Curiosity: The Spark Behind the Spark of Every Great Idea

Paddy Weerasekera – Chief Executive Officer – Consumer at George Steuart & Co

A former Royalist/Staffordian, Paddy Weerasekera’s career initially began with him following in his father’s footsteps in the Banking industry. After 3 years at HSBC, having acknowledged that banking held no excitement for him, he promptly took a piece of paper, wrote his resignation, gave notice and left.  

Soon after, an opportunity in advertising led Paddy to his true calling – marketing and communications. Following a stint of almost 15 years at Bates Strategic Alliance, the need to work more closely with brands and be directly responsible in driving them, made Paddy realize that he needed to put on a new hat and become “a sales and marketing person” instead of being “an advertising and communications person.”

“I was offered an exciting challenge at Janashakthi Insurance, to get involved in marketing, sales, research and CRM. At this point, I had zero experience in insurance, and I guess this was seen as a positive as a fresh look was needed to drive the company brand from an already saturated and tough market. My next assignment was at Expolanka Holdings PLC, where the company had gone IPO and was undergoing a restructuring process. It was a very interesting assignment, where the company had different business verticals locally and globally, operating in about 20 different countries. At the end of the restructuring, the majority stake of the company was bought over by the current Japanese owners. At this juncture I was looking for a new challenge. One day during a casual chat with the current Chairman of George Steuarts, he spoke of his vision of forming a formidable consumer division with a portfolio of local brands that will make waves in our market and eventually globally.  I had been friends with him for a long time, so the decision had to be made very carefully due to our relationship. So far it has worked out fine.

Over the course of a 28-year career, I have been fortunate to have gained invaluable experience in a wide spectrum of industries, including marketing communications, insurance, FMCG, telecommunications, automotive, banking, logistics, travel, hospitality and real estate to name a few.  I have worked with some interesting local and global brands such as George Steuart Teas, Sterill, Ruveda, Naturra, James Coffee, Nokia, Mitsubishi, Triumph, Happy Cow, Lakspray, DHL, Benson & Hedges, Smirnoff, Carlsberg, Hutchison, Johnnie Walker, Mobitel, Janashakthi Insurance, Expo Freight, Norfolk Crescent and Baraka. As important as work experience is, I knew education and qualifications were key to gaining knowledge and forging ahead in my career. So, I gained a number of qualifications, and am now a proud Fellow Member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing – UK, an MBA holder from the University of Wales and a Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Australia.” 

On the topic of role models, Paddy listed his parents and Warren Buffet as the primary inspirational personalities in his life. “My very first role models were my parents. My father is driven and very meticulous at work. Things have to be done according to a set plan and an agreed time table. Plus, he has utmost integrity when it comes to work and as an individual, which I admire a lot. My mother on the other hand, has a lot of patience and is concerned about everyone. With 3 sons in the family, she ensured that equality was always maintained among siblings. I am happy that my foundation as a human being is based on a mix of all of the above. This I carry with me and apply to my work life too. Looking at the business world, I would say my role model is Warren Buffet. To date, I see that he still practices the basic things in life and is extremely humble no matter who he has become. I guess, when you take away the business magnate tag, fame, assets and money, you are just a normal human being equal to anyone.”  

Of the  main characteristics that have enabled him to have worked in so many various industries, Paddy said, “I think my curiosity and the itch to learn are two things that keep me going. I am ever willing to learn from anyone who can teach me something I don’t know. As the saying goes – “never stop learning as life never stops teaching.” Not looking at work as a daily task is another characteristic. You need to love what you do. I wake up every day looking forward to going to work as I have something new and interesting to accomplish. If you don’t find work interesting you will never be good at it or make it last. This does not mean by any chance that you need to be a workaholic. You have to have the all-important work life balance too. It’s a must. I am driven to perform and I believe that I have a never say die attitude. So, I keep challenging myself regularly to be better as a person and also in managing the businesses I am involved with.”

As an expert on the subject, Paddy described the essential aspects of restructuring a business.

“The first and most important I think is the postmortem. To analyze the current business situation and study why it needs the restructure and what got it there in the first place. We need to look at the mistakes made in the past and also the positive things done, which can be retained and further improved. Getting your team members to believe in the new vision and mission of the company. The road cannot be travelled alone. It needs everyone’s buy in. Especially when things are going to change within the company when a re-structure happens. People need to get adjusted to new procedures, new team members, reporting structures, roles, etc. All the team members will need to pull in one direction if the company is to succeed. Sharing information, always being open and listening to everyone’s views. Collective experience is always much more than your individual experience put together. Setting targets and milestones and the team members’ agreement. The worst is to keep changing the goal post. This has to be monitored regularly and timely corrective actions must be taken if needed. Celebrating success and analyzing failures at every point is a must. This will let everyone know whether or not they have done what they all set out to do. If they have achieved the set results, we must always celebrate success and reward the relevant team members.” 

Questioned about the role of a corporate strategy in establishing the position of an organization/brand and the 3 primary characteristics of such a strategy, Paddy responded, “Corporate strategy is the blueprint for a company’s future direction and how it plans to get there with the resources available. It’s like a ship captain mapping out the course prior to sailing. With a history of over 185 years George Steuarts & Co is the oldest company in Sri Lanka, operating in 12 different verticals of business. When it was acquired by the current Chairman in 2011, he believed in its rich heritage and the value attached to it as a brand had immense potential. He had a clear strategy to leverage this, and infuse new dynamism and energy to the group so that it would be relevant in the current times.  A gradual restructuring process was implemented in line with this strategy. Among many initiatives, building a strong consumer division was one of the components of that plan, consolidating brands like Steuarts Tea, Seri, Ruveda, James Coffee, Sterill and Naturra, while also looking at strengthening Steuarts Tea in export markets. 

