Corporate View: Nishedha Gunawardena, Aitken Spence PLC

Published: Jan 2023

Focus, purpose and hard work

Nishedha Gunawardena puts his career success down to hard work, after getting a break at Citibank as a teenager and setting his heart on working in treasury. Since then, he has been purposeful and diligent in climbing the career ladder and reaching the position he’s in today.

Nishedha Gunawardena

General Manager – Treasury
Aitken Spence PLC

Anchored to a rich history spanning over 150 years, Aitken Spence PLC is one of Sri Lanka’s time-honoured and respected conglomerates with thriving business interests across diverse industries. Its trademark is borne across many pioneering projects in tourism, maritime, logistics, energy, plantations, services, and apparel in the region. Listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange since 1983, it possesses a credible record for partnering with global principals in every sector it operates in. With a growing presence across India, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Oman, Fiji, Mozambique and Myanmar, its adeptly perceptive of new avenues, opportunities and frontiers for sustainable value creation.

Purpose as happiness

Psychology has traditionally dealt with what is wrong with the mind, but these days the positive psychology movement focuses on wellbeing and human flourishing. What is happiness? Well, a positive psychologist will tell you there are two types: hedonia and eudaimonia. Both from Greek words, hedonia is about feeling good, enjoying life’s pleasures and comfort. And eudaimonia, which more people are now realising is necessary for mental wellbeing, is about flourishing and living a life with purpose and meaning. Companies are also cottoning on to this idea, and some are really embracing it.

One such company is Aitken Spence, the Sri Lankan conglomerate whose business spans multiple sectors. On its website, it carries the motto ‘Eudaimonia: a shared purpose’, and it also has this emblazoned across the front page of its most recent annual report. The company explains it believes in the power of a purposeful existence: “Inspired by a spirit of people-centricity and innovation, we are structured to endure and deliver longstanding value – for it is in sharing our achievements, and in helping others to flourish that we realise our true joy and success,” its website reads.

And the company seems to practise what it preaches. Its homepage carries some colourful and inspiring photographs and, unusually, gives the photographers credit. It also publishes the headshot and details of the staff member who took the photo – a simple way of recognising its people and giving them credit where its due.

Such clarity of purpose, satisfaction and flourishing, also extends to Nishedha Gunawardena, General Manager – Treasury at Aitken Spence. He has been very purposeful in his career and has reached his current position through hard work and being clear on what he needed to do for self-improvement and to flourish.

99% hard work

Gunawardena started his career as a banker, after being hired straight out of school by Citibank when he was 19 years old. He remembers vividly his reaction on his first day when he saw the treasury department and its Reuters and Bloomberg screens. “I was breathless and I thought ‘This is where I want to be’,” he says. And he kept focused on that goal, working with purpose to get where he wanted to be.

He started as a contract employee and knew that he would have to work hard to prove himself and secure a more stable position. He did just that and within ten months he secured a permanent job. “It was brilliant – I was really happy about that,” he comments, explaining that this moment was a major milestone in his career.

He changed roles and worked in various departments at the bank, starting as an associate in international trade services, becoming a bank teller, then a senior bank clerk. He soon got to be in treasury and had a role in treasury operations. From there he headed the FX processing desk and was an authorised signer in the fixed income, currencies and commodities operations.

“And then an opportunity came up at Aitken Spence, I applied, and the rest is history!” he says. Moving from a bank to a corporate, he crossed to the other side of the fence; instead of being the one providing the solutions, he was now the one who needed them. “It made my life much easier having worked in the bank. When I looked at our requirements – I knew what the bank could do and think about it from that angle,” he says.

He joined Aitken Spence as a manager in group treasury and was responsible, among other things, for cash flow management for the company’s dozens of subsidiaries and a fund manager for a fund over LKR3bn (US$8.1m). He then became Assistant General Manager – Group Treasury, and these days he is the General Manager, having been appointed to that role in July 2022.

This current role is diverse and interesting, and includes cash and liquidity management, such as liquidity monitoring and the optimisation of bank relationships, cash pools and liquidity plans. Also, there is the risk management which involves reviewing and reducing overall risks by optimising counterparty limits and natural hedging opportunities. He is also involved in corporate strategy and engages in troubleshooting, problem solving and finding solutions for subsidiary-level working capital management, cash cycle improvements and policy implementation for group treasury. There is also relationship management, and he is the primary functional point for all banking activities of the group. And if that isn’t enough to keep him busy, he is also a member of the company’s Group Corporate Communications committee.

During his last year at Citi, In the early days, soon after he secured the permanent job at Citibank, Gunawardena was shortlisted for the bank’s global leadership programme, a remarkable achievement when the bank often didn’t select candidates from Sri Lanka, and for someone who started so young. What does he put this success down to? “Securing the permanent job was purely hard work. I was 19 years old – I hardly knew anything – and I worked so hard. I lived what I was doing. Citibank was really helpful in the early stages of my career and all those things came together. It was 99% hard work,” he explains.

As part of this career journey, he realised that he needed to get professionally qualified. Again, he was purposeful in continuing his education and has since acquired a number of qualifications. For example, he has a certificate in treasury operations, foreign exchange, money market and fixed income operations. He is also a certified treasury professional, and completed a Masters of Business Administration (MBA), demonstrating how single-minded he is in setting himself a goal and achieving it.

A dynamic role

In his current role, as the General Manager of Aitken Spence’s treasury, he has to keep on top of the many subsidiary companies and respond to their individual needs. “It is always changing. In a conglomerate’s operating environment, the job itself is very dynamic, there is a lot of learning on a daily basis on the job – I find it exciting,” he says.

