An Echelon Media Company
Monday December 4th, 2023

Hanif Yusoof: Steering Expolanka Beyond Logistics

Hanif Yusoof Co-founder and CEO of Expolanka Holdings

Co-founder and Group CEO Hanif Yusoof gave leadership to efforts to build the Expolanka Group PLC into a company that thrives in their logistic vertical under the brand EFL in which it had phenomenal success. The company has perfected an asset-light expansion model across most of its businesses and deepened relationships with everyone they interact with. In the logistics sector, the company has 60+ offices employing more than 2,400 people across 25 countries. Expolanka has invested considerable resources to expand its logistics offerings in Asia, Europe, and the US.

“When we invest in a country, we do not buy warehouses or trucks. We invest in people and technology. This strategy helped us pivot faster than others and is also why we can grow our global footprint fast,” Yusoof said.

Today, Yusoof has a grander vision for the Expolanka group.

In the financial year ending March 2021, Expolanka group reported revenue of Rs218 billion. Six years earlier, group revenue was Rs56 billion, which means the group revenue has grown an impressive 25% annually, led by EFL. EFL started out as a freight forwarding service provider for the Expolanka Group but has since evolved to a global company. Going forward, Yusoof is building the group’s IT company, ITX360, to replicate that kind of growth for the group.

ITX360 is now growing out of logistics-related technologies and evolving; it is reaching out to a wide range of industries and businesses. Yusoof wants ITX360 to be a major player in the region. Expolanka’s leisure and travel business, Classic Travels, is also looking at experiential travel, an emerging segment that holds much promise for post-pandemic growth.

What was your founding vision for Expolanka Holdings, and how has it evolved since then? What are some of the milestones of that journey?

When we started the company, it was about capturing the right opportunities with Sri Lanka introducing itself back into global trade when the economy opened.

We went about setting and acquiring businesses that complimented our core whilst looking at new and emerging markets, always staying true to our mantra of Dare to Do, and this thinking remains to date. We strive to achieve heights that other companies have not even considered before.

In terms of milestones, the most notable was when we went public in 2011 and moved away from a family-owned business, the global rebranding of Expolanka Freight to EFL in 2012, and then being acquired by SG Holdings in 2014 to be recognised as a multinational conglomerate. The journey from a family-owned entity to a diversified conglomerate and to become market leaders in our core segments has been an interesting one.

Expolanka has been successful in some of the most challenging markets around the world. Can you talk about your experiences and reasons for succeeding in these markets?

I do not think we adopted different strategies for different markets except that we always put our customers first and then altered our business model to meet their requirements. It was always a part of me from the time I started Expolanka Freight, and it continues to be something that everyone identifies with across the Expolanka group.

As a mindset, it helps reduce any limitations in thinking and gives you the freedom to adapt to the ground situation and do what you need to do to keep the customer happy. In the 90s, we set up offices in markets that did not have fully functioning airports and ports at the request of customers, just so that we could continue to give them the same level of service and commitment.

Another reason is our ability to build strong relationships. The group businesses primarily function as B2B service providers. You succeed over time because of the personal relationships and connections you establish in any market or industry that you have operations. I always tell my teams to value relationships because doing so has served me well for over 40 years, and the business too.

I aspire to build Classic Travels as the market leader in the leisure and experiential travel sector and see our tech-arm ITX 360 grow into an endto-end solutions provider among the top 10 in the region

What is your proudest achievement?

I would not necessarily call it an achievement but seeing the growth and spread of the EFL global family, from a team of five people in Colombo to over 2,500 across the world, is something that gives me immense joy.

Many people contributed to the growth of the global brand and made sacrifices that have enabled us to get to where we are. I am eternally grateful for their support and commitment and want to continue to inspire them as we progress in our journey.

The fact that we have helped our customers grow is another aspect that I am enormously proud of, and it is heart-warming to note that they continue to work with us across most of the group businesses. Another rewarding experience is watching people develop and grow in their roles and careers and helping them to achieve their fullest potential.

What are the factors shaping the future of the logistics sector, and what about the future excites you the most?

Logistics is fast evolving, and the pandemic has only increased the scrutiny and dependency on the industry. Wherever and whenever markets are disrupted or shut, supply chain professionals become busier than usual. Therefore, adapting to disruptions and the ability to continue operations take precedence over other developments.

