A Glimpse into the Mind of the Legendary Cornerman – Gandhara – Dian Gomes and Elisha Gomes

Much has been said and written about Dian Gomes, and it remains a daunting challenge to present the true ‘soul’ of the man beyond what has already been said.

What can be said about a man who has already been profiled in the Wall Street Journal? Walking into the magnificent ‘Gandhara’ and stationing oneself amidst the display, one is taken aback not only by the simplicity of the place but also its unmistakable tastefulness.

Dian Gomes currently serves as the Honorary Consul of Georgia in Sri Lanka and was appointed to the Public Service Commission (the apex body of the Sri Lanka Civil Service) by HE President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in 2020. He was the former Chairman of Hela Clothing and Group Director of the USD 3 billion conglomerate, MAS Holdings. He currently serves on the board of Nestle PLC. Having been bestowed with the title Honorary Consul of Georgia in Sri Lanka during the same transitional period, he has extended his work to a diplomatic front, representing Sri Lanka as well as Georgia. He has taken this opportunity to connect people of both countries while promoting cultural, commercial, and trade ties. Dian was conferred the National title of “Sri Lanka Sikhamani” by the government of Sri Lanka at the National Honors Awards Ceremony in 2019 for his services to the nation.

A product of Royal College Colombo, Dian is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (UK), the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (UK), and Certified Practicing Accountants (Australia); he received his Executive Education at Wharton, Ashridge, and Harvard Business Schools. His name has long been synonymous with Sri Lanka Boxing and Apparel on the island, and although he retired from the apparel industry after three memorable decades, a 2.0 version of Dian Gomes emerged in 2021. From leaving behind the apparel industry in 2018 to the vast global changes that occurred in 2020; he has been at work gaining a panoramic view of his businesses. Dian placed undivided attention on his companies to facilitate the transition of Gandhara, Gandhara Investments, Villa Republic, and Westgate Interiors to his daughters Shahili and Elisha. Over the past two years, this effort brought about significant monetary leaps, resulting in a strong foothold for these organizations despite the Pandemic.

Dian believes that hard work triumphs both nature and nurture. Whatever one is bestowed upon at birth can only go so far. He observes that if hard work paired with smart decision-making is cultivated from a young age, it sets a stronger foundation for success; this includes academia and sport. Dian has a simple approach, and that approach is winning. He believes grit built up over time forms a resilience that remains strong until victory is assured. Winning becomes a habit, and winners can always handle defeat that comes along the way; this, he believes, is what eventually leads to success. Dian attributes his success to the very same; hard work and all the great men and women who helped him emerge victorious every single day. He is also a leader who wants everything done ‘yesterday’, which has consistently challenged teams to achieve the so-called impossible.

Having been in all tiers of the corporate world, he asserts that competence cannot be measured based on gender; although discriminative practices have thrived for decades resulting in norms such as the glass ceiling. He doesn’t believe that having two daughters and an entrepreneur wife is what made him recognize this, but all the strong women he has had the privilege of working with; including managers, executives, and factory floor staff in the most rural parts of the island. When Dian entered the apparel industry, factory machinists were looked down upon and addressed as ‘Juki Kello’, a practice he promptly altered together with quantifiable women empowerment. A revolutionary change took place at grass root levels, much before global feminist movements gained momentum. Today, he believes young women should invest in education and developing skills that would benefit their respective professions. Once a fundamental base is present, it is imperative that they build emotional resilience to manage some obstacles that would come their way simply based on gender; and spear ahead without getting splayed. Dian declares this essential, “because to win one must not stop; one must never give up.”

Having inquired about his life in the apparel industry prior to retirement, it was understood that he was one of several responsible for spearheading a USD 3 billion conglomerate. He is known to be a great leader and corporate icon; when asked about his critical leadership factor, he recalls, “I think it was my thinking, which was very different to what existed in a typical corporate setup.” It is no secret that he admires the philosophy of the Argentinian revolutionary Che, this helped Dian look beyond the traditional framing of situations, giving him the freedom to act beyond solving the immediate problems; in turn, set an unconventional path for a commercial organization.

“First, we demolished the walls that separated the executive lunchroom from that of the workers. This was a strong symbolic gesture. I spoke with supervisors and managers and laid down the law on behavior; then I began shuffling people in the management team out of their comfort zones, away from pre-formed cliques, a practice we mastered and which continues to this day.” He states that he was never good at toeing the line, his streak of anti-establishment views always landed him in many controversies. Dian created shock waves in most environments because he was equally at ease with top corporate CEOs as well as sharing plain tea and ‘bunis’ with a worker.

Having a distinct egalitarian approach; he has never shied away from hiring people better than him, eventually amalgamating the brand of Boxing with MAS while creating a billion-dollar organization. Whatever the corporate boardrooms may say about his leadership style, it is most likely his epitaph will be written not by them; but by the thousands of ordinary people whose lives he has touched during this journey. 

