Personality Plus - Otara Chandiram : A trend-setter




Fact File
Name : Otara Chandiram
School Attended : Ladies College
Children : Two sons
Present Position : Managing Director ODEL

Paying heed to the smallest of details, personal involvement in every aspect of the business from arranging racks to taking major decisions, determination, commitment, modesty and humbleness are the keys to success for Otara Chandiram, Managing Director of ODEL.


Chandiram was educated upto Advanced Level at Ladies College, Colombo and went to the United States for her higher studies. She came back to Sri Lanka, armed with a Degree in Biology from the State University of Bowlingreen, Ohio.


Though she was a graduate in Biology, she started off as a fashion model and continued in this capacity for three to four years. "This is the time I got interested in fashion and fashion design.

"By the time I came back from USA, my father had formed the company and registered it under the name ODEL. He had decided on the name by coining my first and second names. The logo, which is very distinct, was designed by a friend. The name too projects a strong identity," she said.

"My father had registered the company and even got me a hair care agency from Australia because he did not know what I could do with a degree in Biology."

She sold hair care products for a while before venturing out to selling garments. "Moving to garments too was coincidental," she said. One of her friends had a garment factory. She gave the garments to Chandiram who in turn started selling them to friends and acquaintances and after a while started selling to shops as well. "The business was carried out from the boot of my car," said Ms Chandiram.

As there was a demand for her garments, she rented a place at Dickmans Road in 1989. "It was about 300-400 square feet and I even painted the walls myself. As it was difficult to do everything by myself, I hired two sales persons who are still working with us."

As time went by, she had to use the next floor too and they were expanding before they knew it. Around this time, shopping malls such as Liberty Plaza and Majestic City were coming up and "I thought it was a good way to spread our wings".

"During the period from 1993 to 1996, ODEL had a chain of retail outlets at Liberty Plaza, Majestic City and in hotels such as Trans Asia and Mount Lavinia. This was the time people started getting to know the name as well as like the goods sold at ODEL."

1996 saw another page turn in the history of ODEL with the birth of ODEL Unlimited, spanning across 13,000 square feet, at Ward Place. "It was a stepping stone for us as well as for our country," said Ms Chandiram. It created a revolution in the retail fashion industry in Sri Lanka and the way people looked at retail shopping. Two years went by with new additions and they decided to purchase the rear building too.

"It was very tiring. My son was born around the same time the building was taken over and everything just happened together. But the entire team worked so hard. My staff members are dedicated. They have been painters, electricians and carpenters when the need arose and they were so keen and eager which gave us the extra determination to succeed," said Ms Chandiram.

Today ODEL Unlimited, housed in a 35,000 square foot property, offers customers everything under one roof, making shopping a pleasurable experience.

"Everything sold at ODEL Unlimited is what I like and what, I feel, the customer should have and will want to have. Style is what people like in us. I do not sell anything which I do not like. As we always try to cater to all needs, product pricing can vary. Most of our products are sourced from international fashion houses such as Gucci, Calvin Klein and Kenzo and give the customer a choice."


"ODEL wants to be a leader in fashion, change with the times, and keep up with the trends, but our products must suit Sri Lankan tastes and the local climate," she added.


The Dickmans Road outlet now specialises in household items while ODEL Unlimited at Ward Place sells clothes, accessories, jewellery, watches, shoes, plants, home items, books, gadgets, hand-made soaps and aromatherapy oils, environmental-friendly products, and music in addition to exquisite accessories and costume jewellery and a range of designer bags.The newly expanded ODEL Kids houses an adventure play area and a salon in addition to a range of outfits for children.


"I started with two people, but have a fairly large, dedicated and hard working staff today. We at ODEL believe in rewarding our staff as it is essential to keep them happy as they are the people who portray the ODEL image to the customer."

Customer Care

The ODEL staff makes the difference by caring for customers and treating them as kings. "Continuous training and regular feedbacks from customers help our staff to care for customers as we strongly believe in caring for our customers. This is the hardest part of the business."

Caring for the environment

An environment lover, Chandiram has been involved with projects to care for the environment. "I did not expect it to be what it is today but it is good. We will continue this work as and when we can and do as much as we can," she said. Chandiram said that as a child, her dream was to live in the jungles and do a research project on leopards or elephants.


