The Journey down the Glittering Yellow Brick Road – Udara Karunatilake

Hailing from a middle-class family of three boys, young Udara Karunatilake picked up the skills of leadership at the tender age of 13, following the loss of his father. He credits his mother for setting the ultimate example of endurance as she single-handedly raised and educated him and his younger brothers.  An old boy of St. Thomas’ College – Matale, Udara’s very first job was as an Accounts Clerk at Dial Tex. Upon his graduation from the University of Colombo with a Bachelor’s Degree in Commerce, Udara joined Pramuka Management & Financial Services Ltd. (PRAMFIS) as an Accounts Officer.

“Having worked at PRAMFIS for two years, I left the Finance industry against the advice of many of my friends and took up the position of Accountant at Vogue Jewellers. I worked my way up the organization’s hierarchy until I was promoted to the role of CEO in 2012.  I am grateful to the Board of Directors of Vogue Jewellers, especially Mr. Anura Hemachandra, the Managing Director and Mr. Nandadeva Perera, a past Director of Vogue, for the immense opportunities given to me, and for placing their trust and confidence in me. I consider it a great pleasure to work with my Operational Team who make a cohesive effort to achieve the company’s goals. I must add that without the support of my family it would have been impossible to be a committed professional. I am a fortunate husband, and the father of a wonderful and smart daughter.”

Speaking of what aids his progress in his career, the CEO of Vogue Jewellers stated, “The most important contributing factors in the progress of my career would be my own set of values – honesty, integrity, a high level of commitment, dedication, an entrepreneurial mindset and large dose of patience. Moreover, the ability to make the right decision at precisely the right moment, my inherent craving to consistently enhance my knowledge and the belief that change is inevitable strengthen me. I have been able to drive the company with a great level of resilience even during the most trying times, while maintaining a flexible nature.  I am content that honesty, the right attitude and willingness have earned dividends.”

Udara went on to add, “Right at the start of my tenure at Vogue, I saw the company’s potential to grow as a whole. I am confident that I have carried out my duties impartially, while maintaining a high level of commitment and dedication. Similarly, my Managing Director has constantly encouraged me to maintain an entrepreneurial mind-set. Being the CEO, I ensure that each and every business decision we make should assure value for the golden tripod – customers, employees and the shareholders.” 

Questioned about what sets Vogue Jewellers apart from any other jewellery store, Udara replied, “Continual fashion innovation and the unwavering commitment to excel in every aspect of the business have helped us to be a cut above the rest. It is demonstrated in the final finished product and the unparalleled service standards, which derive from our corporate culture to offer a unique customer experience. If you take an engagement ring for an example, it is not a mere piece of jewellery that we sell. There is a deeply entrenched bonding that is associated with the ring. It symbolizes powerful connotations such as love, fidelity and lifelong commitment. These emotions drive one to invest in a ring of value that denotes a life-long bond.  We go the extra mile to analyze exactly what the customer needs and ensure a unique experience. Every decision we make in the entire process is made by conducting assessments from all angles. The highest standards are maintained from sourcing the raw material, and the manufacturing process and quality control, to after sales service. Our pursuit to evolve and excel year after year has earned us the distinction of being the world’s first jewellery manufacturer to be ISO 9001: 2015 certified. The pudding of proof is the overwhelming numbers of loyal Vogue brides who return to us with their daughters and granddaughters to select the very best bridal jewellery. When it comes to bridal jewellery, which is our primary product category, the majority of Sri Lankans value the purest form of 22 karat gold. We can humbly admit that we offer the widest selection of bridal jewellery of all popular genres in the island’s largest showroom with a dedicated floor for the selection.”

Describing Vogue’s position with regards to the Bridal industry, Udara explained, “From the very beginning of our journey, Vogue Jewellers has been the trendsetter in the bridal jewellery sector of Sri Lanka. It didn’t take long for Vogue Jewellers to be the leader in this segment. In the sixties, Vogue pioneered in redefining the Sri Lankan art of jewellery making with evolved design concepts while preserving the traditional elements as well. A marriage is all about a unique bonding between two special people. Gold jewellery is a clear-cut symbol of one’s lifelong commitment to another; the trust they place in one another. There is an emotional attachment to wedding jewellery. So much so, that it is cherished and handed down to the next generation. As far as we can trace back, many cultures across the globe have been exchanging gold jewellery, since gold is considered a solid symbol of trust and prosperity. This perennial reason makes Sri Lankan customers turn to the most trusted jeweller for their weddings.”

