Book review : You can only be as good as your team | Sunday Observer

Book review : You can only be as good as your team

Hemaka Amarasuriya
Hemaka Amarasuriya

Anyone who knows Hemaka Amarasuriya knows the quote above is “vintage Hemaka”. It encapsulates his management philosophy, and was a lesson he himself learned as a young sportsman. It nicely captures how he built the leading corporate in Sri Lanka and how he guided several other blue chip Sri Lankan corporates as well as varied iconic national charitable and sporting institutions to prominence across a career as Sri Lanka’s leading corporate statesman. It also captures the irony in the man. Very often he was the smartest person in the room and he used his smarts and wisdom to lead teams and companies and institutions to great achievement. Yet he never flashed this and readily gave away all credit for success to others. In instances where success was less than hoped for, he shouldered the responsibility for the result himself.

‘Riding the Zeitgeist’ is an exceptionally appropriate title for the biography of this accomplished man. Hemaka was born into a respected family at a time when great social change would occur as he matured and as Sri Lanka developed. He entered a world marked by tradition and his younger years were governed by this as followed a path set by his prominent parents… active sports, excellent schools, time with family and friends.

But Sri Lanka was changing. As an example, when Hemaka began as an Articled Clerk following college at the renowned accountancy practice Torquand-Young, it was also the first year in which the firm accepted women Articled Clerks.

Other changes were occurring in Sri Lanka as well across the world, in society and especially in business. In 1973, Hemaka joined Singer Sri Lanka as a factory accountant. Singer was then renowned sewing machine manufacturer, having been in existence around the world for over a century before Hemaka joined and having operated in Sri Lanka for nearly a century.

It was known and respected as a sewing machine manufacturer but it was not the only such in Sri Lanka and for most Sri Lankans a sewing machine purchase was a once-in-a-lifetime purchase (or maybe twice or thrice if for wedding gifts). The company did not cater to frequent purchasers nor feature-busy, well-trafficked shop floors.

As Hemaka rose through the ranks at Singer, taking responsibility for increasing areas of importance within the company, he and his remarkable wife Anoma raised three children. The story of Hemaka’s rise within Singer during this period into the 1980s as well as the growth of the family makes wonderful reading.

Eventually, Hemaka took the helm at Singer. He began at the company as an accountant and, generally speaking, accountants are thought of as good with the numbers but perhaps not at general management. Hemaka is a spectacular exception to this preconception. Beginning in the 1990s and accelerating progress virtually every year until his retirement from the chairmanship of the company in 2015, he transformed the business from a respected single-product specialist retailer that served few people infrequently into Sri Lanka’s most-respected and dominant retailer of consumer durable products of all types and of all brands.

At the conclusion of his stewardship, Singer stores were marvels to behold, serving innumerable customers from all walks of life and from every square inch of the nation every single day. The company consistently won accolades for its service to customers, its trustworthiness and integrity and for the dominance of its overall brand name, Singer (which by this time in Sri Lanka represented so much more than sewing machines).

At the same time, and quietly so that many in the business community failed to appreciate the magnitude of the achievement, Singer under Hemaka’s guidance also became the largest non-bank financial institution in the country. Without Singer Finance legions of customers would not have been able to afford their first purchase of a critical consumer durable, such as a refrigerator or a fan or, later in their lives a consumer luxury product like a large, flat screen television or an energy efficient top-of-the-line air conditioner. Eventually Singer Finance became the first non-bank financial institution to issue its own credit card to consumers, demonstrating yet again the company’s commitment to lead, to innovate and to serve customers.

These achievements of course occurred during the zeitgeist and the backdrop in Sri Lanka through much of this period was a terrible civil war. Imagine what might have happened had the country known peace and unity throughout this time… Maybe Apple would have an equal-sized competitor located in Sri Lanka!

The book describes these achievements in detail but more importantly explains the moral and business philosophy which informed Hemaka as he developed this great enterprise. In particular, his emphasis on the human side –hiring good people but then training them and delegating responsibility to them to help them grow and become great are hallmarks of his style.

Hemaka is too much of a gentleman to state this, but it is clear that he feels most business managers fail to understand the critical importance of human development and management as fundamental underpinnings to achieving lasting success. The results he provided at Singer and to Singer shareholders show the importance and accuracy of his beliefs.

There is so much else of import in this work… Hemaka’s achievements in other spheres, the trials and sadness he and Anoma suffered with family loss, the pride and pleasure in helping national sport and charitable institutions. There are great lessons throughout for anyone interested in being a better businessperson and in being a better person.