The Billion Dollar Ideal Visionary – Nalin Welgama, Chairman of Ideal Group

Had he so wished, Nalin Jayaraj Welgama could well have cruised comfortably for life on the family road his father had cut, paved, and carpeted for him. But the beaten track of his illustrious sire was not the smooth path the fates had planned for him. Instead, it was the rugged road the intrepid perforce must tread to gain Fortune’s favor, and, triumphing vicissitudes, realize the lofty goals one has ambitiously set for oneself. An early exit from the family highway had to be made, a new untrodden route through unchartered territory had to be cut to reach the envisioned destination, destiny had ordained for him. The break came in the year 1986, on the threshold of turning thirty.

But first, a brief backgrounder. Born the youngest son of ‘King of the Road’ S. A. Welgama – the famed Kalutara philanthropist who had pioneered road haulage in Lanka – and Beatrice Welgama, Nalin had been schooled at S. Thomas College Mount Lavinia. Leaving college after his A’levels, he headed for England in September 1976 to pursue his higher studies. He would remain in Britain for eleven years. During this period, he would finish his university degree. He would, thereafter, join a firm of chartered accountants and complete his mandated articles. Earn his professional qualifications. Specialize in the field of auditing, taxation, and insolvency: And win, with his recognized mastery of this complex triad in accountancy’s field, the prized right to report directly to the firm’s senior partner whose confidence he would gain, to such an extent, that he would finally be tasked with the responsibility of managing the firm itself.

But that was not all that kept him busy. Something of the sire’s blood stirred in the scion’s veins. Amid rising career prospects, his thoughts turned to entrepreneurship. The chosen field to traverse bold lay in the family realm of automobiles. And by an amazing coincidence, his next-door neighbor in England, a fellow Sri Lankan, Gamini Vitharana, was, also, in the same line. 

In May 1986, they founded Ideal Plant & Vehicles Ltd in England. It was the first company he founded. A casual glance at an old Ideal Homes and Gardening magazine years ago had suggested the name Ideal, and the name had been etched on his mind ever since as the ideal name to baptize any company he would one day start. And the business of the new company: dealing in high-end cars.

He says: ‘Our idea was to export premium cars from the UK worldwide, particularly Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porches and so on. We sourced from European dealers right-hand drive cars and mainly brand-new cars from franchise-holders and then we exported to countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Africa – in short, throughout the right-hand drive world and also some to Sri Lanka at the time.’

The company took off. The business was brisk. And with optimistic projections dispelling initial doubts, he often contemplated settling down and making it good in England. But the seeds of his destiny had long been sown on home turf; and the call of its buds was blowing in the wind, summoning his return to bloom. It resounded in the far-flung fields of a foreign clime where he listened to its bidding and made haste to return home to Lanka to answer its summons. 

During this time, he received a letter from his father which said “Look – you have a daughter. I don’t want you raising your daughter in the UK. You should raise her here in Sri Lanka. You know, out of your two brothers, Nimal might move on and join the Upali Group and Kumar is now well into politics and there is no line of succession for S A Welgama. Son, you are my only choice. Please come back – please return.” That did it. The father’s moving letter finally nailed his decision to the mast. Little did the ‘returning prodigal’ know then that his decision to place filial duty above all else and work for the family firm would inexorably lead him to his meteoric rise, which would be the turning point. The year was 1996. He was thirty-nine.

‘’It involved some soul searching as I was very comfortable in London,’’ Nalin recalls, ‘’but then I realized that I couldn’t just brush aside my father’s request. I had a duty to the family business. So I took my dad’s advice and I returned to Sri Lanka. I thank him for his wisdom at the time. I have never looked back.’’ The stage was set for the curtain to lift on the most important phase of Nalin’s business life, a momentous time when his long-held vision began to crystallize. During this period, with one hand steering the family firm S.A Welgama and Sons Ltd, he embarked on his mission to conquer the automobile world of Lanka. 

