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Friday January 21st, 2022

Dinusha Bhaskaran: Vallibel One’s CEO believes in investing in people

Dinusha Bhaskaran Chief Executive at Vallibel One Plc

Dinusha Bhaskaran, Chief Executive at Vallibel One Plc, a holding company of 46 subsidiaries in seven industry verticals, shares insights about building a people-centric company to better navigate through an economic crisis and unlock growth opportunities along the way.

A financial and accounting professional, she serves on the boards of Delmege Ltd, Dipped Products PLC, Haycarb PLC, Hayleys Fabrics PLC as an Alternate Director to Mr Dhammika Perera, Vallibel Power Erathna Plc and Country Energy (Private) Limited. Bhaskaran also serves as a non-executive director at LB Finance PLC, a leading NBFI, where she also heads the audit committee.

Having cut her teeth in finance in Australia, where she was a financial controller with several Australian companies, her experience includes serving as the Assistant General Manager, Finance and Planning at Pan Asia Banking Corporation Plc. A Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants UK (FCMA), and Fellow of CPA Australia (FCPA), Bhaskaran is also a Fellow Member of the Institute of Bankers, Sri Lanka.

As the CEO of Vallibel One, how do you see your purpose? What aspects of your job excites you the most?

I am extremely excited to be at the helm of an organisation that spells diversity at every turn. My purpose as the CEO is to ensure the success of the company by achieving the desired business results across the group, and importantly, to foster the growth of its human capital, and make a positive impact in the community in everything we do. While keeping one eye on the immediate needs of the company and driving profitability, I also devote much of my energy and time strategising for the future looking for expansion and sustainable growth opportunities by applying research-based tools and strategies. One must be extremely driven and self-motivated to embrace challenges to engineer success.

I am motivated by a sense of purpose and strive to achieve breakthrough progress for all the companies and to align diverse people, who are part of the Vallibel family to share in this vision. While leading different teams with varying specialities and job requirements is both exciting and inspiring, surrounding myself with smart people energizes me as it ensures that I sharpen my skills, knowledge, and maintain awareness of the different market landscapes continuously. I meet a large cross-section of people, and as a people’s person, I find this extremely rewarding and stimulating. I am very clear in my mind about my accountabilities and responsibilities to shareholders and stakeholders which include my staff who are the backbone of the organisation.

What is your vision for Vallibel One? What kind of legacy do you want to build for the company?

Vallibel One is a strategically diversified company engaged in multiple industries. As the parent company of several top-notch listed companies and household brand names as mentioned in the first question (LB Finance Plc, Delmege, Rocell, Lanka Ceramic Plc, Lanka Wall Tiles Plc, Lanka Tiles and Swisstek Ceylon Plc), it is crucial to be dynamic and indefatigable in maintaining our expertise and specialisation in each industry segment we represent. We need to be on our toes always and be nimble enough to adopt out-of-the-box approaches to solving problems and creating opportunities. What all this means is that if Vallibel One is to continue to grow in the long run, we must develop leaders in all these companies and areas. We are investing in leaders and giving them the skills needed to make sound judgements, take reasonable risks, and assume the authority to make decisions and be a best in class CEO.

Through adaptive and distributed leadership approaches we ensure that we continuously develop capable people to ensure that the company is in safe hands. Previously, CEO’s used to direct organisational activities, now they facilitate them. They used to also provide answers, but now they intelligently create an environment that fosters collaboration, ideation and collective responsibility. Whilst most companies in the group have very successfully achieved this status, we hope to achieve it across the board to ensure a healthy position across the group. All these encompass my vision for Vallibel One, which is to create a successful people-centric organisation that delivers profitability, sustainability and empowers communities. As far as legacy goes, I hope I will be remembered for my work and inspire everyone in the Vallibel One to greatness. As a leader, one must be humble, compassionate and inspirational to everyone they come across, that is something that I always try to do.

When you talk about vision, culture is critical for any organization. What is the culture you are building at Vallibel One, and how do you align everyone across the group to a singular vision?

I believe I’ve already shed some light on how important people are to Vallibel One. For us, culture connotes continuous learning, and that means being industrious and innovative and outcome-oriented. Why a culture of continuous learning? Because we all need to grow as people and as an organisation. By focusing on developing and sharpening individual skills, we are ensuring the sustainability of the organisation and a loyal base of employees.

Employee turnover of a company is always a concern because it deals with the loss of talent in the workforce over time. Businesses often calculate their rate of employee turnover as a means of predicting the impact on productivity, customer service, or even morale. According to the US-based Work Institute, career development is identified as the number one solution for reducing employee turnover, and it has shown that the cost to reskill or upskill employees is likely to be lower than the cost of turnover. For example, in Sri Lanka, it has been estimated that the cost of employee turnover for an organisation is as much as 150% of the employee’s salary.

According to The Work Institute, the cost of losing one employee in the US was $15,000 in 2019. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates employee turnover at a national level since it has a direct effect on not just a company but across a country’s economy as well.

