CIMA C-Suite Alumni Series: In Conversation with Damith Pallewatte

Hailing from a middle income family in a village called ‘Weboda’ in the Gampaha District, Damith Pallewatte is now a professional Banker with 25 years of experience in Banking with three leading private commercial banks.

Damith began his fascinating career journey in 1996 as a Trainee Banking Assistant at Sampath Bank before he moved to Nations Trust Bank (NTB) in early 2003 as an Executive in the field of Risk Management, and was later promoted to the position of Chief Risk Officer.

“At the time, not only was the bank new but the Risk Management field within the Banking industry was not structured as it is today and so I saw an opportunity. I dedicated my time to broaden my skills and knowledge in the field of risk management. NTB gave me the necessary exposure to rise through my career ladder in reciprocity. I ended up serving as the Chief Risk Officer, a role which I was aspiring to play.”

Following a 13-year stint at NTB, he joined Hatton National Bank PLC in 2015, as the Chief Risk Officer and rising up the hierarchy, Damith is now serving the bank as the Deputy General Manager – Wholesale Banking Group, overseeing one of the two key business verticals of the bank.

Damith is a CIMA C-Suite programme alumnus and holds an MBA from the Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM), University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka and BSc – Management (Hons) degree from University of London, London School of Economics (LSE). He is also a Certified Financial Risk Manager (FRM) by Global Association of Risk Professionals (GARP) and an ACI Operations Certificate Holder from Financial Markets Association, France.

Furthermore, he is a past president of Association of Banking Sector Risk Professionals (CRO Forum) and also a resource personnel for Institute of Bankers Sri Lanka and Centre of Banking Studies, Central Bank of Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka Institute of Directors (SLID). And a Director of Acuity Partners (Pvt) Ltd, a full-service investment bank and Acuity Securities (Pvt) Ltd an appointed Primary Dealer. He also serves as an alternate Director for the Credit Information Bureau of Sri Lanka.

How has your experience been with the CIMA C-Suite Business and Finance  programme?

It’s a very enlightening experience. CIMA is a real world programme which trains you to be a logical thinker. It eventually guides you to apply your learnings to solve situations you face, be it simple or complex, as a leader without limiting your learnings to theoretical knowledge. It pushes you to “unlearn and re-learn” as we travel in to the future. You will not only become a qualification holder but also will become a practitioner of learnings. Hence, it prompts you to Learn Smarter and Visualize things you are studying which really opens your mind to new ways of solving problems. 

In the context of continuously changing business dynamics, it’s quite challenging to maneuver a professional programme curriculum and stay up to date to deliver real value. Throughout my journey with CIMA I noticed an appreciable effort to update the syllabus of its programmes in order to stay relevant amidst changing needs of businesses. So, once you engage with CIMA, you build the confidence that it will take you to the ‘New World’ with them.  It develops such a satisfying mindset which pushes you to be committed and passionate to complete the whole programme. Moreover, even after you finish your study programmes and come out as a professional, there lies a world of opportunities with great CIMA professional networks. 

Above all, CIMA has demonstrated key value drivers taught in their programme in practice. The level of technology adoption in CIMA programme delivery is commendable. It’s a comforting experience specially for working professionals who struggle to find time to follow a programme with their busy work schedules. My virtual learning engagement with CIMA has been a rewarding experience and I was impressed with the novelty of their thinking in the use of different technology platforms, be it a virtual gathering, podcast, recorded classroom, electronically timed mock papers, or on-line examinations.

Why would you recommend the CIMA C-Suite Business and Finance  programme?

When it comes to dealing with difficult, stressful situations, the one who stays resilient and emerges less scratched proves his or her metal above others. Growing organizations demand experts’ contribution to successfully navigate through fiercely competitive markets, uncharted risk territories and to effectively manage eventualities; be it a pandemic, financial or industry crisis, employee uprising or disrupting technology. It’s visible over and over again that agile organizations that are committed to navigate through the change and endured transformation have survived longer. So it is advantageous and indeed necessary to become a member of a great network of professionals and a knowledge pool to understand the dynamism of the changing business environments. CIMA programmes, specially the Global C-Suite Business and Finance Programme, provides you with what it takes to be on the right side doing the right things at the right time. More importantly, it balances two opposite sides of aggressive business development, greed to grow and need for compliance and harnesses an ethical value system for business acumen.  And those are good reasons for you to be part of CIMA.

How does this programme improve skills and create value for C-level  executives?

C-Level executives drive organizations and envision its future by taking into account a variety of both internal and external factors. At that level you will make more difficult decisions than anywhere else.  Your level of comprehension of global developments, ability to ‘read’ future trends accurately, assess internal capacity to grow and talent to provide suggestions to change course of the organization prove your skillfulness and value you bring in to steer the organization. Your overall understanding of the organization’s operations and strategy in contrast with regional/global best practices and emerging innovations will give you an edge over individuals who are more inwardly focused and specialized in a specific part of the overall business operation. You will also be more effective and successful at C-level only if you are more confident and demonstrate your competence.  You need to portray your capabilities and the value you bring to the table confidently. CIMA provides the motivation and internal resources to improvise such confidence levels.  It helps to develop your potential professionally and personally and the energy it creates boosts your confidence driving you to overcome adverse reactions to an assertive or critical question.  The fact that you are now part of one of the world’s largest professional networks should make you feel more confident to face any challenge.

