Leaving it  to Chance

Leaving it to Chance

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.”

Coaching

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.

Risky investment

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.”

Free ride

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.

Trishaw economy

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.

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Creating value for Investors

Creating value for Investors

Nihal Ranasinghe lays out the necessary fundamental changes

Independent Sri Lanka, now 71-years old, has embraced the talk of many development drives for very long, yet the country still has ample room for growth in many areas. Foreign Direct Investment, which is more conveniently known by its acronym, FDI is one major financial aspect that continues to grab the attention of development gurus. Just last year, Sri Lanka launched an online one-stop shop which facilitates investors in obtaining the necessary official approvals for making investments.
But the essential problem remains. Can Sri Lanka be expected to reach its financial goal with such steps?

OSL – THE Investment Magazine spoke to Nihal Ranasinghe, a senior public servant, to ascertain the nitty-gritty of Sri Lanka’s preparedness to attract FDI. A former Controller-General of Immigration and Emigration, and currently Secretary to the Ministry of Education, Ranasinghe is in a position to comprehend both needs and the means for fulfilling them.

Focus

He draws attention to three elements which play equally crucial roles in attracting investment: geographical location, size of the country and the volume of its labour.
The focus on FDI requires the understanding of the composition or the type of the entire investment in the country. It applies to both local and foreign investments. This component is essentially the government’s commitments to FDI.

“We need to focus on the future of investment,” Ranasinghe says, emphatically. “We have to look at it from that perspective. We are inviting capable, tested and proven investors into Sri Lanka and requesting them to reside in Sri Lanka with their assets. When we consider this, we need to be familiar with the investor’s expectations. It is the most important element.”

“Expectations” is the keyword. Sri Lanka is not the only country available on the investor’s market. The investor has many other options spread across the globe offering better convenience and myriad other temptations. Ranasinghe emphasises the need to understand – or refine, rather – the Sri Lankan context in this regard. Sri Lanka’s incentives need to be determined on that terrain.

“First and foremost, from our side, a government strategy must be formulated. The government strategy, of course, depends on the country’s location, size and its volume of labour. These are the vital factors for the investor in terms of calculating the investment cost or the cost of finance,” he explains.
Unlike other countries, Sri Lanka is confined to certain areas of investment. In it the labour volume is limited. Ranasinghe points out how disadvantaged Sri Lanka is in this respect, in comparison to Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. Malaysia and Vietnam, in particular, offer an appropriate volume of labour. That vital factor remains at a low ebb in Sri Lanka, which creates natural friction.

“It leads us to consider other paths. First, we need to structure. It means, basically we need to ensure that law and order have to be maintained to the entire satisfaction of the investor. The investor certainly looks for legal protection. Introducing new statutes itself would not suffice. Law must be applied on a practical stage,” he elucidates.

Legal framework

This is where commercial law comes to play. The investors are required to enter into agreements prior to the investment. It is another area that needs streamlining.
“When it comes to contracts and administration, we must have a clear and effective arbitration procedure to ensure fast and smooth passage for the investors. That is very important. The investors must be made happy ensured that their investment rests in a safe domain. That can be guaranteed by law and order as well as special law procedures that protect the investors. The government must ensure effective execution of law and order,” he notes.

As investors observe these factors with eagerness, the investment policymakers must revisit the system in such lines to assess how and where the country is moving forward. Such an assessment will build a healthy rapport and motivation that magnetises more investors to the country.Ranasinghe then brings up the cost of infrastructure, another vital element in FDI. Cost of infrastructure comes in diverse forms: transport, power, telecommunication and labour among them. The potential investor also weighs this factor against other available markets.

“Most countries have attractive packages in terms of infrastructure cost. Compared to Sri Lanka, their infrastructure cost is marginal. Naturally, the investors weigh in this factor. Remember, they are operating in a competitive market. And you are supposed to be competitive. But you cannot afford to be competitive if the cost of production is high. So we need to ensure that our investors – not only foreign but the local as well – are producing something more than what they need. And make it affordable for masses. The surplus can be channelled for exports. We need to produce more,” he explains.

The attraction for investors may well rest in many other elements. The overall stability of the country’s political and social set up is one. This is significant, as such stability paves the way to proper handling of infrastructure. In that vein, the government needs to adopt a concrete policy structure and implement it.

