ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday April 13, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 46
Financial Times  

The Bernard Group looking ahead with pride and determination

By Feizal Samath

The first team in 1948/1949

Kohuwela -- The Bernard Botejue Group in Sri Lanka has seen it all happening in the 60 years of its existence – the closed market phase; the first export of garments; the drive towards rejuvenating village economies during the Ranasinghe Premadasa era; and the ‘Ayo yudda, yudda (war, war) … how can we progress’ era of innovative-lacking entrepreneurs.

Perhaps the closed markets of the 1970s was the most intriguing period for then-young Janaka Botejue when he saw traders line up with bundles of money, dump it on the table of his father, Bernard Botejue, and plead for goods. “That was the cash era where anything that was produced was sold: good or bad quality. It was a difficult period but it was a cash market in the domestic scene. I remember as a kid, people coming and leaving bundles of cash on the table and telling my father ‘Mahattaya mahapu davasa badu denna.’ That was a sellers paradise as goods were in short supply,” Janaka Botejue, now Managing Director of Bernard Botejue Industries, recalled as he went down memory lane.

We were seated in the small corporate office of Bernard’s, one of Sri Lanka’s pioneer garment industries, at Kohuwela discussing the travails and tribunals of the company. Bernard’s celebrated 60 years in the business two weeks ago and along with Velona and Maxim is among a few of the surviving businesses – of the 1950s/1960s generation - in this industry.

Bernard Botejue, a visionary who died in 1998 aged 84, and his wife (now 78), raised a business from a mere ‘tuggarung’ (zinc) shed to a successful entity that has stood the test of time and moved on – with the help of his sons – to different areas of activity. The millennium was where Janaka, whose son bears the name of the grandfather (Bernard Botejue) and is also an executive director, took firm control, waded through a major financial crisis in the company, restructured and has taken the firm to a new level. The future of the company – 10/20 years down the road -- now lies in the hands of the third generation Botejue (the younger Bernard) and international trading.

The current team with Janaka Botejue (third from right)

“The future lies in international trading … that’s our game plan. Garments will continue but we’re moving ahead with trading with an office in Los Angeles and in a couple of years in London. We want to sell our products and that of small manufacturers from Sri Lanka,” he said.

Discipline and values
Janaka is a no-nonsense man and finds many a flaw amongst the younger generation of entrepreneurs. Having schooled under one of the best generation of entrepreneurs (his father),the discipline and values has led him to the theory that life is not a bed of roses and one has to work hard at it; instead of expecting things to happen. “You must make it happen,” he says, listing what he calls the ‘handout culture’ as a major weakness in Sri Lankan society.

“Industrialists got used to the garments quota and grumbled when it ended. Sri Lankans are a nation of handouts. Rich or poor … it doesn’t matter. We wait for handouts – or we don’t work. That’s a sickly culture. We ask – what will the EDB give us; what will the government give us. Great industrialists like Tata and Mittal of India didn’t wait for things to happen. They worked hard and succeeded.”

He said entrepreneurs sit in Colombo and say “Yudda, Yudda,” and nothing happens. “People are scared to go out. Forget it: the world is beckoning and we must have a go; instead of waiting for something to fall on our laps,” says Janaka.

While many people including himself complained about the ‘forced’ creation of 200 garment factories by former President Ranasinghe Premadasa in the early 1990s, he now sees a lot of value in that initiative.

Premadasa was committed
Premadasa had a commitment to perform and at that time someone suggested that locating a factory in each electorate will boost the village economy. He picked garments and it was unique as at that time there was no business development outside Colombo. Under this scheme, employment and distribution of money is huge.“Those days it was Rs 2 million but now some Rs 6 million a month is disbursed in each area. Almost Rs 75 million a year in cash flows through each village which no other industry can provide,” he said.

Although industrialists grumbled then, 99 percent of these factories, in Janaka’s estimation, are a success not only for the companies but for the village.

A little known fact is that a few days before Premadasa was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber, he had a meeting with factory owners where he discussed a plan for each factory to set up a cold room, store village produce and transport it to the markets in Colombo.

“Villagers had no market and were being fleeced (by intermediaries) and didn’t get the best price. We were not happy at all. First we were lugged with factories in the outstations and now we were asked to put up cold rooms,” smiled Janaka, recollecting how the reluctant garment scheme eventually turned into a massive success.

The cold room concept in the village is now an innovation by the Cargills group where it has brought the villager to market with better prices for both the producer and the consumer.

Recalling how his father started the business in 1948, Janaka said:

“My father who was working in another company quit his job to start Bernard’s primarily as a vest manufacturer. He was then competing against the imported British vest.

When he quit that job he borrowed some money from friends. Earlier he also had a part time job as a librarian in the Medical College and had Dr P.R. Anthonis and other doctors as friends. He borrowed money from them and brought down one knitting machine and two sewing machines.

Slept in a shack
A ‘tuggarung’ shed was put up on ancestral coconut land at Kohuwela. His house was down the road. But he put up a shack and had a ‘booru anda’ where he slept besides the machines. Bleaching of the fabric was done on big tubs with firewood and manual labour. Those were the beginnings.