And does it take a certain type of temperament to thrive in this environment, and enjoy working with the markets? “Some days it can get overwhelming and sometimes the markets feel like they are crazy and you get tired. Then you take a break and rejuvenate – that’s it,” he says. “Your personality can help or can make you want to have that kind of job,” he says. He comments that he has observed throughout his career that some people thrive by spending time with other people, for example with clients on the sales side. And then there are the traders who like the numbers and the nature of the markets. “I’d like to think I cross both those types, but I tend to be more comfortable with the numbers and markets,” he says.

It is always changing. In a conglomerate’s operating environment, the job itself is very dynamic, there is a lot of learning on a daily basis on the job – I find it exciting.

Despite all his acquired knowledge and job experience, he comments on the lessons he has learned from working in treasury and dealing with the markets. “One thing I have learned is that no matter what you do, or how much you know, the knowledge is only part of what you have. The market always wins whether you are trading or not – you always need to respect the market – you cannot ever really beat the market,” Gunawardena says.

And the markets in recent months have been difficult, with many unpredictable events that have caused unease for all participants. The macro environment has been challenging for treasurers around the world, who have had to adapt to a new normal of uncertainty.

Sri Lanka’s challenges

The environment in Sri Lanka has been particularly challenging, and Gunawardena comments that the last two to three years have been difficult, and his priority has been to adapt and respond to the events that have unfolded. In the company’s most recent annual report, both the chairman and the deputy chairman refer to the country’s challenges. Harry Jayawardena, Aitken Spence’s Chairman, wrote that Sri Lanka has been experiencing its most difficult times since independence in 1948. There have been a series of issues, including the depletion of the country’s foreign reserves, which forced Sri Lanka to pre-emptively default on its sovereign debt and put pressure on the Sri Lankan Rupee, which depreciated by 76% in the first quarter of 2022. And this in turn led to higher inflation.

The company’s Deputy Chairman Parakrama Dissanayake comments that Sri Lanka has been in a dark period with multiple crises coming together in a perfect storm. The country has experienced an economic crisis, an energy crisis, a sharp increase in interest rates and its sovereign rating is at an all-time low. And the country’s state-owned enterprises may also need to be propped up, which will have an impact on inflation as fuel prices – and other services – would have to be repriced to reflect their true (and not their subsidised) cost. In amongst all this, however, Dissanayake is philosophical and quotes Robert Runcie, the UK’s former Archbishop of Canterbury: “We shall not perish as a people even if we get our money supply wrong; but if we get our human relationships wrong, we shall destroy ourselves.”

Gunawardena’s priority in recent years has been to respond effectively to this changing environment in Sri Lanka. In his role, he is focused on managing the cash flows of the company, FX risks, credit risks and managing the various investment portfolios of the subsidiary companies. The conglomerate’s 80 companies, which cover various industries such as tourism, logistics and renewable energy, have very different requirements that can vary at any one time. Gunawardena explains that he needs to cater to the specific requirements of the subsidiaries without losing sight of the bigger picture of the group and its overall purpose.

Working for a conglomerate like this presents unique elements to his role that perhaps his treasurer peers at other corporations do not experience. “The way we run things is that we are not only an advisory service, we actually structure deals and execute them. Especially in Sri Lanka, it is common for central treasuries to act as an advisory and they don’t really execute – they just advise the subsidiaries on how to run things. We actually structure the deal and execute – that is very different to other central treasuries,” he explains.

From the vantage point of his current role, Gunawardena can reflect on the major changes he has witnessed over his career. Particularly coming from an operations background, he has seen the impact of treasury moving to a digital world – and moving away from sending faxes and engaging in physical, manual tasks. And since he first saw the Bloomberg and Reuters screens as a wide-eyed teenager, the markets and asset classes have become much more complex.

A new approach to risk

More generally, Gunawardena thinks that there has also been a shift in the way people think, particularly when it comes to conceptualising risk. The Covid pandemic represents a step change in how people assess risk, he explains. These days, unpredictable events unfold at a greater pace than they have in the last decade, and this has had an impact on the way that people assess risk. “The traditional way of analysing risk is changing,” he explains. There was an expectation that the recovery from Covid would occur at a certain pace, but then more uncertainty hit with the war in Ukraine. “The markets did not expect that,” he comments. “It shows how dynamic and unpredictable the future is going to be. The way you analysed risk in the past is not going to be dynamic enough to sustain your business in the future,” he adds.

So how can one plan for the unknown, or even the unknown unknowns? You have to have an emergency strategy, comments Gunawardena. “You have to plan and be prepared for the long-term, but you also need to leave some provision for unexpected shocks. You need to be able to adapt quickly – and not stick to the same old way of doings – and we have accepted things are different,” he says. “Just because you have been successful and profitable in the past does not necessarily mean that it will continue to be so,” he adds.

This approach to risk, which adapts to a dynamic and uncertain environment, will require a different skillset of treasurers. Gunawardena comments on the skills of the future: “We will need people who are willing to change and accept change, rather than focusing on one talent and strength just because it works for them for one year. It is helpful to have people who capitalise on their strengths, but in the back of their mind they should know that this strength may not be needed in the future. They need to be open to change and quick learners – these will be key traits of the future,” he says.

Also, people skills will continue to be needed, even in the face of increasing reliance on artificial intelligence. “Having really good human skills will be helpful – sometimes you cannot totally depend on an algorithm or a trading platform – I do not think that alone will be enough,” he says. “Beyond that I don’t think we should be making any assumptions about the future. In ten to 15 years’ time, the world will be in a very different place.”

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