Leading the Charge for Change – Thimal Perera

DFCC’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Thimal Perera is a gentleman who walks the talk and is highly action-oriented.

“The philosophy I work with is about getting things done. People are usually particularly good at talking about things they want to do, the things they’re doing or what they should have done. I focus a lot more on getting things done. Do it and let’s talk about it. Tell me about what you have done, rather than what you are doing. For me, it’s all about execution and this approach has held me in good stead over the years.”

As per Thimal, the DFCC Bank, having been a development bank for 60 years, became a fully-fledged commercial bank in 2015, when it merged with its fully owned subsidiary DFCC Vardhana Bank. The DFCC Bank now offers all the services expected of a commercial bank and boasts a network of 139 branches across the country.

“I joined the bank about 3 years ago. I was overseas for almost 15 years until 2014. For about 18 years I worked for HSBC and was predominantly based in the Middle East. When I returned to Sri Lanka, I joined HNB prior to moving to DFCC in 2017. My overarching purpose at DFCC is to drive change. Although DFCC is a bank with a history of over 65 years, our customer base is relatively small. So, primarily we need to draw in new customers and businesses to the bank. We also need to bring in a lot of innovation. We are now committed to making a significant investment towards bringing in new IT systems and technologies. Our digital agenda is centred around making the bank more appealing and accessible to the youth, the more metro-urban salaried individuals and the high net worth segment of society. Making the bank more appealing and more relevant to them would be my primary objective”, explained Thimal, detailing the changes he plans to drive at DFCC.

Describing his entry into the Banking industry, which according to Thimal “was kind of by default”, the DCEO went on to say, “I’m an Accountant by profession. Even though I initially wanted to become a Doctor, my professional journey took me to a different destination, which is where I am today. When I was looking about for professional qualifications, I thought Institute of Chartered Accountants and CIMA were well rounded qualifications that would get me into the Corporate World and more general management roles. I didn’t do Accountancy to be an Accountant. I never wanted to be an Accountant and be in Accounting. As part of my training at Ernst & Young, I had done a lot of bank audits, primarily at HSBC and a few other banks. I liked the banking field, and so once I’d finished my articles and obtained my qualifications, I applied to HSBC and joined them as a management trainee in the early 90’s, and that’s how I got into banking.”

Speaking of how successful DFCC has been in placing itself in the upper quartile of commercial banks in Sri Lanka, as it enters the second half of its medium-term brand target, Thimal stated, “I think this is a journey. We’ve laid a good foundation in order to get to where we want to be in the banking arena of the country. But we have a long way to go. We’ve taken the initial steps in growing and positioning the brand, in terms of where we want to get to, but it’s by no means a done deal. I think there are a lot of other things we need to focus on, and that is what we are currently doing.

Our goal is to be a top of mind bank in the country. So, that’s why we first need to be relevant. We’ve chosen certain segments that we haven’t been strong in traditionally, which is mainly due to our history as a development bank. It’s a 2-pronged plan. One is building the brand to appeal to the target segments. The other more importantly is building the internal systems, processes and technology to cater to their needs. This is a segment of the market that wouldn’t want to come into bank branches, they would want to do their banking at their own convenience via a device they’re comfortable with. We need to cater to that segment, and all the investments we are currently making in technology, that I mentioned earlier, are with this in mind. As you may have seen, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Digital banking has become even more important, and it has and will continue to revolutionize the way customers do their banking. As a pioneer in introducing digital banking products to the banking industry, I think this is the right time for us to pull up our socks and work hard towards becoming the most customer centric and digitally enabled bank in the country.”

“We currently do not have an offshore presence. But having said that, we have a fairly significant offshore exposure. We do have customers from overseas markets and they make a fairly significant contribution to our balance sheet. We continue to look at different markets and lending opportunities, and ultimately, if the right opportunities present themselves, we would certainly be open to considering an overseas presence in a form that meets the objectives of the bank”, said Thimal of DFCC’s offshore opportunities and related development plans. Questioned about DFCC’s upcoming services and innovations, Thimal replied, “I think the upcoming innovations would be in the digital space, focused on making banking more convenient for our customers. It’s not a matter of choice. After all, if you want to be relevant, competitive and future-proof yourself, digital is the way forward and something that you’ve got to invest in. Customers having to leave their daily tasks and designate a time to visit bank branches, is not the future of banking. Via digital technology, we aim to provide customers with much more secure and convenient means of banking. For obvious reasons, I will avoid going into detail and for now say “watch this space”. In general, banking and the bank itself will be very different to what we have seen in the past. On the topic of the importance of Big Data and Data Analytics, the banking expert stated,

“Big data and data analytics is the future of business, not just banking. But it is particularly important in banking. It’s something that a lot of people talk about these days, but very few people are actually putting words into action. So, I think information is power and some developed markets have realized that much earlier on, but it’s something that’s picking up very quickly in Sri Lanka.