She has won many awards including the Entrepreneur of the Year 2001, the seventh Zonta Woman of Achievement Award for 'Outstanding Achievement', the SAARC Woman of Achievement award and the TOYP Award. There have been rave reviews on her in international media.


She said: "We will go overseas in the near future after a few more local expansions. Retail is about keeping up and improving on what we have. We do have a lot of ideas and plan to continuously improve, build and expand the brand.

"There are a lot of requests to protect the brand locally as well as internationally due to the presence of fakes. It is difficult and flattering at the same time because we have been able to build this powerful brand from nothing."


"I am very lucky to have a successful business and a happy family. My family is my strength and support. It includes my husband Raju and kids Kiran and Rakhil as well as my parents Norman and Delysia and two brothers," said a grateful Ms Chandiram. 

SO Nov 17 2002


Personality of the week - Otara Chandiram

by Ilika Karunaratne







The first time I met Otara Chandiram, she was Queen of the Sri Lankan catwalk and unmarried. But she had already completed a degree in Biology in the U.S., done a part time modelling course and worked in the U.S. as a model for a while. Today, she is widely acclaimed as the "face" and success story of the nineties. But, it was refreshing to find that her meteoric rise to fame and fortune has not changed her. She still remains unspoilt, sweet and simple; with a shy smile and look, reminiscent of Princess Diana.

I chatted to Otrara in her prized domains Odel Unlimited; to find out about her work, her recipe for success and how she copes with being career woman and mother. I was interested in knowing how the name 'Odel' was chosen. I thought it was a combination of the 'O' from her name and her mother's name, Delisha. "It is a combination of both my names. My second name is Del. My parents told me that as they had a hard task finding the name, Otara, they decided on an easy second name - Del."

Otara then got married and found her ideal business partner, is husband Raju. "Today, we divide our work and our responsibilities to promote my vision." The idea to start Odel unlimited, a one-stop shop for the entire family was a joint one. It is housed in a mansion, which appealed to them both. Built in 1860, It has old world Colonial charm with Wooden floors, 'Mal lali' etc. Otara and Raju were quick spot the aesthetics and determined to retain its charm, while converting it into a super store with modern conveniences. "I realized that fashion and a retail industry was an experience one sells. Its not only clothes; one sells a lifestyle too. So this was our vision. Like the pillars that hold the roof of my store, I too, built my business on 5 pillars. Customer satisfaction through staff training; efficiency; effective and tasteful display of merchandise, smart intelligent style." Does Otara endeavour to keep in touch with world fashion or cater to local tastes? "A mixture of both. I keep in touch with fashion trends in the world, by visiting Paris, New York, London etc and also do market research here. In Odel unlimited we have new things in all the time, ones that are slow sellers are reduced and sent to Odels at Dickmans Road." I noticed that Odel staff look happy, are eager to help and please the customer, which is rare in our country. They all look young, and cheerful. "We do realize that one has to have a happy and contented staff to run a successful business, so we try to look after them. Raju looks after the staff and the administrative side, and I do the fashions."

In spite of our "annus horribilis" from 2000-2001, Odels continued to flourish, which says a lot for the couple running it. Their relationship with their store is obviously a marriage made in heaven!

How does Otara cope with being the mother of two sons aged two and eight and running a business? "It is difficult but as we work together, we can schedule our time to include our children and my parents are very supportive too. We keep our business trips abroad short. Although they are a must to see what happens in the fashion world. We now export to the Middle East and to the UK."

From its inception, Odel has been generous in its contributions to the environment and to wild life.

They have cleaned beaches and Galle face and planted trees in an effort to make Sri Lanka greener."We always contribute to any effort to beautify Colombo. We have worked closely with the Colombo municipality and maintain some roundabouts."I recall some Christmases spent in London in my youth, when we would rush to see the theme and colours used in Oxford st. and Regent st. Here, in Sri Lanka, we all wait for the theme each X'mas for decorations by Odel Unlimited, who give the initiative for both their store and the street outside.

