A dire national need……and long before those like supermarkets in the business of providing essentials got activated, a well-known wedding florist got cracking, using innovation, creativity and everything at his command to do a turnaround to fulfil the aspirations of the people. ‘Lassana Flora’ was into flowers and gifts such as cakes when COVID-19 gripped [...]


Blooming in a time of crisis

As the lockdown came into effect Lassana Flora got cracking, delivering essentials to households. Here, the head of this well known wedding florist, doctor turned entrepreneur, Lasantha Malavige, talks to Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Dr. Lasantha Malavige: The man behind the flowers and now also essentials. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

A dire national need……and long before those like supermarkets in the business of providing essentials got activated, a well-known wedding florist got cracking, using innovation, creativity and everything at his command to do a turnaround to fulfil the aspirations of the people.

‘Lassana Flora’ was into flowers and gifts such as cakes when COVID-19 gripped Sri Lanka but stepped in to take up the challenge of distributing essentials such as rice and vegetables to people restricted to their homes.

“Most stressful and depressing,” is how the Head of Lassana Flora, Dr. Lasantha Malavige, who incidentally was the first to specialize in sexual medicine in the country, describes the early days. “We just couldn’t cope. There was a sense of frustration and failure at not being able to meet the demand but we persevered.”

They already had an online platform and soon logistical facilities were tuned in to meet the daily needs of the people, with their fleet of vehicles not bringing back flowers from growers in remote villagers but rice, vegetables and fruit and their cool rooms making room for these perishables. The warehouses which had stored wedding structures turned into packaging centres.

For a couple of days, thousands of orders “asking for something” clogged the platform, with thousands more queueing up.

They couldn’t meet the service demand or standards, there were a lot of disappointed customers. Deliveries were sometimes made at midnight or early morn and Dr. Malavige would grab only a couple of hours of sleep before getting on the rollercoaster with his executive team.

It is on Tuesday, the first day the curfew has been lifted after nearly two months in Colombo that we meet Dr. Malavige at his Lassana Flora outlet down Wijerama Mawatha, Colombo 7.

A busy day and we see firsthand his belief that the customer is special. A smartly-clad woman is upset. “I asked for blue and pink and there are only pink flowers,” she says in dismay, as Dr. Malavige gently takes the flowers and shows her some blue ones in a vase and asks her whether he could spray some white flowers blue and re-make the bouquet to meet her requirement.

No fuss, as he murmurs instructions to his staff and a satisfied customer leaves with a smile.

Who is this man behind the flowers and now also essentials?

Firmly entrenched in values of honesty, he spent his boyhood in his hometown of Homagama, in a family of four – father, mother and younger sister, playing in the paddy-fields and schooling at D.S. Senanayake College, Colombo.

His father was a public servant whose code in life was keeping to his word “always”.

A simple happy life he led as a child and it was an uncle’s battle with cancer, the suffering, the feeling of being asarana that propelled young Lasantha towards medicine to give solace to such patients.

Entering the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Colombo as the 1993-94 batch, when he passed the Second MBBS examination and earned the six-month holiday thereafter, a childhood yearning got rekindled.

All his uncles were businessmen engaging in the construction industry and seeing them build roads etc., he too wanted to “create” something.

Long and hard he thought of his strengths and weaknesses and picked the flower business – wedding floral solutions where he could indulge his creativity on a small-scale, without a huge capital that he did not possess.

Up into the hills went Lasantha, stopping to chat with growers and found that there were no flowers for arrangements as some big companies were buying them up. He promptly told the growers to grow flowers in their backyard, promising them that he would buy back the blooms.

“This is how the village of Meepilimana in Nuwara Eliya became a horticultural hub,” smiles Lasantha, ruefully reminiscing about the first floral arrangements that he did for a wedding of a friend’s sister in Mount Lavinia.

The foliage was not delivered on time and he got on his mo-bike and went foraging, raiding his grandparents’ garden. “The bride’s bouquet was horrible,” he laughs.

