An Audacious Entrepreneur with Intellect and Intuition – Ramesh Shanmuganathan, Chief Executive Officer of John Keells IT

Ramesh Shanmuganathan, the Chief Executive Officer of John Keells IT is an equivocal individual. To elaborate, he is amiable, inherent, adaptable, entertaining, and a free spirit, among other attributes. He relishes challenging himself and the status-quo, gaining new knowledge, advocating for change/innovation, constantly pushing boundaries, believing that anything is possible, and nothing is impossible. Ramesh’s interest in electronics began in his pre-teens, observing his uncle when he idled in it. He recalls watching in wonder, attempting to duplicate what he achieved by disassembling and reassembling working gadgets. He claims that his fascination, passion, and curiosity for technology and electronics evolved. He gravitated towards mathematics and sciences when it came to his scholastic abilities. From there on, it was all about what piqued Ramesh’s interest and where his enthusiasm led him, intending to bring about the change he desired to see in the world. This has been the driving force behind his journey to date.

Ramesh fulfilled his secondary education at the prestigious Royal College before enrolling at the University of Moratuwa, where he earned a First-Class honors degree in Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering. His first formal job as a graduate was at DMS Electronics and, he apprehended that Engineering and Management would be a virulent combination to possess, given the global circumstances at the time, with the net economy just starting to ramp up, which motivated him to pursue his MBA at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura’s Postgraduate Institute of Management whilst working at DMS Electronics He notes that while completing his reading for the MBA, he was offered a Hayes Fulbright Scholarship to accomplish his Masters in Computer Science at Rochester Institute of Technology in the United States. The exposure that he got during his stint in the USA, boosted Ramesh’s confidence and fueled his desire to travel down uncharted territory. Instead of aspiring a profession in the United States after his graduation, he returned to his motherland Sri Lanka to quest his hopes and aspirations.

Ramesh continues, “An early opportunity to be a CEO came in the form of a disguise.” In the late 1990s, he was hired to establish and oversee a new Systems Integration unit at Keells upon his return from the USA and was given the unique opportunity to lead the company as its CEO, just two years after joining. This is where he began his career as a CEO.

He describes his journey thus far as inspiring and enriching, but not without plenty of challenges, disappointments, and deliberation. Ramesh was eager to transpose the world when he first commenced as an incipient engineer. He then had the singular opportunity to lead as CEO at the age of 33 at Keells Business Systems and was Group CIO of John Keells at the age of 37 -which he emphasizes wasn’t something he had planned for. “I guess the opportunity presented itself and I was confident to grab it with both hands based on my instinct”, he stated. From then on, it was all about making things work for Ramesh, and that was the driving force behind his journey. This has served him well and has always opened new doors for him and his team since the beginning.

He goes on to say that he has been able to adapt to numerous roles and challenges that came along with it at such a young age in his profession. Ramesh was never afraid to take on new and complex roadblocks in his life or career. His ethos and basic principles were concentrated on maintaining personal integrity in everything he undertook. He has undeniable enthusiasm for what he does, a mindset that constantly challenges the status quo, he walks the walk, leading the way, maintains positivity, creates upbeat energy around people, widens his circle of influence, and never says or accepts “No” for an answer. All of these qualities have become his hallmark for success.

Ramesh also holds a Doctoral degree in Management from the Keisei International University of South Korea and is presently reading for his Doctoral degree in Business Administration at the International School of Management in Paris. He is an Executive Vice President of the John Keells Group and holds multiple positions as the Group CIO of John Keells, CEO of John Keells IT, Chief Executive of John Keells X, Non-executive Director of Nations Trust Bank, and multiple Directorships of subsidiaries of John Keells. In summation, he has had an interesting two-decade career at the C-level, with each role adding to his development and assisting him to influence himself into the person he is today. In recognition of his credentials and track record, he was recently invited to the Forbes Business Council as a full-fledged member and one of the very few Sri Lankans to gain this recognition.

When asked about his thoughts on the new tech trends that are shaping the world and which ones he sees finding local adaptation, Ramesh says, “Globally cognitive and autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and distributed ledgers, 3D/4D printing, mixed reality, digital twins, robots & cobots, drones, natural language processing, smart buildings/cities, quantum computing, genomics, nano-technology, cyber-resiliency, are creating the points of inflection whilst from a Sri Lankan context it’s more around mobility, cloud, IoT, big data, robotic process automation, digital platforms, and 5G; which is leading the way whilst in pockets the above is also being experimented by few of the leaders in the industry.”

Ramesh elaborates that the inspiration and aspiration for establishing John Keells IT stems from the realization that something significant can be done for both the John Keells group and similar organizations, given that the world around was hitting the pause button and reorganizing itself for a new or next normal powered by technology, stating “We saw that there was a huge void and a felt need for someone who could help businesses address these emerging challenges and help them convert them to opportunities that they could invest to create value – be it a large enterprise or SMB. This needed an organization that could bring together business acumen, domain expertise, technical know-how, partnerships together with platform/ecosystem thinking to create and drive value and that was the birth of John Keells IT with the mandate to digitally simplify and enable businesses for the data-driven and experience in economy.”

