Journey to the top

Thursday, 6 October 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}




  •  Ashok Pathirage, Nayana Dehigama and Dulith Herath share their success stories at the COYLE-Sampath Bank Chairman’s Forum 2016




By Hiruni Dabarera

‘I Am’ – the term arguably the most powerful term in human psychology as it defines self-awareness in a person. The acknowledgement of one’s own capabilities, desires, failures and dislikes gives a person the integrity to strive for his true potential. It also guards him from limiting himself but to reach out of his comfort zone and achieve the impossible. 

Based around this powerful stance of self-awareness and self-confidence, the Chamber of Young Leaders Entrepreneurs (COYLE) organised its annual Sampath Bank Chairman’s Forum recently, featuring a group of exciting panellists. They were namely Softlogic Holdings PLC Chairman Ashok Pathirage, Epic Technologies Group Chairman Nayana Dehigama, and Kapruka Founder and Chairman Dulith Herath who spoke on what they went through, both failures and successes, to reach where they are today.

The first-ever Sri Lankan to summit Mount Everest Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and her expedition partner Johann Peiris delivered the keynote address for the night. The audience consisted of 100 Sri Lankan undergraduates from universities across the island. 

“I Am – If you lose these two words with absolute conviction you can achieve the impossible,” remarked COYLE Chairman Kasun Rajapakshe in the welcoming address. He remarked that COYLE organises a Forum of such nature every year to create the most influential and vibrant group of young leaders in the country. 

The forum kicked off with each panellist giving an introduction about himself, and what led him or her to become successful businessman in Sri Lanka. 




Ashok Pathirage

I began my professional career at John Keells Holdings PLC at 18 straight after sitting for my Advanced Levels. I joined the company as a trainee in the IT Department for a salary of Rs. 800. During this time I got a lot of exposure and experience that proved key to my success in my later years. 

During this period I always wanted to start a company of my own. I went along with eight of my co-workers and started our own software company from our EPF money from John Keells. At JKH I enjoyed my time, as I did not have any responsibilities. But, when I started my company, I realised that my fun days were over. There were people depending on my company and on me and several times I went without a salary in order to provide my employers with one. We went through many difficulties to get where we are today.

At present we are a large conglomerate with a turnover of Rs. 57 billion and 10,000 employees and are into six different sectors of business. We are the largest healthcare operator in the country and the largest fashion retailer in the country. Our mobile distributorship has a market of 57%. This is where I am today after 25 years of my journey.


Nayana Dehigama

I started my entrepreneurial career as an Advanced Level student at Kingswood College Kandy. I started seven entrepreneurial ventures that failed before starting Epic Technologies within a span of 15 years. I kept on going despite this. I have been running this company with my employees over the last 18 years and have now become a group of companies with seven subsidiaries and have even expanded to overseas markets (Malaysia, Singapore and Japan). We are on a journey to globalise our company. We believe together as a team we can reach the top in future. 


Dulith Herath

I started the Kapruka journey on 2 February 2004 and I was the jack-of-all-trades back then with zero employees. I got the first order on 5 February, ironically on my birthday. Later on I received about five orders a week. From the beginning I wanted to do my business in an organic way without taking any bank loans or vying for investors. Today we are doing 35-45,000 deliveries a month. Up to today I have not taken a single bank loan. 

What drives me today is not really the money, but fulfilment. We are problem solvers and we need the perseverance to continue to become successful. When I am stressed, I take a step back and remind myself that money is not everything in life. That improves my brainpower to keep on innovating for younger generations. We need to create a legacy for youngsters. I want to create Kapruka as a global iconic brand someday. 


Panel discussion

The panel discussion began with the renowned owner of Nithya Partners Aritha Wickramasinghe as the moderator. 

The first question was directed to Ashok Pathirage.




Q: Have you always been an inherent risk-taker? What drives you to take risks?

I’m not a greedy person. I do not go behind money. Money may come behind me. There are few factors that have proved to be key. You have to be happy and you have to be passionate about what you are doing. If you do not enjoy it, do not pursue. I am here today because I enjoy what I do. If I wake up in the morning and feel that there is something for me to go and attend at work, I do it no matter what. I do not count risks as risks but as challenges; you need to take decisions on your own without depending on your accountant and his evaluations. 


Q: You have struck to me as an opportunist. One quality I have admired in you is that you answer any phone call you get. I believe that it was one such phone call from an anonymous number that landed your company with the Nokia distributorship. Would you care to elaborate?

