A Second Coming
Despite centuries since their last occupation of the island now called Sri Lanka, many of the reasons that attract individual Europeans here remain the same. Centuries ago many were employed by private plantation companies growing export crops. Others took respectable positions in the civil service and the judiciary. While risks of venturing overseas were high the rewards often justified these for the adventure spirited.
Again the numbers of foreign citizens arriving here to take up senior level private sector jobs are growing and they are now being followed by fortune-seeking immigrants. The growing tourism industry is a major attraction for expats, some of whom have the skills to manage luxury hotels. Joining them are economic migrants driven by the bleak prospects in their own countries. Here these immigrants are adapting their skills to the opportunities created by tourism.
Since 2008 the number of Brits leaving their homeland has steadily increased. The average age of such individuals has also dropped and it is the young and ambitious who are looking further afield now.
So, is it merely an adventurer spirit and willingness to take risk that brings them here? Is the promise of sunny days and warm sparkling seas the only reason they would be willing to make the exodus abroad, often leaving behind family, friends and a familiar way of living. Or is their ensconcing themselves here based on a future vision of a wealthy and stable economy?
One thing is for sure; their presence in Sri Lanka – just as the presence of any foreign element within the familiar – means that both are transformed.
Echelon looks at immigrants and asks what their motivations are; seeing through their eyes, to see what makes Sri Lanka the place they want to live in and invest in.
CO-FOUNDER, FORTALEZA FOUNDER, GALLE FORT SPA
Sri Lankan brands have flourish ed in the past five years’ says Natalie when asked w hat gave her the confidence to launch h er own businesses here.
What stood out to me about these successful businesses is that their owners were well travelled or in some cases, educated abroad. They had seen which businesses flourished overseas and brought those models and influences back to Sri Lanka’.
As a result the pair had some idea about Sri Lankan political, economic and other idiosyncrasies. Armed with this information they made the decision to invest in the four-roomed hotel with a restaurant around its ground floor courtyard in 2012. A year later she opened Galle Fort Spa. ‘I always saw so much untapped potential here’ says Natalie. ‘After the war everyone was unsure of where Sri Lanka was heading, the country was in shock and it was a willingness of both local and foreign investors to take the plunge and start opening innovative businesses that fuelled confidence’.
Natalie describes how a mixture of gut instinct and an appraisal of the country’s economic terrain drove her to invest. ‘At the time I opened Fortaleza, the Fort was very quiet and almost empty during low season.’ She paints a picture of the Fort at that time as: a place so quiet you almost expected tumbleweed to roll through any minute. However seeing tourists slowly trickling into southern Sri Lanka, Natalie saw a need for somewhere to eat, drink and stay which catered to the mid-range market; at that time only very high-end hotels and restaurants had opened within the same area.
She also explains how a mix of influence can help to spur local growth. ‘Just as we have benefitted from the Sri Lankan market, we also offer fresh inspiration that spurs improvement across the board.’
The couple have seen how local businesses are now more adventurous. ‘This allows us all to step up our game, benefiting everybody involved,’ smiles Natalie. The Fort’s restaurants and boutiques along with its old world charm can occupy the imagination of tourists for an entire day now compared to a decade ago when a walk along its narrow streets was the only activity.
PHILIP AND MEG BABER
CO FOUNDERS & DIRECTORS, STICK NO BILLS
When a business is birth ed on the back of 20 Bollywood posters gathering dust in an airing cupboard on e may sense there has been more than a dose of inspiration involved.
Stick No Bills, a vintage poster shop selling antique Ceylon tea, travel and film posters within the Fort was founded in 2011 and is owned and managed by Phil and Meg. Some of the artwork sold can be investments in their own right, because original movie posters can appreciate in value.
Phil and Meg had been visiting Sri Lanka separately before they met. Meg had worked in the island during the war and Phil is a 2004 tsunami survivor here. So they weren’t strangers to Sri Lanka’s trauma when in 2005 they met in Dubai. After a stint living in Dubai, Phil explains, ‘it came to the point where I was tired of not being able to hold hands with my own wife in public.’ ‘We also wanted to start something to run together so we began looking at different countries for opportunities’. The couple first toured Brazil, at that time a burgeoning economy, looking for land to buy. ‘We just didn’t feel safe there’ recalls Phil ‘corruption was rife at every level and there was no way of really knowing how secure or sustainable your investment was going to be.’
Eventually they realised that they should have been looking to Sri Lanka all along and got the next flight out of Brazil. Of her time in Sri Lanka in the late 90’s Meg recalls ‘I remember wandering around the Fort in 1999 and being blown away by the place’, she says, ‘the sheer heritage was overwhelming; cultural, architectural and archaeological’.
Down to their last few thousand dollars in 2011 Phil found a proprietor who was looking to lease a shop space within the Fort and Stick No Bills was born.‘We could never have made this business such a success back home’ says Phil ‘the market is saturated there whereas the opposite is the case here’. ‘Doing business here is not without its drawbacks though’ he laughs, ‘We can only lease a property here for five years at a time which reduces our goodwill, innovation is often thwarted at every turn and the number of pubic holidays can be a challenge’. ‘However the local staff have been fabulous’ counters Meg.
