National Chamber of Exporters from 2003 to 2005. In 2004, I was also elected as the Chairman of the Joint Business Forum for a period of one year. I was a member of the NCED – Export Cluster and Trade and Tariff Cluster from 2003-2005. I was also the President of the Ceramic Manufacturers and Exporters Association at its inception in 1998.I was the Secretary of the association for Corporate Social Responsibility at the time of the first year of its existence.
I must say that I had a rewarding experience with these organisations though I had to find time for such involvements. However busy I was in my regular job as a top level manager either in the public or private institutions, I did my voluntary assignments with passion and commitment doing justice to the responsibilities entrusted on me.
The key responsibility one has to shoulder when heading such organisations is to represent the interests and rights of the sector and give proper direction for development. There would be multifaceted issues, micro and macro, which require speedy solutions, therefore a leader has to spend time on studying such issues and negotiating on such issues with the authorities and to influence decision makers in line with the thinking of stakeholders of the particular sector.
On the other hand these assignments provide you with a lot of opportunities for networking and creating collective synergy. However, the greatest challenge faced by a chamber leader is not to be influenced by the external pressures from the State, political parties and other stakeholders but to be the voice of their members and fight for their due position without succumbing to such pressures and forgetting the mission of the organisation they lead.
Q: Although you were a busy top level executive, you still had time to be a Visiting Lecturer to many universities in the country. How did you manage time?
A: Soon after completing the MBA from the University of Colombo in 1986,I was offered a position of visiting lecturer which lasted from 1987 to 2007. I had been a visiting lecturer attached to the Department of Management and Finance and Post Graduate Faculty of Colombo University mainly teaching MBA and Post Graduate Diploma students on a regular basis. During this period I held additional responsibilities such as being the Course Director for Marketing Management Course of the two programs for several years.
Within the same period from 2000 to 2006, I was also serving as a Visiting Lecturer to the University of Sri Jayawardenapura, Post Graduate Institute of Management, Open University of Sri Lanka and University of Kelaniya. In most of these universities, I also taught short spells to undergraduates too.
If my memory serves me right when Sri Jayawardenapura started its BSc. Marketing Degree program, I conducted the first marketing lecture to the first batch of students, who came mainly from rural schools, in English without uttering a word in Sinhala. During the first few lectures students were finding it very difficult to understand, but with a few lectures they picked up the language and matched their counterparts from Colombo schools, which was a pleasant experience for me as a lecturer. I was happy to learn that all these students are now holding very responsible positions in the business sector. I also lectured undergraduate students in Finance Management at Sri Jayawardenapura and Colombo Universities.
Q: As a lecturer what would satisfy you the most?
A: It is a batch of satisfied students during the course who will perform extraordinarily well in their respective jobs. I considered myself lucky in this respect as my students were happy about my lectures and most of them are doing very well holding high ranking jobs such as heads of institutions in the public sector and CEOs in the private sector.
Q: Is there any other direct correlation between your decision to become a full time academic and your teaching experience as a visiting lecturer for a long time?
A: Yes of course, because of my affection towards the academic sector. I sacrificed my leisure for lecturing and continuing it for a long period from 1987 to 2006 on a regular basis. I had to stop lecturing from 2008 to 2011 as I had to take up a very responsible position with Lions International in District 306 B2 Sri Lanka, as Vice District Governor during 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 as the District Governor. After this period I have now undertaken some university assignments. Because of my lecturing experience and industry exposure, when I decided to offer myself as a full time academic; it was only a question of selecting a place of my preference to join as I had a more than one offer.
Q: Have you by now decided to join a particular institute and why?
A: Yes. Now I have decided to join SLIIT as a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Business Management. The reason for the decision was I felt that SLIIT is a very dynamic and market-oriented organisation in the education sector in Sri Lanka, having developed to the level it is in within a relatively short period of time. I also have served as a visiting lecturer for its MBA program for the last two to three years and I think I can make use of my industrial experience and entrepreneurial skills to the benefit of the students and contribute to the success of SLIIT. I am looking forward to work with great scholars of the likes of Prof. Sam Karunaratne, Prof. Lalith Gamage, Dr. Theekshana Suraweera and many others at SLIIT.
Q: You have worked for family owned and public quoted companied equally effectively. How do you compare them?
A: Well the difference between those two entities arises not because of the fact that those are publicly owned or family owned, but from the corporate business cultures of those organisations. In Sri Lanka, however big such family companies are, most of those lack a corporate business culture in their running of businesses. Owners of such family companies directly get involved in business which requires expertise and specialised skills and consider themselves to be experts in such businesses and take decisions as if they were experts in the particular field. This kind of approach seems to have discouraged professionals working for such organisations as their concerns in relevant fields have not been duly considered by the owner decision makers.
On the other hand, there are companies, though they are owned by families, where the important positions are filled by professionals in the respective fields and given reasonable freedom for those professionals to run those organisations. This difference comes not from the ownership but from the business culture and corporate management. I have worked for institutions belonging to both these categories and have been able to be effective in both types, though there were disappointments at times. However, I admit the fact that most of these owner mangers have high entrepreneurial skills compared to professional managers. This appears to be the major contributory factor for the success of the family companies in Sri Lanka.
