Going the Distance

Nalin Perera – Chief Executive Officer of Mobitel

Nalin Perera began his uphill climb in 1989 as a Market Development Executive at Celltel, the pioneering mobile network of that time. Today, he sits at the top of the proverbial mountain as the CEO of Mobitel, the National Mobile Service Provider and one of Sri Lanka’s largest mobile network operators.

“As a young man I was presented with a choice between Celltel, which at the time was in its infancy stage, and an organization of strong repute and status. A mentor of mine asked me – “Do you want to be a glorified delivery boy or a true marketer?” – and my response to that question is what led to my choice of career industry and brought me to where I am today.”

Rising up the hierarchy of Celltel, Nalin moved onto Customer Care, followed by Credit Control, and finally Sales and Marketing. He culminated his transformational and enthralling tenure at Celltel as General Manager of Sales and Marketing. 

“Thereafter, I worked as the Country Manager for Bright Point, where I was in charge of the South East Asian region for a period of three years. I joined Mobitel in 2001, which is a fully-owned subsidiary of Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT), with a rich heritage of over 150 years in the Telecommunication industry. Prior to being appointed as the CEO of Mobitel, I operated as Senior General Manager – Marketing, Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Operating Officer.”

Nalin’s illustrious career spanning 3 decades runs parallel with the history of the Sri Lankan Mobile Telecommunication industry, where he has been very much involved in its development. However, Nalin bestows all credit for his achievements upon his past mentors.  “During my 30-year career, I have worked for almost 14 CEOs of different nationalities including Sri Lankan, South African, Australian, Swedish, Belgian, Scottish and many more. I have learnt something from every one of them. All of them have been instrumental in grooming and molding me into who I am today. I would say that this is a dream come true for me as a person who started his career at the lowest level of the corporate ladder, to have reached the top-notch position of providing leadership for Mobitel. My tenure with Mobitel has been enthralling. I was privileged to have been a part of some of the key revolutions that have transformed the industry and taken it to new heights.”

Following him taking over the helm at Mobitel, the organization has enjoyed a notable run, not only in the Mobile Services industry, but also in the diversification of Mobitel’s amenities in Digital Healthcare, Mobile Financial Services, Enterprise Business Solutions, Entertainment and supporting national level initiatives. 

“I believe that this was possible due to the vast experience and knowledge that I have harnessed over the years, both locally and internationally in brand management, business insights, product and channel development, IoT and human resource management. These business acumens have enabled me to propel Mobitel towards new heights, and further re-affirm its position as one of the most loved and caring brands in Sri Lanka.” 

Listing what he sees as his primary leadership traits, Nalin explained, “The Mobile Services industry is highly competitive and fast-paced, which requires us to be proactive and quick to adapt to changing consumer behavior. Some of my key success mantras are to be open to change, remain agile and deftly incorporate new trends and evolving customer needs. I try to inculcate the same mindset into the rest of the team to ensure first-mover status in the industry at all times. I believe my strong sporting background in Rugby has instilled in me the need for teamwork, to be on the move and walk towards the opponents’ territory with clear strategies in place to respond fast to the evolving scenarios, all the while making sure I’m always up for a challenge!”

Throughout his long career this Corporate Hercules has gone above and beyond to play a part in the development of the Sri Lankan Telecommunication industry. Aided by decades worth of experience and knowledge, Nalin is one of the pioneers of the Telecommunication industry responsible for the introduction of many new technologies to the Sri Lankan market.  

“I believe my greatest achievement was conceptualizing and implementing the Pre-Paid concept in Sri Lanka, and powering the first mobile revolution while building Celltel’s entire ecosystem to support this industry innovation, which contributed to rapid growth in the sector. Later on, I was able to provide the necessary leadership in the pioneering of revolutionary products and services at Mobitel, whilst simultaneously leading teams to set new benchmarks in mobile technology rollout, and sharpening the company’s channel and product development capabilities. My greatest achievement would be positioning Mobitel to gradually bridge the digital divide and make digital technology available for digital empowerment for everyone.”