The couple admits that money is low on the list when it comes to citing reasons for relocating to Sri Lanka. Both avid surfers, they fell in love with the country for its warm breaks and because it provides a safe place to raise their family.
The couple stress how well the various authorities have supported them in opening their business with low start up capital. ‘If you put the time and effort in to get your ducks in a row the support is there’ says Meg. A letter of reference from the ministry of national heritage supports this. It praises the couple for ‘outstanding contribution towards the promotion of sustainable, culturally and historically sensitive trade and tourism in the fort’. It also notes that Stick No Bills ‘has become a magnet for thousands of visitors to Galle Fort seeking an insight into the history of Sri Lanka’. For an expat seeking a welcome on the shores of a foreign land, this is a lofty accolade.
PIERS LAMPLOUGH AND JULES KWAN
DIRECTOR & CHIEF EXECUTIVE , INDECO
‘It’s not easy to get global scale investors interested in a small tropical island that has just emerged from 35 years of civil war but that is exactly what we did’ asserts Piers, a Director of Indecon, a real estate company.
British born, Piers arrived in Sri Lanka in 2010 following an eight-year stint working for African telecom firms and immediately set about investigating the real estate market here. Within two years he had gained valuable experience from both opening his own beach house for rentals in Thalpe and working within the industry. ‘I wanted to dip my toe into the market here to see how well things were set up to facilitate land transactions’ he explains. Satisfied with what he saw Piers teamed up with Jules, founder and chief executive of Indecon, joining the company as director and shareholder in 2011.
Together they started identifying prime real estate investment opportunities in the south of Sri Lanka. Piers explains how Indecon attracted investor confidence in Sri Lanka, ‘by investing our own money into our first Sri Lankan investment fund; the capital of which we used to buy eight million dollars of land on the island, the confidence we had gained from our already established projects. We then attracted 12 private investors.’
By then, Indecon had already completed a number of projects including UBRN, the first carbon neutral luxury hotel in China. ‘We are not in the business of making a fast buck by pillaging emerging markets’ emphasizes Piers ‘we seek to bring together talent, innovative design and clean technology to create real estate projects that inspire’. In 2011 Indecon invited architects from across the globe to work on a 75 room, sustainably focused resort in Galle.
A year later, the Government announced an overhaul of the legislation that allowed foreigners to buy land in Sri Lanka. This was followed by a two year delay before the changes were defined, essentially placing a freeze on this project and others like it. ‘In order to attract investors you need to give them confidence’ says Piers ‘this move had the opposite effect and provided complete uncertainty for a full two years’. The confidence in the Sri Lankan real estate market crumbled and without sturdy assurances, it may be a long wait until fresh investors are willing to take the plunge again.
Despite this, Indecon is committed to completing projects it’s already started here. ‘We have had to be flexible in what our end offering will now look like and we have also had to suffer personal loss as a result of the delay in the execution of legal changes’ says Jules, ‘however we remain hopeful that these are just ‘teething problems.’
FOUNDER, SILK ROAD INTERIORS C LOTHING & INTERIOR DESIGN
Lisa founded her first business, a soft furnishing brand in Ireland in 2005. She had studied fashion at the Grafton academy in Dublin, her first role saw her based in Bali, designing for an Irish company exporting ladies clothing into the island.
‘This really opened my eyes to the concept of doing business abroad and how successful collaborations could be achieved by blending different cultural influences’says Lisa. Her business in Ireland flourished in the years before the global financial crisis hit. ‘After the crash Ireland was one of the worst hit economies’ says Lisa ‘banks were cutting off credit to developers who were our main clients.’
Lisa and her husband and two children, embarked on a world tour, looking for the right place to re-invest. They visited 17 countries and it was Sri Lanka that stood out ‘it reminded me very much of my time in Bali.’ remembers Lisa. ‘Apart from theisland’s outstanding natural beauty, like Bali it is teeming with natural resources & incredible craftspeople’. Lisa goes on to explain; ‘As a designer I crave the type of inspiring environment that Sri Lanka so readily offers, I could see immediately that with a stable government the island was about to see massive economic growth.’ The family moved into Sri Lanka in 2011 and set up a BOI approved investment firm, focusing on tourism and hospitality.
Lisa’s latest projects are a Sri Lankan born fashion brand and a furniture & home accessories range. ‘Small factories here are producing export quality items’ she enthuses, ‘it can be a search but there are real gems of production lines to be found on the island’. Lisa stresses the importance of allowing industries such as these to grow and multiply as the introduction of market competition drives price down so that more businesses can thrive on the back of locally produced products.
Although Lisa started out as a clothing and interiors designer, the dynamic of the marketplace in Sri Lanka enabled her to quickly develop new skills in the fields of architecture and furniture making, in a way that would never have been possible in her home country. She has just completed her first architectural project in Thalpe, which has already been featured in the international press. This is a beautiful modern tropical villa, showcasing how traditional materials such as kitul and coconut wood can be used to create innovative modern structures.
Working alongside local craftspeople, together they have developed new methods of creating both indoor and outdoor furniture. ‘It’s been such a delight to see people move away from the feel of heavier pieces’, says Lisa who is keen to encourage experimentation with readily available Sri Lankan materials. ‘There’s so much opportunity for growth and development here’ says Lisa.