July 2021 |SLEN Podcast

In the ninth episode of the SLEN Podcast, Eng. Chamil Edirimuni speaks with the Chairman of the KIK Group of Companies, Eng. Lalith Kahatapitiya about “Engineering entrepreneurship”.

Eng. Chamil Edirimuni:

You are listening to IESL SLEN Podcast. Featuring a wide range of conversations on divers engineering and non-engineering sectors of national importance. I’m engineer Chamil Edirimuni. And today for our ninth podcast we have a special guest. Apart from being a Fellow of the IESL, he's also a fellow of the IET and the IMechE of the UK. He's the chairman of the KIK Group of Companies. One of his company’s manufacturers and exports modular electrical enclosure systems and electrical switch gear assemblies to many countries in the world. He is the receiver of the title “Sri Lanka entrepreneur of the year” in 2004. Let us warmly welcome engineer Lalith Kahatapitiya for today's discussion.

Eng. Lalith Kahatapitiya:

Thank you very much for inviting me for this discussion. And its pleasure.

Eng. Chamil:

You are the founder of an innovative engineering group of companies, manufacturing and exporting modular electrical enclosures and electrical switch gear assemblies. Of course we love to hear you a success story. We know that a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. Thomas Alva Edison made 1000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the lightbulb. You may also have several failure stories too, down in the line in your journey. If you don't mind could you, please share about your path to success?

Eng. Kahatapitiya :

If I'm going to tell about the failures, we will not be able to finish everything in this discussion. Because failures are so much. From the childhood, I had this crazy idea of doing various things on my own.

Even when I was going to school, there was a scarcity of water colors in the market and school boys and girls could not find watercolors. I was in a little higher grade and, I was thinking what I can do. Finally, I managed to produce watercolors. I found out how to do watercolors, went to various libraries, refer to books and found how to make watercolors. And made watercolors, but not in those fancy metal boxes. I made some cardboard boxes and bought all the items from Pettah. I made the watercolors, put into cardboard boxes with the brushes and everything, which made a nice presentation of watercolors. And that was marketed in our school and the schools close by until the imported watercolors came into the country. So that really served the purpose at the time that people could not find watercolors.

Not only that, my father was a lawyer in Kaluthara. Sometimes he also goes in and tries various things like gemming and gem mining. I also joined him in those endeavors. We did gem mining. Then gem buying, selling and I tried some agriculture on my own. I made the incubators for poultry farms. Things like that, I tried but nothing was focused. When I saw some requirement, I just kept on doing it.

I can remember even after becoming an engineer, one day I was having a chat with my father in law and we were talking about washing clothes. Those days we used to put some blue powder specially for the white shirts to get the real, bright color. When you wash it sometime, you get various spots highlighted. Because it doesn't dissolve properly. This gave me an idea and then immediately, I started looking at the possibilities of making liquid blue. With that intention I managed to get in touch with some Japanese companies and then we developed a blue which is suitable for clothes and then we started to market that. So like that, there are lots of things, but then nothing really came up. Finally, I would say all of those are failures. But, I realized why those things failed.

Eng. Chamil :

You are a strong believer on self-confidence and consistent desire to achieve results. A continuous focus on the well thought out vision with a fair understanding on the risks and opportunities is the key for the entrepreneurial success. How did you face these challenges in your life as an engineering entrepreneur?

Eng. Kahatapitiya:

I would say, a clear vision, confidence, persistence and all those things like essential characteristics for any entrepreneur. Entrepreneur will not be able to survive without having a clear vision or confidence or persistence. Anyone who lacks those will end up as a failure. So those are essential things, especially when it comes to engineering entrepreneurs.

I think we need to add another thing, which is innovativeness, which plays a huge role as an entrepreneur and as an engineer. Because being engineers, we are trained to look at things and then solve various things for various issues or whatever you call it. So with that intention in mind, when you look at various problems, then you can see really different things different ways of solving problems. So I remember, when I was working in the Port as a special apprentice in engineering I was put into all the workshops, during that time I was in the foundry. At that time the port cargo foundry only had Sand Casting. Then nothing else. There was one particular item which was needed for their trollies. They needed those items in bulk, but everything was done by sand casting. I also get used to get a together with the people in the foundry and we used to compact the sandboxes and then put moulds and compact the sandboxes, take it out and make them moulds and then pour metal into those cavities and that's how we did this and casting. But then they couldn't meet the demand. The demand is so big It's a very time-consuming thing. Then the Port Authority decided to give it to some outside company as a contract. Then I started thinking “can't we do this in a different way?” and then I was only a Special Apprentice, not even an engineer at that time. Then I have just started studying about the behavior of metal and I had to go to various libraries like the British Council, find books and then look at how Die Casting is done and how can I make the required die to make this casting.

