INSEE Cement’s Chief Executive Gustavo Navarro is excited about three things: a new country, a new challenge, and more fascinatingly, a booming construction industry.
With over 25-years of industry experience under his belt, Gustavo was elated to start his new journey in Sri Lanka with the opportunity to navigate the direction of Sri Lanka’s construction sector. His goal: to shift the industry towards more sustainable construction and responsible waste management, while also integrating digital technology and infrastructure to reimagine construction to meet the escalating pace of development, including AI in construction and 3D printing.
INSEE Cement operates in probably one of the most challenging and volatile industries in the country, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In that context, what has been the most exciting and most challenging part of your job?
Primarily, it is exciting to be part of this industry because we are building an integral component of society’s foundations. Not only in Sri Lanka, but all over the world, and especially where there is a need for better infrastructure. It also presents a huge responsibility because we are talking about building schools, highways, bridges, and hospitals.
In terms of challenges, especially last year because of the pandemic restrictions, it has been difficult for us to maintain supply. Often, we think about food and medicine as essential goods, but building materials also ought to be considered essentials because ultimately society depends on safe and rapidly evolving infrastructure. The construction industry was the hardest hit by the first coronavirus wave and the lockdowns to contain it.
Since we are the only company to produce cement from scratch in the country, we were able to meet the demand by safely restarting our production operations under stringent health and safety protocols. No one at INSEE was infected by Covid-19 and this is a testament to all the measures we took and also to the dedication of our people.
I took office in June 2020, and my entire first month here in Sri Lanka was under quarantine. When I finally came out it was the start of the second wave of the pandemic. However, even though the pandemic is unprecedented, my response to crisis situations is to first and foremost ensure my teams are safe, motivated and enabled to do what they do best, and this strategy has helped us through the worst period of the pandemic.
Primarily, it is exciting to be part of this industry because we are building an integral component of society’s foundations.
How do you balance the conflicting roles of managing everyday challenges while building the foundations for the future?
This industry is very operations-oriented. At INSEE, production is a 24-hour operation and 60% of management time is taken up with solving technical glitches and operational problems. Problem-solving can be very exciting but we are also mindful that we need to devote enough time to plan for the future. Amidst the frequent operational meetings, we force ourselves to find time to meet thrice a month to plan and strategise.
Additionally, we have a steering committee that is occupied with formulating special projects that will propel the growth trajectory of the company. We also devote time every day to speak to our people and solve their problems, and I feel this is a particularly important thing to do because they are the future of this company and the ones who will take us to where we want to be.
Once a month we also evaluate performance, identify new skills development and training needs, so the level of engagement with our teams is remarkably high at INSEE: this is something important to us.
And how do you think INSEE can influence the future of the industry?
Product is key. I am, and always have been, a big believer in constant innovation and enhancing productivity. We do not see ourselves competing only in the Sri Lankan market but the world! Innovative products and productivity are the ingredients needed to succeed. We also need to be agile which requires us to embrace digital transformation. As I see it, the equation is clear: digitalisation plus agility equals productivity.
The company is doing well but we need to permanently engage in improving productivity and competencies, deploy technology so that we can produce great products with fewer resources. INSEE is today the market leader in Sri Lanka but five years from now our vision is to be the market leader in both sustainable construction solutions and waste management.
I am proud that our company is influencing the shift towards sustainable construction. We are pioneers of greener and sustainable cement brands.
What are the factors shaping the future of the industry?
Let us talk about Sri Lanka first, the beauty of this country is that infrastructure development has a long way to go: everything it needs to be a developed country is yet to be built. I am happy each time I look out my window and witness the infrastructure development taking place. Infrastructure is the growth of the construction industry in the country, and we need to be part of it. We are also under obligation to be part of its journey, I believe as Sri Lanka’s leading cement producer and industry leader. The primary objective of INSEE is to meet the present and future demands of the construction industry.
There is also what I call a mega-trend shaping the future of the construction industry worldwide; sustainability. I am proud that our company is influencing the shift towards sustainable construction. We are pioneers of greener and sustainable cement brands, and we are promoting these and introducing the concept of sustainable construction to all our clients. We also have a waste management division that is driving sustainable solutions not just for the construction sector but the rest of the economy as well.
Digital technology is fast making inroads into construction and this is another area that excites us. Since the pandemic, the construction industry globally has adopted digital solutions including deploying AI in construction and 3D printing. Sri Lanka’s nascent state in digital transformation may not allow these solutions to be deployed here as yet, but in time we can expect digital technology to elevate the country’s construction sector in leaps and bounds.
Can you tell us about one leadership lesson you learnt the hard way?
I would like to quote Charles Darwin here. He said, “The most successful of the species that survives is not the one that is the strongest or the smartest, but the one that is more adaptable to change”. I learnt this lesson the hard way in my career. I was part of the leadership of Holcim, one of the leading players in the global construction industry. The leadership at Holcim were capable and strong but they could not adapt fast enough to a changing world and Holcim soon lost its place to a fairly new competitor. The lesson for me was never to be complacent about your strengths. Always watch the market, monitor your customers’ pulse, plan for risks, keep getting stronger and build for the future.
As a leader, when you look back, what do you think will matter to you about the legacy?
Since I have several years behind me, one thing that makes me proud is the privilege I’ve had to mentor and coach a generation of leaders that are today succeeding by themselves and taking up higher positions than I ever did. I worked in different countries, so these are a new generation of leaders who are spread around the world.
This is also another reason I came to Sri Lanka, because there is a large pool of talent in this company, and country, that we can develop. There are many Sri Lankans within the INSEE Group in senior management roles and they are top-notch and excel in what they do.
What advice would you give to your younger self from 10 years ago?
I would probably tell my younger self to continue doing what I do because that had got me to Sri Lanka! I will also say be more confident and believe in my values. Competition is intense and self-improvement is important but a belief in values is critical because that is what will carry you through.
Competition is intense and self-improvement is important but a belief in values is critical because that is what will carry you through