I had the great pleasure of meeting with Dian Gomes, the Chairman of Hela Clothing (an apparel manufacturing company,) in his Colombo office a few days ago. He was my superior at MAS Holding (Slimline subsidiary) between the years 2001 – 2002. (Well, he was my superior, but he was also a friend, a mentor and a brother to me, rather than a ‘boss’ throughout my acquaintance with him over the years).
Even though my employment with MAS was short-lived, during which time I learnt valuable lessons from this amazing motivator of aspiring employees (and “a ruthless executioner” when it comes to shoddy employees.)
I left the comfortable, pensionable government employment as a teacher of English in my village school because I was frustrated and disappointed with the lethargic system in government service and joined MAS in the year 2000 to improve, advance and develop myself so that I could contribute my two cents to the world to which I felt I was indebted for making me who and what I was.
I observed and learnt much at MAS from Dian. Due to that I was able to bring Horizon Lanka Foundation to what it is today. This was mainly due to what I learnt and observed mainly from Dian, relating to marketing and management strategy. I am a village farmer’s son and do not have the luxury of possessing an MBA from Harvard Business School nor any degree from a local university either for that matter!
I hope Dian would be there to guide me further to make Horizon Lanka a global brand in dynamic education strategies and innovative teaching methods, (in Horizon Academy children’s term, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the imaginary magic school in the United Kingdom that was created by Harry Potter famed J. K. Rowling in her amazing imagination) that could provide the children opportunities and avenues in higher education in Sri Lanka and abroad, also guide them into the entry level ‘job market’ without wasting their youth, like what happened to me in the prime of my youth due to lack of proper guidance and opportunities.
Dian and me at Hela Clothing Head Office, Colombo – Photo Credits – Lalisha Kahatapitiya
Dian and me at Hela Clothing Head Office, Colombo – Photo Credits – Lalisha Kahatapitiya
I fell in love with three Sri Lankan companies ever since I had some experience with them. This is about the third company I admire a lot and recommend for other young people to work at (or do business with.) (This is not a paid advertisement, I write this on my own free will.) I am listing the three companies only in chronological order of me meeting with them, not according to the order of my preferences.
Dialog was the 4th entrant to mobile telephony industry in Sri Lanka. The first entrant was Celltel (present day Etisalat) and people termed all other late entrants Celltel as it was the first cellular operator here. Other operators such as CallLink, Mobitel were there, but Celltel was the pioneer and they had the biggest chunk of the cellular market.
To be frank, I did not like the Dialog brand name at first. I was taught British English and the American English spelling in Dialog did not go down well with me. But what I liked most about Dialog was its attractive advertising campaign with cool images of young people. Still nobody including me expected Dialog to be this big in mobile telephony as Celltel was the undisputed market leader. A fourth entrant had no chance according to many.
But Dialog surprised the mobile telephony market introducing a lot of new technologies before other operators even thought of introducing them to Sri Lanka. As a result, Dialog became the market leader in no time. Dialog became a household brand even in places they had no coverage. Everybody’s dream was to buy a Dialog mobile connection and was eagerly waiting till they got coverage. Dialog published advertisements whenever they covered a new city or a small town with a “COVERED” stamp on a billboard in those cities and small towns. They also published the same stamp in the media implying your town or village will be covered next.
I first visited the Dialog Head Office in Colombo 02 for a small conference held there as a representative from Slimline (MAS Holding) in 2001. I was amazed to see the futuristic interior design and the attractive posters inside the Dialog head office. There were smiling young staff members everywhere. By this time, I needed mobile coverage to my village Mahawilachchiya in Anuradhapura badly, as Horizon Lanka was flourishing but its growth was affected without telephone access. Internet access was only a dream those days as the only way to get internet access was having a fixed telephone line, which was not in any telephone operator’s plans those days. Anyway, at the conference I questioned the Dialog staff as to why they did not cover places like my village. (I did not know much about business plans and sustainability of a business those days so did not understand the logic behind why they did not extend their services to villages like ours.) I met a young man called Supun Weerasinghe and we had a chat as to how to extend Dialog’s coverage to Mahawilachchiya. (Supun Weerasinghe is tipped to be Dialog’s Group CEO from next year when the incumbent GCEO takes up a bigger position in the Axiata Group at regional level.)