Odel Unlimited is undoubtedly a new concept in shopping; offering clothes for the entire family, books, gifts, home ware, tea, jewellery all under one spectacular roof. Otara's latest innovative idea is the formation of an Odels Kids Club - a children's activity group with the focus on environment.

For one so young and well on the right side of forty, Otara has many achievements to her credit: SAARC Women of Asia in 2000, most outstanding young person in 2000 (Jaycees), Entrepreneur of the year in 2001 and Zonta award for women of achievement in 2002.

She has succeeded in bringing the world's fashions to Sri Lankans and made a name for Sri Lankan fashions in the world.

One sees in Otara, a glamorous, young woman, confident, articulate, and coolly independent. A woman admired for both her power and her personality. A woman, who in that ubiquitous phrase of the eighties, is a woman who has it all. But who in spite of rising like a shooting star, has her head on her shoulders and her heart in the right place.

There in lies the secret of her success.

DN Oct 26 2002

Success through contrasting spheres
Otara Gunewardene

By Risidra Mendis

She is an animal lover who someday wanted to be a veterinary surgeon and treat sick and wounded animals. During her youth she kept thinking of the future and her role as a veterinary surgeon — helping and saving the lives of many innocent animals. However her plans to become a veterinary surgeon changed somewhere down the line and she ended up as a successful businesswoman.

Odel Unlimited CEO, Otara Gunewardene is synonymous with fashion, designer wear, modelling and elegance. She has succeeded in becoming one of the most successful businesswomen in Sri Lanka while her shop Odel is frequented by both locals and foreigners.

Having started Odel on a small scale many years ago, Gunewardene has today succeeded in expanding her outlets and its products to meet the growing demands of customers.

But despite her passion to further develop her business she has not forgotten the love she had for animals from her young days. Despite her busy schedule of running a successful business Gunewardene has found the time to help out with animal welfare activities while working with animal rights groups. A special section at Odel is dedicated to animals and animal lovers, selling products with the ‘Embark’ trade mark and the profits from the sales of these products are utilised for animal welfare.

For her contribution toward bettering the lives of animals through Embark, Gunewardene was appointed ambassador for Sri Lanka for World Animal Day 2008.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader she said from the time she was two or three years old she could remember having many animals in her home. "We had guinea pigs, birds, rabbits, ducks and of course dogs. I was interested in wildlife and even worked at the zoo as a volunteer at the age of 15 for two years. My job was to handle the pets at the pet corner for children," she said.

Change of plans

Commenting on her earlier plans to be a veterinary surgeon Gunewardene said she went to the US and obtained a degree in biology. "While studying for my degree I modelled in the US for six months. When I returned to Sri Lanka I continued with modelling and at the same time started my own business. But as the business developed I realised that I couldn’t handle modelling and the business. So I gave up modelling and continued to develop the business," she explained.

From the day Odel was opened 11 years ago Gunewardene had a counter where T-shirts on wildlife were sold. All proceeds from those sales went to the Wildlife Trust Fund. "I was also involved in environment protection programmes such as beach clean ups, projects concerning leopards and the Bundala National Park cleaning programme where weeds were removed among other activities," she said.

Explaining the purpose of Embark Gunewardene said it was better to stay focused on one project and improve that instead of getting involved in many projects at the same time and losing focus.

The launch

Embark was launched in March 2007 and has worked with the community in helping to curb the threat of rabies and the ever increasing stray dog population in the country.

Embark believes that the only way to reduce cruelty faced by stray dogs is by controlling the growth of their population. Embark has so far conducted four sterilisation campaigns for stray and community dogs and has managed to spay and neuter 1350 stray dogs within Colombo. The standards of these mobile clinics are in line with the World Health Organisation’s protocols through which the method used — CNVR — Catch, Neuter, Vaccinate, Release is approved, she explained.

These campaigns are made possible through sales of Embark merchandise at Odel stores. Embark that started on a small scale with T-shirts, caps and a few dog accessories has developed today into a wide range of products such as dog bowls, cloth bags, soft toys, dog accessories and a new line of stationery.


Gunewardene’s latest work on animal welfare includes coming to the rescue of two dogs — Suddhi and Browny. While driving on Balapokuna Road after a visit to the Odel outlet in Kohuwela she came across Browny, 12 years old, who had a fracture on his front leg. He was infected with mange and had wounds on his body.

