Q: In your view, how can business weather the impact of the COVID- 19 crisis – and how should corpo- rates look to adapt their opera- tions going forward?
A: The first step businesses must take is accepting the fact that ‘normalcy’ as we once knew it no longer exists and as such, we must work under the conditions of the ‘new normal.’
It is essential that we stop thinking that the old normal will return.
Many businesses are struggling to accept the fact that this is how life will be going forward, regardless of whether the vaccines are successful or not. Work from home (WFH) will be part and parcel of the new nor- mal, and we must learn to adapt.
In my view, mega corporations will not actively pursue bricks and mortar buildings to house thousands of employ- ees in the future.
Instead, people are realising that having adequate cash in their business is of utmost importance and operating with very high leverage will be avoided. This is because many companies that previously had cash are now surviving whereas others are in serious debt.
We are presently experiencing one of the lowest interest regimes that Sri Lanka and the world at large have wit- nessed. If this was reversed, the challenges observed in the current scenario would be heightened.
The pandemic did not provide forewarning when it struck in full force in March last year and in addition to this, Sri Lanka did not anticipate the emergence of the aggressive second wave. Therefore, we must understand the conditions of the new normal and remain alert for changes.
Corporates that are ready to embrace change are cash rich and have diversified business interests helping them better survive the pandemic.
This is evidenced by many business survival stories in Sri Lanka and India.
Q: What is your opinion on the growing debate about the pros and cons of WFH?
A: In my view, it is not a debate any- more. It’s a given that people will WFH at least for some part of their office time. It is probable that businesses in the ser- vices sector will be working from home more and people become accustomed to this routine in time.
One of the difficulties workers may face with WFH is that being in a culture where we live in multi-family homes, they may not be able to find suitable working spaces and a quiet environment due to the atmosphere at home.
This is especially true for older Sri Lankan homes that have not been designed or built in the past to have ade- quate office space.
Over the past five years or so, architects have been incor- porating this feature in their designs frequently while con- struction often includes dedicated office space especially if there are two professionals living at home.
Going forward, it is anticipated that many new houses and apartment buildings will incorporate WFH offices and library spaces, rather than invest in large bricks and mortar structures. Presently, many new businesses are opting to operate from co-working spaces and these shared models are gaining momentum in Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately, due to distancing requirements, this is not an easy task. In the future however, we will see more shared space offices with better physical distancing mea- sures, WFH and remote working facilities. I am pro-WFH as this is eminently a vital part of the future of business.
Q: How would you assess prospects for the world economy going forward – especially in relation to how it affects Sri Lanka and businesses here?
A: The world economy has and always will turn around. We are yet to experience the likes of the Great Depression of the 1930s but certain parts of the world are in dire straits while others aren’t. Therefore, I am quite bullish about the global economy experiencing a turnaround, and this will be the time for the Asian economy to rise with India and China in the lead.
Moreover, Asian countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia will grow exponentially in the future as these economies have an ever expanding younger workforce. Asia is set to be the supplier to the rest of the world.
Europe and the US will continue to innovate, and devel- op new products. However, overall manufacturing will be led by nations in the East.
This is particularly evident in the pharmaceuticals indus- try with a major shift from the West to this part of the world. Most pharmaceuticals are now produced by coun- tries such as India, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
Overall, the world economy will bounce back although there is widespread unemployment due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19.
As such, world economies including Sri Lanka must treat the re-skilling of the workforce as a priority. A nation’s economy must not be overly dependent on one profession at any given time. When a crisis hits, workers must be able to switch to a line of work that is still productive.
Q: Which areas must be focussed on to promote economic growth?
A: In recent times, many have been citing the need to uplift agriculture and encourage more people to enter this sector. However, ‘talk’ alone will not suffice. This is why taking measures to re-skill the workforce is important.
Another aspect that can promote growth is channelling more funds into the development of technology in Sri Lanka as the country is trailing behind in this respect.
It is encouraging to see a renewed interest and pledge to com- mit funds to this segment of the economy – as going forward, the world will largely be technology dependent, and Sri Lanka must be on a par with Asia and its global counterparts.
In a nutshell, I’m certain that the economy is only going through a lull, and remain positive that much good will result from this season as many businesses and people are learning to do things differently.
Moreover, the world will be a cleaner place to live in as physi- cal waste will reduce since more processes are performed online.
Q: What is your assessment of Sunshine Holdings’ per- formance under existing macroeconomic conditions – and how does the group intend to move forward?
A: The group has been fortunate as its primary investments are in segments that are more resilient to COVID-19 challenges – viz. consumer businesses, pharmaceuticals, energy and planta- tions.
For example, Sunshine Holdings has been fortunate in terms of suppliers. Although most of our pharmaceuticals are imported, we did not experience major supply chain disruptions.
Sunshine Holdings is one of Sri Lanka’s long-established enti- ties. Over the years, much planning has been undertaken prior to any decisions being made especially in terms of business oppor- tunities and how best to diversify.
We always consider the resources at hand – this includes per- sonnel who know the business well, the training required and stakeholders who are thoroughly familiar with the business.
Going forward, while we’re quite conservative as a business, Sunshine Holdings will continue to seek new opportunities and leverage them.