Q: At the moment you are working as Director/CEO of a finance company registered with the Monetary Board of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and quoted at the Colombo Stock Exchange Does your resignation have any correlation with the consolidation of the financial sector launched by the Central Bank?
A: The answer is a firm ‘no’ as my decision to pursue my academic career was made months before the consolidation program was announced by the Central Bank. However, for the last four months I have got myself fully involved in the process of consolidation and a few stages of the process have been completed by Bimputh according to the rules and regulations stipulated by the Central Bank.
Q: What are your views on the financial consolidation program launched by the Central Bank?
A: The main objective of the financial consolidation is to formulate strong and large financial institutions and banks in the country. In order to do that the Central Bank is in the process of implementing a model which has been successful in another Asian country and implementation of the model has been made compulsory to the financial institutions. The key criteria for strengthening these organisations have been their size; i.e. capital base and asset base and not their performance. These criteria may appear unfair for the small but well managed nascent institutions, especially for those which have obtained their license and started business within the last three to five years.
On the other hand, large organisations which are ailing may be at an advantage to dispose of their unprofitable business through this process. Such mergers could expose even the smoothly-run companies to difficulty. Further, after several years of enjoying a free economic system in the country, this kind of ‘forced in’ consolidation could be interpreted that Sri Lanka is treading back in to a ‘closed environment’.
These small time non-bank companies and financial institutions in particular are in existence due to market needs and opportunities. They can’t survive and sustain their business unless they are profitable and have a sufficiently large customer base. They have identified market niches which are not been presently served by other top end financial institutions such as banks and large financial companies. Therefore, any artificial involvement by the regulatory authority can disturb the free market forces which are in place.
On the other hand, what I feel is that regulator should not dictate terms how to do business to the organisations but resort to moral suasion and supervise the operations and take precautionary measures to follow relevant directions and shape their operations. The function of the Central Bank has to be a regulatory, facilitative and supportive role rather than a direct involvement in financial business.
Q: Tell us how you moulded yourself to be an efficient and effective top executive in the business sector from your humble beginning as a management trainee after your graduation from the University of Jaffna?
A: I can think of at least four to five good reasons for this; firstly, my being the elder child of a family of three (two sisters and myself) and my parents being teachers of the ‘old school,’ I was brought up in a highly-disciplined home environment. Further, selection of schools for me by my parents helped me to develop myself as a well-mannered and disciplined student. During my school days, I had the best opportunity in my life for character development.
Thirdly, having got through the GCE (A.L.), I was offered an opportunity to study for a Bachelor of Applied Science in a batch of 125 students at the University of Moratuwa in early 1974. However, within a few weeks from the selections, we were informed by the university authorities that due to limitations of resources such as buildings, lecturers, etc., we would not be admitted to the university during that current year. We were told that with the new intake we will be enrolled to the university. Almost the entire batch of students who were denied the university entrance from Colombo to Jaffna got together and launched a protest campaign against this decision, compelling authorities to find a new solution before the next annual intake to accommodate this batch of students into the university.
The end result of this protest was the Government decision to establish a new university campus in Jaffna. As a result the first university in Jaffna was opened on 25 November 1974. Though the full batch of students was invited to be the pioneering batch of undergraduates to the Jaffna campus, only about 80 students grabbed this offer wholeheartedly; others opted to enrol to the other campuses with the new intake. I was in the forefront of this campaign and enrolled to Jaffna Campus in its first batch very enthusiastically and spiritedly. This experience gave me immense courage and strength to start my university education as a fresh graduate.
Fourthly, a little over three years of undergraduate period in Jaffna Campus was a real lifetime experience for me; it was very much more than studying for an academic degree. Further, my being elected as the President of the Science Students Union and later as the very first President of the Students’ Council was an unforgettable and unmatchable experience in my whole life. Working in harmony especially with Tamil students who were the majority in the campus, at a time when the ethnic problems were just about to explode, was a very challenging and serious exercise. As the student leader, I had many a responsibility to see that all students had the right understanding and attitude towards the ethnic issue and to foster goodwill and understanding among the student population in the campus.
I have a reservoir of interesting and unforgettable events during my stay in Jaffna; since this is not the appropriate opportunity to give such details, I must say that common people in Jaffna were extremely helpful and friendly with the undergraduates and had a high respect for education. Jaffna was like a second home for me and most of our students of the campus.
Finally, I was very fortunate to work with great personalities of the calibre of late Prof. Kailasapathy, late Ranjan Wijeratne, John Kempster, J.K. Knous, late Nihal Corea and late Dr. Upali Nanayakkara as my institutional heads and department heads. Later in my career, I was also richly benefitted by my association with Patrick Amarasinghe and Mahendra Amarasuriya who lead trade chambers and my former chairmen such as Killi Rajamahendran, K. Gunaratnam, Daya Gamage and Banking Consultant Dayananda Pitadeniya. All these exposures gave me strength, courage and the initiative to face different and challenging situations successfully and develop my career.