Dwelling upon his leadership in the launch of the Mobile Pre-paid concept in Sri Lanka, Nalin reflected that, “Being exposed to diverse market settings over the years has given me wide knowledge and a deep industry-focused understanding that eventually laid the foundation for future success at Mobitel. The introduction and implementation of the Pre-paid concept in Sri Lanka enhanced mobile phone penetration while the growth of pre-paid connections was a direct contributor to the rapid growth of the telecom sector in Sri Lanka. I have always pursued the infusion of greater value to products and services, thereby growing the entire telecom ecosystem, which in recent years has become a benchmark for many of its Asian neighbors.”

Speaking of Mobitel’s recognition for achieving the fastest 5G speeds for the first time in South Asia, Nalin said, “When it comes to bringing in new technology, especially in the Mobile industry, you have to be on the frontlines. Having positioned ourselves as the brand that brings the latest technologies to Sri Lanka, we successfully conducted trials and reached the highest mobile 5G speeds for the first time in South Asia, exceeding speeds of 1.55Gbps using a commercial 5G mobile smartphone on the 7th of June 2019. This was possible because of the strong team spirit and decisive thinking at the right time, which enabled us to put our hands on the latest technology. The Mobile 5G services were demonstrated using 3.6GHz trial spectrum allocation from the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL), which always encourages and strengthens the evolving ICT transformation in Sri Lanka. As the network for Sri Lankans, we always strive to create value innovation and bring latest technology, thus igniting our purpose to deliver to people what matters the most to them.” 

Moving on to the most recent efforts he has led in order to bring 5G and next generation technologies to the general public, Nalin added, “As the National Mobile Service Provider, we embarked on a US$100mn project in 2019 to boost broadband, which will be a launch pad to introduce 5G in the future. Towards launching 5G, we are in the process of re-assessing our resources and capabilities to ensure that we offer cutting edge technology such as 5G to our consumers without any hassle. Further, we have been at the forefront in bringing new technologies to Sri Lanka, which not only cater to the Mobile Telephony industry, but going beyond and expanding our services in sectors that operate in Digital Health, Enterprise Business Solutions, Mobile Money, Value added services and so on. Sri Lanka was the first country in the South Asian region to introduce 3G, 3.5G (HSDPA), 3.75G (HSUPA). Despite substantial macroeconomic challenges, Mobitel was able to post profits worth of Rs. 3.9 billion last year. Up until 2018, Mobitel has invested in excess of US$600mn over a 25-year history and will continue to strengthen key offerings such as broadband, digital services and other core services to deliver an unparalleled experience to all our valued stakeholders.” 

Of his vision for Mobitel, the CEO stated, “My vision, together with the leadership of Mobitel, is evident in the company’s strong commitment to the Sri Lankan market by way of the US$100mn investment drive to further expand broadband as data network is picking up country-wide, eventually covering 98 percent of the population. In 2020, we will invest another US$25mn to improve the data network, which is a fast-growing area and has become the key profit driver for every telecommunication company worldwide. The US$100mn project has expanded the internet to rural areas and also strengthened the quality and capacity in urban areas. With these investments, I hope to spearhead the Telecommunication industry through a paradigm shift, powering the next phase of the digital revolution to lead Sri Lanka towards an info-com and knowledge-rich society.” 

On the topic of Mobitel’s greatest strength, Nalin commented, “Mobitel’s strategy of countering fierce competition has always been focused on customer centricity and is its greatest strength. With our strong management and staff who are well experienced and committed to working as a team, we have been able to overcome numerous challenges both internally and externally. We are a company that puts customers at the heart of our business and by following this philosophy we have not only changed the game for the Telecommunication industry by innovating new products and services to match the rapidly evolving customer needs, but also brought glory to Sri Lanka by standing tall in the international arena. Being the brand that is closer to Sri Lankans, Mobitel’s foremost goal is to provide exceptional customer experience, which has resulted in Mobitel being the most loved mobile brand in Sri Lanka. Further, we see consolidation in the Sri Lankan Mobile industry, making it less crowded and negating competitiveness to a certain extent. As the Mobile industry becomes more saturated, our core focus is to offer supreme customer experience by challenging the status quo, which enables us to come up with ground-breaking innovations. Whilst the Mobile industry walks through the fourth industrial revolution, we see an immense potential for data, which is going to be the primary driver of growth in the future, and we are exploring every opportunity to offer a supreme broadband experience to all Sri Lankans so that they can explore more, enjoy more and experience first-class broadband service. Another salient contributory factor for Mobitel’s robust growth and expansion is the unwavering support from its parent group – SLT.”

