By Abdul H. Azeez
Otara Gunewardene, the charismatic owner of Odel, took some time off her busy schedule for an exclusive interview with The Sunday Leader ahead of the launch of her company’s Initial Public Offering (IPO). She speaks candidly about her humble beginnings, her life, what inspires her and her plans for the future. Odel has become a household name in Sri Lanka while still retaining its aspiration brand image. Its main flagship store at Alexander Place has become one of Colombo’s landmarks and Otara herself has grown to be a business icon.
Q: Tell us about the IPO and the reasoning behind it and how confident are you of its success?
A: The company has grown over the last 20 years and we felt that it was the right time for the company for a public offering. We judged this based on the progress of the company and the situation of the country which have coincided in quite a timely manner. We need funds for future growth and on an overall basis, a combination of things happened to prompt this. We are offering 16 million shares which make up 11.5% of the company. It is a relatively small share issue because we have no intention of selling out. That being said, the public are very keen to be a part of Odel and share in our success. People like to be a part of Odel, so I think the IPO will go well.
Q: In the recent past you have looked to expand the number of outlets, how has this come about and how will it impact your brand?
A: Our expansion hasn’t gone too far away from home, our furthest is in Panadura. We have opened just a few a sites around the greater Colombo area. We have another two locations identified but we haven’t rushed into it yet. I don’t believe in growth for the sake of growth, there is no point rushing into new locations without a proper plan or an idea of how they will perform. I believe in taking a little time to make sure that what we are attempting will actually work. That is one strategy that we find works for us.
Also with Odel, we can’t open in just any location. We have to be careful of where we open because the brand is such that we can’t dilute it. There has already been some concern among people as to whether we are diluting the brand with our plans for expansion. So we must progress without diluting our brand or dropping our standards. Not all locations are currently ready for Odel.
Q: You have perfected the mega store concept with your Alexander Place outlet. Any plans for similar stores in the future?
A: Not immediately. As it is, there is room for expansion where we are right now. We are constantly trying out new products and services, revamping areas of the outlet and we just opened a fresh display today. Expanding the main flagship store is also something we are looking to do within the next year. We have actually identified one other location in Wattala but haven’t completely finalised our decision to move there yet.
Q: Sri Lanka has quite a large bureaucracy. A lot of business people find navigating through it cumbersome. How do you manage?
A: Yes there is a lot of red tape! But I have looked at different countries and every country has its own rules and regulations and obviously some countries are a lot freer but it has not been a burden so far. People are very helpful and very supportive and what we are doing is for the improvement of Sri Lanka after all. Now, more than any other time, the brand belongs to Sri Lanka, it is not only mine anymore! It is a part of Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans have always been proud of it and now they have a chance of actually owning it.
Q: Odel is known for its loyal employees; tell us the secret behind your ability to manage people.
A: Yes I’m very involved in the management of the company but I also have a very strong team who are able to support me and contribute significantly to various aspects of running it. The main thing is letting people think for themselves and letting them be their own entrepreneur. They must contribute in their own way rather than constantly being told what they should or shouldn’t be doing. I believe in facilitating creative input. A lot of people who have been in Odel have been here for a long time and they enjoy working here. It is a nice environment and there is always something new happening. It is a job where you don’t have to be stuck in an office all the time.
Q: Do you always try to diversify and continuously change as a business tactic?
A: We monitor areas that are doing well and try to ensure we get good revenue out of every square foot from our products and services. We also monitor trends to see what is appealing to our customers and try and change as tastes and requirements change over time. What is hot today may get cold tomorrow, so it’s important that we keep track.
Q: We have all heard how you started your business. Tell us a bit about those years…
A: From the boot of my car! The story is out everywhere! I started off initially just selling clothing to my friends and family and people I knew and then just built up from there. I didn’t have a goal or a vision at all and I had no intention of getting into business. I had always wanted to work with animals. It just happened by chance and I discovered that I had an eye to create things people liked. And that’s how it started. People would come in (the shop) and like what they saw and I found it very exciting. Also, the money was good, the profits were good. I really enjoyed it. The interest just kept growing and that is how it evolved.
Q: You are a mother and probably have an active family life to attend to. How do you balance this with your business?
A: I can’t say it is easy juggling the two. Every day I try to find the correct balance between both and it shifts back and forth depending on what is happening in the company. I know that a balance is necessary between both and I try my best to spend adequate time in both places so that both flourish. I don’t have anything to do other than attend to work, family and of course my gym!
Q: Do your kids get involved in the business?
A: At the moment my younger son is designing some t-shirts. He is only 10 but he draws quite well and his designs are printed on t-shirts. He is very excited about that! My other son just finished his O/Levels and aside from a little bit of interest he mostly focuses on his studies.
Q: Are you involved with any sports? We heard you had taken up golf?
A: Yes! I once took up golf and was very enthusiastic for about five months, but then I dropped it because of time constraints. But I’d like to take it up again later on if there is time. I work out and go to the gym. I don’t do any sports at the moment.
Q: Would you say you are a spiritual person?
A: A little bit, I was brought up as a Buddhist but I can’t say I’m very religious. But yes I am spiritual and that helps me as well; to have some belief and some faith.
Q: Over the years, you have become quite a role model to young people with your success. What advice would you give them to find success?
A: First of all you must find what you really like doing. I know the general consensus is for young people to go find a job or think of a business and start doing it. But you really need to know that you like what you are doing. And I feel you can only succeed if you really love doing what you do. Of course, there is a lot of competition now. Obviously when I started there were quite a few stores as well but they weren’t that large scale and this meant that when they grew I could grow along with them.
I think the main thing is trying to enjoy what you do, understand what you do and understand the market you are in. It is also a lot about believing in yourself and knowing what is possible. To me, everything is possible.
Q: Getting back to the business, will there be changes in management with the IPO?
A: We only just started a board. We have four board members, all non executive. The chairman is my brother, another brother is also a shareholder and we have another director and the last one is me. It is a new board and we will not be getting any additional board members from the IPO. So there are no changes to the management in the near future.
Q: Aside from Odel, you are beginning to build a another strong brand; the Otara brand. Tell us about that.
A: That seems to have also taken off slowly. There is a Facebook page with 7000 odd fans. I also have a web site and a line of jewellery. That is done by Colombo Jewellery Stores. I design the jewellery and they make it and sell it. So it’s kind of like a franchise with them using my name.
Q: Looking back on life, what are your most memorable incidents?
A: Ah well…I don’t really get a lot of time to reflect. I tend to always look at the future and where I am now. If I look back now, since you asked me, the significant things are the beginnings of my business and having my children. Opening the main store at Alexander Place was quite significant, not only for me, but for retail in Sri Lanka. So there have been a few memorable times and I am sure there will be more to come. I think every day is a milestone.
Q: What about the future, for you and the business?
A: When it comes to business especially, I have to forecast where we are going. But I think it is also important to focus on where you are now. A healthy mixture of both is what is important.