His finger nails were often different colours of chemical - blue, orange. There were 2-3 girls who switched the banians. My father then got into the vehicle and with the driver drove across the countryside upto Jaffna and was on the road until all stocks were sold. The (small) factory was closed during this period until he returned and resumed production before going out. He was a simple man. After one year from zero, the company had 35 workers.

Mum starts working
In 1966, he got married; that’s how my mother entered the business. After their honeymoon, Mum asked; what shall we do? ‘Get dressed, we are going to work,’ was his reply.

When she came in there was lot of input, lot of new development, innovation. She was involved in the business in all areas.

hey were all hands one. I remember as a kid my mum running around with the book and counting as loading took place.

In 1966, my mother was selected for a Colombo Plan scholarship to Germany for business development. Both my mother and father went to Germany and spent six months there. She was one of the few women in business at that time.

That was a turning point in the business where the company grew. New machines were brought down and Bernard’s moved into manufacture of ladies blouses, shorts, T-shirts from banians only. At that time in the banian range there were only Velona’s, a manufacturer from Moratuwa and a strong banian producer in Jaffna.

The company moved into sportswear and football jerseys. The first export was in the 1970s with blouses to the UK. Although it was a good cash period in the 1970s, the company didn’t develop as there was no need to develop since whatever produced was sold for hard cash.

New era
1977 opened the doors to export. The Export Development Board helped industrialists like us in 1978 to take part in our first international exhibition in New York. Bernard’s began cotton gloves exports in 1978-79 under a joint venture with a Hong Kong investor but after the 1983 riots that investor pulled out.

In 1992, under President Premadasa’s 200 garment factories’ scheme, Bernard’s opened a factory at Kolonna in Embilipitiya with 500 workers. At the same time the company invested in a fabric plant which unfortunately was not successful”.

Bumpy ride
Janaka said the late 1990s to 2000 was a bumpy ride for the company. “Financially down, we made wrong investments in the fabric plant. Decisions were wrong; mistakes were made,” he recalled.

Then Bernard’s became a BOI company and at this point the local and export sections of the business were separated. Janaka took over the export segment while his elder brother took charge of the local business operations under separate companies.“Before becoming MD, I was involved in sales and marketing. Started my life straight from school and was put into the factory cutting section and then showrooms by my father. I did van sales and made my first export in 1982. At the same time we went to Belgium for a trade exhibition. It was important to attend exhibitions for exposure. It was a huge learning.”

Janaka then restructured the company and built a dedicated team modelled on team spirit, financial and social empowerment. Decision-making was entrusted to the team. “My involvement in garments is less than five percent,” he said.

His 7-member senior management team including his son, Bernard, now runs the entire operation. Most of the managers are not from the popular Colombo schools but come from Matara, Embilipitiya.

The Marketing Manager started as a cutter while the Financial Controller’s parents are still farmers in a village in Embilipitiya. The latter’s move up the corporate ladder, Janaka says, shows the success of free education. “He went to a village school, to university; started as a petty cash clerk at Kolonna and is now our Financial Controller.”

“It’s a lot of hard work but everyone shares responsibility. We look after staff well – we’re one big family.” The company manages a tea estate in Sooriyakanda (this is where allegedly the bodies of some young students were dumped during the JVP crisis in 1987-90 and the mountainside visited by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga before she contested the presidency).

Moving out
Bernard’s has a workforce of 1500 in garments and plantations. In 2006 Bernard’s moved the factory out of the Kohuwela premises where now lies the accounts, marketing, shipping and sample room and the corporate headquarters. The two garment production plants are located in Kolonna and Hambantota. The company produces bulk tea for export but plans to launch its own premium branded tea in Los Angeles.

Last year Mount Sunshine was set up in LA as a trading company with further plans by Bernard’s to start designing their own garments and sell in the US.

“This unit will also be a platform for local small products from Sri Lanka. We want to help promote and sell other produce from small manufacturers in Sri Lanka,” chipped in young Bernard Boteju, who is handling the international operations of the group.
Janaka says they see a lot of scope in agriculture and is currently test marketing vanilla for export while plans are also afoot to export virgin coconut oil which is cholesterol free. “We were told that vegetable oil was better healthwise than home-made coconut oil. But that’s a fallacy now -- coconut oil is much better and healthier.”

The UK and the US are the company’s main garment export markets, winning an award from UK retailer Sainsbury for quality products.

Be positive
Janaka has plenty to say about the now generation and its lethargy. “Sri Lanka has a lot of potential. Intellectually we are good, we are smart .. but we lack being positive. Whenever you meet someone we say ‘machan kohomada’ and pat comes the reply ‘Ohay innawa.’ Why ‘Ohay innawa’ … why not a positive response like ‘Maru machan’?”

“I am positive. We have great opportunities. We don’t talk of the war … we look for opportunities.” Amongst the plans for the future is to turn the near 2-acre Kohuwela premises into a commercial complex, subsequently with apartments like the Havelock City model.

On April 1, the premises was renamed Bernards Business Park where there are 10 tenants including Cargills Food City and Bernard’s occupies just a small part of the location.


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