: One day when I was at a meeting with Dialog, the regional guy from Nokia called and said that they were not very happy about their current situation and were facing a lot of difficulties. He asked me whether I was interested and I said yes and got the distributorship. 

How I got the Asiri Hospitals was also sudden and quick like this. The CEO of the Asiri Hospitals was a friend of mine and was telling me about how he wanted to sell Asiri off to start a stock-broking company. He told me that the potential buyer of Asiri had backed off and that somebody might take it over soon. Then I questioned him about its worth and he mentioned about 80 million. So I said ‘I’ll buy it’. I told him that maybe healthcare should be the next sector I venture into. I do not believe that it was risk. 

Maybe buying Asiri Central at a difficult period by taking loans from the banks was a risk but not this. Even Odel was not a risk. I bought it almost at asset value. I think you have to be confident to have options to turn it around to something successful if it proves to be otherwise. 

The moderator next subjected his questions to Dulith Herath. 


Q: You are somebody who has had a journey completely different to Ashok Pathirage. Please share with us how and what led you to start Kapruka. What is amazing about you is the progress you made. This craft is something you learnt yourself. Will you elaborate on that?

The greatest gift I got from my parents is a sound education. I came from a very simple family so I did not get any riches or assets but from the time I was young my parents ensured I received a quality education. The core factor which motivated me to start Kapruka was my addiction to innovation. That is what guards me from taking risks. In terms of e-commerce in Sri Lanka, Kapruka is the only e-commerce company that makes money. We do not have a storefront and 99% of the transactions are done online. If you look at the world e-commerce trade, it is a difficult sector to win in. 


Q: What is it that created the spirit in you to start this company?

Before I had this e-commerce platform I was trying to have a platform to showcase my abilities. In 2001 I got the patent rights for the first Sinhala-English trans system and then in 2001 did the ‘Sithiyama’ way before Google launched Google Maps, which that landed me a job at Microsoft. All this created the need for a platform to do what I wanted and Kapruka happened to be just that. 


Q: Nayana, you are somebody who failed seven times. I do not think most people have the consistency to start seven businesses till you succeed. The sectors were also completely different to each other. When did you strike it right?

It was my hunger to lead a good life. I come from a humble family where we did not have much luxury to enjoy, but I saw how others enjoyed their life. At that age I thought being a businessman was how you could earn money and money is what could make you happy. Of course I realise this is not true today. But that was my mindset as an Ordinary Level student. 

I wanted to live a life that my parents could not give me. It gave me the passion to start something on my own. Straight after my OLs, I started a company which failed, and again started another which also failed. I kept on going until I discovered what my passion was. The good thing was that you would succeed only if you choose to do what you like. All of these seven ventures were none for which I had passion. 

The first and second were educational institutes. Number three a farm, then a training business and air conditioning business and so on. For all of these I did not have the knowledge and had to rely on others for that. I was going through stress and could not put my creativity to my job. Every time I failed I joined a company to work. It was at this time I joined one of the leading IT companies at the time. 

I am a people’s man. Even though I was learning engineering I knew I liked marketing. So I worked a sales representatives, etc. That is how it went until I worked at a company where I realised I enjoyed technology. A few of my friends who worked with me moved out and started a company with me. 


Q: One of the biggest fears we have in Sri Lanka is the fear of failure. There is a lot of stigma attached to failure. How did you cope up with it?

I did not have much to worry or much to lose. I did not have any place to fall lower as I was already on the ground. So I was just taking my chances or challenges. But I never took risks because I do not like to take risks. But I did take challenges. I defined it in a different way. I did not want to do something that would take me away from my line of passion or my life. 

I thought that even if I fail I would stand up on my feet and look for the alternative options available. I was ready to bear the costs and difficulties. 


Q: My next question is to Ashok Pathirage. You strike me as a man who is no hurry to stop. Where do you see yourself at the end of all this? Where will you stop?

We are in six verticals at present and we want to maintain this for the future. Currently, in the retail sector we see many opportunities so we would like to pursue this. We are already into leisure and have launched hotel networks. We are hoping to launch the first five star hotel in Colombo in 30 years. We are not number one there, but we will keep going. There might be sectors that we might move out from in the future and venture into in the future depending on the market status. But at this moment I have enough on my mind. We have enough opportunities with us at the moment. 


Q: How do you manage these opportunities? These are all different sectors. How do you do it?