Browny was not a stray. He had an owner who couldn’t afford the medical bills. On the instructions of Gunewardene, Embark personnel, on June 10, rescued Browny and took him to a veterinarian after informing his owner.

Browny was released after treatment for mange, his left front leg fracture and three lump surgeries on August 5. Embark spent nearly Rs.42,000 to treat Browny. Browny’s owners were advised on responsible pet ownership prior to the dog being handed over. Browny was given a new lease of life thanks to Embark and Otara Gunewardene’s love of animals.

Suddhi is a three legged dog. When Embark personnel found her, she was barely alive, clinging to life under an abandoned car. With a festering wound on her right forepaw, helpless and unable to move, her long, sad face depicted the agony she was undergoing. "It was obvious she had not eaten for a few days as we could see her bones jutting through the thin layer of skin. She looked as if she’d given up all hopes of survival," Embark personnel said.

"It was around 8.30 pm when a kind hearted lady customer of Odel called to inform us about this injured dog. Ironically she was lying beneath a car in a garage near the Odel Head Office in Rajagiriya. We realised that the accident must have happened a few days ago as her condition had worsened," another Embark staffer explained.

They had immediately called a mobile pet service in Colombo. The stench of decomposing flesh emanating from the injured dog was difficult to bear but the unpleasant odour was overlooked as she was rushed to the vet clinic. However her crushed front paw and leg had to be amputated. She also underwent further treatment for multiple conditions, Embark personnel said.

They added that the lack of food and liquid during her days of immobility had weakened her considerably and had made her recovery painstakingly slow. Kept under constant professional care, her condition gradually improved and Embark had spent Rs.69,000 on her treatment. Her shiny, white coat resulted in her being named Suddhi.

Yeomen service

Although Embark does not have a transit home or a sanctuary for homeless animals, it has proved its purpose when it comes to helping animals in distress.

Today, Suddhi — the three-legged dog has fully recovered and is happily adapting to her new life, thanks to everyone who has contributed toward Embark. The three months of care by Embark has made her strong and given her a new lease of life. "We are sure she is saying ‘Thank you Embark,’ in her own doggy woof, woof language," Embark personnel said.

Embark has implemented this concept of inducting young, enthusiastic animal lovers, through its own volunteer circle. This circle comprises more than 100 volunteers and has been part of the success of Embark’s campaign. Throughout the past months, the volunteer circle has made a tremendous effort toward raising funds for future campaigns.

Embark will continue to focus on the reduction of the stray dog population, making rabies a thing of the past, treating injured animals and educating the public. Future plans of Embark include media campaigns to create awareness on the wellbeing of animals.

The Sunday Leader 14 Sep 2008

The Name Behind Odel

By Nilooka Dissanayake





I sit in the atrium awaiting her arrival. Throbbing with light music, bright colours, novel shapes and ideas makes me believe it the heart of the place. And it is. Everyone almost passes through it. Millionaire businessmen and little kids alike enjoy the light hearted ambience. It is the unseen bridge that connects a converted mansion of a bygone era with the ancient warehouses that belonged to another retailer, Cargill’s. The atrium bridges the old and superimposes the new physically. The spirit that blends it all belongs to the lady I plan to interview.

Tall and slender, she arrives in a woven, sleeveless, skin coloured top and dark trousers, very much the spirit of the place; bright, fair, light hearted and fashionable. We sit down in the patisserie which has but a few customers.
The jaw of a pimply young man in the adjoining table drops significantly as we seat ourselves. “Odel!” His whisper to his friends is hardly a whisper. This is nothing new to Otara Chandiram. She is used to being referred to by the brand name that she built. After all, it has it's origins in her name - Otara Del.
With a degree in biology from an American university and experience with part time modeling, Otara Chandiram has managed to become probably the most famous woman in Sri Lankan business, both locally and in the international scene. Did she always want to go into business? “No! Not at all” her reply is emphatic. Then how did we get here? I ask inviting her to recall the beginning.

