Ceylon Chamber of Commerce: AT the Apex of Industry | Sunday Observer

Ceylon Chamber of Commerce: AT the Apex of Industry

30 April, 2017
Picture by Shan Rupassara
Picture by Shan Rupassara

Five prominent colonial business people got together in Prince Street in Pettah on February 25, 1839 and formed a Committee which later transformed into the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. It was the Governor of Colonial Ceylon at that time, James Stewart-Mackenzie who was instrumental in setting up the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce with the aim of protecting the interests of the British business people.

The first Chairman was Joseph Read and the first Sri Lankan Chairman was S.T.L. De Soysa who became Chairman in 1959. The current Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce is Samantha Ranatunga. “From 1839 until 1959 we have been having predominantly British people as Chairs of the Ceylon Chamber. It is steeped in that kind of British tradition and also why it is considered the most elite Chamber in the country. The recognition the Chamber has today has a lot to do with its history and where we started originally.”

At the initial stages the Chamber was focused on supporting business people and the export industry because the British had an export industry which consisted of tea, rubber and coconut. Ranatunga explains, “The Ceylon Chamber worked in a way where essentially people got together and looked at what could be done by way of infrastructure, by way of facilitation to trade which occurred between British colonies and the rest of the world. So if you take for instance the main road development from Colombo to Kandy, then the Colombo Port and then also the India - Sri Lanka trade routes, all those things took place as an initiative of the Chamber. The Chamber was very much a part of the legislative assembly and the legislation that was passed meant that it was facilitating the infrastructure to support the plantation economy. All of that took place with the auspices and influence of the Chamber.”

Sri Lankanisation

The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce has a 178 year old history and there has been much change over the years, from 1839 when it began to 1948 when Sri Lanka received independence. Subsequently the Chamber was also predominantly a conclave of plantation companies because that was the driver of the economy. Ranatunga says, “As the face of business changed more Sri Lankan companies started coming in and more Sri Lankanisation took place and we also evolved with it to keep up with the times. Of course if you look at the Chamber it is still steeped in the Colonial tradition, the backbone of it is still kept. We still have a visitor’s book going up to about 1939. But though it is steeped in history, the way we have modernized ourselves and adopted ourselves is that we have also focused on regionalization where we have affiliated ourselves with the regional Chambers of Commerce. We have also looked at the trade associations because many trade associations were formed. The pioneer was the Ceylon Tea Traders Association. They celebrate 150 years this year. Then latterly the logistics association, container handlers association, tourist association and the hoteliers associations joined us. Many things changed as the economy evolved. They became members of the Chamber and their problems and their influences were carried through as a part of the Chamber’s tradition.

The essential role we played as a Chamber was to be representatives of these bodies in influencing government policy, be it the budget policies or be it the ministries and lobbying with interested parties. There was a fair amount of concurrence that was going on. The third aspect that we would like to improve other than the regions is the bilateral business councils. We are looking upwards at trade. So we have about 24 bilateral business councils. We have a very strong Chambers with India, United States, Australia and New Zealand. We built these trade associations which are essential to promote bilateral trade, exchange views, influence trade policies in each other’s countries, and we have also signed MOUs with many overseas chambers so that facilities are available to Sri Lankan members in other countries. This is one area which we are very proud of because this gives a lot of opportunity for Sri Lankan businessmen to get a foothold in another country and you have to also take into account the issues in Sri Lanka such as getting visas. We issue support letters to respectable business people who are our members. This type of thing has a much more than face value because it is something which is credible to the foreign party as well as to us. We also issue certificates from Sri Lanka to the country of origin for goods that are imported where a country of origin certificate is important and we have a service to issue that as well. So these are some of the ways we have evolved. Earlier, I would say that it was more at a policy and legislative level because it was the British Raj and the British legislation. We have now evolved to a level where we are more service oriented and at the moment we have over 650 members plus we have nearly about 6700 direct and indirect members who are coming through the regional associations and then the bilateral councils and the trade associations.”

The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce has also phenomenally changed as an organization to be relevant with the times, which means it has been at the forefront of any policy changes. Ranatunga further explains, “How we have influenced the government, given them clear cut views on very broad terms which necessarily will not toe the individual member point of view but we would look at what is right for the country. We also have a ten principle agenda where we cover things like governance, rule of law, export competiveness, skills development, education, need for SMEs, well organized industry. These are the ten principles that we work on. So these principles are virtually cast in stone.

We will agree or disagree as per these Chamber principles or any other policies that the government brings out, and because of the credibility that we have kept over the years we never allow the individual’s agenda over the country’s agenda. The credibility with successive governments that we have had has been very high because we don’t say become a member and we will push your point across. If we firmly believe that something needs to be done in any sector, we will not leave any stone unturned until we manage to get a message across in a cohesive manner to the policy maker. Yet, I’m not saying that we are 100 percent successful. There will always be setbacks with communications. Still we have been successful and that is why the credibility that we have built up has remained with us.”

The tea auction commenced under the Chamber. Ranatunga says, “It earlier operated under the conditions of the Chamber but then subsequently shifted within our set up with a tailor made auditorium which is very unique with a centre auctioneer. The whole set up was done at the Chamber auditorium to host the auctions. It has become a convenient place to house the tea auction which is something we are very proud of. It is one of the largest auctions in Sri Lanka and one the most traditional auctions which are still being held in the world. We are celebrating 150 years of Ceylon Tea and it is something we are very proud to be a part of. think even now most of the major companies in Sri Lanka be it exporters, the broker’s association, and the flavour houses, all those people are very much a part of the Chamber. It is a crop which is more than a crop. It is a lifestyle which is steeped in tradition and that goes hand in hand a lot with the Chamber. You can see always that in the Tea industry people are very tradition bound. So they have made it very much a part of the Chamber.”

