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Sunday, 28 September 2008

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Challenges are blessings in disguise: Team work is hallmark

You are a graduate of Biology. What is the reason for you to switch from science over to textile industry?

Though I'm a graduate of Biology, I couldn't find a proper job in that particular field. Instead of being idle at home, with a degree, I thought of engaging in something which would interest me and at the same time earn money. So, I started modelling after I returned to Sri Lanka. I've been a ramp model for about four years and did many commercials as well. My passion for Science deviated towards textile industry. Because I was always with clothes when I was modelling. I was very much interested in latest fashion trends. Being a model I'd developed a good eye to find suitable fashions and that motivativated me to start a textile business on my own.

Otara Gunewardene, the CEO of ODEL. She is a Bsc. (Bio Science) holder of the University of Bowling Green, Ohio, USA.

Another reason to enter into textile industry is that there was a big trend for that by the time I decided to embark on my enterprise.

Could you explain about the initial stage of your business?

At the beginning I used to purchase clothes from factories and sell to other shops, my friends and family. After a little time I started a shop on my own in a small scale at the Dickman's Road, Colombo. I named it ODEL. That became gradually popular so that I decided to expand my business. Later I opened up branches at Majestic City, Liberty Plaza and hotels such as Trans Asia. There were altogether 9 branches then.

At present we have an expanded business. We recently opened a branch at Kohuwala. We also have our stalls at the Air Port and Crescat. We have about 500 workers and 1,000 suppliers, locally and internationally.

When it comes to merchandising, do you have certain systematic approaches because ODEL has unique creations?

We have a particular set of suppliers. We don't buy from whoever is willing to supply garments for us. Our suppliers should fulfil our requirements and if they're upto a good standards we are never hesitant to purchase from them. We always keep ourselves updated with the latest fashion trends in the world. The 'uniqueness' of clothes is a major aspect we take into consideration, however cheap or expensive the dress may be.

Have you employed fashion designers?

We do have some fashion designers in house. But we hire the service from

fashion designers for some of our product ranges but not for everything.

Where do you import clothes from?

From all over Asia and Europe.

Do you have any plans to improve the business further?

We hope to expand the number of showrooms in future and arrangements are in hand for the expansion process. There're a lot of arenas in the textile industry that we have to explore.

Is this a multinational company? Do you have any branches overseas?

ODEL is not a multinational company. We're looking for opportunities of setting up our business overseas. The discussions are already under way with the prospective partners. Identifying the prospective partner is hard because we cannot keep faith in whoever comes to help us. It's not at all an easy task.

What do you mean by prospective partners?

The first thing that we have to look into is the citizenship of the partner of that particular country where we're going to set up our business. The partner should have thorough knowledge of the garment industry in that particular country as well as in Sri Lanka. He should also be interested in starting business in the respective field, with a sound comprehension of the business. That is very important because then we would be able to make sure that he would not leave the business midway. The partner is highly required to be trustworthy and faithful.

Mostly in Sri Lanka, the business arena is male dominant. It's very rare to see a woman who is holding a big position. Does the gender play a major role in business?

I think today a great number of women are involved in business unlike in the past. I do not see the business field is dominated by only males. It may be the majority. But it is not at all a discouraging fact for a woman to hold responsible positions. We have many examples for women of that nature. Many women have held positions like President, Prime Minister, Ministers. Gender plays no role in business or if a woman considers it as a negative aspect, she would hardly be able to come up or compete. I have never taken my gender into consideration when it comes to business.

It may be a bit hard to act 100% in shoulders with men, forgetting the gender with conservative attitudes of people in a developing country like Sri Lanka. But I must mention that today's women are very much straightforward and are capable of working on par with men.

What are the qualities a business woman should have in order to meet with challenges...... I mean women are more emotional naturally......?

I think women in high seats are tougher than men. There're also hard workers who are determined to achieve what they need. Aggressiveness and hard work help her to have competitive edge over others.

A business woman is somewhat different from that of an ordinary house wife. She should be well educated and knowledgable, Savoir-Faire plays a vital role in decision makings.

Despite the fact that women are emotional by birth, they should be able to handle situations carefully.

