A decade ago, Gunawardena could have had a comfortable job in finance. But he chose to join Asia Asset Finance, then a finance company on the verge of collapse. Today, as its Chief Executive, he led an aggressive branch and loan book expansion campaign during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Can you tell us about the circumstances that led to your appointment as Chief Executive at Asia Asset Finance?
When I joined Asia Asset Finance, the company had a going concern challenge with a negative net worth of nearly Rs200 million. I had just returned to Sri Lanka after completing my higher studies abroad with a degree in business and information systems in the UK and a Master’s in accounting from Australia. My first job since returning was as a senior investment analyst for a leading investment house. While I had the opportunity to seek a more comfortable job role at the start of my career, I decided to accept the Asia Asset Finance offer simply because the company was going through a restructuring: it was a challenge that gripped me. It was a great learning opportunity. I joined as a Director and was soon appointed Chief Executive and entrusted with leading the turnaround. Ten years later, Asia Asset Finance’s net worth is now over Rs2.2 billion reporting satisfactory growth even during the most challenging of times.
The challenge of turning around Asia Asset Finance enticed you to join the company in the first place, and you have achieved success. Apart from that, what is your proudest achievement?
Restructuring the company and making it profitable sooner than expected was a great moment. But then again, I would rate our achievements in 2020 higher, the year of the global pandemic. Covid-19 blindsided the whole world. Everyone was groping in the dark, and one year later, the world is still figuring things out. In Sri Lanka, the country went into lockdown overnight and didn’t open up for nearly two months. Apart from essential services, businesses shut down, and people lost their livelihoods or had to take massive pay cuts. In all my life, I had never experienced a crisis of this magnitude before. No one had! We were anxious but held our nerves.
During the lockdown, we took the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and restructure our business. Asia Asset Finance is backed by one of the largest foreign shareholders in the industry, so we had the confidence to face the challenges and uncertainties that confronted the company.
We overhauled our business model and decided to aggressively expand our business network by 60%, along with a revised post-covid product line. Our strategy showed strong results within a short period, and this encouraged our investors, created new funding lines and gave us a further boost of confidence and energy. As a result, we negated the negative impact of the pandemic on our business during the period. We had taken a crisis and turned it into an opportunity. In 2021, our credit rating outlook was revised from negative to stable as we showed tangible improvements in our operations and financial stability and reaffirmed with new funding lines. We have opened funding opportunities to bolster our capital as well. In my view, securing the stability and growth of this company during an unprecedented pandemic and economic crisis is the proudest achievement yet!
Wasn’t it challenging to come up with such a contrarian strategy and run with it?
It certainly was. But it’s the challenge of achieving the desired objective that drives us all at Asia Asset Finance. The lockdown gave us pause, so we were able to re-strategise and plan quickly. We earned the confidence and support of the board, staff and even our customers during the pandemic. They appreciated the value of aggressive yet focused lending and branch expansion when the market was cautious. Communication is critical to success. It was an important lesson I learnt during the restructuring period early in my career: you need a great vision and a credible plan to make things happen, but communication rallies everyone together, cements trust and inspires confidence to achieve something remarkable, something special.
What is your vision for the company? What excites you most about the future?
Our vision is to ensure that our products and services bring stability and growth to our customers by providing consistent returns and value additions to all our stakeholders. Our business model is simple by design and honed to give customers, shareholders and employees tangible results: this is how we will grow to become a significant contributor in shaping the fortunes of the people of this country.
Restructuring the company and making it profitable sooner than expected was a great moment. But then again, I would rate our achievements in 2020 higher, the year of the global pandemic