So fortunately, I managed to find the books. I studied and then after I was confident enough that I can do it, I went to the Chief Engineers there and said “Sir, can I try die casting? Because the quantities are huge and then you're like trying to give it to others and is it OK?” and which I tried of course we did the machine part also. Then some people also join me and it was very successful and that was the beginning of the Die Casting in the Colombo Port. As a special apprentice I managed to do it and that's the innovativeness.

So from that time onwards, I came across a requirement on Ceylon Railway carriages repair section was looking for carriage bolts which are not available in the country. One of the engineers asked me “Can you supply these?”. I quickly managed to find a way of making carriage bolts. It's a very simple thing. I just bought hexagonal head bolts and then put it into a die and then forged it and made carriage balls out of it. Then I supplied carriage bolts to the Railway and those were like a little window on the entrepreneur work I did then.

There are other areas where are gem lapidary owner was asking whether I can supply the parts required to him. Which of course, I found out how to do it and then that was supplied.

Like that it's all thinking out of the box and thinking like an engineer. You can do quite a lot of things as an engineering entrepreneur. That's of course anybody can do, not really myself.

Eng. Chamil :

We are a nation that earns our main foreign incomes thanks to three categories of ladies. the housemaids working in the Middle East, ladies working in the garment and apparel sector and thirdly the ladies who plucked tea leaves in the Hill Country. However, within last three decades many other industries which earn a substantial foreign income have popped up quite successfully. That is a very progressive step. your organization is one of those high tech industries targeting overseas market. How would you assess the importance of having a national level drive towards the manufacturing sector especially for the products with high value addition?

Eng. Kahatapitiya :

That's an essential thing, I would say. Actually, although it is nonexistent, right now this is something really essential, specially at a time like this. We, as you correctly said, Sri Lankans have been sending most of our valuable people, the labor force, to work for other countries and make the other countries better.

All the government so far have been opting in becoming a manual labor supplier to the world. Because we are getting somewhere close to USD 9-10 billion a year and everybody thinks that's the way that we need to make money and then we keep on promoting exporting of our people instead of making product or whatever. So as far as I know, I think I have not heard of any foreign employment development bureaus existing in other countries, but we do that. We encourage our people to go but we don't get work from them.

You don't have to be an expert, you don't have to be economists to understand this logic. I'll tell you, just find out the GDP of the country in the year, either 2019 or 18 or 17 or whatever the figures available, find out the GDP. That you can do by yourself. Divide that by the effective workforce. Then you will find out how much each person contributed to the development of the country in the producing of the GDP Sri Lanka. it's a very simple calculation. GDP divided by the workforce.

Again compare the foreign remittances that comes to Sri Lanka and divide that by the migrant work force. All these figures are available in the Internet. Having divide the foreign remittances by the migrant worker, then you find how much one migrant workers contributed to the development of this country. You will be surprised to note that a person working in Sri Lanka contributes between two to three times. So instead of developing our own GDP by using our force, we are encouraging our people to go out. That's a completely another blunder which all the governments have been doing.

If the government does not create enterprises, but to make a conducive environment where industries field pop up. When the environment is conducive for the industries to come, it will naturally come. People will start industries. But, if you block them, if you block the conclusiveness or make it really a harassment for people to start something and market their products then, nothing will come up in there in the country. if the soil is fertile, you can see various plants popping up in that soil. If the soil is not fertile nothing will grow. So similarly, when the atmosphere is not conducive for industries to come up, this country will never develop because nobody will start industries. Even the industries that has started have to struggle to fight against the system for survival and this is exactly what is happening right now. Therefore, the government has a huge role to play. Facilitate the industries that make the environment conducive, as you very correctly said, not to send our people to other countries. Get everyone to contribute to the development of the country and then make the systems for that, then the balance will happen automatically.

Eng. Chamil :

To develop a nation, the dual prominence should be given for the research and development activities. Anyway we are a developing nation. One argument is that we have no funds in abundance to spend for such investments as a nation. As a founder of an organization carrying out extensive research and development work into different aspects what is your view on this? Specially being an engineer and on top of that being an engineering entrepreneur what do you have to say?

Eng. Kahatapitiya :

R&D plays a huge role in any industry and any area, may be agriculture, may be industrial, may be IT, everywhere R&D is a must, where are the government can play a big role. But, even if the government doesn't play a big role, as I told earlier, if the environment is made for industries to come.

