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Sunday June 20th, 2021

Shameen Peiris on Hela Intimates’ Covid response, growth and finding purpose

Shameen Peiris Chief Executive at Hela Intimates

The Chief Executive of clothing manufacturer Hela Clothing’s intimates business reflects on the pandemic’s impact and importance of aligning teams to a single vision.

The 2019/20 financial year was a turnaround period for Hela Clothing after a restructuring and transformation the previous year. But then came the Covid-19 pandemic. What did that mean for Hela Clothing, particularly the intimates cluster that you lead?

I was Finance Director and Chief Operations Officer at Hela Clothing during the restructuring phase. Members of the senior management team had to take on multiple responsibilities during this time, and I gave leadership to several IT projects.

As a team, we engineered a spectacular turnaround and generated some growth momentum before Covid-19 struck. I was appointed Chief Executive of Hela Intimates just when Sri Lanka went into lockdown in March 2020. Unlike most companies, we were unintentionally ready for the pandemic-related crises and responded much faster than most companies because we had already been through a restructuring phase. We already built a dynamic, resilient culture, one more suited to navigate a period of crisis.

Despite the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020, we managed to maintain sales and profitability at pre-pandemic levels at the end of the 2020/21 financial year. Initially, however, our customers stopped giving us orders, and production was on hold.

Hela’s restructure and transformation a few years ago left us with quick reflexes to respond to Covid-19. We found ourselves agile enough to make quick decisions and execute them fast. Decision-making took a ponderous amount of time pre-restructure. We preserved cash and managed overheads to meet fixed costs and obligations to suppliers and workers.

We planned to hold out for as long as possible after revenue flows took a hit. I am proud to say that we did not have to let go of staff. We took on some order for PPEs, and that helped our cashflows. When our export markets gradually reopened for business, Hela Clothing bounced back faster than expected. We ended that financial year stronger than ever after reporting the highest revenue and profitability for any quarter, with Hela Intimates making the highest contribution to both. Our production plants in Kenya and Ethiopia operate on double shifts to handle the recovering orders.

Hela Clothing is a $225 million export revenue company with Hela Intimates’ contribution at around $180 million

What is your vision for Hela Intimates?

The future goals of Hela Intimates align with the vision of the group. We want to position as an intimates player that provides holistic value-added services across the entire supply chain. We don’t have a narrow focus on margins and profitability. We aim to give strategic solutions to our customers’ problems from design to manufacturing, warehousing, packaging and even delivery. Consumers are increasingly concerned about sustainability, so we are building innovative product designs to help our customers relate to emerging consumer preferences.

Hela Clothing is a $225 million export revenue company with Hela Intimates’ contribution at around $180 million. By giving our customers holistic, end-to-end solutions, we hope to become a $500 revenue company in three to five years.

How do you ensure that everyone shares the same purpose?

Traditionally, people worked for a salary and promotions with higher pay, and various other incentives motivate people to take on additional responsibilities. At Hela, we do things differently. We have built a culture where everyone grows along with the company: Hela will grow the pie, and everyone who has contributed will see their share of the returns grow with it, not just the investors and banks who have backed the company. To achieve this, the company introduced employee share options to give a sense of ownership of the company and its fate. It is an effective incentive. It will motivate everyone from the shop floor to senior management to help our customers grow, and thereby help the company grow. That, I guess, is a unique situation where people think beyond their monthly pay checks or future promotions. Suddenly, they are thinking of the bigger picture as co-owners of a company!

As CEO of Hela Intimates, how do you view your purpose?

The ability to unlock the potential of each individual within the company is the fundamental purpose of my job. You must communicate your goals and share your values and passions for the job and the industry. You need to have a purpose for the organisation and the team you lead. It must be something that others can relate to and draw inspiration from to do great things. A reason to show up each morning.

We have built a culture where everyone grows along with the company