The DFCC bank is no different, we’re investing quite a lot on data warehouses and bringing in people who are skilled in that area, such as data scientists and analysts. Research is only one small part of data. Big Data is a lot more about using data you already have to fine-tune your decisions and make your strategies and product offerings more relevant.”

“We believe that the website we recently launched is one of the most functional and innovative websites in the country. To start with, it’s trilingual, which a lot of banking websites are not. We have used the very latest technology to make our website both relevant and user friendly and also to build a channel for new customer acquisition” responded Thimal, to the question of what makes DFCC’s new website one of a kind.

Discussing his long-term strategic goals, Thimal explained, “My overarching objective is to add value. So, whatever I do, wherever I am, if I’m adding value, and thereby, driving relevant and necessary change in order to take the organization to its next level and to achieve its objectives, that is what motivates me. So, whatever I do, irrespective of the position or the designation, I’m happy as long as I’m adding value and driving value to our employees, shareholders and the industry as a whole. Throughout my career, I’ve been instrumental in driving turnarounds in businesses that haven’t been doing well, and growing businesses to an entirely different level.

Even at HSBC I grew a couple of businesses that were at number 4 or 5 in the market rankings to market leadership. As long as people see me adding value, and I feel that I’m adding value and people appreciate that, that is really what matters to me. Even in the case of DFCC, that is essentially why I joined. I saw a bank with a lot of potential to grow and actually get to the top tier of banking in Sri Lanka, and that is what motivated me.”

Moving onto how he plans to achieve the aforementioned goals, “Very simple, we need good people to do that. It is not something that one person can do. Fortunately, DFCC is blessed with a great team that is dedicated, loyal and highly skilled. We need to get the right people in the right roles and actually drive a culture change. I think an organization’s culture is something that is quite misunderstood and understated. I don’t think people understand the importance of it. If you have the right culture, then I think the sky’s the limit. If everybody has the same motivation and understanding of where the organization is going, and everybody’s working towards it, from the CEO to the security guard, this can have a powerful and positive impact on the organization’s future”, said the DCEO. Expressing his views on what must be done in order to drive incoming FDIs, the veteran Banker is of the opinion that, “With regards to FDIs I think there’s a lot that we can do as a country.

First and foremost, I think we need to make it easy for people to do business with and in Sri Lanka. I think there’s an ease of doing business index and as a country, we’re ranked fairly low in this. Thus, we’re not the easiest place for a foreign company to come, invest and get things started. I think, if you look at a lot of the criteria that goes into measuring how easy it is to do
business in a particular country, they are not difficult metrics to improve. So, if somebody takes ownership and addresses each of those criteria, we can very quickly rise up the rankings. I think that predominantly, overall, the economy has to improve, as do our ratings. Recently the outlook changed for the country, which is actually not very positive for foreign investment. We expect that the situation will gradually change. But however good your ratings and other related aspects are, if it’s difficult for people to come and start up a business or invest here, then people have other options. Consistency in policies is the other aspect that investors consider before making investments. This has been another area of concern and these need to be addressed as topmost priorities.”

According to Thimal, the sector, which promises the most growth in relation to banking in Sri Lanka is the SME sector. “I think the biggest opportunities are in the SME sector. Everybody talks about how important SMEs are and how important it is to help the sector grow and help people startup businesses. However, I think the Banking industry is still on the lookout for
collateral. If somebody wants to borrow, we want to know how much security can be offered. We’re still not used to looking at cash flows and business models, and lending according to them. Everybody talks about it, but very few institutions actually do it at the moment. So, that is something that needs to change. But it’s actually a two-way street because even from an SME perspective, they also need to make sure that there is better governance. They need to make sure that they keep proper books of accounts, have proper controls, and are audited by well-known and reputed audit firms. These aspects give banks confidence when it comes to looking at proposals from SMEs and lending to them, and so on. The other thing is that as a country where we want people to start new business ventures, the facilities for startups are very minimal. If you look at countries like Germany, there are startup accelerators and favourable environments where people who have a business idea can go, try out their ideas and find investment. It’s happening here on a small scale. But if we really want to bring it into the DNA of the country and help SMEs flourish, and witness them become the larger corporates of the future, there has to be a lot more sponsorship at a government level.”

“If you look at all the new products that have been introduced by a lot of banks, many are targeted at the youth. I think it is all about convenience for customers. That is what the focus will be going forward. Most countries have already begun the process of digitalization, banking branches are going to be very different to what they have traditionally been. Branches, I feel, are going to be places where customers come to talk about their banking needs and seek financial advice rather than to deposit money or withdraw money. Digitalization is also an important item on the agenda of the Central Bank as well. There’s a lot of work being done to accelerate the growth of the digital economy, as such I see a lot of changes in the digital space”, predicted Thimal of the future of the Banking industry of Sri Lanka