Sri Lanka's ‘biggest fashion retail success story’ as the eODEL website claims, began in 1988. Odel is an offshoot of the Sri Lankan garment industry which brings in close to quarter of the country's export revenues. It is a story of our time; a story that runs a parallel course with the economics and fortunes of the country. It is a story about adapting to the changing needs of society.
It is however, not a typical story. But, then, nor is Otara who was adjudged the Sri Lankan Entrepreneur of the Year 2000 by the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka. However prestigious it may be, an award is hardly the type of laurels that Otara would rest upon. She describes herself as a “quiet and reserved” person and admits that popularity and public life does not come easy. “And hard working and determined” she adds. “I know what I want and try to make sure I achieve all my goals.”

What were your goals when you started? What are they now? “Didn't have a set goal as such” she says and smiles at the look of disbelief on my face. “No big goals even now. We go along day by day. Our goals are very small even now.” She feels that Odel has “way surpassed” her expectations. An average day sees 1,500 to 2,000 people walking through the doors. “Some time back, they had to replace the cash registers” says a vendor “because the old ones could go only up to nine digits.” Obviously one does not do that on the chance of a rare occurrence.

Birth of Odel was a response to the opportunities opening up in the local market. The export oriented garment industry was piling up factory excesses and leftovers. These began hitting the local market. All of it was not above board since there were regulations on the percentage of products that could be sold locally. Some industrialists were allowed to sell up to 10% of manufactured products while others were not allowed any local sales. But, demand there was. The Sri Lankan consumers when they saw the factory excesses fell in love with them. They were export quality and reasonably priced. What you could buy in Sri Lanka for Rs. 300, you would have to buy in London for Pounds Sterling 30 or a lot more. The situation has gradually changed over the years. Now all factories can sell locally at a specified level of duty.

Otara, persuaded by friends, began buying factory excesses and selling wholesale. In a few months, she saw opportunity for a retail operation. Odel began in a little room on Fife Road, Colombo 5. By 1996, Odel had seven outlets including shops in Liberty Plaza and Majestic City as well as in Mount Lavinia and Transasia Hotels. The Dickman's Road outlet which I recall full to the brim and flowing over with customers in the early nineties was replaced as the main outlet with Odel Unlimited, a refurbished warehouse attached to an old mansion in the Lipton Roundabout.

Otara describes Odel Unlimited as a mini-mall, an experience and a lifestyle store. “It is a place to unwind, relax and enjoy. It offers an international experience in your own background.” No one would disagree. Many foreign visitors fall in love with the unique way in which Odel combines the old world and the new. Carved wooden staircases and intricate arches share the limelight with the latest fashions and accessories. Odel provides a shopping experience equal to anywhere in the world and enhances it with its own small scale and quirky surprises.

How does she see Odel, the brand that she created? Otara sees Odel as standing for “stylish, trendy, classy, international and sophisticated.” Seen and perceived more as “high class” all these years, Odel now tries to reach out to the general public. One effort on this front is Otara taking part in a fashion tips show on local daytime television. She is surprised at the response shown by the public.

You have no prior business experience. How did you manage? How did you know what to do?
“It was a learning process” says Otara. “I entered a new market and grew with the market. It was a young, untapped market.” According to Otara, the success was not so much luck as the ability to foresee an opportunity. “We took lots of risks. We experimented. We tested the market. We explored and learned to anticipate the market. There were some failures. A couple of things did not work out.

I also read books and studied about business on my own. I read about Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric, named the Manager of the Century by the Fortune Magazine) and about business women like Anita Roddick who started Body Shop. She built a brand and made a change. I read mostly about famous people and learnt from everyone. Read a little bit of everything. I read business magazines and attended a couple of seminars. I did not have much time to devote to reading.”
Is retail success a science or an art? “It is a bit of both. Success in retailing is a matter of being able to anticipate what customers will want and having it ready. It is about being able to target to the market. You have to grow along with the market. The tastes and needs of people change. Culture changes. The world is growing smaller. Consider the last ten years. Local consumers today learn about the international trends in fashion. They can think for themselves. It is critical to judge these trends, see the needs and develop products.

Then only you can be ahead of the need. You have to know and understand. It is very important to keep in touch with international trends. There is so much more (to do), but market is not ready yet.”