The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce has always tried to create credible platforms. Ranatunga explains, “we have import groups and export groups which would look at the import and export sectors and the problems related to these sectors as one key area and we have also gone on to building the National Agenda Committee. The National Agenda Committee has a broader agenda.

We are talking infrastructure, rural development and the SME sector. We have gathered people of varying experience, some are experts in their subject areas, some are involved from an activist or an interest point of view, some are small scale entrepreneurs and some are regional large companies. We have an amalgam of people of varying expertise where we get them together to look at a common problem.

Trade facilitation

For example, if it is infrastructure, one of the things which we are talking about today is waste disposal. We have been engaging with the government for a long time on this issue. One of the recent issues we are involved in is the banning of plastics. We have said let us go into a public and private sector partnership in which we can have recycling and now we have found a technology partner, a purchaser, which is all done through the Chamber. The Chamber is going to submit a report on this.

We play a role of advocacy, a role of facilitator and again in certain areas a role of thought leader because even on some of the recent Parliamentary acts such as the RTI Bill and the Inland Revenue Bill we have been engaged with the government.

Even on the new Constitution we seek the views of the people, and the Chamber collates those views and puts it the government. And we are also very Secretariat led because we hold a two year term and it is a transitional job. We are compromised because we are also representing an individual industry as a head of a business. The Secretariat functions as the beacon of the Chamber. We set up the interest groups, the necessary agenda groups. We also have a strong Secretariat to take up our issues. That is the new way of being relevant.”

The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce is currently located in the hub of the old business district. It has easy access to the policy makers, the Ministry of Finance, the Prime Minister’s office and President’s House. Therefore, it is a prized location and a unique location. As lifestyles change and businesses change, the question arises whether the Chamber is located in the right place because now businesses have moved to suburban areas, and the current location of the building, with its the real estate value has to be worthwhile. Ranatunga says that as much as the Chamber entertains these thoughts they are very proud of the current location because of the access to the tea auctions and because the main companies are based within a five kilometer radius of the Chamber. Large warehousing is not too far way and people have to carry the samples to the auction and the samples back so those demographics and logistics have also to be taken into account.

The Chamber has about 25 bilateral business councils and trade facilitation is one of their key areas. Ranatunga says, “Last year we had a successful inbound investor conclave where we dealt with broad based aspects such as investment climate and a lot of economic data. We visited the BOI, the Port, and the Customs so that people got to see these processes. We are not a Third World country anymore, we are much more advanced. We are computerized. I think that in another six months both imports and exports will increase.

 Samantha Ranathunga, 
Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

We have strong views on how we do things. We have also done the same thing reciprocally. We have about three to four overseas tours where we get visas for discerning business people to travel and we arrange meetings with international Chambers of Commerce, the government and leading private sector businesses.

And we have at least about 10 to 20 delegations which come from overseas where we organize one to one meetings with them and the Sri Lankan private sector and address their specific issues.

Last year we went on trips to Australia, New Zealand and we continue to do so. We are very concerned about some of the SME businesses which have a good track record. We have been able to get visas for them to travel.

“They would never be able to travel if they applied as individuals or as their companies, but because they are part of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce delegation they have a very high level of acceptance. And then the doors open because we have reciprocal chambers we work with.”

Sri Lanka’s SME sector is facing problems at the moment. Ranatunga explains, “We had an SME summit about two years ago where we got most of our key people for instance marketing experts, financial experts, designers, SLSI, ITI, the Bureau of Standards and we had a two day session which was a success.

We have gone further into industry specifics and we worked extensively in tea and energy saving. How do you get the best energy saving options in tea? We have also gone into the Cinnamon industry where peeling is an issue. How can that be done more efficiently? We have addressed some of those issues in the SMEs in that context. Also we have looked at it conversely from a behavioural point of view.

Life experience

Any SME person to succeed has to be a successful entrepreneur. How does he become a good entrepreneur? What characteristics does he need to have? We have started addressing these through educational seminars getting to know the people and their success stories.

We also have a successful mentoring program for entrepreneurs where we teach them how to manage their business services and expansion. One of the biggest issues that an SME person has is the capacity building. When you systemize it you face a different kind of problem because suddenly you find that your energy costs go up.

We are looking at issues of that nature. We take into account feedback coming from people who have gone on that journey and who are members that have become now successful. They share their knowledge which is based on their life experience.

We conduct mentoring programs through the regional chambers and we also cover the wider aspects in the regions such as the Kalutara district for Cinnamon, Ratnapura district for tea, where we ask what their issues are and we ask industrial experts how to handle it.

SMEs have been a very vital part of the economy and we also believe that they should play a much wider role than what they are doing right now. In that context, we are firmly supporting all these initiatives so that they will be able to engage them much better and let them be a part of the economy. At the moment, our SMEs unfortunately are slightly in the periphery. But if you take in most countries whether they are developed countries, the SME is integrated into the export value chain. They are told to produce to the specification.

They produce it whether it is added value goods or raw goods. Sri Lanka has a long way to go because we set up big factories which have high overheads. The SME model is always much more successful if the right up gradation of knowledge, styling and marketing can be given.