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Monday December 4th, 2023

Mevan Peiris: Unlocking Sri Lanka’s Maritime Potential

Mevan Peiris Group Director for Business Development at Ceyline Holdings

Mevan Peiris, Group Director for Business Development at Ceyline Holdings, has nearly doubled the size of the group in less than three years. Here, he discusses how the company is shaping the future of the shipping industry in Sri Lanka.

How do you define your purpose as the Group Director for Business Development at Ceyline Holdings?

From a broad perspective, my purpose as Group Director for Business Development at Ceyline Holdings is to create equitable livelihoods for Sri Lankans and generate foreign exchange for the country. To achieve this, my purpose within the group is to take Ceyline to the next level and transform the group into an end-to-end shipping solutions provider.

Ceyline Holdings has been in operations for 35 years. One of the core values instilled in all of us by the Chairman of Ceyline Holdings, Captain Ajith Peiris, my father, is to always put people first. I fully subscribe to this core value which is at the heart of everything we do in terms of creating new business opportunities to help the group take a quantum leap. Initially, Ceyline primarily provided placements to Sri Lankan seafarers on foreign ships. This is a segment that earns high salaries in foreign exchange. Today, there are over 3,500 seafarers or merchant seamen registered with us.

We later diversified into education and professional maritime training to equip Sri Lankans with the skills they need to secure high-paying placement onboard merchant vessels. Today, Ceyline Holdings comprises over 20 companies employing 900 people across a range of allied industries in the shipping industry, from ship repairs to engineering, ship management, ship supplies, container modification services, logistics, freight forwarding, and container storage solutions. Ceyline also represents some of the leading shipping lines in Sri Lanka. We branched out to healthcare and the travel and leisure industries as well. The next big, exciting step for us would be in ship owning, a lucrative business if done right, and this is something we are exploring.

Everything we do at Ceyline is about giving people better livelihood opportunities and generating much needed foreign exchange earnings for the country. I was recently appointed to the board of Ceylon Shipping Corporation, and my vision there is the same. There is potential for the seafarer profession to generate $1 billion in foreign remittances over the next five years, so I am excited about the opportunity to make a significant contribution.

How has the group performed since you started leading business development?

I cannot take credit for the successes of Ceyline Holdings because it is the effort of 900 people across the group and the visionary leadership of our Chairman and senior management that built the company to where it is today. Ceyline was an Rs2 billion revenue company in 2018 when I became Group Director for Business Development. We set a goal to double group revenue by 2023 through organic growth and diversification. By 2021, we had reached Rs3.8 billion, so we are well on our way to exceed our expectations by 2023! My target now is to hit Rs.5 billion by 2023.

In everything we do at Ceyline, it is all about giving people better livelihood opportunities and generating much needed foreign exchange earnings for the country

What is your biggest achievement, and why?

There are a few, but I am immensely proud of what we achieved in 2020, the pandemic year. As I said before, the success of the group hinges on everyone sharing a vision. It has helped us through difficult times as well. For instance, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, we were able to identify new opportunities and make swift decisions because we put people at the core of what we do.

When shipping ports globally stopped shipping crew disembarkation due to the pandemic and countries were refusing to take in seafarers, we came up with a plan to assist the global maritime industry and help bring back stranded Sri Lankan seafarers from wherever they were. We devised a solution together with public officials across healthcare, port and airport operations, to do this while maintaining high Covid-19 health and safety standards. I would say it was a turning point for our country and our company.

As a result, we became recognised as a major crew-change logistics company. Also, Sri Lanka emerged as a regional hub for seafarer crew management that came to the rescue of the global maritime industry. Since June 2020, this new business contributes $3-4 million to the Sri Lankan economy each month and helped all our stakeholders during the difficult year.

What is the next big thing for Ceyline Shipping?