Global parameters

“These instruments must be world-recognised. It must function hand in hand with the global parameters. Then only can the investors compare the Sri Lankan situation and the situation in other competitive domains. For instance, Sri Lanka’s policy is different in comparison to most other countries. Most FDI-friendly countries follow an almost similar economic policy. The drawback is clear. We lose the potential investors who will settle down elsewhere more conveniently,” he points out.

Such a phenomenon is unavoidable, however heavy the advertising may be that would be carried out for FDI. The lack of inducements and a commonly-framed basis for investment appraisal evaluation are among significant aspects that hinder FDI. However, it does not mean the country must follow one national policy on investment once and for all. A policy must rather be procedural, supported by monitoring, evaluation, feedback and research. Every aspect needs to be assembled and considered before implementing a policy.

“We have to study the markets in other parts of the world, especially their competitive edges. They develop their systems daily. We need to be mindful of that, and accommodate whatever changes are possible in Sri Lanka. When it comes to an investor, we need to have packages to international standards. The investor compares and contrasts before taking a decision. Even if there is a government policy, it needs to be aligned with the international markets, export promotion and the cost of production. And basically, the entire situation should avoid or eliminate the uncertainty,” Ranasinghe elaborates.
What are the prospects in the near future in such a platform?

Many efforts accelerating FDI attraction have taken place in the past. Some were successful. Some were partly successful. Some were not successful at all. On the other hand, the country is facing a chaotic situation, where the state officials are concerned. It hampers the investor’s decision-making.

Political stability

“This is crucial from the investor’s point of view. They test how the ruling administration will handle or manage in the country. We have to manage all these situations to the entire satisfaction of the local and international community of investors. Otherwise, keeping certain issues without being resolved for a long time will create a negative impact, not only in the local but the foreign domain too. So the approach should be how we are engaged in the industry. It has a significant impact on creating a conducive environment for foreign investors,” he claims.

Political stability, administrative efficiency policy consistency, and a quiet and peaceful environment are key pillars in promoting investment. The responsibility to maintain such decorum rests in everyone’s shoulders. When it comes to developing a country like Sri Lanka, the identification of the right instruments is essential to create value.

“Value creation is a conceptual framework. How to create? Take foreign employment for instance. Sri Lankan citizens go abroad for employment, and remit a huge amount of income in return. Why can’t we create other avenues? Similar instruments that can be used for the betterment of the country? But for that matter, you need to generate people who can promote. We need to identify the areas and the resources that can lead to better knowledge,” he explains.

With foreign technology and other resources at play, the country needs to have a strong set of rules and regulations. However, rules and regulations – let alone laws – cannot be changed overnight without the consent or consultation of the parties concerned. If you have an agreement or if you are in contract with two parties, both must conclude to change the existing system.

“Capitalise on world development. We need to attract international trade into Sri Lanka. The attitudes, technological advancement, impact of the facilities must be made available. The legal systems must be in place. All these conform to one in the country,” Ranasinghe points out. With such steps in action, Sri Lanka can at least think of being smart enough to capture the attention of beneficial investors.

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OURS IS A CSR OPERATION -DLB Chair and CEO S.A.P. Suriyapperuma

OURS IS A CSR OPERATION -DLB Chair and CEO S.A.P. Suriyapperuma

In 1983, the then Minister of Trade and Shipping Lalith Athulathmudali inaugurated the Mahapola Lottery, which eventually became the Development Lotteries Board (DLB). Today, it remains the only public institution to donate its dividends to the President’s Fund. From the beginning, the intention was, not to make money for the government, but to provide vital services to the needy people of the country.

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Proposed amendments to CSE Listing Rules

Proposed amendments to CSE Listing Rules

to cover a broader base of corporates and improve IPO process

The Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE), in consultation with the Securities and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka (SEC), is proposing to revise the regulatory framework governing the initial listing of shares on the CSE.

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Mahindra’s foray into Lankan market With automotive assembly plant

Mahindra’s foray into Lankan market With automotive assembly plant

India’s auto major, Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M) launched an automotive assembly plant in Welipenna, in the Matugama area recently.

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Getting the youth On Back Track

Getting the youth On Back Track

The numbers tell it all. Around 23.4 % of the country’s population is made up of young people, specifically those between the ages of 15 and 29 years.

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Sugano comes to Lanka

Sugano comes to Lanka

Under BOI Agreement, Japanese investor to begin manufacturing flexible packaging for Sri Lankan tea Industry

BOI Chair Mangala Yapa, formally presents the Certificate of Registration to Sugano Packing Material Ltd Managing Director Yusaku Sugano. Director Dinesh Dahanayake, looks on.

