The insider view: Sri Lanka

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Business environment

For a country that is looking to rebuild after a drawn-out civil war, Sri Lanka is making great progress. Its economy has enjoyed steady growth since hostilities came to an end in May 2009.

“At present there is a conducive environment for business,” reports Shiromal Cooray, ACMA, CGMA, managing director of travel company Jetwing Travels. “State bureaucracy is beginning to get more efficient – in some of the business-facilitation agencies, at least – and there is a willingness to help rather than to frustrate.

“As the unemployment ratio continues to drop, the talent pool is shrinking fast. There is a huge demand for good people here and they are getting to be more difficult to find as career opportunities become increasingly plentiful for them.”

Delon Kellar, ACMA, CGMA, business planning manager in the CEO’s office at Standard Chartered Bank in Sri Lanka, concurs.

“At this point business conditions are relatively stable,” he says. “But, while many people expected a boom in the industrial and commercial sectors after the cessation of our 30-year conflict, such exponential growth is yet to be seen. Having said that, the sentiment in all sectors is quite positive, spurring more business activity as the days go by. One feels as though we are in the calm before the storm. In many ways, the pause can be understood, because both the country’s infrastructure and its business community need time to adjust to a new era of development and growth.”

But Omar Fatha Rally, FCMA, CGMA, chief executive of IT group Tellida, says that opinions on the state of Sri Lanka’s economy and business environment will vary according to which industry you ask.

“Talking on behalf of the IT and business process outsourcing industry, I believe that conditions have evolved to a very favourable and comfortable level,” Fatha Rally says. “In my industry we are servicing finance and accounting practices, law firms and other companies in accounting and similar services from Sri Lanka. I have found that the ability to find English-conversant, professional and dynamic employees is a key factor enabling companies to do better in this environment.”

Doing business

Working in Sri Lanka requires a lot of patience and an acceptance that business bureaucracy can be slow and tedious to negotiate. One should not get too frustrated with this state of affairs, Cooray advises. “On the plus side, the people here are extremely talented, hence they’re easy to train,” he adds.

The people of this island nation have a generally dynamic and curious attitude, according to Fatha Rally, who believes that this makes Sri Lankans particularly flexible and creative, especially when working in teams.

“The adaptability and work ethic shown by our Sri Lankan staff in serving an international clientele have been highly regarded by our clients in Australia and the UK,” he says. “I believe that people are the most important aspect in any business. If we can understand and manage our staff well, therefore, the results of their efforts will be more positive based on this.

“Understanding the local dynamics in working with businesses and agencies here is vital. These can be connected to our cultural practices. For example, the tendency to not really say ‘no’ out of perceived courtesy will be important for outsiders to know in adjusting to our corporate culture.”

Kellar believes that, although Sri Lanka is becoming an increasingly competitive market in both product and service industries, big opportunities exist in various segments, while some areas remain completely untapped. In terms of pricing strategy, value for money appears to be the most popular approach for most businesses, although premium-priced brands, too, have shown resilience, he says.

Although the country’s GDP is not the highest, consumers in Sri Lanka are generally very sophisticated, Kellar stresses. “Whether it is automobiles or everyday consumer goods, consumers in Sri Lanka display a quick sense of understanding, interest and demand.”

Management culture

Numerous factors are shaping the style of corporate leadership on display in Sri Lanka today, according to Fatha Rally.

“Entrepreneurial initiatives; the fact that many Sri Lankans are returning from overseas; and inherent cultural traits such as our warm, welcoming and service-focused attitude here are all influencing elements,” he says. “Creative leadership and the emphasis on international benchmarking have been becoming popular of late. And the increasing trend whereby a greater proportion of women are entering executive and leadership roles in Sri Lanka than in its neighbouring countries is also noteworthy. This has managed to create a better gender balance and increased acceptance of senior female managers in the business community.”

Kellar believes that the management ethos in Sri Lanka is currently focused on recruiting and retaining talent. “While systems and infrastructure will always be important, having the right people who bring on board both their strengths and networks is also very important here,” he says.

Cooray agrees that most Sri Lankan companies have realised the importance of looking after their human capital. “Ensuring maximisation of the triple bottom line is therefore getting popular,” he says.

 

Sri Lanka by numbers

GDP (purchasing power parity) in 2012: $128bn

Sri Lanka is the world’s 37th largest economy

Real GDP growth in 2012: 6.4%

CPI inflation in 2012: 7.5%

Unemployment in 2012: 5.2%

Population: 21.7 million

Source: CIA World Factbook

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