Dian’s definition of a great company and legacy meant more than great financial results and innovative products. It was all about people, heroes, doing good, uplifting communities, and sports; both as an expression of energy and glory. In the corporate world, business and sports are treated as separate; but for Dian, these were not dual interests, but a graceful unification. It is this combination that made the man and the company, and both would be significantly poorer without the other because it is this which eventually defined their character; deeming it impossible to leave the organization from the other interests of Dian Gomes.

Sports being one of his primary interests, Dian is renowned for his commitment to its development. He believes Sport is the greatest unifying force; “When we watch a Sri Lankan compete against the rest of the world, nothing else matters; creed, religion, and all else are secondary. As a Sri Lankan junior flyweight boxing champion, he knows first-hand the elation of victory and the despair of defeat.”

His versatile interests saw him take over the Presidency of the Boxing Association of Sri Lanka from 2004-2009 and 2017 to date. Dian was a Vice President of the National Olympic Committee and President of the National Fencing Association. He is the only Sri Lankan to be appointed to the executive committee of the Asian boxing body (ASBC) and the world boxing body (AIBA), in addition to the Commonwealth advisory body on sports (CABOS) So, it is no surprise that Dian is categorically aware of how competitive and demanding the national and international sporting arena is. He states that although Boxing is a sport presumed to be more physically daunting, it’s more a mental game to win; to facilitate this, he plays the role of Sri Lanka’s boxing Cornerman at the ringside.

Dian’s strong nationalist streak has consistently driven him to place Sri Lanka on the global map; not as a mere participant but as a winner against all odds. Still striving towards the unachieved yet inevitable, the Olympic Gold; In my lifetime or beyond. Many pathways to achieve the same, because one must always plan a contingency; a veritable Dian Gomes motto. His resilience and perseverance got Anuruddha Ratnayake to box at the Olympic Games, Beijing in 2008 after a 40-year lapse. This effort was repeated once again in 2018 when three Sri Lankan Boxers won three medals at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games; after a lapse of 68 years.

His conviction that sport remains a defining method in bringing out the best of a person’s character is evident; a mechanism to set free the inner hero of the soul. A perspective he has held from his younger days when he moved to Pannala in his 30’s to set up MAS Slimline; a three-way joint venture with MAS Holding, Victoria Secrets, and Sara Lee Courtaulds.  “Living in Pannala for 15 years, three days a week changed me; the boy who went there in his 30’s was not the man who came back to Colombo to run the MAS Holdings Intimates Division, as a Group Director,” he recalls.

In Pannala, Dian saw the power of Sport in unifying organizations and communities. It is not merely that he could get 7000 Sri Lankans to witness a boxing tournament at the National Stadium; but how he can walk the aisles and get those 7000, mostly young women, revved up in a frenzy to cheer what is elementally a bloody battle of testosterone is simply astounding. That he took a group of poor rural athletes and led them to near-conquering of the world is a true mark of Dian’s character. The pugilist will never be rich and pampered like in cricket.

Yet he had made the elite of Colombo, who in another context would never give a second glance to boxing, become ardent fans cheering them. We see it in the arena, but more so at his leadership lectures catering to the cream of the Sri Lankan business community.

With his reach extending to multiple sporting disciplines, he has changed the landscape not only in this country but even internationally, in his new appointment as the Deputy Chairman of the boxing world body’s (AIBA) marketing commission. Dian was awarded the ‘African Leadership Award’ for his contribution to sport in 2016. His detractors are many, especially in the sage of boxing; but those who have seen the man and his methods up close, who may not agree in totality, harbor a deep sense of admiration for what he has done for Sri Lanka Boxing.

When speaking to him, it was understood that legacy to him is much more than corporate success and winning corporate accolades. He scoffs at the awards gained during his early corporate career, including the CIMA business leader of the year award (2003), CIMA icon (2013), and many others; ‘When you get old, the awards mean nothing. Making a difference in people’s lives is what counts in the end.’ He is most gratified by the transformations that were brought about in the lives he touched. Two specific recollections stand out in this regard, one was when at his 40th birthday celebrations at the factory in Pannala, in front of 3000 workers, the union president in her speech asserts ‘first he is our elder brother, our friend and the defender of our rights; and lastly our CEO.’ Those who understand the functioning of unions understand the sheer power of this single statement. In his corporate career of 30 years, he never faced a single mass industrial showdown with his workers; they truly believed that Dian will always be their cornerman.

The other being on foreign shores, when Sumith Prasanna, Sri Lankan Gold medalist at the 1999 South Asian Games put his medal around Dian’s neck and worshipped him amidst a roaring audience.

For twenty years he has been Sri Lanka’s Cornerman; at the 2008 Olympic Games, five World Championships, four Asian Games, four Commonwealth Games, and thousands of international flights. Dian has been the man who cleans the blood, washes the spit, and motivates them to win, as their Cornerman; every Sri Lankan boxer has worshipped him first when he gets down from the ring in victory or defeat because in their minds it is not the President of Sri Lanka Boxing but their father who has taken them to battle and is with them at the corner.

