Business Times

Ceylon Leather revamping their look, keeping their feel

By Duruthu Edirimuni Chandrasekera

BALUMMAHARA, Gampaha - In the second quarter of the last century, when Sri Lanka’s first shoe manufacturer the Ceylon Leather Products (CLP) came to being, anyone who would muster courage to suggest some fashion designs to be made at CLP’s factory to the British colonial rulers, who were in charge of this operation, would have got an ‘eyebrow raising’ from them. This is because since its inception CLP'’s claim to fame has been hardy shoes and the British aristocrats then had a cut-and-dry attitude about these things.

More than 72 years later, the British footwear manufacturer of the late 1930’s from sturdy rugged boots to urban elegance, is now on a journey to become a symbol of modern luxury. With a blend of tradition and modern technology, Ceylon Leather creations portray a heritage of audacity, craftsmanship and inspiration and are gearing to reposition itself as a fashion brand, whilst retaining its unique selling preposition (USP) – its hardiness.

CLP’s beginnings

According to officials, the British in the 1930s were faced with a serious problem to find suitable leather to produce footwear and leather accessories to the British Armed Forces. 'The non-violence, non-cooperation' movement by patriotic Indian citizens in India hampered the leather production and leather sales to the British in India. The Japanese Naval Force operations often disturbed the smooth sailing to Sri Lanka causing serious implications on all imports including leather.

Sitendra Senaratne

“The British rulers decided to develop a tannery for the purpose of producing leather to the armed forces with the use of local raw hides.

A suitable site at Mattakkuliya (Mutwal) near the Kelani River was identified and a well equipped tannery was established under the name of the Government Tannery and Leather Goods Factory in 1930,” said Sitendra Senaratne, Managing Director/CEO CLP reminiscing the past to the Business Times.

He said that the factory fulfilled its obligations during the Second World War by supplying leather footwear and leather accessories to the British Army.

DI brand

After the Second World War, the factory diversified its activities to produce shoes and leather accessories to the domestic market whilst maintaining its position as the largest supplier to the Armed Forces and Police Department. “The Department of Industries took over the management of the company and the products were sold under the ‘DI’ logo and in 1956 the state-owned factory was converted to a Government Corporation under the name Ceylon Leather Products Corporation. A modern shoe factory was built at Mattakkuliya in a separate site in 1962.

The tannery which is the largest in Sri Lanka was modernized in 1970. The factory production capacity was further enhanced in 1972 to produce leather accessories to the domestic and international market,” Mr. Senaratne explained.

He added that 1990 saw the Ceylon Leather Products Corporation converted to a state owned firm under the name Ceylon Leather Products Limited. In 1991 the Government sold 90% of the shares of CLP under the privatization program and 2007 saw a significant change in the shareholding with foreign investors having confidence in the prospects and the potential growth of the company investing on company shares through the Colombo Stock Exchange.

Shoe smell

Mr. Senaratne said that the journey to fashion is been made easier with the company shifting its manufacturing processes to Balummahara, in the Gampaha District from the original place at Mutwal. “In 2009, we shifted our factory from Mutwal to Balummahara and increased its capacity. Now we do 5700 shoes per day and have a host of expansion plans for this year,” he added.

Factory. Pics by Sanka Vidanagama

When walking into the CLP factory the first thing that hits you is the unmistakable aroma of leather. Then the methodical array of shoe-making machines catches one’s eye. The factory staff is mostly from the Balummahara area and extremely skilled, according to Mr. Senaratne. The leather products unit in the company is producing items such as travelling bags, office, bags, toilet bags, cricket bags, sportsman bags, tennis bags, back packs, ladies hand bags, pencil cases, gents purses and wallets, money purses, belts, folders, workmen’s belts, etc. Mr. Senaratne is also proud about the company’s order book being full till June this year. “We have a motto – that –we’ll not manufacture cheap, synthetic, mass production shoes.

Our market is more high-end targeting urban and semi-urban population,” Mr. Senaratne said, adding that with the new management, Environmental Resources and Investments (ERI) which controls the company since 2008, CLP decided to change its direction slightly to supply hip designs to the urbanities. In 2010 the company launched its exclusive range of footwear, bags, accessories and home-ware. Inspired by nature this range uses natural products to enhance the textured surface of leather. The new designs infuse local hand-woven fabric and natural coconut shells adding spice and allure to the innovative designs.

“We went into fashion accessories such as bags, belts, small ornaments, etc for the domestic market,” Mr. Senaratne noted, adding that the demand for this range has been high during the past year.

Total look

He added that this year will be an ambitious one for CLP. “We are planning to infuse Rs. 100 million to revamp the company’s leather, shoe and leatherwear production this year.” He said that in the next three years CLP plans to be fashion conscious. “We were a traditional firm which was supplying hardy shoes mainly for the forces, now we intend to make a name with the younger generation with fashion statements, but will not compromise on our USP (unique selling point),” he reiterated.

With the investment of more than 50% in South Asia Textiles more famous as Pugoda textiles from a Singaporean firm last year has set pace for CLP to become more ambitious. “We bought this together with ERI and it has made us look at shoes as part of apparels. We have plans to expand more in this sector,” Mr. Senaratne said, adding that in time they’ll concentrate on the total look.

He said that during the last two years the progressive moves by the government such as introducing CESS and duties to deter dumping of cheap shoes from abroad has seen the local manufacturers getting more breathing space. “The dumping stopped to a larger extent,” he added. He also noted that the duty free concessions granted for the machinery of footwear industry has also worked well for them. “This is why we’re importing machinery and trying to enhance our capacity to 5,000 shoes per day by end this year,” he added.

He said out of the 1,700 shoes that are put out a day, 60% are for the armed forces, while the balance is for other consumption.

CLP, whose products are been exported to India, China, Japan, UK and the European Union, is also gearing to come out as a firm which will eventually go international. “We’re in the process of talking to reputed international brands to manufacture shoes for them. But these are in the initial conceptual stages,” he said.

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