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Maintaining Investment Confidence in a Time of Economic and Social Challenges – Some Past Lessons from the Telco Industry

By J.D.K.Ruwandika

The 7th Interdisciplinary Conference of Management Researches (ICMR 2022), organized by the Faculty of Management Studies (FMS), Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka (SUSL), was ceremoniously concluded on 16th & 17th November 2022. Mr. Seneviratne, the Group Chief Executive of Sri Lanka Telecom PLC, was one of the invited eminent keynote speakers of the 7th ICMR 2022. He enlightened the conference by providing insights and expertise on a timely topic, “Maintaining Investment Confidence in a Time of Economic and Social Challenges – Some Past Lessons from the Telco Industry.”

Mr. Lalith began his speech by stating that Sri Lanka is currently experiencing difficult times that are largely impacted by volatile market conditions, including socio and economic pressures and shrinking sources of credit. As a result, businesses’ confidence is tested in terms of agility, strategy, and innovation. He added that the journey of Sri Lanka had been a roller coaster since its independence nearly seventy-five years ago. Today, management is generally caught in a storm, and the loss of confidence has become pervasive, almost a herd mentality. Further stating, he mentioned that the Sri Lankans have forgotten that this cyclical storm, in one form or another, has been a part of doing business in this country, with the exception that this time there is a sense of giving up. When considering the resilience, it has been built up as a result of this cyclical storm, management can rebuild confidence, and indeed the need of the hour is that management has to step onto the plate, for which they have to lead the battle and be the front liners.

Tracing back the memory lane to the 1988/89 JVP insurrection, even more than it is today, businesses were brought literally to a standstill by extreme intimidation and violence. However, this period unveiled the most significant innovation in the telecommunication industry. Sri Lanka again showed that it could be the first in the entire region by starting a mobile telephone network far ahead of all its neighbours. This was a reality with Investors and Management who had the confidence, skill, and knew how to use innovation to solve a problem faced by the population. Innovation does not necessarily mean new technology alone; it suggests the means of carving out the landscape to deploy new technology. However, these days can be related to the days when getting a Plain Old Telephone meant months or years of waiting and having the right influence. This is when the investors saw the opportunity and started a business that many in Sri Lanka had not even heard of hitherto. It is surprising to state that although Sri Lanka was a much more economically weaker nation then, the introduction of an innovative product that solved an existing hardship created a hugely profitable business.

Mr. Seneviratahne further explained by illustrating the instances where he and his team had solved social issues at the time. Consequently, Mr.Senevirathne reminisced about an incident stating that one gentleman dressed neatly in white had walked into his office carrying a box wrapped in brown paper. He had placed the box on his desk and had started talking; “Sir, I heard there is this new telephone system where one carries the telephone in your hand and can make a call from anywhere you may be. I was delighted when I heard about it and came here to purchase one. Money is not a problem; as you can see, I have brought a box full of cash.”  However, Mr.Senevirathna had explained to the gentleman that the team was still in the planning stages and the system’s operation was some months away. Nevertheless, what this gentleman said had intrigued Mr.Senevirathne, and he walked with the gentleman to the next room of the Managing Director from Sweden, Mr. Johann Hall. There this gentleman related the rest of the story. “Sir, I have an issue at home. My wife, wherever I go, expects me to give her a call giving my location. When I heard about this new telephone, I breathed a sigh of relief.” Mr. Senevirathne mentioned that they were capable of solving an unforeseen social problem with the arrival of the mobile phone.

Mr. Senevirathne further highlighted that it might be mind-boggling for many today that the first mobile phones were sold at 125,000 Rupees a connection, amounting to over 3,000 USD at the then exchange rate and over 7,000 USD in today’s purchasing power parity.  He added that today’s success of the telecommunication industry and how it serves as the backbone of the economy is a testament to that. He further expressed his pleasure of being a pioneer in this industry; therefore, he can vouch for what he said at the conference.

Moreover, Mr. Senevirathne highlighted the commendable role that the investors and management played in the past and the importance of having that personality. Accordingly, amidst the doom and gloom, investors and management had identified the right innovation and equally had the determination to hack their way through the bureaucratic jungle to deploy it. He emphasized that, unlike in the past, more than ever, technology to drive innovation is available in plenty. Therefore, it is necessary to identify the problems that need innovative solutions and the strength to implement them, which the management has to steer to turn to beat the storm.

Besides, he added that this economic crisis is indeed a charter for businesses and leaders to rewrite and rethink how to do things differently. This is a time of unprecedented opportunity to rethink offerings, markets, business processes, and organizational structures and to improve them to achieve growth. According to Mr.Senevirathne, adopting digital technologies has a significant impact on the creation of economic sustainability and social value. For instance, SLT-Mobitel company continues to empower businesses with cutting-edge technological solutions that can fulfill the aspirations of all Sri Lankans.  However, Mr. Senavirathne stated the need for a whole front of businesses backed by their Investors and Management to work on a wide array of innovative solutions.

After all, for a sailor, no matter how strong, the direction of the wind is not an obstacle to reaching his destination. Simultaneously, Mr. Senevirathna shared some moments when he had visited Sabaragamuwa University nearly two decades ago with visionary Sri Lankan Ray Wijewardene during the time Prof Mahaliyanaarachchi was the Vice-Chancellor.  The seeds of his affiliation with the university had been sewn then. He stated that, as Ray would have said, this time is also the time to think back and understand the true meaning of independence. Why independence from our colonial master has not yielded measurable progress. Think of it. He stated, “we all came here in an imported vehicle, fueled by imported oil, and we drove it on roads paved with imported bitumen, paid for by imported money.”

Consequently, Mr. Senevirathne questioned whether Sri Lanka can still be believed to be an independent nation and what is independent of it.  Isn’t the country’s independence limited only to the political self-governance that Ceylon obtained in February 1948? Accordingly, Mr. Senevirathne emphasized that this is the best time to be interdependent with the rest of the world as much as possible because the crisis forces the nation to do so. Like the relationship between parents and children, neither independent nor dependent, rather interdependent. He added the fact that the country is rich with the resources to be independent in key areas such as food, energy, transport, and health & well-being while being dependent on others. For instance, produce bread and butter but import jam and scotch, to put it simply, while having the right balance. Here lies the opportunity for management.

In conclusion, on behalf of SLT Mobitel, Mr. Senavirathne added his warm wishes to the distinguished industry representatives and delegates of the 7th Interdisciplinary Conference of Management Researchers (ICMR 2022).

(The writer is a lecturer (temporary) at the Faculty of Management Studeis in Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka)

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