: I do not think it is about the brands or the institutions, but it is always about people. As long as you have the right people and can have investors who are interested, it is possible. We are not worried about paying higher prices. Even at the beginning I paid my some reputed employers much more than I used to get. That is how I have built all this over the years. We are a long-term business, not short-term. We want to build the company, so we do not care about the amounts of salaries paid. Given the necessary leadership and knowledge, we can move forward strongly. 


Q: But do you have enough people? I have heard frequently otherwise today.

That is the problem; we do not have enough people. We have Indians and Koreans working for us. Our motive is we want to reach the top faster and not later so we are willing to hire all these people from outside for the betterment of our company. Where we want to be in five years, if we can reach there with people and their knowledge, I think it is apt. 

The moderator next directed his questions to the Kapruka founder.


Q: You are in the technology field where you see a lot of copycats coming up. How do you achieve success despite your competitors? 

I think it helps to build a market. If you open a coffee shop somewhere, the next month there will be another coffee shop coming up. So then that area will be known for coffee. There will be more people, more customers. Everything is cross-comparable. Kapruka started its own ‘Grasshopper’ project to make more people do more e-commerce. ‘Grasshoppers’ is my next project that is a way to get out of the competition and kind of become the ‘Godfather’ of the business. All the e-commerce businesses, despite whatever you might sell, face the problem of fast delivery. It is an area that we are very good at. 


Q: Have you overcome the biggest problem of e-commerce, overcoming the high cost factor?

I think we are now over that. If you think of developing countries 60-70% of transactions are done through cash and not credit. In India this is close to 80%. So the trust is okay. They pay us at the doorstep. 


Q: I have noticed that you have no interest in going public. What is the ultimate goal for your company?

Well, there are two sectors in Kapruka. If you take Amazon and other e-commerce companies, they have cross-country functions. That is a sector that I am trying to take globally. It is really software. We are looking at Pakistan and Bangladesh at the moment. Also we are working on increasing the current cash inflow of the country. ‘Grasshoppers’ is supposed to go global.


Q: Nayana, do you have any plans of going public with Epic Technologies?

Yes, we are planning to do. In two to three years we are planning to go public and we are getting ready now. We like to associate with reputed international brands also in the near future. Through this we hope to take our business image up a notch. We have not taken a final decision to go public but we are getting ready. We are becoming a regional company and have diversified in a very stable way. 

We have developed about five core competencies around us where we can mix and match and offer very innovative products to the world market. It is endless. Our operations can be endless in a global scenario. We want to serve them better. Even if we are going public, it is not because we need more money. We are managing well at the moment but need to reach out and serve the nation better in a comprehensive manner. In that endeavour we need more investors and partners.


Q: Was diversifying your business an effort to earn higher revenue?

Of course, diversification is one survival factor for a company. We were focused only on one area at the beginning and it was very strong. But when operating in a niche market and when it matures you cannot sustain sufficient growth in the market. Growth is the most important thing for us in our business. If you do not grow you will die. Stagnation is not an option. You realise so many competitors are trying to get into this niche market and you realise as it a lucrative industry. Growth is waiting to happen. You need to utilise your own existing core competencies to move into another related market. Today we even market in Malaysia. 


Q: Has it been difficult?

Yes, it is not a rosy picture. There are so many direct and indirect barriers when moving to other markets, especially the cultural and industrial protection barriers and attitudes of the customers. When you go to other countries you are a stranger. In many other countries they prefer their own companies to others unlike in Sri Lanka. Therefore, you have to sell hard in order to retain in the business. But the good news is the markets are huge there compared to Sri Lanka. There are bigger markets, better pricings and bigger returns. We have succeeded and are happy about our progress so far. But we have more strategies to grow beyond this like Japan despite knowing it is a difficult market. 


Q: In terms of business, we are looking at the East, but why is it that we have not looked at Africa?

Well, our ‘Grasshopper’ will be first featured in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has 14 airports. It has a huge market and if you look if you look at the country you can sense that it is like Sri Lanka 15 years ago. But I think the main reason is that we are not trying to expand to other countries on a large scale because we have huge opportunity here to grow more. 

Dehigama: Well, Africa is a market we have looked at, and we are trying to enter that market. We have also entered into partnership with a Sri Lankan company based in Middle East. But the thing is, the stories we hear from African markets are not very favourable. We hear the lack of civilisation is some areas, corruption, rigid government regulations and other negative reasons. 

This is why we do not want to venture to such markets alone. Also there are better, safer, lucrative markets in the other part of the world. Why go suffer there when there are better opportunities? But we will not forget these markets. If we do expand we will do so with partnerships so that they too share the risks.