It was also in medical school “over body dissections” that he met his life’s partner Neelika (now Professor of Immunology and Director of the Centre for Dengue Research at the Sri Jayewardenepura University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences).

Lassana Flora, meanwhile, was gradually taking shape, blooming as a business in 1998, with recruitment of staff and the first shop in Nawala.

“It was picking up fast and in two to three years became a very popular wedding florist,” he says.

Passing out of medical school, internship followed at the Homagama Hospital, pondering over what he should specialize in. His Consultant, Dr. K.S. Perera, suggested plastic surgery as he had “good hands”, but a desperate patient pointed him in the direction of sexual medicine.

This young man in the depths of despair had attempted to take his life. His marriage remained unconsummated due to him suffering from premature ejaculation. All the doctors he had seen kept assuring him that it would sort itself out. Not only his family but also his wife blamed him.

Those days in the early 2000s, it was only Dr. Sriyani Basnayake at the Family Planning Association (FPA) who was looking into the needs of such patients. When a vacancy occurred at the FPA, Dr. Malavige applied and got the job, resigning from state service after his internship.

For further training, as there was no post-graduate training available in Sri Lanka, he took up a research project under Prof. Devaka Fernando at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.

Later along with wife, Neelika, he headed to the United Kingdom to read for a Ph.D as a clinical research fellow in Oxford under Dr. Jonathan Levy after impressing him with all the work he had already done in this field single-handedly in Sri Lanka including diabetes-related sexual dysfunction.

All the while his flower business back home “survived”, being managed remotely by him.

Returning to Sri Lanka in 2009, Dr. Malavige was the flag-bearer of sexual medicine, oft on the podium addressing doctors and others on the importance of this field so that patients need not suffer silently.

However, the recent COVID-19 crisis has got Dr. Malavige thinking.

He believes that his work is done for sexual medicine (except for some free clinics he would run), as all doctors are now aware of this critical field and can be trained to take up the baton.

But there is a lacuna in Sri Lanka – there are no expert entrepreneurs, with only those who cannot enter a profession getting into this vital arena, he says.

Being a good entrepreneur who provides the right service is more challenging…..and this is what Dr. Malavige has set his sights on.

He and Lassana Flora have learnt many bitter lessons in the past three months, grappling with supplier issues under strict curfews and restricted routes; ensuring the safety of staff; and all about customer satisfaction.

Every day at 4 p.m. the operational team met in these trying times not only to discuss the next day’s work but also to take a close look at customer feedback and complaints. While customers could call, email, go on social media and give their feedback, every single day, his staff randomly contacted 100 customers for their views.

With the Lassana Flora call centre getting clogged, Dr. Malavige appointed three senior managers as troubleshooters and with every delivery went a little card with the signature symbol of the three colourful flowers and their names and mobile numbers.

“A crisis defines and identifies how fast you can adapt and how swiftly you can innovate. We re-engineered and re-invented. If anyone was unhappy with what was delivered to them, whether it was how it looked or even how it tasted, we replaced the product within 24 hours, with no questions asked,” says Dr. Malavige.

The target of a “happy and satisfied” customer was foremost on their minds as they grappled with numerous challenges. If they responded to 1,000 deliveries, they wanted complaints to be below 2.5. “We have got there now,” he says.

When sorting out produce, they sent only the A-grade stuff to customers even though the B-grade stuff was also good. This is what Dr. Malavige purchased for his own home and sent as donations.

Another major concern for this doctor-turned-entrepreneur is post-harvest storage and transport of produce and this he hopes to address in the near-future, while cutting out the middleman and giving the maximum to the farmer who toils to feed the country.

With a wide range of stuff on Lassana Flora’s list, Dr. Malavige’s vision for the new normal post-COVID-19 future is clear: to set the highest standards in service delivery as an entrepreneur and thereby change the quality of life of Sri Lankans.


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