By Cheranka Mendis
- Sri Lankan national Chinthaka Jayaweera has reached great heights at global Fortune 500 company A.P. Moller-Maersk and shares his story with the Daily FT
At the age of 18, few of us have a clear plan of what we want to do when we leave school, let alone a map of where we will be within the next five to 10 years. While there are dreams and aspirations, few things seem as important as passing the next set of exams, getting out of school and getting on with life.
This is what sets Chinthaka Jayaweera apart from the rest of us.
At 41, he is the Vice President and Head of Group Internal Audit for the Global 500 company A.P. Moller-Maersk, a Danish business conglomerate spread across more than 130 countries, specialising in the industries of transportation and energy.
With four key business under its umbrella – Maersk Line, APM Terminals, Maersk Oil and Maersk Drilling – which account for 71% of the company’s revenue, Maersk has built an opportunistic core consisting of companies such as Damco, Svitzer, Maersk Tankers and Maersk Supply Services to complement the key business lines while branching out to strategic investments in a supermarket chain that operates over 1,300 retail stores in Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Poland, and a 20% stake in Danske Bank.
Jayaweera has made his mark in the company and is recognised as one of the few Sri Lankans who have reached top managerial heights in Fortune 500 companies.
Plan, target, achieve
What makes him special – what does he have that many others don’t? “It is discipline,” Jayaweera expressed. “I was extremely structured when I was younger and had a clear plan of where I wanted to be within a particular number of years. Despite challenges I strived hard to achieve my goals, never wavering and never backing down.”
A student of Royal College (having received his primary education at Mahanama College), at 18 Jayaweera knew exactly where he wanted to be within the next 17 years. “When I was 18, I prepared a plan for the next 17 years. In that plan I went to the extent of drawing a flowchart of the type of education I wanted to pursue, type of positions I wanted to take up and the contributions I wanted to make.”
So did he manage to stick to the timeline of his plans? “It hasn’t gone as planned,” he acknowledged, with a big smile, a trademark we later find that defines this modest man who takes on enormous responsibilities, “but I would say it has gone much faster than I planned”.
Having always wanted to participate in an organisation with an international background, Jayaweera’s first encounter with Maersk came in 1992 during his two-year stint at KPMG. As a trainee handling management consulting work and auditing, Maersk was one his clients. After three years in investment banking, he joined Maersk in Sri Lanka as Assistant General Manager for Finance in 1997. This was the beginning of an illustrious career, with massive career leaps.
His story at Maersk
Nine months into the job as AGM Finance handling all finance tasks for the two business units here – Maersk Line and Damco – he was promoted to the position of General Manager responsible for finance, IT, human resources and administration, while serving the company as Company Secretary.
Three years on, he was appointed as Country Manager of Damco, the logistics arm of the company. Within the next three years Jayaweera concentrated on transforming the company and improving its position both here and abroad. Having achieved this successfully, his attention was then drawn to the head office, which at the same time was looking for someone to head their business audit function.
“With my past experience at KPMG and finance background from CIMA, coupled with my experience as Country Finance Manager and commercial experience of a Country Manager, I decided that this was a good combination to present myself with and go for a broader contribution.”
In 2004 he moved to Denmark to set up the business audit function there as General Manager. “Soon after, I was appointed as Senior General Manager with additional responsibilities of another business; then as Director with business control responsibility for Maersk Line and as a Senior Director thereafter, where I was part of the Maersk Line Global Finance Leadership team. I was also the Finance Business Process Owner for the Maersk Line global organisation.”
He was made Vice President a year ago. “In terms of career progression, it has been an interesting journey,” Jayaweera admitted. “Each position has been a challenge. Every time I have undertaken a new role, I have felt that I was taking an enormous step.”
Motivated and driven by challenges which for him are a positive factor, he noted that one of the key success factors as Vice President was understanding and having deep insight to the business at all times. The more you know about the business, the better prepared you are for challenges.
“During the first year I experienced a steep learning curve and have tried to learn as much as possible about the businesses in the group. From our function we give assurance to the Audit Committee and Chairman of the A.P. Moller-Maersk Group Board that the risks are well managed. So it’s about keeping an ear on the ground and eye on the biggest risks and giving feedback on how we manage the risks,” he explained.
“I don’t know what inspired me to do this,” he remarked, commenting on what drove him to plan so far ahead and to achieve his goals. “I think it was always wanting to make a greater contribution to the world.”