The ongoing industrial and digital revolutions hold much in store for the Telecommunication industry as Nalin detailed, “Mobitel is aware that digital services will grow to be a significant source of income in the future and the necessary infrastructure is already being put in place. When broadband achieves its full potential, it will be a platform upon which digital services can flourish. Over the past few years, both local and global operator revenue composition has changed considerably. Growth in broadband revenue has been significant. Data subscriptions started to grow significantly with the introduction of smartphones and faster data networks, and global mobile subscriptions were initially dominated by Mobile Cellular (voice only) subscriptions. The opportunity unearthed by the mobile broadband era means that increasingly large sections of society already have access to a broad range of new services and applications; and that the growth in smartphone adoption and widespread data connectivity has democratized access to digital services across the world. This trend will accelerate in the coming years. Once available, 5G is expected to create significant business opportunities for telecom companies, helping them gain revenue in the fixed broadband market and other business-to-business (B2B) related digital service opportunities such as smart cities and Internet of Things (IoT). Mobitel has made great strides in recent years to expand its influence in the IoT and IIoT technologies in Sri Lanka, investing heavily in bringing in advanced technologies to benefit Sri Lankans.

The increasing demand for smart devices results in the growing number of IoT applications. A mobile phone serves as the bridge between intelligent systems and people, while an application is the main tool for managing connected devices. IoT is going mainstream in many sectors, from healthcare and education to manufacturing and transportation. App development for wearables is the most booming area as of now, with the main representatives being applications for smartwatches, fitbits, smart columns and home assistants.   

Developers have also started investing actively in cloud-driven apps, thus creating the mobile cloud era. Applications that integrate advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, IoT, etc., are usually big-sized and require a lot of storage in the mobile device internal memory. But a gigabyte app is not a preferable solution for users. Online shopping is also among the top trends in mobile technology. Currently, e-commerce is one of the most rapidly developing markets. More customers prefer online shopping to its traditional alternative of going to physical stores. Customers are now used to making payments online via internet banking or credit cards.” 

Questioned about his opinion on the current status of the Telecommunication industry in Sri Lanka, Nalin replied, “The Telecommunication Regulatory Council of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) is committed to promote sustained development in the Telecommunication industry by shaping the regulatory process, protecting public interest and being responsive to challenges in an increasingly competitive market. The industry has been able to grow largely due to the strong support extended by TRCSL to mobile operators to come up with ground-breaking products, which are not only beneficial to consumers but can also help Sri Lanka move towards becoming a digitally empowered country. As the mobile becomes the ultimate source of information consumption along with the pragmatism of cryptocurrency, block chain, IOT and bitcoin, the Telecommunication industry will play a key role in connecting businesses and helping them identify new trends and meet stakeholder expectations. 

With 5G on the horizon, the Telecommunication industry will play a pivotal role in empowering firms to reach more customers with fewer resources and less manpower, driving businesses all over the world to get connected. Technologies such as video conferencing, broadcasting and interactive television, instant messaging, email, distributed electronic collaboration, as well as a range of web and internet-based communications and data transmissions will allow businesses to be propelled ahead by taking big leaps in the digital space whilst driving them towards sustainable profit and business achievements.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly impacted lives and livelihoods all around the globe and Sri Lanka, where the lockdown caused most economic activities to come to a standstill, is no exception. While work from home is something western countries may have been adept at doing, in Sri Lanka, it was a learning curve for most businesses to set up a work from home system almost overnight. Service-oriented industries, especially, had to make the most haste for customers to be able to reach them.  However, we will all have to learn to live with the new normal. The introduction of e-learning and e-healthcare are some of the innovations by Mobitel, which will persist in the post-lockdown era.  

The impact on businesses has indeed been immense; some businesses have folded up while others are struggling to stay afloat. Only some companies have been able to respond with agility to assure customers of their support and make their services available without missing a beat. Honestly, no company could have prepared a contingency plan for a crisis of this magnitude. It is an unprecedented situation that we face today. 