I believe that the most important aspect when it comes to developing and executing corporate strategy is that you need a champion to drive it from the top and take ownership for it. Other aspects, which are important are:

The strategy should map against the company’s core strengths. We must analyze the areas, which we are good at and leverage these to our advantage. Warren buffet for an example always said that he would not invest in businesses he does not understand or has no expertise in. 

The strategy has to match the resources it has. Sometimes it could be a great strategy, but a company might not be able to support it with the needed resources financially. This would eventually result in poor execution, and eventually the company will fail in achieving its goal.

Clear plans with regular monitoring are an absolute necessity. Most often strategic plans are done with great enthusiasm at the start. However, amidst the day to day work these plans are kept on the back burner, or if implemented the plan is not given the same enthusiasm or importance it was initially created with. It’s a must to have regular reviews and the core team held responsible for delivery. In the current context the business environment and the market are very dynamic. So, it is more important now than before. I’ve always believed in the fact that what gets monitored and measured gets done.”

Expressing his opinion on the essential principles of building a brand’s identity, Paddy disclosed, “From what I have experienced, one of the key aspects in creating and building a brand’s identity is the market research in order to understand the consumer’s requirements. Most often, our personal thoughts and beliefs are not the market reality or the consumer reality. We tend to think that our experience will be enough to judge this, which is a habit I believe, is a receipt for disaster. Past experience can be useful, but it must be coupled with independent research. 

How to stay relevant is another key aspect I think is important. In today’s day and age more consumers are evolving at a very fast pace than ever before. So, what was great 5 years ago will be obsolete today. A classic example would be the taxi business where taxi companies invested heavily in building a huge fleet of cars. Today, apps like Uber carry out a successful business without owning a single car. Understanding that people today, with their busy lives eat out a lot and targeting this need, and leveraging already existing experience in the taxi business and the brand strength they expanded to Uber Eats. 

Consistency is another key aspect. We often tend to forget what we stand for. We must always stay true to the core values that our brand was built on. In our case, George Steuarts has a rich heritage and carries with it a large element of trust, quality and stability. So, whatever business we are in, we tend to follow these principles and stay true to them. Your image is everything.” 

Speaking of his views on business development following the recent massive growth in the use of digital, the CEO stated, “To meet the requirements of customers in the digital era, companies need to radically change mentality, processes and strategy while implementing modern technology that supports their new business goals. To me, this is twofold. One is the digitizing process of your business internally, and second is how you use digital technology to communicate and interact with your external customers. Sadly, most companies are yet to even adopt proper ERP systems, which is a must in modern day business operations that adds tremendous value in managing a business efficiently. Companies should have proper investments in training and implementation. There’s no use in having the most advanced technologies, if the staff is resistant towards using them or lacks understanding of the benefits of such technologies. Sri Lanka has almost 137% of mobile usage and around 34% use mobiles to access the internet. There are approximately 6.4 million social media users in Sri Lanka. Thus, penetration is at 30%. Marketers must look at strategies to be able to reach out to these potential consumers in digital platforms if they are to even have a dialog with them. Companies who have identified and prioritized this have been able to increase their revenue streams and stay relevant locally and globally. In relation to our tea business, we get many inquiries from various countries via our FB/Instagram and Website. This is business, which we gladly welcome. 

Many experienced online usages during the Covid pandemic as well as how prepared businesses were to sell online and work from home. It is no secret that not a single large food retailer was able to operate efficiently. We all eventually resorted to the door to door vegetable vender and fish monger, no matter how advanced we thought we were. Many small online retailers started businesses during the pandemic to cater to the sudden demand that was not being fulfilled. It took the pandemic for us all to realize how much we were lagging behind. I believe this eyeopener has forced all companies to think differently and embrace technology along with the importance of digital transformation in their own businesses. 

During the pandemic it was clear that if the organization had robust systems, which embraced technology, business could take place remotely to a greater extent. Physical presence at the office was not needed. Of course, in the case of manufacturing you need the staff to be present at the factory. But support services like finance, administration, HR, etc., could all operate remotely. From a sales or marketing perspective, if the online platforms were ready then you were in a position to serve the customers. Even if you didn’t have your own online shop, you were still able to work with other independent online shops to offer your products and services, and even partner with Uber or Pick me.

The first ever online tea auction was held as a result of COVID-19. Thus, we moved away from a “cry-out” system since its beginning in 1883. Without this, the buying and selling of tea would have suffered, and the industry would be in a dire situation. We were able to continue our business, and even garner more demand and capitalize on export buyers due to India being closed too. A classic example, and a lesson for my team and I was the relaunch of our sanitizer range during the lockdown period. We’d been manufacturing and supplying sanitizers among other cleaning products for the last 8 years in the B2B space. When the pandemic occurred, we understood that there was a huge requirement for sanitizing products. So, we planned a relaunch and a rebranding exercise, while ramping up production. We were on calls and zoom meetings daily. There were no 8.30-5.30 work days anymore. Our ad agency teams were working from home and sharing design work, creative scripts and media plans with us regularly. We worked with our video and radio production companies to get the campaign material created. Our team at the factory worked tirelessly to ramp up production and manage the packaging and other raw materials supplies. We were able to get necessary clearances as it was an essential item and took stringent safety measures. We managed to launch an entire product, starting from packaging design to production to a full-blown communications plan, including TV, radio, press, social media during this time. Today, the Sterill brand is the largest supplier of sanitizing solutions to corporate and individual consumers, covering all channels of modern trade, general trade and pharmacies. During this time, we even established our operations in the Maldives. The point I am trying to illustrate, is that we utilized technology to manage the entire process of planning and work with our production team to deliver the end product. We had our systems in place and a team who was agile enough to work in the new normal.”

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