Thus, the need intensifies to look at technologies and manage processes digitally. It is interesting because core fundamentals still involve physically moving cargo even as we attempt to eliminate every physical impediment for efficient processes and service excellence. I am keen to see how the future will unfold as this is still a people-centric business that cannot afford to depend on systems and processes alone.

What is the next big thing planned for Expolanka Holdings?

We have always maintained that we grow with our customers and look at supporting them in their plans. Global demand is shifting, and new markets are opening. So, our focus now is to continue expanding our global footprint, and we will do this through acquisitions and investments in companies that share our values and are market leaders.

Also, we are keen to become a total supply chain solutions company by positioning ourselves beyond the freight and distribution focus. It will open a range of opportunities across multiple industry verticals and markets and enable us to become a top player in the supply chain industry.

On the Leisure side, we are focusing on experiential travel and fine-tuning our offerings to support growth. On the tech side, we want to disrupt global logistics. We perfected the asset-light model to grow our worldwide reach, and now technology will drive global expansion faster.

With ITX360, we are confident we can transform and support the digitalisation of most businesses. ITX360 will drive solutions for businesses across different industries, so it is moving beyond logistics.

We always wanted to be lean and agile and focus on new opportunities rather than just managing day-to-day operations

How has Covid-19 impacted the industry you are in, and how has Expolanka Holdings performed? What is your strategy for the next year or so with Covid-19 expected to be around?

We have had an exceptional year, and not just in terms of securing new business, but also in sharp procurement and capturing opportunities during the pandemic. It is also about how we have evolved as a group and altered our operating models.

We transitioned from a purely brick and mortar model to work remotely and connect with teams and customers anywhere. The new normal has forced us to relook at things that we were not so mindful of previously.

Looking ahead, I would like to use this opportunity to transform the Expolanka group.

We always wanted to be lean and agile and focus on new opportunities rather than just managing day-to-day operations. However, we need to focus on managing risks arising from the current market situation and the worsening pandemic, so we will tread carefully till the end of the year before implementing new plans.

What is your long term vision for the group?

The desire to take the company further is still in me, but I would also like to set the path for other Sri Lankan companies to go international. But we cannot just be known outside our borders: we need to become the best and be among those who are known and recognised globally.

I want people to remember Expolanka for taking chances and adapting to industry needs to become market leaders in everything we do. We do what we do not because we want to exist. We always strive to be better than we had been yesterday, and this can only happen if we stay hungry. I would like to see EFL among the top 20 global brands in logistics someday. I aspire to build Classic Travels as the market leader in the leisure and experiential travel sector and see our tech-arm ITX360 grow into an end-to-end solutions provider among the top 10 in the region.

What is the boldest decision you ever had to make?

When I started setting up operations overseas, many told me you need to be a local company to do business in those markets or that looking outside Sri Lanka would be a mistake. However, I always knew that we would be successful if we stuck to the basics of putting our customers first.

What is the one leadership lesson you had to learn the hard way?

It was learning to lose my fear of failure. Opportunities manifest only to those who are ready to grab them. Everything does not come down to numbers alone. When you have to build a business, many moving parts and opportunities may not all be visible in the most professional of business plans and research. You have to trust your gut and not let the fear of failure stifle you.

As a business leader, you need to keep one eye on the future while focusing on day to day challenges and operations. How do you balance these conflicting demands?

You need to pick the right teams and assign ownership to manage day-to-day operations, so you can then focus on the future. Businesses do not survive by operating the same way year after year. They thrive when they adapt to situations and reimagine themselves. For that, you need to stay hungry and develop a purpose that is beyond your individual goals and aspirations.

We have had an exceptional year, and not just in terms of securing new business, but also in sharp procurement and capturing opportunities during the pandemic

What advice would you give to young people thinking of starting their own business or venturing into a career in the corporate sector?

Always be true to yourself. Do not be deterred by those who tell you that you will not make it. You have to know what you are good at and use those skills to take you where you want to go. For every entrepreneur, the journey is more rewarding than the destination. Take a moment to reflect and enjoy the ride because you may never have this opportunity again.