For an example, when I started small, I never had even capital. It was negligible capital. I started with that in 1994. But we grew little by little, with a little bit of R&D that we were doing on our own. But when we really grew, then of course, we could set up good R&D systems and R&D facilities where we started looking into new areas which ultimately enabled us to obtain many International Patents for our systems which we now marketing in the other countries. All those things with developed in an area where things could happen. Fortunately, we were inside the duty-free zone. That's one of the best decisions I took to move into the BOI zone. when we were finding challenges in the outside, we thought why not explore the export markets and then set up another factory in the Free Trade Zone. That's how we started there. So with that we developed our own R&D. All what we need is a place for us to grow the facilities for us to grow.

When that happens, on the other hand, government also can do quite a lot of things with regard to R&D. It has to be done with a bigger dialogue with the industry. With the various trade secrets and then various technologies that some companies, will not like to part with, preferably most companies will want to do their R&D within the organizations. Therefore, some R&D has to be done in the industries. But some of the common R&D activities like medicine and all that, easily be done in the government sector. So this both have to grow in parallel and the critical thing is the facilitation has to be there.

Eng. Chamil :

My next question, apart from your busy corporate schedules we have seen that you are very much involved and vocal on the national interest. Either it may be on free trade agreements or a matter related to the ownership of national assets or any other controversial treaties with powerful countries. Sir you raised your voice for the country. Normally entrepreneurs are not stepping out of their business terrorists to express their opinion publicly or national interest as that may sometimes affect their business progressions due to the political climate in the country. In such a situation what makes you to come forward for the national interest?

Eng. Kahatapitiya :

Well, I believe that all of us are just caretakers of this nation or our national heritage which we inherited from the previous people. For us the duty is to improve it and pass it on to the future generations. This country still remains under an underdeveloped country because of various blunders and wrong decisions made by the people who really looked up to this country, may be the leaders or the people. So as the citizens of Sri Lanka, can we close our eyes and wait if our future generations are going to suffer the consequences of some silly decisions that some selfish individuals are going to make? For me, it's difficult. I just can't shut my mouth and wait. So naturally I express my ideas. I should, I will shout, and I will fight just to make sure, not for any financial gains, not for any other personal gains, but to make sure that we do our duty of preserving what we are now, the caretakers for the next generations to take over and enjoy. I believe it. All of you will also agree with me that we all have a duty there.

Eng. Chamil :

You are one of the very few engineering entrepreneurs who developed an engineering industry from the scratch. Finally, what is your message to the young engineering fraternity on the way to success in entrepreneurship oh in whatever field they are in?

Eng. Kahatapitiya:

Entrepreneurship mainly depends on providing solutions to various circumstances or needs. So being engineers, we are trained to provide solutions. If we are always be innovative or if you think in a different way, we engineers can come out with new innovations, inventions and to feel whatever the need. So it can be anything. We are trained to come out with different solutions. We are not just memorize something, but we are trained to come out with various new options and that's engineering. So engineers have to naturally be good entrepreneurs as well. But there's another way of looking at it. All are not businessman. I mean generally entrepreneur is the word used for a businessman. When somebody becomes an entrepreneur, he's taking huge risk. When I became an entrepreneur, I decided either I do it or I'll perish. Either I become successful or an utter a failure. It's like do or die situation. I took that risk and then came out, but if you are working and comfortable in an organization. Every organization it's so easy to make a culture of intrapreneurship. I would say the difference between an intrapreneur, and entrepreneur is, an intrapreneur works within a group and entrepreneur gets out at the group and goes on his way.

But in all our organizations, in all our companies, I am promoting intrapreneurship. People to come out with their own ideas, experiment it and then go ahead and then do these things. All those facilities are made, so that people can make use of their own brains for the betterment of the entire group and that everybody really enjoys. This is a very simple thing, that I do not see happening in many organizations. Promote intrapreneurship, if it is not existing in your organization, try to introduce it. Try to get people to come out with new things. Specially if you are in a senior position, you can do it in your Department. Let the people come out with new ideas, empower them, let them make failures. I mean they may fail sometimes but that doesn't mean that we should be blaming them. Appreciate the attempt that they took and then encourage them to do in a different way. So this I'm doing to the best of my ability in our organization. My advice to all the engineers is, please promote intrapreneurship within your own department, within your own organizations and see the difference that we can make. Engineers can do many wonders to this nation. If we, as a fraternity, really make use of our brain, we can make a difference in Sri Lanka. Thanks.

Eng. Chamil :

Thank you very much engineer Lalith kahatapitiya for spending your valuable time to share timely insights based on your vast experience. We wish you all the success in your future endeavors.

Eng. Kahatapitiya:

I too wish you IESL and engineering fraternity as well the very best and for you all to get the opportunity to make this nation a much better nation and then leave a better country for the next generation. I think being engineers you can do it and may there be courage to do that task.

Eng. Chamil :

Thank you enginer Kahatapitiya once again. This is engineer Chamil Edirumuni from SLEN podcast. have a great day.

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