In late 2001, there was an offer from a mobile phone sales company for Slimline (MAS Holdings) employees to buy a mobile device with an easy payment scheme. But I was not interested as I thought it was a hassle to have a mobile phone as my other colleagues who had them were in great trouble as they kept getting calls even during non-working hours. Besides, you had to pay even for incoming calls those days. So, it was not in my plan to buy such a nuisance that was coupled with heavy bills.
But I had to change my hostile attitude towards mobile phones when I fell in love with my sweet girlfriend within few weeks of refusing the mobile phone. I immediately bought an Ericsson mobile phone. The first present I gave to my girlfriend was another mobile phone, because I knew that communication was essential in love.
I left Slimline in May 2002 and returned to my village to work full time for my own organization, Horizon Lanka. Though I had my mobile phone, there was no mobile signal in the village.
Dr. Hans Wijesuriya, CEO of Dialog Axita
Once there was a presentation at JAIC Hilton, Colombo held jointly by my former boss Dian Gomes and Dr. Hans Wijayasuriya, the Group CEO of Dialog. After Dr. Wijayasuriya’s presentation I got up and questioned him at length as to why Dialog neglects villages like ours and why they can’t cut down expenses on huge billboards installed around cities and invest that money instead on villages like ours. Then he explained why these every aspect of a business was equally important – and that while the company did invest heavily in rural expansion, billboards and other marketing initiatives were equally important and how it is was imperative to stick to a business plan. I was no businessman but understood what he explained.
But I was pleasantly surprised when I got an email from Mr. Mothilal de Silva, the then General Manager of Dialog. He wrote to me saying that he was coming to Mahawilachchiya to see if Dialog can at least provide us temporary connectivity. They ensured it happened and there were very strong Dialog mobile signals in a 50-meter radius around an antenna they fixed on the Horizon Lanka computer lab roof. This operation did not cost Horizon Lanka any money and Dialog installed the equipment at their cost. We could use mobile phones easily from the lab and the immediate environs of it. The villagers also came to the close vicinity of Horizon Lanka to make calls with their mobile phones. (My intention here is not to tell the story of how Dialog helped my organization. If you are interested in learning about it more, please click here.)
Dialog introduced a lot of cutting-edge new technologies to Sri Lanka, far before they were introduced to India, the bigger market. Some say that this was due to the reason that Sri Lanka is a considerably small island and big telcos found it easy to test new technologies in Sri Lanka. But the why did Dialog do it, and why not other mobile companies? There must have been something that attracted Dialog’s investors, and they live up to their promise of delivering ‘The Future. Today’. And ultimately we, the consumers, benefitted.
A Dialog Advertisement
Dialog also offered competitive prices with different packages for different walks of lives. The “KIT” (shortened for Keep in Touch) package was one such major step. The KIT package became very popular among youths and low income groups. The demand for this package was so high that Dialog had to pause issuing new connections during some periods. This, in Dialog CEO’s words, was dubbed as “You have to be strong enough to say NO at times”, which I learnt from him. In parallel to this, Celltel issued a very weak product called “Tango” to rural areas, which required users to put an antenna. Still people hardly got any signals as the company issued more connections than they could manage. Celltel’s good name was tarnished beyond repair among rural folks due to the inability to say NO when it mattered most.
Dialog changed their company name from Dialog GSM to Dialog Telekom and then to Dialog Axiata due to changes at parent company level, but this did not discourage Dialog customers or would-be-customers to change their loyalty to the company.
