How did you start out in your career?
I am from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and I studied at the city's Royal College. I began my career aged 16, working part-time with my grandfather and helping to manage the family estate.
When did you take the CIMA course and how has the qualification helped you?
I'd always wanted to be an accountant. That's why I started taking the qualification immediately after my A-levels, qualifying in 1998. CIMA not only gave me financial and management accounting skills; it also gave me the confidence to make key business decisions and solve problems rationally. It opened my mind to topics such as sustainability, ethics, lean management and quality, too.
When did you go to Harvard Business School?
I won a scholarship under a World Bank grant in 2010. This enabled me to take the business leadership course at Harvard. I was in my early 30s and the CEO of HelloCorp.
All the case studies discussed on the course were about large US or global companies. It broadened my horizons, teaching me to think big and plan for the long term, but also to review goals regularly. I gained an insight into how succession planning is done in large firms and how technology can pose a threat to your business model.
What was it like working at Expo Freight in India?
I started there as a management accountant, with the task of setting up a reporting structure and financial controls. The company was just over a year old and had about 75 employees and four branches across India. I was newly qualified and wanted to apply the knowledge I'd gained on the course. As with any growing firm, we had working capital problems, so I introduced a credit control system where every shipment had to be credit-authorised by each head at the different stations.
The company grew to be the most profitable entity in the Expolanka Group and I was promoted to financial controller. The finance director wanted me to oversee the group's activities in Africa. We then formed Expolanka International in Sri Lanka and brought all the overseas freight companies under this brand. This necessitated a massive restructuring job, which took about two years to complete. We created an organised reporting structure and consolidated the accounts in Colombo every month.
What was your role at Expolanka Group?
Expolanka was a diversified, family-owned business. In 2005 it was organised into units focusing on manufacturing, import and export, aviation, freight and logistics, and strategic investments. There were about 25 active companies in Sri Lanka and each one ran different accounting software, so it was a tough task consolidating accounts and determining the value of the group.
The board of directors asked me to evaluate suitable accounting software for the group and I set up a committee to look into its information needs. We examined various well-known software packages for enterprise resource planning before recommending Oracle Financials.
At the time, this was one of the largest implementations of Oracle in Sri Lanka: it went live in 16 companies across various industries over nine months. We had to upgrade the IT infrastructure at the holdings office and other subsidiary companies. We chose an overseas partner to help with the implementation, put together a strong in-house team and hired new employees.
My toughest task was convincing the accountants and CEOs of certain firms that Oracle was the best solution for the group. They preferred to continue with the old accounting software. Managing schedules and budgets was not easy, either, as there were many unforeseen obstacles, but I believe the project was a success.
You sat on the Expolanka executive council. Was that the equivalent of a company board?
The executive council comprised senior people from the group--mostly CEOs of subsidiary companies and senior managers at the holding company. The council met every two weeks to discuss group developments.
What made you join business process outsourcing (BPO) provider HelloCorp?
HelloCorp, a subsidiary of the Expolanka Group and the first BPO provider in the country registered with Sri Lanka's Board of Investment--was going through a bad patch, so I was asked to oversee its finances. When the country manager of HelloCorp left, I became CEO.
I saw the strengths of Sri Lanka in finance and accounting, with its high literacy rate and the largest number of CIMA-qualified accountants outside the UK. That's why I decided to start marketing our finance and accounting services more widely, securing a contract from a top-25 accountancy firm in the UK.
What is Wings Logistics and what attracted you to become an outsourced CFO?
Wings Logistics was a freight-forwarding company based in the US, with 12 branches in Asia. It formed a joint venture with Expo Freight in India, where I supervised the finance function.
I was later asked to join Wings as CFO but declined, offering my services through HelloCorp instead. This was agreed by both parties. I restructured Wings' monthly reporting with key performance indicators, implemented new accounting software and created a holding company in Singapore with a long-term plan to list the business. I performed the monthly consolidation from Sri Lanka. Wings Group was run differently from Expolanka, as it had partnerships in most of its branches in Asia.
How and why did you undertake a management buy-out to form Tellida?
Following Expolanka's listing in 2010 there was a decision, after the restructuring, to divest the group's smaller companies. But there was a desire to retain HelloCorp, the smallest company in the group, because it had won a large contract with the national carrier, SriLankan Airlines, to provide its global contact centre operations. I negotiated to buy out all of HelloCorp's remaining lines, except the contact centre project, because I saw great potential in the BPO industry.
You were named Sri Lanka's ICT Entrepreneur of the Year in 2013. Presumably, Tellida has done well since the management buy-out?
Tellida delivered 100 per cent growth in 2013. Given my experience at HelloCorp, the company had a short learning curve.
How have you gained such a broad range of clients in so short a time?
I have been in the BPO business for nearly 10 years and built up an international contact base. For companies such as Tellida, which do not have an international brand or physical presence, working with a network of high-quality people--I call them "influences"--has helped us to generate business.
If you have the right attitude and are willing to invest in the right processes--such as good HR, information security, marketing, training and ethics--your business will grow. When you provide the right quality of service, the client will recommend you to another potential client more often than not.
Tellida is one of the most diversified BPO businesses in Sri Lanka, providing accounting, legal, contact centre and IT support services to clients from the UK, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Norway, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand. For a start-up company, being flexible with your clients is key. We don't have a single method of billing to a client--we would charge a full-time equivalent rate (176 hours a month) per project or transaction, or even an hourly rate. We work on any accounting software that the client feels comfortable with.
What selling points do you think Sri Lanka has?
Sri Lanka's competitive advantage is built on factors including agility, low cost, ethics, cultural adaptability and superior quality of life as a destination for doing business. On the BPO front, we're continuing to build on finance and accounting as our main global niche. On the IT front, our competitive position on product engineering is formidable, with many global and local companies building or outsourcing product engineering work in Sri Lanka.
Over the past five years Sri Lanka's global brand position has improved significantly. A T Kearney has placed the nation among the top 20 outsourcing destinations in its global rankings, while Gartner has put us in its top 30. IBM, Tholons and several others have ranked Sri Lanka at the top of their respective league tables, too. Offshoring Destination of the Year awards in both 2013 and 2014, given in the UK by the National Outsourcing Association, have also been a validation of the tremendous progress our nation has made, km
OMAR FATHA RALLY
1998 Joins Expo Freight as financial controller. 2003 Appointed financial controller of Expolanka International.
2005 Recruited as director and chief executive of HelloCorp.
2009 Appointed executive council member of Expolanka Holdings.
2010 Attends the corporate leadership programme at Harvard Business School.
2012 Becomes director and CEO of Tellida.
Photographs by Dominic Sansoni