2021 will be a year of reinvention for all business ventures with “Entrepreneurship” becoming the buzzword when dealing with the new normality. In line with that, entrepreneurial instincts are encouraged more than ever before in history and media is filled with different discussions on the matter. The Entrepreneurial journey comprises many challenges and success is not as easy as portrayed by media. Turning one’s entrepreneurial dream into reality is considered the biggest challenge at the initial phase and having a “can-do” attitude is the key! There is no one formula for success and entrepreneurial journeys are full of ups and downs, challenges and opportunities.
When exploring successful entrepreneurs in the domestic context we met Mr. Suresh Dayanath de Mel who has clinched recognition in the international market as a pioneering manufacturer of signature, hand-tied fishing flies (artificial sportfishing bait).
Suresh has a diversified profile and counts over three decades of experience as an entrepreneur. He owns and operates Lanka Fishing Flies (Pvt) Ltd., and Sportfishing Lanka. He is also the Chairman of EcoWave (Gte) Ltd., a social enterprise that partners with 300-home gardens to process and export “Organic Certified”, Single Origin Spices to discerning customers around the world. Suresh also contributes to the development of entrepreneurship in the country by promoting Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building as the Head of the Global Entrepreneurship Network in Sri Lanka. He is actively involved in many business ventures in advisory and decision-making capacities. He also volunteers on various Committees, Government, non-Government, local and Global for Sustainable Development, Ecological Agriculture, Responsible Tourism, Skills Development, Labor Relations and Business for Peace. Currently, he is the Chairman & Chief Executive of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board (EDB) and engages in uplifting the export business of the country when international trading faces many challenges due to the global pandemic situation.
This multi-faceted entrepreneur is an agricultural and environmental engineer by profession a nature lover, a farmer who tries to apply modern technology for ecological farming, and a person who is passionately supporting the development of youth entrepreneurship and Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) development in the country.
His keen interest in developing local skills to cater to the global market helped him to develop a local business to gain recognition in the global market; producing arguably the world’s best, custom-designed, fishing flies which are exported worldwide under the brand Umpqua. Many local accolades won by him as an entrepreneur showcase the recognition he received for his commitment, and the contribution he has made in developing a successful, pioneering enterprise to cater to a high value, global niche market. For three decades, he has also been actively operating in and promoting aquatic recreation, sports fishing, scuba diving and leisure boating in Sri Lanka.
Q: How did you start your entrepreneurial journey?
A: Entrepreneurship is my passion, and my story goes back to the early ’80s when I met our American partner at a coffee shop and convinced him to start an industry to hand-tie fishing flies in Sri Lanka. In 1981 my father started Lanka Fishing Flies in my bedroom at home in Mirihana on a 51% ownership with American partners of the distribution Company Umpqua who owned 49%. During this time I was going to University in the USA and since then spent much time learning the sport of fly fishing and the business of selling fishing flies, by visiting numerous dealers, and attending Trade Fairs.
I graduated from CalPoly State University California in 1987 as an agricultural and environmental engineer. I returned to Sri Lanka in 1990 with the intention of developing Hi Tech Organic/Ecological Farming in the country. My 12-year stay in the USA also exposed me to the global explosion of the IT industry and I witnessed how fast things were changing with technology.
However, when I returned to Sri Lanka it was an era in which mitigating youth unrest was a priority. Terrorism in the North and the South had taken a heavy toll on the country’s economy. This is when I realized
that employing and empowering youth, especially in the regions, and earning foreign exchange for the country were the key needs of the day.
Therefore, I took steps to expand the cottage industry that my father was operating manufacturing fishing flies in Mirihana, by setting up a factory in Tangalle. The Hambantota District was considered a “most difficult, post-conflict area” in 1990 and operating an export industry in Tangalle was quite a challenge and unheard of at the time. Travel time from Mirihana to Tangalle was over 6-hours one-way, with lots of traffic and poor road conditions. Today it takes only two hours on the Southern Expressway.