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VAT concessions from September

VAT concessions from September

Proposed in last budget

The Cabinet of Ministers has approved the tax amendments proposed by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera in his Budget 2019, according to a press release from the Ministry of Finance. The Cabinet has, accordingly, approved the Amendment Draft Bills on Nation Building Tax (NBT) and Value Added Tax (VAT).

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Interest rate cuts

Interest rate cuts

Slowed growth stimulated, financed by further borrowing

The Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) cut its main lending rate for the second time in three months, on 23 August, a measure it hopes will revive the struggling economy. The devastating Easter Sunday attacks and their aftermath hit the crucial tourism sector, the only growth sector in an otherwise faltering economy. Meanwhile, the treasury is preparing to take loans to meet debt obligations, as the yields from treasury bills fell.

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Helping Business

Helping Business

Minister of Power, Energy and Business Development Ravi Karunanayake does not see any “practical essence” in tagging responsibility for business development on to his other tasks. It is a new portfolio, which has been added on rather incongruously to a very, important, though, unconnected, ministry.

He says that business development is there by name, but the drive does not exist, to ensure that start-ups progress – these are the very companies which have problems. And he thinks he knows the cause.

“I think the biggest problem in our country is the Central Bank. Their monetary policy is certainly defeatist to the government. With the fiscal policies after I was appointed finance minister in 2015, we increased revenues almost 100% over the two years’ period that I was there. That was sizeable, it is what is keeping the government going on at the moment, but it did not match the monetary policy pursued by the so-called Central Bank. I mean, they pursue a more negative-growth-oriented monetary policy. Today, an innocent person going to the bank, you have to pawn yourself to get a loan from the bank, and it is just not helpful for a start-up to a small and medium enterprise. So our interest is to try and galvanise the support of the banks and every conceivable chamber, and to make it meaningful. If we are able to give a rate of about 5-6%, which is the regional trend in lending, I guess you don’t have to go after handouts which are being given liberally, which is nonsensical. On one side the Central Bank push it up, which they say is anti-inflationary, but we see inflation going up and interest rates also down. I think this has been the root cause of the negativism that is there. I think it is high time that the government pursues a pro-small and medium enterprise-oriented approach. Lack of knowledge of a business environment by the people who sit in offices, in administrative areas, or decision-making positions, has been the biggest problem.”

Ambitious

The entrepreneur, he says, comes into business thinking gloriously and ambitiously, to create a business empire. However, they do not receive assistance. They are faced with bureaucratic delays.

“You don’t have quick decision-making. If you go to an environmental entity to get approval, it takes a long time. Banks are a fiasco. You go to get a LKR 500,000 loan, you have to pawn your entire future life and you come out not knowing whether you have come out with a benefit or with a permanent liability. These are the areas that need to change, and this is what I was doing in 2015 to 2017, until the changes took place. But I am sure that we will be able to get back into the driving seat and able to get things moving from a more pro-Sri Lankan perspective.”

He sees the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as another part of the problem.
“But then, what are you going to say? You can say they are part of the problem. But we are small in a global picture. It is that we should pursue policies which are favourable to us. Unfortunately, we have bureaucrats who are basically high-standing, whose job is to perform or lure the officials that come in, so that they can get a retirement job over there. This has been seen as the problem. Especially when you come across officials who don’t understand economics or finance, they easily massage their egos and get that job done.”

Conversely, he says, if you the bureaucrats do know their job, then foreign “experts” coming in does not help at all.
“End of the day, they take professional assistance from us, they put a foreign label, and come back and say this is the professional report that they give. This has been the bane of our society. We overly think of a foreign-skin mentality, which has always been to our detriment.”

Prospects

He thinks that some very firm, pro-Sri Lankan decisions are needed, to safeguard and develop the three most important things: national security, the national economy and the youth. “If you walk the talk, I guess we have won 90% of the problem. I think we have the ability to steer, to navigate ourselves, if we are led properly. Unfortunately, there are far too many decision-making processes which are counter-productive.”

Sri Lankans procrastinate, he thinks, at taking the correct decisions. He points to countries such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia as exemplars, the success in coming out of poverty of which he attributes to fast, firm, decision-making.

In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, “Anybody who works is basically targeted and alienated, but you have to have the guts to go well beyond that. That should be the revival process of Sri Lanka.”

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