To ensure we have cultural alignment, we strive to always recruit the correct people who display the right attributes, attitudes and values that resonate with the organisation. And of course, we ensure that we have the right leaders to bind everyone together in shared values and galvanise everyone to a common purpose.

You had an impressive 2020/21 financial year; revenue increased by 18% from the previous year, and net profit grew 133%. Can you tell us how the group achieved these results during perhaps the most challenging economic downturn due to the global pandemic? How are you leading the group through the crisis?

The unprecedented challenges in the global pandemic’s wake certainly had varying levels of impact on some of the companies in the group and surely tested our resilience.

I firmly believe that the strong resilience we displayed together with agile decision-making, prudent judgement and best-in-class practices helped us to mitigate the effects to a great extent.

We were also able to unlock the power of our human capital which was the main force that helped us to not only sustain businesses but to perform well and even exceed expectations as crisis after crisis swept over the global and domestic economies.

Among our employees, several heroes emerged and some of them demonstrated extraordinary leadership qualities although they were not necessarily in formal leadership positions. It was truly inspiring how everyone came together to ensure the organisation continued our pursuits and capitalise on the many opportunities that emerged. Once again, the diversity of the group contributed to wealth creation by acting as a safety net and negating the effects of those companies such as travel that were most impacted.

What are the next steps for Vallibel One? What is the next big, exciting thing down the road amidst the challenges confronting the economy post-pandemic?

There are several strategic investments in exciting areas. A feasibility study on outsourced semiconductor assembly and packaging is in progress, and the construction of the 500 keys luxury beach resort JW Marriot is on schedule. Also, opportunities are being explored in expanding our finance arm globally. Like all crises, the Covid-19 outbreak, no matter how unprecedented, also unleashed opportunities and served as an accelerant to speed up changes that would have otherwise taken a long time. For instance, before Covid, everyone talked about a digital economy that would take years to become manifest. However, the digital journey got a shot in the arm as more people started buying goods and services, learning, consulting doctors and doing their banking online or on mobile devices.

At Vallibel One, we had invested heavily in AI and digital tech long before Covid-19. We recognised the opportunities that digital technology, automation and machine learning could unleash for our group business segments, including finance, manufacturing, retail and transportation.

Our visionary Chairman Mr Dhammika Perera leads Vallibel One’s digital strategy and this laid the foundation for successfully navigating the pandemic.

Leaders need to keep an eye on the future while managing everyday challenges. How do you balance these competing demands as a CEO?

Of course, there are several core elements that every CEO should work on to steer the company in the right direction. You need to devote at least 30–40 % of your time to the future and vision casting where the company needs to be heading.

I can devote this time because we have strong leaders who are empowered CEOs managing the various group companies. They are driving efficiency improvements and building solutions.

We are in constant pursuit of new opportunities to deepen our financial reservoir while unleashing its potential. As my background is finance, I place great emphasis on the financials of the company as growth will not be possible if we do not have the means to invest and expand our portfolio of business.

I devote at least 30% of my time to strategy, and creating a strategic road map is critical. I also get involved in the execution of day-to-day tasks and problem-solving at a macro level. This helps provide my teams with a clear direction the company needs to take, and I also diligently analyse the key factors that define the success of the company and study any gaps that need to be bridged.

I would be failing as a CEO if I did not devote time to my personal development and strategic thinking. I find time to update myself on the new trends, digitalization, the changing market landscape and any aspect that will help me develop personally and contribute to the company.

Once you have prioritised your tasks, you need to organise your schedules and thought processes so that you can have a healthy work-life balance.

What’s the one leadership lesson you learned the hard way?

Being a CEO of a large conglomerate, which is growing rapidly, is not a walk in the park. I have learnt a lot of life lessons along the way which I gratefully put down to experience. I have learnt more from my failures than my successes. I cannot pinpoint one particular lesson, but I must confess that I learned many lessons throughout my career which made me a stronger and better person. However, I can say that I have learnt that we cannot always tread on the tested path to avoid risks, but need to embrace unconventional methods to achieve success especially in times of adversity when the real test of strength comes to play. I increasingly find myself becoming humble, recognizing that many people and levels contribute to an organization and that success cannot be achieved overnight. I must acknowledge that my confident self is the result of working with people, from my superiors to team members and staff reporting to me, who continuously inspired me to become a better version of myself in my professional, and personal life.

What is your advice to other women who strive to become CEOs of large corperates?

I believe any person has it in them to become great leaders, exceed the successes they envision for themselves or be better versions of themselves. Women have it in them to take the initiative and assume leadership roles. Recognise that you are on par with your male counterparts, even better at certain attributes, and there is nothing to stop you from exceeding your expectations if you diligently apply yourself.

Build expertise in your profession and don’t be afraid to speak the facts and especially to voice your opinions and suggest bold ideas. Work hard on reskilling and upskilling yourself, continuous development should be just that, continuous! Work hard towards a healthy work-life balance and a fulfilling family life. Be passionate, be driven but also be content