Lasantha Amarasinghe took every hurdle as an opportunity
Large, spacious, yet also compact, The Chance Sports, located at the YMBA Colombo, is less an outlet than a gallery. Whatever the sport, whoever the player, it promises to deliver the right stuff, a promise it has kept for well over two decades. Given the immense contribution it has made to the sports gear industry (an industry, one must add, that has, historically, never thrived in the country), OSL Magazine decided to track down its founder, get his story, and identify just what the philosophy driving him and his business was and is. For it is true that businesses can collapse and with them business empires, but the story of their founding, and undoing, tends to outlast their survival and end. Lasantha Amarasinghe, cricketer, coach, now entrepreneur and in many ways philanthropist, the founder of The Chance Sports, would no doubt agree. “The problem,” he tells us right at the start, “is that we prefer to take than to give.”
Lasantha’s story begins in the late 80s. Having played for Isipathana College and done his O Levels, he felt he had to pursue his passion for cricket. While waiting for his results, he got enrolled at the Colombo Cricket Club, where he played under Roger Wijesuriya, Charith Senanayake, Ashley Silva, Roy Dias, Asanka Seneviratne, Roshan Mahanama, and Jerome Jayaratne. He played the whole range of Divisions 3, 2 and 1, when Roshan Mahanama observed the skill with which he played and took him under his wing.
“The CCC was pretty much an elitist outfit back then. You had these players from Royal, S. Thomas’, St Peter’s, and St Joseph’s dominating the picture. Sure, we had players from Ananda, Nalanda, and the Central Colleges as well, but they came later. Conversations were mostly in English, and players were ranked according to the school they came from. In that sense I was an outsider. A person like me could be subordinated to a low position. Fortunately, given that I played rather well, they let me stay up.”
At that time, Roy Dias invited him to join his personal coaching class. He did the coaching examination in 1989, and gained the opportunity to coach under, and with Roy Dias, Rumesh Ratnayake, Amal Silva, Devaka Mahanama, Roshan Mahanama and Lionel Mendis. Later he began to coach on his own, individually, for companies, schools and clubs, a career of 30 years.
Soon enough, Lasantha got to fulfil every up-and-coming player’s dream: a tour to India in 1994. Without beating around the bush he says that the experience was “eye-opening”, and not because of the picturesque landscapes and cultural sites. “There were shops selling top class sports gear in the cities. I hadn’t realised how important it was for a cricketing nation like ours to have a thriving sports gear industry. Unless you had money or big connections, it was impossible for an aspiring player like me to buy the right stuff. That was when I decided that, come what may, I’d step in and fill the need myself back home.” Not that he gave up his idea of becoming a coach, but as they say, greener pastures beckoned him on: “I figured out that I’d be contributing a lot more.” After all, there were players and coaches already, enough and more of them.
The Chance Sports began in 1997. It was, from the start, a risky investment, “because no one had done it.” If Lasantha wasn’t exactly a pioneer there, he was in the least an innovator “filling a gap.” With virtually no experience in the field of business, however (except for a course in Management), Lasantha fell headlong into a never-ending series of mishaps, misadventures, and misdemeanours. The experience was worth it, but reflecting on them now, he almost seems embittered. While we talk, his assistants come and ask him a question or two. Ever mindful of business affairs he attends to them, only to come back to us quickly; a habit he no doubt picked up in those first 10 years, “when I learnt that in Sri Lanka, if you are a small time business owner, you need to wade through tough times, tough people, and tough misadventures.”
What happened? “We didn’t have social media back then. There were no CCTV cameras. No smartphones and no way of connecting with people. Thus it was an easy time for robbery, pilferage, theft, corruption. I saw enough and more of them while running my shop. Forget theft, forget pilferage; the levels of corruption and nepotism I had to endure, the hiking debts I had to meet, and the lack if not downright absence of empathy from many of those other businessmen I’d helped over the years, was, to say the least, disappointing. Soon enough I found myself in debt to the tune of more than LKR 40 million. Ironically, many of those debts were in the hands of top level or highly successful medium level business owners. I can’t mention names, but I can and will say they are prospering heavily now. Back then they ignored me. And at my time of need, they failed to help me. I harbour no grudge, but I remember.”