Q: How do you keep yourself occupied apart from work?

Apart from my work I spend my time with my family. I was involved with my alma mater earlier but now I spend as much time as I can with my family. 

Pathirage: Apart from my work, I do play golf once in a while when I have time, especially on the weekends. I also travel. However, I go to work every day. I do not enjoy staying home the whole day. If I feel like going to work even in the morning on Saturday or Sunday, I do so because I find it very peaceful. 

Herath: I am a workaholic. I do not engage in any sport. I went to Royal College but never took part in sports. I love coding and I code every day for three to four hours a day even though I run a billion dollar company. I have two kids with whom I try to spend as much time as possible.


Q: What is the message that you want the invitees here to take away from this forum? We are speaking of a time where close to one million youth are running three-wheelers without utilising their productive labour for other professions. What is the example you want to set for future generations?

The abundance of three-wheelers we see today is imported from India. But the more this continues, our future will face a labour deficiency. 

Pathirage: There are no shortcuts to success. If you want to be successful, you have to work hard. Also you need to be honest, have that integrity factor, so others can trust you and depend on you. Be true to your job and duties. You cannot earn huge salaries in one year. You might fail. But you have to get up and fight harder. I talk to a lot of university undergrads because I believe teaching younger ones is better because are they still positive-minded, enthusiastic and creative. 

Dehigama: I believe you need to be passionate about what you do. Not of all of you have to become businessmen to succeed in life. I am successful today because after seven attempts I found something I enjoyed. Sometimes you might find it later in life. When you find it, never abandon your passion. Pursue it and it will take you ahead in life. If you like music go be a musician, if you like a sport go pursue it. Make your passion your profession. 


Questions from the audience

The audience also directed several questions to the panellists.

Q: One of the things you know to be successful, you need to surround yourself with people who inspire you. Who inspired you?

The very people I work with have inspired me over the years. I have been an inspiration to myself. I do not think you need to follow us. You must find your own path and do what makes you happy. At the end of the day you must know what you like to do. Your foundation must be correct. Never do anything in desperation. Do not do anything just because someone else is successful in it. But learn from them. 


Q: What was your motive behind acquiring Odel?

Actually, Otara Gunawardene desired to sell it during the time and I was willing to buy it. We were already in fashion during the time in terms of international brands. They offered me Odel because they felt I was the only guy who could handle it in the proper way. I do think anybody knew about the transaction during the time. There was a lot of synergy in the transaction. I believe it is one of the greatest business deals I have done until now. 


Q: You have done wonders in Sri Lanka but you are still approaching international markets. But in terms of quality, customer service levels and standards, we need to improve a lot. What are you views on this?

From my point of view in my company we have never failed in delivering our promises. That is the golden policy that we have adopted during the last 18 years. That is why we have a large customer base. We have always maintained the quality and efficiency in our deliveries. We have realised the value of on-time delivery and quality. But of course I have seen many companies have not realised the importance of these aspects. We have also adapted to international standards because you cannot do transactions especially with banks without following them.

Herath: For me too, it all starts with customer care. At the end of the day the customer has to be satisfied. Excellent customer care, then you can easily be successful. 


Q: How can we recruit the right person for the right job at the right time for and how can you get that person to deliver what you expect?

I think it is impossible. It is impossible to find the perfect candidate. But what you can do is find the best possible candidate and assist him to the perfect recruit for his job. Even anyone with the basic ability to think would be suitable. Create that person into whom you want. If you do find the perfect candidate you are lucky.

Pathirage: At senior level when I interview I go by gut feeling; 90% of the times I have been right. You have to pick the best among those available to you. You need to get the vibe that he is the most suitable for the job to hire him. 

Herath: After you hire the best available recruit make him an ambassador of his job. Make him feel like he is in charge of himself. Groom him to reach his best.


Q: At Softlogic all your ventures have been focused on service providing. Do you have any plans to get into the manufacturing sector, because the country always talks about the deficiency in foreign exchange?

We are in the leisure sector even though it is not manufacturing that generates foreign income to the country. Also at Odel, 50% of our revenue comes from foreigners. We even today earn a lot of foreign revenue to the country. We have no plans to venture into the manufacturing sector because we believe that we are a service-oriented company, our skills are most suitable for it. I do not think it is difficult if you have the necessary skills and formulas for it and also powerful brands to support you. It is a solid business unlike the businesses we are in.

Pix by Ruwan Walpola