Soon after setting up in Tangalle, I was invited for a meeting by a group of businesspeople in Hambantota. Subsequently, I was involved with them to form the first District Level Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka, in Hambantota. Within ten years we inspired the formation of over twenty Regional Chambers of Commerce around the country. In 2002 we spearheaded the formation of the Business for Peace Alliance (BPA) which was a network of Regional Chambers of Commerce for National Unity – Conflict Transformation, Reconciliation, Regional Empowerment and Corporate Social Responsibility. For ten years and through the end of the Northern conflict, the BPA was very dynamic and hosted many events and projects to build peace, educate youth on entrepreneurship and create a Bottom-up Platform and Voice for Regional SME’s.
Q: How would you like to describe entrepreneurship?
A: You may find many definitions in textbooks related to “Entrepreneurship”. However, I believe an entrepreneur is a person who should find new ways of doing business, a person who takes risks and offers a solution for a need in society, a person who comes up with a sustainable business model instead of following donor funding or Government support. Most importantly, an entrepreneur is a person who brings people together who can add value to the business.
Q: Who inspired you to become an entrepreneur without seeking employment soon after graduating? Any family background?
A: I believe I inherited this from my family. My father was a Mechanical and Industrial Engineer by profession but ran industries and agricultural ventures on the side, and my mother played a major role in managing these businesses. My maternal Grandfather was a Surgeon but oversaw the running of his coconut estates and poultry farm. My maternal Grandmother was the businesswoman who kept track of sales and marketing. My paternal Grandfather ran various businesses including a Theatre while helping my grandmother who was a leading caterer at that time. As a child, I observed how they managed their income, kept books, managed human resources, and most importantly how they made their investment decisions. All these things shaped my approach towards entrepreneurship.
I especially need to highlight the fact that after graduating from the USA as an engineer, my parents never pushed me to engage in a routine job as an engineer. They allowed me to follow my passions and find my own roots to develop myself. This kind of support is rare nowadays.
Q: Do you believe there is a winning formula for becoming a successful entrepreneur? What is yours?
A: I don’t believe in one universal winning formula which applies to all. However, I do believe that you need to love what you do. To become a successful entrepreneur, it is vital to study the market and to be updated with information on consumer behaviour. Also, financial literacy and living within your means, knowledge on technological advancements and changing demographics, managing human resources, good customer relations and a focus on quality products will undoubtedly help in reaching the pinnacle of business success. These have been my priorities.
Q: What was the toughest moment you have experienced in your business practice? How did you succeed in overcoming it and moving forward?
A: The initial phase of the business was tough. I spent many sleepless nights. My father passed away no sooner I had taken over the business. I was still learning the production side of the business. At the same time, our manager started his own business venture targeting our customer base.
He also took with him half of the trained and skilled workforce. These were some of the best fly tyers in the world. So, I had to negotiate with him and my American partner, to buy his product and to make sure that we continued to produce the highest quality fishing flies and maintained Sri Lanka’s reputation as being the country producing the highest quality fishing flies in the world. I am happy to say that we have managed to maintain Sri Lanka’s superiority in the market for the entire 40-years we have been in business.
This tough experience taught me that in a profit-making business, competition is unavoidable, but the way you respond to the competition will decide the sustainability of your business. They say that “the best way to conquer your enemy is to make him your friend”. This is a lesson I will always treasure myself and teach to all entrepreneurs I mentor.
Q: Considering the fierce competition in today’s business world, how would you highlight your company’s competitive advantages? What makes it stand out?
A: Competitive advantage of my business is the “zero reject” product quality which my father inculcated in the staff from day one, which I have never compromised on since. I always focus on the highest quality possible for my product. I strongly believe that high-quality products are sought after by discerning customers who will pay a premium price. And my experience has been that a high-quality product ensures customer loyalty and sustainable business.
“in a profit-making business, competition is unavoidable, but the way you respond to the competition will decide the sustainability of your business.”
The relationships you maintain with your customers are vital in developing your business. When you have a good rapport with your customers, they share their views on ways to improve the product. I know many of my buyers across the world personally, by meeting them at annual trade fairs etc., and the loyalty gained from those relationships have always helped me to face fierce competition in the international market.