In that sense Lasantha took up every hurdle he had to face as an opportunity, even an advantage; not long afterwards he was at it again, only to be pulled down again (when a fashion store undercut prices) and to start his shop anew. Needless to say The Chance Sports of today is not The Chance Sports of 22 years ago, a point Lasantha, by implication, firmly underscores and puts across to us. What is important to him is that this did not become an excuse for him to not help others: “No one was there for me when my business was making losses, but once I got off the ground, I did my best to help everyone, even those who’d tried to undercut me. I do not like to boast, but I feel that those in business should try to give as well as to take.”
Which brings us to his next big point: the absence of charity and charisma among even the most renowned, awarded, and highly ranked blue-chip businesses in Sri Lanka. “We at The Chance Sports prioritise several CSR projects, including donations to children’s villages, orphanages, temples, churches, and so on. We do so indiscriminately, not because we crave for publicity but because we honestly and sincerely feel that businesses do not engage with their society enough. The project that’s closest to my heart is our cricket scholarship programme. So far we’ve given bursaries in the form of gear to hundreds of gifted school players. I put my heart and soul into it because it’s a cause I’ve been close to ever since I started as a coach. Believe me, we have talent. What we need are those in positions of power, in business or politics, to come forward and help those talents come out and thrive. Unfortunately for us, this is not happening.”
And why? For Lasantha, the reason is quite simple: “Governments keep on promoting the myth that it owes the people a free ride.” In other words, doling out has become the order of the day. “This saps into entrepreneurship. What happens is that top business leaders, a good proportion of them, do the bare minimum to help the less well off, and the government perpetuates the convenient fiction that it’s there to serve the people free meals.” No one, at least the way Lasantha sees it, tells us the hard truths that need to be told: “That we need to work hard, we need to pick up skills, and we need to make the hard yards.” According to him, a man’s journey really begins with his O Levels: “If you fail those exams, and you don’t feel like continuing with your A Levels, the solution is simple: get into vocational training, pick up any skill, from plumbing to carpentry to repair work, and prosper. If you do your A Levels and enter University, well, good for you, but ensure you end up with the right boss.”
In an article published in 1961, the American sociologist Bryce Ryan argued that over here, the dominant work ethic was defined and determined by certain peculiar criteria, including the belief in the superiority of employment in government service and inferiority of manual employment.
He further pointed out that the priority was not money, despite the prevalence of a lower middle class, but status. In other words, status, not economic considerations, determined employment and education choices. Decades later, can we say that the situation has changed? Yes and no: while the motivation to earn higher salaries is greater than it would have been in Ryan’s day, the belief that one must not be engaged in manual labour still, in a large way, persists. Lasantha offers his two cents on this: “Personally, I think the first obstacle for any aspiring businessman is his mother. She cajoles him away from vocational training and bemoans it if he’s working at night. Our mothers don’t want us to become carpenters, plumbers, and repairmen: they want us to enter the usual so-called lucrative fields.”
This has, unfortunately, resulted in a conundrum: “While fewer and fewer young people get into manual employment, the less fortunate and less endowed among them tend to pick out jobs as trishaw drivers. The government has not looked into regulating and ensuring quality in such industries, so what happens is that these youngsters waste away the better part of their lives in professions where they cannot fully tap into their potential.” The solution, as always, is to tap into vocational training, but “the government, whatever the party, has never really prioritised that. Speaking for myself, we need a lot of reforms done if we are to go ahead. We need to teach our children English, properly. We need to teach them to behave, to be courteous. We talk of becoming another Singapore. But without changing ourselves, can we?” For Lasantha, moreover, people have found a convenient scapegoat here: in the politician.
“Attacking the 225 in parliament has become a trend. My view is that they are all overworked and they do their bit, though they are no innocents. On the other hand, those who ought to get the blame walk away scot-free. Like public sector workers, many of whom tend to strike even though they were educated, trained, and hired at public expense. Or even certain popular business figures, whom I can’t mention here. It’s easy to blame the 225 because they are right there at the top. But they are merely scapegoats; that’s it. True, they’ve taken this country down the wrong path through these decades. And I’m not talking about one party or person here. But we’re missing the bigger picture.”
Lasantha reflects on the state of the economy, for which he blames the politician: “We had a magnificent opportunity in 2009. We could have opted to stabilise the rupee and industrialise, instead of pouring in millions and billions to mega-development projects which ended up reducing our foreign reserves. Sadly, we didn’t. See where we are now? That’s why policymaking needs to improve, and on ALL fronts.”
He concludes by telling us that The Chance Sports will be opening a new, three-story showroom, the biggest in the country, at the Cycle Bazaar in Borella, on 7 December. He extends an invitation for everyone to join him there.