How does she know what customers will need? “Putting your gut feelings to work and knowing about international trends are important. I travel a lot. I read a lot and watch media and previews of fashion worldwide. I keep up with designs and trends and fads. It is a constant challenge to keep the customers happy.”

Odel, with Otara’s guidance is always ready for the market demand. It takes over nine months to get ready for a season. And hard work pays off when even foreigners “go crazy over the goods.” “All that we have on our shelves are the latest fashions” Otara claims proudly. Giving new things and seeing how people react is part of the job that she enjoys. “I like to keep this as part of my job although I have a good team of merchandisers who take care of this side.”

Many people try to follow you. “Imitation is a form of flattery. The main thing is to go with what you feel. Imitation often does not work. You should have your own way of doing things. This should be distinct, always the same. Otherwise customers get confused.” The temptation to imitate Odel seems to reach beyond the shores of Sri Lanka. Recently Odel got an injunction in the Middle East against a company retailing goods under the Odel brand.

Otara is married to Raju Chandiram who is also in the business with her. They have two boys. Koran is eight and Rakhil, two and half years old. She feels thankful for the support of a close-knit extended family especially when she and Raju travel abroad. At other times they take turns at dropping kids to school and share the other duties.

Her work day starts at 9.30am and finishes around 6.30pm when she heads home to “spend time with the kids.” She likes to keep up with her exercise routine and spends “a minimum of one hour a day and try to do it almost every day.”
What are her other interests beside work? This was a second thought which did not occur to me at the first interview. And I asked it over the telephone, a bit past 10pm, after Otara had put the kids to sleep. “Fashion” comes the answer accompanied by laughter “and shopping. Unfortunately I don’t get to do much shopping and at Odel I see the stocks every single day. I like to pick up unusual things, especially when I travel.” She enjoys relaxing and likes to go to the movies. She loves travelling and seeing new places.

And with a degree in biology, what would she have done had she not gone into fashion? “Something to do with animals and the environment.” So, there is our explanation for Odel’s commitment to the environment.
What advice do you give to start ups and small businesses?

“Know the business you are going into. Understand your market. And have a vision. Work hard to achieve your goals. It can be done with hard work. I have put in a lot of hard work.”








Ever an optimist, Ajit Gunewardene is unruffled by overwhelming challenges… Savithri Rodrigo discovers for herself. 


Flashing a cheerful smile, Ajit Damon Gunewardene professes that he is not an ‘early-morning person’. “That is why I cannot do the early morning workout routine that everyone else does,” he confesses. Nevertheless, the physique of a rugby player is evident as a vigorous one-and-a-half-hour walk on the streets of Colombo, most evenings, gives him the physical exercise he says he craves for.

Gregarious nature

Gunewardene, an effervescent human being whose gregarious nature puts people at ease, is not the typical board member one sees in our corporate spheres. At 47, he could be deemed a young corporate leader, but the stodgy and conventional feel of such a profile is far removed from him. The youthful manner that encompasses good listening abilities and prompt decision-making capabilities has enabled him to steer John Keells Holdings (JKH), as its Joint Managing Director – a position he took up in May 2003.
“The world over, you see more and more young people at the helm,” he deduces. “Companies must never be deemed to look old or have that austere, old-fashioned sense. The infusion of young blood is important because the world is changing constantly – and it is this young blood that keeps all of us on our toes, spurring us on to make a success of whatever we do,” he adds.

Tightly-knit family

He is the second in a family of one older brother (Ruchi) and a younger sister (Otara). The siblings have reached admirable heights in their careers, which should make for proud parents in Delysia and Norman (a legend in business circles). Gunewardene states that he grew up in a tightly-knit family. “With my brother being just one year older, we naturally became companions and were always together. Otara, on the hand, was eight years younger and I don’t think we ‘babied’ her in that sense – but rather, being that much younger, she got the better of us!” The social responsibility that the Gunewardene family seemingly espouses may have been spurred by Delysia, who Gunewardene says had many hobbies to keep her occupied while they grew up. But in 1969, she channelled her passion into founding The Chitra Lane School for the Special Child – a project she has been involved in ever since.