Is that legacy? He does not know- but it certainly has been of greater importance to him; the Godfather of Sri Lanka boxing rather than a Corporate Icon. The country remembers him, not for his unmistakable glory in the corporate world, but for the man who has sacrificed over 20 years in pursuit of an Olympic Gold for Sri Lanka Boxing.

Dian’s daughters Shahili and Elisha are both outstanding young women. Having studied at Visakha Vidyalaya, they both captained the Water Polo and Synchronized Swimming teams. They went on to graduate from the University of Manchester followed by their post-graduate studies at Imperial College, London. Both ladies represented Sri Lanka in synchronized swimming at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, also winning Sri Lanka’s first-ever synchronized swimming medal at the Japan Open. Today they have taken over the family businesses separately.

Elisha Gomes at the age of 13, was the youngest athlete at the Asian Games, in Doha Qatar in 2006 and led the Sri Lanka team to the final on her second debut at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi 2010. Elisha took over Westgate Interiors which is a 700 million turnover Interior Construction company, managing a 50,000-square foot factory employing 125 people in Panadura in 2019; “it is a tough man’s business which my wife Dehara founded nearly 35 years ago”. Prior to the pandemic, both parents decided that Elisha had been groomed upon her return from England, and was ready to take over the business.

“I helped her restructure the business, facilitated her decision-making; especially the hard calls to remodel the business and face the future.” Having been at factory floors for the larger part of his life, Dian is aware of nuanced worker management; be it apparel or furniture. He says it is important to walk the factory floor every day talking to each employee by their first name. “I told Elisha studying at Imperial or Babson college does not mean a thing unless you understand humility. That is the first lesson you learn about running factories. If you master understanding the people and where they come from and speak to their hearts; you will be able to motivate them to give great results. That was my father’s first lesson when I took over the company from my mother.

Referring to a boxing analogy, he goes on to say “without your feet firmly on the ground in a factory environment in Pinwatte you won’t last even 3 rounds.” His unorthodox leadership style paired with this hard act to follow is undoubtedly daunting to work with.

Dian reminisced as he said, “not only my daughters but my prodigies; I always put them in deep water once they are ready, so that they get used to fending for themselves. If I look back 5 years after my retirement from the apparel industry, the larger organizations in the industry including the largest, MAS Holdings, are run by my prodigies; whom I have nurtured over a long period of time. Sitting on different boards, I come across so many of them doing extremely well. This gives me great joy, the fact that I’ve done something purposeful in life.”

Shahili Gomes has taken over Gandhara and Gandhara Street, with the additional responsibility of running the luxury villa brand ‘Villa Republic’. She also founded her own company ‘The Design Collective’ together with a childhood friend; having been inspired to create the TDC concept store as a platform for South Asian designers. They have consistently delivered incredible fashion for women and men of Sri Lanka since 2017, housing over 50 Sri Lankan and South Asian independent clothing and beauty brands; becoming the best multi-brand concept store on the Island. Gandhara Street has truly lived up to the dual status of the ‘first Art Street in Sri Lanka’ and ‘Horizontal Mall’, creating a space for the best of Art and Fashion to prosper in the heart of Colombo.

Dian’s daughters have moved on to become true young entrepreneurs, managing their respective businesses on their own. Both Dian and Dehara believe that once the businesses are handed down, including the ownership, they need to move aside allowing their daughters to build personal leadership styles and corresponding company culture; “That’s the only way to put them in ‘deep water’ and I am sure they are strong enough to manage any situation.” He had an interesting sentiment when asked about his daughters taking over the legacy of Dian Gomes, “my daughters have only yet taken over the businesses, but I hope they do someday surpass the legacy,” he said with a laugh; being a jovial man at heart.

When touching upon the Pandemic, an unprecedented global challenge that has been taking lives and hurting economies since the beginning, Dian states “If we look at the trajectory, it has had geographically dispersed highs and lows; but never has it stopped since the beginning of 2020. So, we must adapt to new ways in order to proceed with work and life, because waiting for it to end completely will incur costs that we cannot absorb as a country or economy.”

He went on to explain the severe impact on established multinational corporations, and in relativity, the tremendous adversity faced by entrepreneurs and startups. He advises entrepreneurs to have clarity before all else because understanding and facing reality is the first step. Dian believes many business opportunities have come to shore with changes caused by the pandemic, so he urges new entrepreneurs to capitalize on those market gaps while encouraging others to be mindful of their cash flows amidst taking calculated business risks for the next year.

“Neither should lose spirit because things always get better, but at the moment it is about overcoming a challenge. This too will pass.”

Dian Gomes aspires that his daughters too will travel the path less trodden, to understand his journey which impacted the lives of thousands; “I hope Shahili and Elisha will find meaning and inspiration from the life I lived away from them, 15 years in Pannala and later traveling around the world setting up apparel plants. I hope they will understand that it has a purpose. There is not a shred of doubt that their father made Sri Lanka strong and Sri Lanka proud.”

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