CIMA C-SUITE ALUMNI SERIES: IN CONVERSATION WITH NALIN KARUNARATNE – CEO AT CEYLON BISCUITS LIMITED, NALIN KARUNARATNE

  1. Brief us on your life and career journey.

My career started at CIC in the sales office. Those were the days when customers lined up at the doorstep waiting to rush to the sales desk to place their orders to buy the most prestigious paint brand at that time. How the tides have changed from then to now, with the balance of power being shifted from supplier to the customer amidst increasing competition!

From CIC, I joined Darley Butler & Co. as a Product Executive where had the opportunity get into Brand Management. Marketing really fascinated me, I knew this would be my career path and I never looked back. From there on I joined ICL Marketing (a member of the Maharaja Group) where I had the privilege of working with many talented people both locally and internationally. With such exposure at a very early stage in my career, I was able to further build on my strengths as well as identify and work on areas for improvements

I wanted the experience of working with an MNC but there were limited opportunities and fierce competition. How I joined Reckitts and Colman is an interesting story: I was the brand manager for Lion mosquito coil at ICL, which was  competing head on with their brand Mortein. Lion coils were rapidly gaining market share and I was working hard to give the Reckitt’s team stiff competition. I got my opportunity to work at an MNC when I received a call from Reckitt’s, asking me to interview for the role of Group Product Manager. I also had the privilege of working for the marketing function for the Yogurt business of the world largest integrated dairy company; Almarai in Saudi Arabia where I was able to further hone my skills.

At AzkoNobel Paints, I had the opportunity of a role that I always say was a transformation from “Boys to Men” as the Head of Sales. In sales, you engage with people’s lives, source of income and, learn to balance needs, and often egos, of people. I am a strong advocate for people gaining exposure in both sales and marketing for a well-rounded commercial perspective. I was chosen for a global leadership development programme at AkzoNobel among 22 global executives. This was a life changing experience and I understood how purpose can transform your life and leadership. From there I moved on to Holcim where I had the opportunity to drive the whole commercial aspect of the business and drive sales and marketing with a unified vision as Head of Commercial.

I have been with Ceylon Biscuits Limited and the Munchee brand as CEO/Director for almost 06 years now, working with a team that is committed to excellence and purpose. I am proud to be a part of a Sri Lankan company that has made such large strides locally and internationally in just 50 years. It is our responsibility build on this firm foundation and hand it over to the next generation.

Bit about my school life and chilhhood, I was never very keen on studies in my youth.  I spent most of my time with the bat and ball on the Kinross Beach. When I left school I realized that only you can be your limitation, no one else could determine your success. I was lucky to have had an upbringing close to the church and that guided me to do what was right.

  • Functioning as the CEO, elaborate on your roles and responsibilities at CBL

I would say I have a four-fold role as CEO. First, it’s my responsibility to bring all these talented people together to work towards the same direction: “one team one vison”. Secondly, I must teach my team how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, so they can adapt to challenging environments. Thirdly, keep it simple – business strategy should be understandable and relatable. Fourth, I have a duty to coordinate the uncoordinated – identifying, foreseeing and enforcing so no stone is unturned – this was very useful during the pandemic and continues to be relevant in this challenging environment.

One thing that I have learnt & experienced is that leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts, it is about influencing lives in a positive way. A leader must have a clear, authentic purpose, and if you are genuine with your purpose, people will follow you and accept your leadership.

  • Sri Lanka is among its worst economic concussion. How has this altered your decision making process at CBL?

We had to be bolder than we had ever been – In times of uncertainty, it can be tempting to minimize, downside or get under cover until the storm passes. We decided that we would be bold and actively seek significant opportunities where the business and market meet. Re-wiring our minds to see challenges in different ways, the EXCO worked together to work towards common goals and looked outside the box to find new ways to do the same task – failure was never an option.

Stayed true to our foundations and continued to prioritize the most important things in our business – our product quality, our consumer, our employees, our partners and our country.

Focus was on speed of execution than ever before, window of opportunities was short lived therefore we had to ensuring we re-skilling ourselves to face the new normal this was top priority.

  • What were the ramifications faced during this period? Did this affect the operations in the company? If so, enlighten us with the decisions taken to enhance growth and sustainability?

Starting with the Easter Attacks, the pandemic and now an economic crisis, every aspect of the business has been impacted. It is a time when people are under great stress – uncertainty, job insecurities, rising costs of living all adding to the pressure. There has been a complete breakdown of the supply chain that is impacting local and international export markets.

As a company, we took a strong stand right at the beginning of the pandemic led by Chairman, that no one will lose their jobs at CBL and that we would support our teams to cope in these very challenging times. This positive commitment gave our people the confidence and the courage to give their very best to the business at every level.

As the leading local food company we have a responsibility to ensure our consumers had their most loved biscuit brand available all the time. We strengthened our supply chain to continue our manufacturing operations, and using more locally sourced ingredients in products. We’re also continuing programs to build competencies in distribution and retail networks. There’s a lot to be done but I believe as a Group we are working towards better futures for our stakeholders.

  • Being a CIMA Alumni, explain to us how this has influenced your life and your career? Some say ‘CIMA is more than an accountancy qualification’. Justify if this is true?

We are in business to ensure we delight our customers and consumers in a most profitable manner. Coming from a sales & marketing background CIMA helped me to train my mind to see the commercial viewpoints our decisions both short & long term. I have experienced the benefit of this at many forums and decisions that we have made along the way.

Having a financial background when your core competency comes from sales & marketing gives you an edge when influencing the traditional “accountants” to see a solution from another angle. Using numbers to demonstrate commercial justifications is also something that can add tremendous value to a sales and marketing professional who generally leaves it to a financial professional.

  1. Leave us with an inspiring piece of advice that has helped you gain courage over the years of experience and success.

Do not try to force yourself to wear the hat of a leader, instead put all efforts to identify your purpose, your vision and that crystal clear objective.  When you identify what drives you in life and you find your purpose, your hidden leadership qualities will emerge, that’s for sure. Leadership in my point of view is a human instinct, its deep down, hidden in every person. It emerges knowingly or unknowingly, it’s very situational.

Once you get that leadership confidence, just build on it and wire your mind further. When you do that, leadership becomes a habit without any extra effort.

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