We have embarked on a few game-changing ventures. One is increasing the number of Sri Lankan seafarers. Currently, we have 16,000 active seafarers in the country, and the global pool is 1.6 million, so Sri Lanka accounts for just one per cent of that. We are working with the Ministry of Ports and Shipping to increase this number from 16,000 to 50,000 within five years.

The largest supplier of seafarers is the Philippines. Based on the feedback we get from our clients, they want to break that dependency and look at alternative nationalities: an opportunity for us to grab. The current pool of seafarers in Sri Lanka generates $300 million of foreign remittance per annum. We want to aim for $1 billion in foreign remittances per annum in 5-years from seafaring and marine-related jobs. This includes opening equal opportunities for females as the industry has evolved so much that seafarer jobs now require technical competencies and skills rather than brawn.

Ceyline through CINEC Campus has the necessary infrastructure to train and develop the required skills to be a leading supplier of highly qualified and skilled seafarers to the global shipping line industry. We are looking at a Public-Private collaboration to enhance the training and development facilities in the country to facilitate this increase in seafarer job opportunities. In addition to that, as I mentioned earlier, we want to venture into ship owning. Ceyline intends to be a stakeholder of the entire value chain in the shipping industry.

We want to venture into ship owning. Ceyline intends to be a stakeholder of the entire value chain in the shipping industry

What are the factors shaping the future of the shipping industry?

Global shipping lines are venturing into allied areas and consolidating supply chains. The impact of this on the industry is transformative. Shipping lines are moving beyond the traditional liner business into end-to-end logistics and last-mile delivery. Technology will also transform the industry just like it has done for so many others. For instance, digital platforms will allow end-consumers to directly contact a shipping line and book container space on a ship. It is only a matter of time before technology wipes out the middlemen. Freight forwarders, a big industry in Sri Lanka, will be significantly affected. There are about 450 freight-forwarding companies in the country. At Ceyline Holdings, which has a freight forwarding arm, we have an eye on the tech upheavals happening around us. We are continuously reinventing ourselves by creating more value additions for our clients.

What was the one leadership lesson you had to learn the hard way? Please explain

One thing that I have learned over the years is to trust my instincts. Some ventures are successful, while some are not, and others need a lot of patience and diligence. You need to trust your gut and walk away from those ventures that do not feel right no matter how enticingly lucrative; or persist with ones that may take a long time to bear fruit but will be worth it in the long run. Another lesson I learned the hard way was knowing when to let go. If you are in a leadership position or starting a project, in the beginning, you must be hands-on and thorough with it. You can have all the expertise around you, but if you are not going to be the driver behind the wheel, the results will fall short of expectations.

For instance, when we launched the crew change business in 2020 during the height of the pandemic, things did not go too well because state officials had not effectively communicated procedures and protocols during a time of high pandemic risk. I had set up the business and let others run it, but it was too early to disengage. I learnt then that until a new venture takes on a life of its own, you need to be deeply involved. It then gives managers and teams direction and confidence to take over and grow the business.

What is the boldest decision you ever had to make?

In my line of work, every decision is a bold decision. However, learning to walk away from opportunities ranks right on top, I guess. I tend to focus on the next big thing that can change the company and the industry. Any business, or industry for that matter, that cares about making a positive impact and realising sustainable growth, needs to innovate and constantly reinvent itself. It is the same with people.

When I returned to Sri Lanka in 2012 after working overseas, I started a forum for young shipping professionals to network and share our passion for, and learn about the industry where we found our true calling. I was excited about the project and the opportunity to make a difference. The forum was a huge success and continues to bring together like-minded professionals from across the industry.

I was similarly excited about being elected to an executive committee of a professional body. I relished the thought of making a difference, but I realised soon enough, and sadly at that, there were personal agendas and other things that were not in the best interest of the entire industry. So, I decided to walk out to focus on creating real value and new opportunities for the people of this country with Ceyline.

One thing that I have learned over the years is to trust my instincts. Some ventures are successful, while some are not, and others need a lot of patience and diligence