If I may lay down some key elements of C-Suite programme that creates value, it carries a global vision with an international reach, enhance / widen knowledge on all the areas of business, provides an opportunity to work around the globe, it shares best practices from different countries and importantly focus on strategy part of the business beyond numbers. I firmly believe that it is an essential programme for C-level executives in today’s VUCA world which require a better synergy between business and finance functions and avoid working in silos. It carries a very enriching content beyond the books and theories and trains you to handle real complex business scenarios practically in a smarter way.

Explain your experience being a member of CIMA.

It’s been a rewarding experience indeed. It opened opportunities to a satisfying level of professional interaction. I attended the CGMA Leadership Academy held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in late 2019 and was selected to represent Sri Lanka in Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA) Regional Advisory Panel (RAP) for Middle East South Asia and North Africa Region (MESANA Region) for 2020/21. The AICPA is the most influential body of professional accountants worldwide and this opened up many opportunities to experience regional and global best practices. In addition to the above, I was invited to be a panelist at the The New Age CFO – APAC CFO Forum held virtually in September last year. Apart from those I was pleased to be part of a few virtual events in Sri Lanka, especially the event to deliberate Managing Credit Risk in a Pandemic. It was quite enriching to share views with fellow professionals in those forums where it created an environment for responsible professionals to contribute for the well-being of fellow community members. 

What’s the most challenging task as a senior leader of a leading Bank in Sri Lanka?

When you are managing an extensive knowledge pool covering several specialized areas of businesses, people management becomes extremely challenging. Facilitating cross-functional collaboration is a key differentiator in success even though it’s one of the most challenging tasks.  In today’s rapidly changing banking landscape it requires an intense effort to stay relevant to customers. People need to be assertive. Hence, the team who interacts with customers needs to portray the correct image of the bank both in terms of its service delivery and technical capacity in responding to client needs. Therefore, up to date knowledge of what is happening around in the global and local marketplace, the bank’s vision and value drivers to provide holistic solutions customers’ needs to be professionally conveyed to all stakeholders to build and maintain a strong confidence level. Robust governance structure and culture of compliance too play an important role in boosting such confidence. All those have to be properly communicated by staff who interact with stakeholders at various levels in a language they understand. It’s no easy task to manage and guide larger team to be consistent and uniform in their dealings with stakeholders, specially under stressful circumstances. Any inconsistencies or unclear/messy communications create trouble and drag stakeholder confidence to undesirable levels. Further it was an extremely challenging and time consuming task to manage asset quality on one side and IFRS9 impairment on the other side to defend the bank’s profitability which gives its shareholders a decent return. It required a tireless supervision and tedious execution of time bound tasks. Sri Lanka’s financial system has so far stayed resilient despite many challenges. One key facet of such resilience has been the adequate capitalization. Continuous profitability of banks which brought in necessary capital by way of retained profits. Prolonged significantly dipped interest earnings due to low interest regime can threaten stability of the financial system and the confidence placed on the system can be deteriorated as a result. Hence as a bank we need to manage both, which have been among the most challenging tasks during this turbulent period. 

As the Deputy General Manager – Wholesale Banking Group of HNB, what opportunities do you perceive for the  organisation in 2021? 

2021 is going to be an extremely challenging year for the banking industry in general. Business slow down due to the Easter bomb attacks in 2019 is aggravated due to the COVID19 pandemic and created immense hardships to businesses. There were several relief packages offered to affected businesses to stay afloat and whilst some of the industries have shown signs of recovery and a decent level of revenue generation, several others such as Travel & Tourism are unable foresee a likely date of recommencing its business operations fully. Both the CBSL and government are very keen to maintain a low interest rate regime which will eventually fuel investment and capital/equity market activities. Sri Lanka is also struggling with its Country Rating which was recently subjected to a two-notch downgrade and this will pose many challenges in global financial transactions and industries such as logistics and insurance. 

Amidst all above challenges, I see several opportunities the bank can harness. At the top of the agenda is to increase migration of customers to digital channels. It not only makes the transactions safe and transparent but also improves convenience and efficiency by several folds. Secondly I see a lot of opportunities for the bank to support local entrepreneurs and facilitate growth of SMEs especially in the areas of Agriculture, Manufacturing and Exports. HNB is at the forefront of supporting the Sri Lankan economic revival and it will continue to make its contribution in a much broader manner. As a bank with 132-year old history fully aligned with the Sri Lankan economy and its development and as one that has partnered the progress of several generations of Sri Lankans, we look forward to post COVID opportunities with confidence.  HNB has embraced a journey of transformation to help it become ‘Future Ready’ and to become the beacon in Sri Lanka’s financial services industry.

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