Furthermore, we’re told that John Keells IT was founded as a boutique Strategy Consultancy & Professional Services firm to handle the core mission. They use transformative tools like Design Thinking, Blue Ocean Strategy, and Strategy Canvas to help their customers create a business-led Digital/IT road map and realize value benefits through their purpose-built value stacks – JKIT-Strategy, JKIT-Core, JKIT-Cloud, JKIT-Platform, and JKIT-Ecosystem. He adds that they also rely on their strong collaborations with companies like Microsoft, SAP, UiPath, and others to help them realize value. “We currently have an operational footprint across Sri Lanka, Middle East, Africa, Europe and South-East Asia with marquee clientele across the regions including leading conglomerates, airlines, manufactures from food to fashion, automotive dealers, retail chains, financial institutions, property developers, engineering & construction companies, educational institutes, logistics providers, government, telecommunication, etc.,” he stated.

While Sri Lanka has a wealth of skill, it appears that something is preventing it from realizing its full potential. Ramesh acknowledges that Sri Lanka has a very high literacy rate in the region, as well as skills in a variety of fields. However, he worries whether we are creating an environment in which the country can realize its full potential. The most serious problem, he believes, is the country’s antiquated educational system, as well as a lack of progressive vision from the country’s leadership. He also emphasizes the importance of cultivating a more inventive attitude, entrepreneurial thinking, diversity in all sectors, inclusive, and long-term growth, which will catalyze developing and retaining talent. He goes on to argue that the educational system, from primary to tertiary, needs to be better aligned with the country’s and industries’ needs, and that the rest of the country must step in to bridge the gap and tie up the loose ends to make this a feasible proposal for the country. He went on to state, “We build our own talent pipeline through planned interventions such as our Management Trainee program as well as Graduate Placement program with a clear focus on our growth aspirations and needs. We have been doing this very successfully and looking to expand the same beyond the shores of Sri Lanka as we broadly base our operational footprint.”

When we ask Ramesh how we can position Sri Lanka as a digital center and overcome difficulties to accelerate the country’s growth trajectory, he says it will always be a dream and a challenge for every country. What do we truly want for Sri Lanka if we don’t look beyond the horizon and decide for ourselves? He claims we can’t be populists and make the move at the same time. We must accept the facts as they are and attract the top-tier if we are to establish Sri Lanka as a global tech center. Singapore, Dubai, Malaysia, and Barcelona, for example, have succeeded in promoting themselves as global IT hubs by attracting the best personnel. Ramesh emphasizes the importance of encouraging private university and research facility investments to improve access to talent and, in turn, attract the top students from across the region to the country to build the talent pool we require. “We believe that our talent can come from anywhere in the world, but there are operational challenges in tapping them due to other factors beyond our control. We still find a way to crowdsource talent as required across the sub-continent and regions that we operate in.”

When asked about Sri Lanka’s thriving digital companies and how he is using this for his own business, Ramesh says that tech startups have evolved over the last decade but have not yet achieved a critical magnitude to have an impact on the country. He emphasizes that it is a critical modification for Sri Lanka to fast track and accelerate the country’s and economy’s digitalization to remain relevant in the twenty-first century, particularly in the data-driven, experiential economy. Given our strong belief in and advocacy of collaboration, co-innovation, and co-creation in everything we do, Ramesh claims that we were one of the early adopters of open innovation via the startup accelerator/incubator as early as 2015, and have successfully refined it to integrate it into their group of companies as relevant via John Keells X and their Digital Labs at John Keells. This has aided them in accelerating their innovation agenda as well as using platform/ecosystem thinking for their entire clientele.

Questioning what role governments should play in aiding technology sector growth and whether accelerating the technology sector would assist enhance Sri Lanka’s economy, Ramesh says that any government in today’s setting should be focusing on how they can promote their country as a SMART nation. This also implies that to remain relevant, we must have thought leadership as well as investments in research and development in emerging sectors. He argues that this would imply providing the correct incentives to enterprises with the necessary know-how and investment appetite to come to the country. To promote Sri Lanka as a tech center, we should take inspiration from places like Dubai, Singapore, Barcelona, and Malaysia.

He goes on to say that this must be maintained by attracting and establishing a larger ecosystem with consistent policies to build and boost investor confidence and for them to contribute to the country’s economic growth as well as making Sri Lanka a smart nation like Singapore, Dubai, or Barcelona. As a result, anyone – whether an investor, an entrepreneur, an employee, a supplier, or a customer – will be drawn in. Furthermore, the World Economic Forum’s latest study on the Global Competitiveness Index explains this in great depth, and it’s clear that technology is a crucial driver. We should be focused on it, according to Ramesh, to strengthen our global competitiveness, which would assist boost the Sri Lankan economy to a greater extent, and we should draw inspiration from Singapore, Dubai, Israel, Ireland, Spain, and Estonia in this regard.

Finally, we learn that Ramesh’s secret to continued success is his family, his incredible team that works with him, his quest to learn new things, and writing his own playbook to create the new or the next normal. We also admire the fact that he never settles for the status quo, always pushing barriers and never stating “nothing is impossible.”

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