Dialog has stiff competition from Mobitel, a fully-owned subsidiary of Sri Lanka Telecom since it purchased Mobitel from its former owners in 2002. Dialog may have lost a considerable chunk of market share as the former, being a government and private venture, had the upper hand in attracting government servants and pensioners – which is a huge number in Sri Lankan context – with their ‘Upahara’ and similar attractive packages. But Dialog was proactive in introducing the Blaster package which offered 1000 minutes of free calls to other Dialog subscribers. Since Dialog was already widely available network, even a considerable number of government servants and pensioners stuck to their good old Dialog package or converted their package to Blaster. Blaster package with its 1,000 minute free calls within the network was a huge impact in the local mobile market hitherto unknown in this part of the world I guess. Even the new entrant Airtel, the local subsidiary of India’s mobile giant Bharti Airtel, was no match for the pricing and marketing of Dialog. Airtel’s entrance was an anti-climax and even those who were given free Airtel SIMs (I was given two when I bought a mosquito net from a shop in Anuradhapura J) threw them away and stuck to their first, second, third or fourth love in Dialog’s case.
This post became lengthier than it should have been. So, to conclude this, I would jot down the reasons I admire Dialog Axiata:
Simplicity of the Dialog logo
Cool and excellent customer service 24X7 (Others have different opinions about this but me being a priority customer, I get VIP service.)
Corporate Social Responsibility (Sustainability) projects
I fell in love with three Sri Lankan companies ever since I had some experience with them. This is about the second company I admire a lot and recommend for other young people to work at. (This is not a paid advertisement but I write this on my own free will.) I am listing the three companies only in chronological order of me meeting with them, not according the order of my preferences.
Slimline is one of the garment factories owned by the prestigious MAS Holdings chain of garments. I am here talking about Slimline as I have experiences working only at that factory but my comments here are common to all subsidies of the MAS flag I guess. They have more or less the same management style and working conditions for the machine operators and the admin staff.
I had never heard of MAS Holdings till I got a message from Mr. and Mrs. Gaminitillake (first benefactors of Horizon Lanka) saying that a gentleman by the name of Dian Gomes was willing to extend some help to Horizon Lanka by donating some computers and also offer me a job after reading a short article I wrote to Horizon Newsletter! I never knew my writing ever had such an impact.
I was taken from Colombo to Slimline, MAS Holdings’ flagship garment factory that produced world class lingerie such as high end brands like Victoria’s Secret, by the Assistant Manager of HR & Admin at Slimline, Sanjeewa Jayathilaka. We drove there by his car. We had a nice chat on the way to the factory that covered 70 km and Sanjeewa told me a lot about Slimline and Dian, the CEO of Slimline. So, I was highly taken up by the stories he told me and was looking forward to see Slimline and meet that amazing gentleman called Dian Gomes.
Sanjeewa took me to Slimline and then I was asked to be seated till the scheduled interview would take place. I was asked to sit till the interview took place and some might-be-colleagues of mine from the staff shared smiles with me and we had a talk. Then, a staff member named Menik took me on the trip around the factory.
Oh my! I was embarrassed big time, when she took me to the factory floor, where the young girls were making panties and bras in the thousands! Lingerie was everywhere and Menik was showing them to me and sharing ‘ small talk’ with the sewing girls. ( I was not in love with a girl except for the school days crush, which did not take me that far during my teen years). I knew almost nothing about ladies undies. As Menik was showing me different brands, styles, etc., of lingerie, I was hoping the ground would open up an swallow me, as I was so embarrassed of this grand display of female intimate garments which I knew nothing about.
Menik also introduced me to the top level management of Slimline and most of them had sexy panties on their tables but by that time I was quite comfy with, well, panties (and bras.) She explained me that those lingerie were the Slimline’s main exports and there was nothing wrong in workforce being intimate with those intimate wear. (But I was still not fully comfortable with them, well, till I met my sweet little girlfriend in 2002. I bought her a good collection of MAS sexy lingerie only from the employees’ annual sales at the factory.)
I was briefly interviewed by the HR manager who asked me to join Slimline immediately. I was still to meet Dian though. Then a very energetic man with pleasant broad smile came into the HR department and it was Dian. He asked me when I could start working for him. Then I told him that I was to go to the USA for a short visit and would have to wait till that trip was over. Then Dian said “මචං උඹට කැමති වෙලාවක වරෙන්.” (You may come when you want buddy.) I was pleasantly surprised when my boss-to-be called me මචං (a friendly Sri Lankan term that is similar to “buddy”) because prior to this, the only private sector establishment I had worked for was Asiri Hospitals, Colombo. We were treated quite poorly there, there during 1993-1995 period. It was pure feudal system management that was in place at Asiri and the employees were treated as garbage. I will state three examples where the employees were treated like rubbish by the management there.
