The Drive to Reach the Top

Charaka Perera – Director/Chief Operations Officer of Stafford Motor Co. (Pvt) Ltd

Charaka Perera, the Director/Chief Operations Officer of Stafford Motor Co. (Pvt) Ltd, began his career as a Medical Representative at a pharmaceutical company where he learned the basics of Personal Selling. According to Charaka, the Pharmaceutical industry is one sector in which the customers – doctors and consultants – know more about the product and its effects than the salesman. 

“Thus, the right selling skills and professionalism are of paramount importance. Due to my aptitude in report writing and numerical skills, the Sales Manager requested me to do the monthly reports for him, which became a valuable tool in my next job as an Executive. After two years, I moved to a company that sold an exclusive range of building products, as a Marketing Executive to handle sales and marketing. This was an exhilarating prospect as I was able to gain exposure to marketing, which was what I really wanted as a career. I was in the midst of CIM exams at the time and was able to put into practice the lessons I learnt, which proved to be beneficial as I was promoted to Marketing Manager within a short time span. 

During my four-year tenure at that particular company, my exposure was diversified into finance, HR, foreign correspondence, production, operations, installation etc. in addition to sales and marketing, which was my actual role. Although it was an additional workload, I considered it an opportunity to learn new areas that were outside my job description. I am grateful to the Directors, Mr. Srilal Fernando and the late Mr. Dudley Fernando, for grooming me and instilling in me the general management skills, which enabled my growth at an early age. Once I obtained my qualifications and experience, and acquired the skills to sell high value products, my aim was to get into the automotive trade where personal selling was in high demand. With this intention, I forwarded my CV with a letter stating my credentials to all leading automotive companies, and was interviewed by three and got job offers from two.  I accepted the offer from Stafford Motors to take up the newly created role of Marketing Development Manager and was recruited to develop new businesses/markets for the company. Within four years I was appointed to head the two-wheeler division as the Deputy General Manager. Even at Stafford, my involvement in the company was always beyond my job description, and I voluntarily took up additional activities such as construction projects, IT implementations, process developments, legal, finance etc., which gave me an overall exposure and an in-depth understanding of the whole company. 

I steered the two-wheeler division to be the highest profit contributor of the company within a few years, and in recognition of my overall contribution, I was appointed to the company board at the age of 36, which I consider to be a key milestone in my career. Four years later I was appointed as Director /COO of the company. In this capacity I was able to initiate diverse activities, including the development of the current and future leadership, and investing in related diversification to spread the risk. Our MD/Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Kalinga Kaluperuma has been a tower of strength to me, and his trust and confidence in me to handle diverse initiatives, strongly supported my growth at Stafford.”

When questioned about the 3 primary characteristics that have brought him to his current position in such a short time, Charaka replied, “I would say they are; attention to detail, planning and organizing skills, and a business owner mindset. When you give attention to detail, the final output becomes a complete success, be it the simple task of writing a letter or a significant task like organizing an award ceremony. I learnt this from my Managing Director at the aforementioned construction company and I practice this in everything I do. Therefore, I have managed to minimize the errors I make and identify all the items of a project or activity I’m handling in order to prepare for all financial and operational impacts well ahead. I gained my planning and organizing skills due to the Leo movement and my experience as a scout at Royal College. As a Leo I have organized many service projects and large-scale events such as annual conferences and musical shows. After a few events, planning and organizing becomes ingrained in your DNA, and the only issue is finding funds. Therefore, when it came to organizing company events, I had an advantage over many who were not exposed to such activities. I believe the third characteristic is the most important one. From the time I got into management, I did not consider my work as a “job”, but instead took on the mind-set of the owner and always thought of how I could contribute to develop the company. As a result, taking on additional work outside my job description was a natural thing for me, as I believe that for a company to grow, all activities must improve. Further, I try to envisage opportunities for my company in every situation I face. While I gained a wider experience through this, I believe my employers saw me as an asset, since a part of their role was also fulfilled by me.” 