If she fails in an endeavour, sitting and crying would never put things right. It would waste the precious time that could be utilised to find solutions to the detriment incurred, in order to avoid repeating the same mistake.

Challenges are inevitable in business. Specially for a woman...... How do you assess the challenges that you have faced?

I agree with the fact that challenges are unavoidable if you're in business. If the situations are well managed, damage could be comparatively less.

In my case, I have never been discouraged by challenges. I enjoy what I do. Therefore I'm ready to accept whatever repercussion of the thing that I love to do. If there's no challenge, it's quite boring to engage in that particular work. I like taking up challenges because they teach us how to move forward. I consider them as blessing in disguise.

What do you think are the qualities of a good leader?

Leadership ability depends on how well a person can lead others and how good you treat people. A leader should have distinguished qualities out of the rest and should excel in handling situations better.

The leader should have the right attitude. The leader should be influential and should be able to make others believe in what he does. He/she should also keep faith in the team work and should be able to give a good hearing to the problems of the subordinates.

The leader should have a sense of understanding of the necessities of people of the team.

The quality of appreciating the efforts of the team plays a major role when it comes to motivating the staff. A hearty appreciation could be a good motivator when the work flows in a conditions of apathy. Understanding each one's capability and assigning particular tasks according to that would minimise clash of work and interest.

What do you think is the best form of leadership between autocracy and democracy?

We cannot explicitly agree with any type of leadership whether it be an absolute autocrat or absolutely cathartic leader. It vastly depends on the business you're engaged in.

Some situations require a leader to be autocratic while some require him to be more emotional. Under ordinary day-to-day circumstances, a leadership in between those extremes would be appropriate.

Communication is a major aspect in any business. If the communication fails, there would certainly be failures in business. How do you communicate with your employees and customers?

There are different teams in this organisation, with respective heads of department. They're pragmatic and responsible. Therefore there's no need for me to go and talk to each and everyone and I do not find time to do that. The heads of departments attend to the grievances, grumbles or complaints of the employees and any message would be communicated through them.

When it comes to decision making, do you it on your own or consult others?

At the very beginning of the business, I often made decisions on my own, with the occasional assistance of my friends and family.

At some demanding and crucial situations, I made decisions on my own. Although now I have an expanded, highly credible and responsible team, I always voice my idea to them and they would come out with theirs to blend and bring out the most suitable decision.

Heads of department render a great assistance in decision making. It's not always advisable to make decision on one's own. Decision making requires team effort. As I mentioned, variety of ideas would help to pick up the best out of the pool of ideas.

Does 'attitude' of the owner of the business always play a major role in a successful business?

Yes, it does in a great deal. Right attitude is the key component behind any successful business. Correct mentality and the passion for the task you do, would undoubtedly drive you towards success.

Not merely the owner's attitude, the attitude of those who work too matters a lot. The negative attitudes of workers such as "I'm just working for some one, this is not my business., why should I dedicate to this job......" would hinder the productivity of the whole organisation which indirectly affect in a bad way to the particular worker as well. When the business runs well, everyone in the business will be rewarded and vice versa.

As a busy business woman, do you find yourself overwhelmed by work?

Though I'm busy, I'm not overwhelmed by work. I always keep a balance between my personal life and business. I give priority to my family. Since I rely on my working team I can be away from business. I do not have to be in constant touch with the business operations. Even in my absence, my team makes sure that nothing goes wrong.

I go on vacations and spend quality time with my family. I watch movies, engage in recreational work. And do exercise on a regular basis to keep myself fit.

Why is 'staying fit' important for a business person?

It's important for everyone. Especially the business person should be healthy and should have a sound physical stamina with mental endurance to meet with constant challenges. And other aspect is that, if the owner of the company looks pale and weak, the customer has a bad impression on the company, however good the company is. Therefore a pleasant appearance of the owner of the business would help developing a good impression of the organisation.

What's your message for those who are aspiring to become business leaders?

Basically, believe what you can do. It's important to have goals in life so that you can tread in a particular direction without being stranded. That's why having a goal and striving to achieve it will help keep track on where exactly you're heading.

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