The Sri Lankan economy was just about picking up in the early months of the year 2020 after feeling the effects of the Easter Sunday attacks last year. The growth in momentum was pointing towards stronger economic growth for the rest of 2020. Now that the lockdown has being eased, Sri Lanka needs to hit the ground running and be armed with an economic stimulus plan that will jumpstart the economy and set the nation on the path to recovery”, said Nalin expressing his views on the impact of the current pandemic on Sri Lanka and businesses.

“Further, I must also commend the prompt initiatives taken by the government that have helped to contain the situation and enabled Sri Lanka to experience normalcy within a short period of time. I also believe that the Telecommunication industry has a greater role to play in supporting the government’s initiatives by enabling different businesses to connect and move through this rough storm”, he went on to add. 

Describing how Mobitel responded to the crisis, Nalin explained, “When we realized the potential magnitude of the pandemic’s impact, we ensured that our business continuation unit was set and well prepared to face the situation. With a clear strategy and execution plan, we ensured that businesses remained connected and able to carry out their day to day activities in a hassle-free manner. For a telecom company, the lockdown and the resultant work from home directive led to an upsurge in demand for data, e-learning, e-healthcare, online payments and so on. Understanding the consumer difficulties, and aligning the products and services to suit their immediate needs was what we focused on in the initial stages of the pandemic. Our main concern has been to see that our customers remain connected and informed. By re-structuring certain operations, revamping products and innovating services, we made sure that we leveraged our services such as mCash to conduct financial transactions, eChannelling to facilitate doctor channeling and audio consultation, and mLearning platforms for students and professionals to carry out their tasks with greater convenience.  

As the National Mobile Service Provider, we have gone beyond our call of duty to facilitate the government’s initiatives. Our social media channels have been disseminating official COVID-19 messages from the World Health Organization (WHO), the Health Promotion Bureau, UNICEF, the Sri Lanka Army and Suwaseriya. Mobitel also shared these messages at its island wide touchpoints. We are also facilitating Online Education via mLearning, an ideal tool in the present work from home climate that allows schools, colleges and offices to connect to live, real-time virtual learning. MLearning live meetings are 100% interactive and can be accessed from any part of the island to ensure education can continue from home.

Mobitel facilitates working from home via specially designed plans for both enterprise and retail consumers   Health Advisory Services and Mobile Financial Services. Mobitel has customized solutions for SMEs and corporates, offering a host of services in response to these situations with confidence. Mobitel’s customer-centric DNA ensures we will keep adding value to our customers while rolling out advanced digital technologies to Sri Lanka to support the nation in the current crisis.”

I have taken the helm at Mobitel to strategically make the company fulfill its role as the National Mobile Service Provider, whilst igniting a spirit of technology-backed entrepreneurship to encourage business ideas that will enhance people’s lives and make a national level contribution. Mobitel has been active in expanding cloud-based services, IoT and IIoT technologies in Sri Lanka. We now offer the fastest broadband speeds in the country. Ookla® has declared Mobitel as the Speedtest Award Winner for the year 2019, successfully winning the award for all four quarters consecutively as the Fastest Mobile Network in Sri Lanka. Speedtest Awards are licensed to Internet Service Providers and mobile carriers around the world that are determined by Ookla® to be the fastest in their markets. My aim is to empower people from both rural and urban areas with the ability and knowhow to access latest technology that would help them to innovate new ideas, resulting in increased efficiency, productivity and re-engineering processes. 

In order to achieve this, we have partnered with startups, which are thriving today and will continue to seek out innovative ideas and concepts, and put them on the path to prosperity. In other words, I, together with my able team, aspire to transform the telecommunication sector by taking it beyond its call of duty and create something that will be of national value, and thus, take Sri Lanka to the next level. 
Mobitel envisions itself to be at the forefront of supporting the Government of Sri Lanka to achieve its Vision 2025, which underscores priority reforms to help the country become more prosperous and of which telecom, mobile services and digital services are key pillars. The greater development of digital technologies will also help Mobitel achieve its vision of bridging the digital divide”, stated Nalin, speaking of the legacy he hoped to leave.

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