Commencing his education at Royal College, Gunewardene carried on the family sporting tradition: playing rugby for Royal, as well as representing Sri Lanka Schools. “My father was a ‘ruggerite’, so it was natural for us to follow in his footsteps. Besides, we liked the game and still do. Besides rugby, we were also involved in every possible sport in school – from athletics to swimming. I never really excelled in academics but simply did what I had to do to keep afloat. But then, it wasn’t too bad, considering I managed to pass most of my exams despite the limited effort that I put in,” he surmises.

On completion of his London ‘A levels’, SAT and TOEFL, Gunewardene decided to take a break in England for about eight months, joining his brother and some friends who were studying in the UK. “I worked a bit to make ends meet and then decided to move on to further my studies.”

Active social life

At 20, Gunewardene took wing to the University of North Carolina, in the US. The US education system opened up new vistas of opportunity for him. “The great thing about the US is that the education system offers you a wide variety of options, not to mention an active social life. Those were some of the best years growing up, and I must admit I also learnt a lot.” He continued his sports, playing rugby for CR&FC when he returned each summer on vacation. It was on one of these trips that he met the charming Chandani, an accountant by profession, with whom – five years later, in 1985 – he tied the knot. “Chandani is indeed a tower of strength to me,” he admits.

Brink of change

He graduated with a major in economics and a minor in political science – still, with no idea as to what he wanted to do with his life. “Right along, I had no career plans mapped out and this time was no exception, but I definitely wanted to come back to Sri Lanka,” he says. Given the environment to which Gunewardene came back in 1982, he had limited career opportunities. “I applied to John Keells because I felt I could grow with the company. It had the culture that encouraged such growth – and looking around me, I knew the country was also on the brink of change: Keells, I felt, would be in the thick of that change and I wanted to be a part of it,” he recalls.
Gunewardene began at Keells T&R as a money broker (a relatively new career option for young people at that time). Four years later, with capital markets opening up, he was given the
opportunity to start Mackinnon and Keells Financial Services – and he went on to head John Keells Stockbrokers as well. The young man’s promise was more than evident as his portfolio of responsibilities within the group grew rapidly; and in 1992, he rose to the exalted status of Board Director of the group.

Youngest CSE Chairman

“When I reflect on my career, I really didn’t have ambitions. But what happens is that after awhile, one aspires to meet the next challenge – and that is what happened to me. The position that comes with meeting those challenges is simply a part of that rise,” he feels. Currently sharing responsibilities as Joint Managing Director with Susantha Ratnayake, Gunewardene overlooks financial services, real estate, inbound travel, information technology and human resources. He was also the youngest Chairman of the Colombo Stock Exchange, not long ago.

Voracious reader

A voracious reader from his young days – growing up in an environment where ‘reading maketh a man’ was the touted axiom – Gunewardene recalls that with no television or Playstations which children of today enjoy, reading and sport were the only pastime activities. “I used to read anything and everything, though due to the lack of time, I am now relegated only to reading business periodicals which, I must add, are most interesting and very knowledge-gaining.”

Waking up at around 6.30 a.m., and after a quick scan through the newspapers, Gunewardene is at his desk at 8.30 for a day filled with ‘challenges’ that get his adrenaline going. “I work till about 6.30 in the evening – although I sometimes have social obligations afterwards. But I keep the evenings as free as possible, to spend time with my boys, Revan (who is nearly 18) and Avin (who is ten). The weekends are definitely family time,” he discloses.

Enjoying good food and wine (though not necessarily a ‘rice-and-curry person’), combined with an evening of stimulating and entertaining discourse, Gunewardene is an optimist. He says he sees the positive angle in everything. This demeanour is a vital ingredient, given his position in a group of companies that has remained strong and unwavering in times of unprecedented change. Gunewardene, whose philosophy aims at dealing with issues in a calm and rational manner, keeps a cool head, is not overwhelmed by challenging situations, and declares that he does not find his job daunting.

Strategic thinking

“JKH has always built itself on excellent team work and judicious strategic thinking; and for each of us, we just need to guide those strategies into action… Each chairman has provided the necessary leadership and impetus to map out the path we have to travel – and for us, as we look ahead, it will be a steady and natural evolution,” he says in conclusion.