As a first step toward laying the foundation upon which his Ideal Group of Companies would soon come to rest, he formed his first local company, Ideal Automotive Parts Ltd, and used it as his vehicle to make his bold foray into the very heart of Panchikawatte’s jealously protected spare parts business. He even dared to park it right in the hub on a prime property facing Sri Sangarajah Mawatha donated to him by his father. ‘’I thought to myself, ‘’ he says, reminiscing on his modest beginnings, ‘’that I must make use of this opportunity that came with the building, and I engaged some staff who were involved in the spare parts business. First I started selling Peugeot parts – genuine and ‘Original Equipment Manufacturer’ Peugeot parts.’’         

Nalin Welgama was now in business, amidst the throng of the spare parts market where it is said, all auto accessories meet. With his star in the ascendant, success flowed without stint or blush. But the stuff of ambition is not easily sated; and knows no boundaries but seeks to extend horizons no sooner one is reached. The frontier was extended further when, in 2005, he clinched the SsangYong Sri Lanka franchise to represent exclusively one of South Korea’s leading automobile manufacturers. He had now gained entry to another level; and being the accredited agent of a major automobile firm would stand him in good stead, and would prove to be a providential blessing, as the unfolding years would show, 

In 2009, the fates moved in mysterious ways to make Nalin keep his anointed rendezvous with destiny by turning a prospect, which had once seemed beyond even his infinite optimism to hold as tenable to realize, into sudden reality. India’s automobile giant Mahindra and Mahindra were searching for a new local dealer to stamp their brand’s global footprint on the Lankan terrain since their existing franchisee had virtually given up the ghost after a vain struggle to carve a niche in the market for the Mahindra brand. With the lucrative franchise up for grabs, soon an intermediary approached Nalin with the Mahindra calling card. 

The opportunity was knocking on Ideal Group’s door. The much-coveted franchise, hitherto thought betrothed, was now free of all contractual ties, the visitor disclosed; and said the quest to find a new suitor had now begun. And, after confiding these unsolicited tidings, he urged Nalin to make his pitch and lay claim to Mahindra’s business bonanza. 

Nalin duly reached out to Mahindra and Mahindra and he was invited to India to present his credentials and prove worthy of his claim. But he was not alone. In the battle arena, stood two Goliaths, two formidable heavyweights adorned with all the trappings of stock-listed blue-chip companies, whose reputations had preceded their early entrance. 

“Mahindra had shortlisted three firms and had invited its chairmen to India to make their presentation,’’ Nalin says, recounting the crucial acid test. ‘Apart from my Ideal Automobile Group, the other two were well-established companies, both quoted on the stock exchange and held to be in the blue-chip bracket. The chairmen of these two companies had gone ahead of me, I was the late arrival. We all had to face a decisive interview with Dr. Pavan Goenkar – now President of Mahindra’s Automotive and Farm Equipment sectors – and his team.”

To Nalin’s delightful surprise, competing as he was with two titans, he was declared the chosen one. David had beaten not one but two Goliaths. Recalling the defining moment, Nalin says: ‘’I was the dark horse. And I was, indeed, surprised they had chosen me. I asked Dr. Pavan Goenkar why he chose me. He said, ‘Look Nalin, I can see your vast depth of knowledge in the automobile industry spanning so many years from the time you were in England. So if I were to give this to you, I know that you would make a success of it because you would drive it yourself, whereas if I entrusted this to a blue-chip company, no matter how big, they, in turn, are going to entrust it to some CEO, and there they may not do a job as well as you would do. So that’s the reason why I’m choosing you”. 

The confidence reposed in him has proved to be well merited. In less than a decade, Nalin not only transformed the sleepy backwater agency into one commanding a roaring presence on the island but also developed the bonding between Mahindra and Ideal Group into a partnership of equals. Goenkan’s judgment had been spot on.

‘’Within ten years,’’ Nalin says with natural pride of his proven track record, ‘’I turned the fortunes of Mahindra from a sleepy zero percent of the market in Sri Lanka to one commanding approximately sixty percent of the market share. This is why they recognized me as more than a franchisee but as a partner. Thereafter they were willing to invest in Sri Lanka because of the unmatched quality of service provided by the Ideal Group. The turnaround from 0 to 60 percent in a short period so impressed them that it was feted by Anand Mahindra and his team, That’s when they decided that they would partner us in Sri Lanka in this joint venture to start a plant in Welipanna.’’