“It’s not a mere piece of jewellery that we offer. It is a brand with value and prestige attached to it. Our customers can rest assured that, irrespective of the size or the value of an item, if it is from Vogue, they are getting something of added value at a reasonable price. We craft jewellery of timeless value. Our customers can be fashionable forever, with the added security of having made an investment that will last a lifetime. In other words, we walk the talk, living up to our motto – “With You Forever”. We craft bridal jewellery for weddings and beyond. We consider the value chain to be our core. We create designs blending local traditions and international trends.  The finest raw material, international manufacturing standards, stringent quality tests and a lifetime guarantee from Sri Lanka’s most awarded jewellery manufacturer are the unparalleled standards that we offer. We are not confined only to bridal jewellery. Our product portfolio is widespread – perhaps the island’s largest collection at any given time. Diamond studded jewellery – both in white gold and yellow gold; trendy rose gold jewellery; coloured stone jewellery; investment oriented jewellery – Vogue Tusker Collection – Sri Lanka’s first branded 22 karat gold jewellery; minimalistic daily and office wear; gift items; men’s jewellery, gold coins and biscuits. Incidentally, we have invested in a state-of-the-art gold coin manufacturing plant that produces pristine quality coins of varying weights to international standards”, said Udara of the key benefits Vogue offers its customers.

On the topic of Vogue’s capability in the Digital age, Udara expresses his views saying, “We are ready for it. It is no secret that the retail landscape is more competitive than ever. We are experiencing the ‘Smart Phygital Era’ where the Retail industry is impacted by Industry Revolution 4.0, and related technologies such as Augmented Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Big Data Analytics, 3D printing and so on. Digitalization affects almost everything in today’s organizations, thus capturing its benefits is becoming uniquely complex. In this context, the drive should come from the ‘C level’. Despite having a prepared and motivated team with me, at present, I’m following a Global MBA in Digital Transformation to elevate my skill-set in order to provide leadership in the use of disruptive technology strategies. Jack Welch once said “If the rate of change outside exceeds the rate of change inside, the end is near.” Similarly, we have already entered into an era of disruption.  What we have experienced at Vogue throughout the last twenty years is that technology does not necessarily invent depending on the organization’s need. Instead, we opted for adaptation to the most effective and relevant technology that ensures a greater level of productivity and quality. As an example, we have adopted a combination of technological simulations by integrating ERP and CRM platforms to offer speedy service at all our service stations.”

“However, the adoption of IR 4.0 will have challenges, especially with regards to acceptance and adaptation. Therefore, inevitably we need to set a lean and agile infrastructure. That is the main reason we have declared the implementation of Lean 4.0, which is an integrated approach of Lean and Industry 4.0 initiatives. We believe this approach will support Vogue in the development of both exploiting and exploring capabilities, thereby achieving a greater level of operational and service excellence”, he further went on to state.  

“We should remember that we are a part of the ever-evolving Fashion industry. It is now growing towards a “hyper-personal” and “value-driven service”, deviating from a mere manufacture-driven industry. Digital marketing and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) encourage many lean-startups to emerge and grow exponentially. Large scale organizations like us need to adopt new business models to sustain and grow in this highly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world with hyper-competitors.  If we look at the standard of the craftsmanship of the local Jewellery industry, we can be very proud of the superior level, which Sri Lanka boasts of. Handcrafted jewellery commands a higher value, particularly in the Western markets. However, Sri Lankan jewellers have been focusing mostly on the local market. The lack of professional training and advanced technology in the local industry have been an impediment, resulting in our local industry stagnating in this position. The Ceylon Tea and some Apparel industry brands have successfully reached the very helm in the international market. As we have earned a worldwide recognition for gems and lapidary, Sri Lanka as a country should forge ahead to be recognized internationally for jewellery manufacturing as well. In order to achieve this goal, research, training, development and advanced technology are vital. I believe, that if we have these aspects of the industry in place, Sri Lanka will be a top of mind market among international buyers and end customers alike”, replied the CEO when asked whether the industry outlook would be an opportunity for the aforementioned journey towards digital acceptance and adaptation.

In a special message to the Jewellery industry, Udara stated, “I would take this opportunity to invite all Sri Lankan jewellers to network together as a unified force to develop a strong and healthy eco-system, and compete in the global market. Competing in isolation is history. We are in an era of network competition. It is about how well we synergize our capabilities as collaborative partners. Vogue is pleased to provide the leadership for the entire industry to grow as a strong forum that will create a golden era in the Sri Lankan economy, making Sri Lanka synonymous with jewellery and being gaining recognition as the Island of Jewellery.”