Q: How would you scale the advantages and disadvantages of being an entrepreneur?
Being a person who is passionate about entrepreneurship, I never see disadvantages in it. Entrepreneurship helps me to explore, to be innovative, to accept challenges, and take risks that are hard to take in routine employment. Having begun my career as a trainee engineer and working in the USA for a leading engineering company for ten years before starting my entrepreneurial journey in Sri Lanka, I feel blessed that I have experienced the best of both worlds. Now I have an opportunity to be a legitimate mentor for entrepreneurs.
Q: What advice would you give to someone starting out?
A: Based on the wealth of experience gathered over a period of three decades, I would like to share a few insights for young entrepreneurs to focus on.
It is important to focus on producing a high-quality product without focusing on profit alone. If you produce a high-quality product, you will find high-quality customers who will pay you a premium price and be loyal to you. Also, be innovative, offer solutions for market needs, differentiate your product, and avoid copying and infringing on others intellectual property. Formalize your startup before you start to scale up. It is very difficult to formalize after being informal for too long. It is vital to be techno-savvy which is the driving force in today’s business world. Finally, fluency in the English language will open many avenues for the business to grow especially if you’re thinking of operating across borders.
Q: How do you manage today’s buzz phrase “Engaging millennials at work”?
A: I accept the fact that engaging and retaining employees is a challenging task in today’s context. As a country, we have a diversified workforce who are different in their work behaviours, attitudes and demands.
I have experienced this by working with employees who represent different parts of the country; Colombo, Rathnapura, Tangalla, and Buttala. Each of these employee segments is different from one another.
I always believe that making the workplace a happy place is the best possible ploy one can use to retain employees. The new generation does not look for a “job for life,” rather they seek employment that identifies their strengths and skills and provides freedom for them to grow.
Therefore, I take an extra effort to engage with them beyond the routine employment, and I rarely miss out on an invitation received from them for a social event.
Q: How do you practice social entrepreneurship?
I strongly believe that as responsible citizens of a country we need to ensure that we actively engage in creating a positive change in society. It needs to be part of the DNA of our business. Also, it needs to go beyond gaining mere popularity and fascination.
At “EcoWave (Gte) Ltd” we promote organic certified spices, herbs and traditional rice, helping smallholder farmers by processing their spices for export. We also promote eco-tourism through “Ecowave Travels” which is a social venture committed to promoting responsible and sustainable tourism specially focused on agro-eco-tourism.
My involvement as the Chairman of “Navajeevana Rehabilitation Tangalla” which is a Center of Excellence for Rehabilitation of people with Special Needs is a socially responsible endevor. This is an amazing project that was started by my late Aunt Kumi Wickramasuriya in 1987, that has served over 60,000 people with special needs in the South, East and North of Sri Lanka.
Also, my recent engagement as a member of the “Ath Pavura” reality TV program helped social entrepreneurs to pitch their business ideas to the investor panel hosted in the program and gain investment support for the businesses to grow financially while providing a positive impact towards society.
Q: As a country are we properly investing in entrepreneurship development? How does our policy framework need to change to compete in the global market?
Any business operation is bound by the policy framework of the country. However, relaxing certain entry barriers are mandatory if we are to develop entrepreneurship in Sri Lanka.
Policy frameworks need to focus more on developing an entrepreneurial mindset in people – especially the youth. Reduce hand-outs and educate youth to be self-reliant. Financial literacy for budding entrepreneurs is paramount.
“Youth engagement and ownership” is important in developing policy for entrepreneurship. Policy makers also need to provide enough space for successful entrepreneurs to engage in policy making for entrepreneurship.
I’m of the view that as a society we often fail to attract youth for developing entrepreneurship and overlook the positive contribution they can make to society. Simply, we fail to provide a platform and space in which they can participate.
Therefore, our policy framework needs to be reviewed and redesigned to attract youth into entrepreneurship and make this beautiful island’s economy more sustainable – inclusive and equitable.