This fortuitous turn of events thrust Nalin’s Ideal Group into the automobile premier league. It triggered the expansion of the Group; brought in cricketing star Aravinda de Silva as an equal partner to the board, and eventually would make Nalin Welgama the master player in Lanka’s automotive world.

Today, from exporting premium cars to the world from London to selling genuine motor accessories in Panchikawatte’s spares hub, he has graduated not merely to the import and distribution of an impressive range of vehicles but also to the assembly of vehicles in Sri Lanka for both the local and global market with a joint investment of US$50 million. The ground-breaking event took place in August 2019 when the Ideal Group unveiled the biggest and most ambitious project it has undertaken to date. Together with India’s conglomerate, Mahindra and Mahindra, a new company was formed, namely, Mahindra Ideal Lanka Ltd., in which Ideal Group has a 65 percent stake. It commissioned the country’s first automotive assembly and production plant set in a 66-acre property in Nalin’s hometown, Welipanna, Kalutara. It is the first plant Mahindra has established outside of India. 

At the inauguration, the company rolled out its first product, the compact SUV KUV100, and announced plans to introduce new variants to the assembly line. The plant, which has already sold over a thousand cars, has a production capacity of 5000 units per year. It also locally produces four components, namely, batteries, tires, seats, and exhausts. The assembled vehicles also carry the ‘Built-in Sri Lanka’ tag. Furthermore, the Ideal Group, which has 20 companies under its umbrella and a combined work for over 1500 employees, has boldly ventured forth into the fields of real estate with an evolving portfolio and plans to set up an auto city in a 22-acre industrial park in Ratmalana. It has gone into the tire business with the acquisition of the Delhi-based Apollo Tyres franchise. It has also ventured into the finance world with the setting up of the Central Bank approved Ideal Finance Ltd. And that’s not all. In partnership with China’s tier 1 solar firms, it has established a foothold in the emerging renewable energy industry of solar power and imports solar panels and offers cutting-edge solar solutions. Its own carbon-neutral assembly plant’s solar tiled roof generates 750 kilowatts of energy.

It is this same forward-thinking that makes Nalin focus his sights on the emerging electric car (EV) market. He says: ‘As you know the world is evolving towards an EV platform and is slowly but surely abandoning the combustion engine. We are very mindful of this. It will be our biggest challenge. Presently there isn’t much demand locally, but when the present import restrictions are lifted, the franchisees will have to migrate from the combustion engine to EV for that is the inevitable future. In India, they will not allow any vehicle with a combustion engine to be registered after 2030. Same with the UK. So that’s the growth area, And we will meet the challenge. ‘’

So, what’s Nalin Welgama’s secret? What makes the man come up roses at every turn?

Standing atop his many achievements, he attributes the bonding with Mahindra and Mahindra as the singular cause of Ideal Group’s quantum leap in fortunes; and is humble enough to acknowledge Mahindra Chief Anand Mahindra as his mentor and guide whose sagacious business advice changed his outlook on life, the driving force that made him think ‘out of the box,’

“I have learned a lot from Mahindra because Sri Lankans think in a narrow space. It was he who taught me how to think differently. From him, I learned how to think out of the box and not to think we have only a market of 20 million people. Think global. I had global exposure in the UK, but then after coming here we work within the parameters of Sri Lanka. But his guidance has been very useful to me. It is that support, that vision he created that gave me the confidence to venture even into unchartered territory.’’

Today, son of the soil Nalin Welgama has come a long way from the grey suburbs of London, from the bustle of Panchikawatte’s congested spare market to rule from his newly built headquarters at Union Place in Colombo 2, an automotive empire that dominates the whole gamut of the vehicular business; and is within close range of realizing his vision to make his Ideal Group a billion-dollar conglomerate. But once he reaches his long-envisioned milestone, no doubt, he’ll be wondering how much further to move his ever-shifting goal post.

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