 “The definition of a ‘Marketer at Heart’ is a person who can visualize innovative opportunities to market brands & products he affiliates beyond his job role. In addition to my occupational position, I am a Board Director of CIM – Sri Lanka Region and Vice Chairman of the Ceylon Motor Traders Association. I am also a Lion and a Past Cabinet Member of Lions District 306A1, as well as an active member of the Sri Lanka Institute of Directors. With my long association with most of these organizations, I tend to visualize innovative opportunities to promote and market these organizations or their products with every new experience, new contact or new incident I come across. I have a tendency to do the same with the companies of my friends who are entrepreneurs and I thoroughly enjoy doing it as it expands my imagination. I strongly believe that marketers can improve themselves more if they start thinking beyond their company product portfolio, and become creative about marketing the products and brands they associate with daily. Marketing should not be just a job for marketers, it should be a way of life”, expressed Charaka, defining what it means to be a ‘Marketer at Heart’. 

Speaking of his foremost contributions to Stafford Motor Co. (Pvt) Ltd, Charaka explained, “When I took over the two-wheeler sales division of Stafford, our company had a market share of 12% and we were No.3 in the industry with Hero Honda. By 2012, we became No.2 with around 22% market share. That same year, Honda & Hero had a demerger where Hero Honda was discontinued and we re-launched the Honda two wheelers in Sri Lanka, which at that time was at No.5 with only 1.5% market share. It was a very tough journey, but we steadily grew our sales to become the market leader in 2016 with around 28% market share and reached 42% by 2019. Building a highly motivated sales and support team to achieve this task, and delivering the result is one of my main contributions to Stafford. When I joined Stafford, the company had only one location outside of its head office and these two locations housed all operations including one after sales service facility each for automobiles and motorcycles. Our current operations are spread over nine locations with three state-of-the-art after sales service locations each for automobiles and motorcycles, and five showrooms to display our product ranges, which includes the largest two-wheeler showroom in the country. We also have developed a storage and logistics centre, which can assemble and distribute over 12,000 two wheelers per month. These infra-structure developments have immensely boosted the company image and I personally handled most of these projects from concept development to implementation, which is another main contribution.  Stafford had been one of the very first companies to implement a computer system for operations back in the early 80’s. It was not scalable or upgradable thus, it could not support our expansion plan and provide the required management control and visibility needed in 2005. ERP systems were not very common among local companies at that time, but I realized that it was the best investment for us. Therefore, I submitted a proposal to implement an ERP system and after evaluating a few options, we implemented IFS in 2006. The IFS system, which we continue to use, gave us the visibility and control to manage our operations and expansions with ease, and is another key contribution on my part.”

Describing the main differentiation point between Honda and other automotive brands, the COO stated, “The mobility product range of Honda consists of scooters, motorcycles, cars and SUVs, and the range caters to the mass markets as well as the top-end luxury segments. In addition to these products, Honda also produces life improving products such as generators, water pumps, grass cutters, engines etc. Further, Honda has a strong presence in Formula-1, MotoGP and all forms of racing, which are the breeding and testing grounds for its new technology in engines, brake systems, cooling systems, drive chains etc. Honda has also developed a robot with artificial intelligence, which is being built to support elderly people to get their daily work done. The knowledge and experience in AI for Honda has improved significantly due to this engagement. As one of Honda’s greatest achievements, the brand has produced a personal jet, which is currently in commercial production. The advantage Honda has with this vast range of products is that they use the technology and innovations developed for the most advanced products such as the Jet and the racing machines, and utilize some of them to technically advance the day to day products we use such as two wheelers, automobiles and generators. No other automotive company has such a full range of products or operates in all sectors including ground and air mobility as well as the top racing circuits. This, among many, is one of the key differentiators of Honda from the other automotive brands.”