Once a female nurse had been slapped in the face by a consultant physician for her forgetting to add one of his visits in the bill. I heard there had been a protest and the management took the doctor’s side and the nurse was not given a fair deal.
We worked full time during the worse part of 1993 parliamentary and presidential elections which were marred by terrorism and political violence which resulted in long lasting curfews. But we volunteered to work long hours as we wanted to give the nurses (who traveled from long distances to have enough time), to go cast their votes. Since we could not go outside of the premises due to the curfews we were given food from the hospital kitchen. The food was so bad it was nearly inedible. Some nurses had complained the relevant authority who imparted the message to the top lady who oversaw the operation and her answer had been, reliably, “ගම්වල කරවල කටු කන එවුන්ට මේ කෑම හොඳ වැඩියි.” (For those nurses who eat dry fish bones in their villages, our food is too good.)
A consultant surgeon had fondled a pretty nurse’s breasts in his consulting room and the nurse had cried and complained to her superior who reported the incident to the same top lady and you would be surprised with her answer. “ඉතින් ඕක ටිකක් ඇල්ලුවා කියලා ගෙවෙනෙවයැ!” (A little feel of the breasts does not wear it off ?) Imagine this coming from another lady!!!!!
Still there was nothing the staff could do. Once I lead a protest of my colleagues, when their one month’s salary was deducted for not being present to sing Christmas carols during our vacation. We all went home but the crazy nursing trainer lady had ordered us to come for the carols. She got the management to deprive us of our salary for a month for this sin of not being present to sing Christmas carols which was not in our religious beliefs. When I met the then Managing Director of the Asiri Hospitals with a colleague of mine to negotiate a settlement of our due pay, he said the salary was deducted as a punishment. I asked him if the punishment for such a simple thing were too much. Then he said, “It is me who decide if the punishment were too big or not, not you.” And the management was to get rid of me giving the whole batch a special and extraordinary test the nursing trainer was to hold (with the pure intention of failing me to fire me from the job which backfired to herself and at the end; all her bad schemes were revealed by the management and it was she who was fired and not allowed to enter Asiri premises to date. I did not do anything to that effect; it is only repercussions of bad intentions that landed her in that situation. Our deducted salary also was given.
In addition to all these, we were called by surnames and had to call each other by surnames. Just imagine calling your girlfriend by surname even within working hours!!! How about that?
(It is said that the working conditioned were changed when a young doctor called Manjula Karunaratne took over Asiri Hospitals as the CEO and now it is a pretty good place to work.)
So, with all these negative experiences in the private sector, I was in the seventh heaven when my boss called me a buddy at Slimline. I joined MAS after my trip to the USA and I felt very comfortable in the establishment from the very first day. I was given a separate PC, unlimited access to the Internet, air-conditioned working space, free food and snacks, free access to gymnasium and ample opportunities to use the sporting field for team sports like cricket, free accommodation with a cook in a spacious house with few of my colleagues, free transport, and company paid medical insurance, ample opportunities to partying at staff houses. We were given company paid training whenever we wanted them. My public speaking abilities were sharpened by one such training that the MAS sponsored me at the British Council, Colombo. I am indebted to MAS just for that more than anything else. I had been a very shy guy till I completed that great training program. My colleagues who went to the training with me were from elite schools in Colombo and Kandy and I was the only one from a not-so-famous school in Anuradhapura. After the final round of speeches we made, the trainer came to me and said my speech was the best of all. I was over the moon, not for being the best but for being able to getting rid my fear of public speaking.
We were paid a very decent salary. Working conditions were awesome. I was once asked by a colleague of mine what I liked most about MAS. My single-worded answer was “freedom.”
If I had chosen to stay with MAS, I am sure I would have easily become a top manager by now, but I chose to leave the establishment in 2002 to commit full time for my own organization, Horizon Lanka Foundation.