Planning has helped him by giving him a clear sense of direction. “I am not swayed by what happens around me – of course I learn and change my direction as needed, but I know where I am going, I know where I want to go.”
So what plans for the next few years, we ask. “Right now having taken on a big position in the group, my immediate focus is to learn more about the business and contribute to take it to a completely new level,” Jayaweera said, adding, “I am also someone who likes challenges and I am positively motivated in the face of a challenge; this is when I get the best out of myself. That has been a motivational factor for me – working with challenges.”
His secret to success
“If you were to ask me what my biggest secret to success is, I would say it is my ability to balance things in life,” he volunteered. “I think this is something I do extremely well.”
Balancing has helped him achieve what he wanted to achieve in all aspects of life – beyond just his career. When he speaks of balancing, it includes career, education, family, social interaction, health, etc. Even now he has a yearly plan, in which goals have been made under each aspect.
The general thinking is that it is easy to make plans but not so easy to follow through. But Jayaweera easily defies this with discipline and control. “It is discipline,” he reiterates. “It is also understanding what is most important to you and spending time on what really matters.”
For example, Jayaweera has made it a point to start the day at the gym. At home, he wakes up at 5 a.m. and after corresponding on his private emails and catching up on the world news, he heads over to the gym. However, his work keeps him on his toes and often than not he is travelling the world for business meetings. But, as disciplined as he is, even after a 14-hour flight, the first thing he does when he goes to the hotel is go to the gym. “It is about self discipline and doing what you really must do. This gives you the balance you need.”
Why this balance is so important is that it helps him derive energy from different sources – from family, health, hobbies, career, etc. “This has without doubt helped me immensely.”
Was it something inculcated by his parents? He cannot remember. “I guess I had it from a very small age because I can never remember my parents having to ask me to do anything. I have always known what I wanted and had the discipline to go ahead and do it,” Jayaweera reflected. “As I have progressed I have achieved a better balance than my early years in the career.”
What drives him?
What drives him is his desire to make a contribution to the world, to give back while testing his boundaries and pushing himself forward. “I want to constantly push my limits and do better and this is what keeps me going.”
After moving to Denmark, something he has really learnt to enjoy is skiing. He religiously visits the slopes every year with his family. “Skiing is tough,” Jayaweera asserted. “You are on your own, on a mountain and sometimes the mountains are really steep and the snow and wind conditions are difficult. Every day you test yourself. You do better and better.” But it is also fun, he acknowledged, noting that having some time to cool off and have fun was as important as working hard.
Learning from the best
He has never tried to emulate someone nor has he had a single role model or idol at any given time; he chose to learn from everyone around him instead – the mighty and the simple – by incorporating the good qualities he saw in them into his life.
To improve his presentation skills, Jayaweera likes to watch Bill Clinton delivering presentations while from sports personalities he cites German racing driver Michael Schumacher. “I have enjoyed following how he became successful year after year and went on to become a seven-time Formula One World Champion,” he said.
“I don’t particularly look for people who achieved so much in life as role models. I think I learn more from simple people. Very simple people have a lot of good values. The friends that I have come from diverse backgrounds and in each person there is something to learn. I try to focus on what I can learn from people around me.”
Having associated with people from all walks of life, Jayaweera is also known to have led 30 plus nationalities in his department in the past. “People were joking that it is perhaps more diverse than the UN office in Denmark. And it is absolutely fantastic – the cultural diversity and what you learn from one another changes your outlook in life.”
Points to note for aspiring Sri Lankans
If another Sri Lankan aspires to become part of a Fortune 500 company, what exactly should they do? “You have to be yourself, it is really important. Don’t try to be someone else. If you walk in the footsteps of someone else, you will always be second,” Jayaweera asserted, without hesitation.
You have to decide on what you want out of your life and give it the best – dedication, discipline and determination is important, he emphasised. What is even important is to have strong values. It is not success at any cost. It is having good values and living accordingly that is most important. “Success can be measured in many shapes and forms. For me, success isn’t just reaching a senior level in a global 500 company. Being successful is being happy. It doesn’t matter where you are.”
Jayaweera concluded: “Decide what you want in life, have clear plans but be flexible to change if necessary based on your learning. Do what you like, it doesn’t matter what it is. You shouldn’t live someone else’s dream, live your own dream – and make it happen.”