“Honda made its first entry in the ‘Isle of Man TT’ races in 1953 and from that point onwards has been making headway in all forms of motorsports. Currently, Honda has a strong foothold in Formula-1 racing and the MotoGP, achieving podium finishes in many events over the years. Further, Honda is present in almost all types of motorsport activities such as Superbike races, Motocross, Endurance races, Rallying, Trial Championships, etc. In addition, Honda owns and operates two racing tracks in Japan, all of which shows its commitment to develop the Racing industry and improve their products via participation in all these events. Honda machines such as the CBR, CRF, NSX and Africa Twin, which are models with versions for normal road use, are being used for some of these competitions that support the increase in brand image, credibility and demand among racing enthusiasts. Motor racing is followed by millions of fans the world over, and even in Sri Lanka, Motocross racing is considered as the most watched sport next to Cricket. The new virtual Motorsports Land Site of Honda provides ease of access to fans to the racing fixtures, details of the riders, drivers and the machines. It also allows fans to watch the races live via the site and engage in games as well. The site also contains the heritage of Honda racing and detailed stories of how some of the events unfolded such as the construction of the Twin Ring Motegi racing track owned by Honda. Hence, this site is expected to have many visitors, and is an excellent tool to keep fans engaged with Honda and to create awareness about the brand’s racing history, current performance and the products that are available to the general public, which are derived from these racing machines”, said Charaka, detailing the functions and purpose of the Honda’s new Virtual Motorsports Land site.

On the topic of Honda’s status in terms of sustainability, Charaka disclosed, “The 2030 vision formulated by Honda states, “Serve people worldwide with the ‘joy of expanding their life’s potential’— Lead the advancement of mobility and enable people everywhere in the world to improve their daily lives—.” To embody this vision, the company set the direction of its concrete initiatives as action guidelines for the 21st century based on three perspectives: “Creating the Joy,” “Expanding the Joy” and “Ensuring the Joy for the Next Generation.” From the third perspective of “Ensuring the Joy for the Next Generation,” the company will make progress “towards a clean and safe/ secure society.” Striving to become No. 1 in the areas of environment welfare and safety, Honda will invest more resources in these areas and strive to become a company that leads efforts towards building a carbon-free and collision-free mobile society. In this vision, Honda has returned to its universal passion and made a major shift in its direction from quantity to quality. To this end, the company has set its corporate attitude to realize “growth through the pursuit of quality.” The company will aim to expand the circle of joy and let the Honda brand shine even brighter through the steadfast pursuit of the “quality of value Honda provides” and “the quality of its initiatives.” To realize this vision, the company will make effective use of limited corporate resources to transform and evolve existing businesses and create new value.”

“One definition of marketing is – “the science and art of exploring, creating, and delivering value to satisfy the needs of a target market at a profit.” Marketing identifies unfulfilled needs and desires. As an industry, marketers need to get back to the basics to identify the current needs of the target market. The consumers are looking for safety and assurance in the products and purchasing methods. Marketers have to be creative to change the product/service delivery to provide safety and communicate those messages in a cost-effective meaningful manner. Consumers need many new products due to COVID, which they do not know exist or have not been developed yet. Marketers need to identify these unsatisfied needs, assess the market demand and maximize the opportunity. Consumers have drastically shifted their consumption items and patterns. Online purchasing, contactless payments, door-step delivery, TV and online platform usage, virtual classes, health and wellness, and online gaming are products and services, which are in high demand now and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Marketers need to see how their products can adapt or innovate to fulfil the transformed needs of consumers.   

Although the COVID-19 fear was instilled in the Western province, the rural population of Sri Lanka have not felt the fear of COVID to the same extent. Marketers have to identify how to communicate their product offerings to those segments and adjust their message accordingly. Operationally and financially, the companies in the Marketing industry such as advertising, PR and media will face the same issues faced by other corporates. Some in the industry might have to create synergies to survive and those who relied predominantly on non-digital platforms may have to change their product offerings. Companies will have to slim down. It will be a time when the quickest to adapt will survive the new normal in the Marketing industry”, said the expert marketer, predicting the future of the Sri Lankan Marketing industry in the post-COVID era.