Slimline was situated in a very traditional village called Pannala in the outskirts of Kurunegala. But once you enter inside the factory, you feel like you are in an American state. People there were open minded and you could tell anything to anyone in the face than beating around the bush. They won’t have long faces for being cut and dry and they took the comments with a smile and changed themselves to the better. In addition to that, you’ve got five star facilities, American style management and, of course, American standard bathrooms that were super clean at any given time at the establishment.
Dian himself would pick up any litter himself if it were found anywhere inside the factory (which was extremely rare to find.) Once your boss himself does it with such humbleness, none of the coworkers need to be told to do that by the boss. Dian did it giving example and everybody got the message.
Dian also had this habit of getting mad (or pretending to be so) and shouting at his top management team on top of his voice, sometimes. I must have been the only one who was not being told off by him. I don’t know why though. I wasn’t a very good staff member as as my heart was in my village than in Slimline, something which Dian understood quite all right and made allowance for that as much as he could. His own school alumni got earful but not me.
There was of course professional jealousy, slandering against the coworkers to the superiors to get more benefits or attention that were available just like at any other organizations. Yet for all that, especially when someone had a personal (or even official) challenge, everyone would come as a team and extend their generous help. I can remember how the coworkers and the management contributed when someone was terminally ill or was to go for a life threatening surgery. Everyone would chip in and offer help and you feel as if the company is more than your family.
I fell ill once with an acute fever and when I told my manager that I would love to go home for treatment, the manager asked me “Are you crazy Nanda? We will look after you.” And he immediately sent me to Asiri Hospitals, Colombo (the same private hospital I loved to hate for its appalling working conditions due to my bad experiences as an employee there seven years ago.) MAS paid all my bills and gave me access to the country’s best medical practitioners. My former colleagues at Asiri were highly taken up with the manner I was taken care of by MAS and I too did not expect even in my wildest dreams, that I would be able to enjoy the luxuries of a patient in this hospital would get. It was simply unaffordable for me to be treated here if I had to pay the bills myself.
Stories are too many to share about MAS. So, I would just take your attention as to what (or who rather) made Slimline a pleasant place to work. It was none other than Dian Gomes, a corporate giant who was voted many a time as Sri Lanka’s best CEO. He had a very simple way of managing this huge organization. It was merely just being friendly and let the workforce unleash their energy. Nobody was angry with the company like in the other places of work. Everybody knew honestly they would be taken care of. Everybody knew that the company would not dump them after taking the best out of them. Dian was a colleague, friend, brother, father and the Savior when you were in need. Dian did not worry much about the amount of monies spent on employees’ welfare as long as the workforce is productive and the company is meeting its targets. In most of the other garment factories, the sewing machine operator girls were treated like litter. But at Slimline, it was a different story. The staff was to call them with respect by their first name preceded by Miss, not the other way round like in most of the other places. We went to their department and distributed their salary with a lot of love and respect which they also appreciated a lot (till the salaries were transferred to their bank accounts due to fear of the salary truck being robbed by some goons. Then again, Slimline installed an ATM machine inside the company premises for the ease of the staff.)
The machine operators did not have a trade union that opposed every move of the company. Instead, they had this Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) where Dian himself was a fatherly figure rather than a corporate representative. The workforce never had to fight for a cause. The only thing they had to do was just increasing productivity. Dian would get the message and would come back to the next JCC with some more benefits that the girls didn’t fancy. Even the firebrand Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP,) the main Marxist party in Sri Lanka found no way to infiltrate Slimline for trade union actions. Why? Because Dian himself was Che Guevara, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro at Slimline. So, fake Che’s had no place, well, not at Slimline.
Dian retired from Slimline at the relatively young age of 55 and Suren Fernando, the former Financial Controller of the organization took up the reins as the new CEO. I am sure he would exercise all his knowledge and experiences in cutting costs in the establishment but with the Slimline culture I know, the company would spend what it takes to keep performing. Not even a hardcore financial controller like Suren would be able to resist that. Good luck Suren! You are going to need a lot of that.