Turning accountants into leaders

Dian Gomes, a veteran in Sri Lanka’s apparel export industry, mentored many successful business leaders. Gomes took a bet on Mahesh Semege, who at 25 is showing a lot of promise

Mahesh Semege had a tough choice to make: join the audit division of the $1.6 billion apparel export company MAS Holdings, which meant he could continue to enjoy the comforts of Colombo, or take up the assignment to lead an accounting team at a production plant just opened by the company located 24km away in Biyagama. As plant accountant, Semege would have to acquire a different skills-set, and fast. The distance made it an unpalatable choice; it was too far from home and his studies. An audit role in Colombo was not to his liking, but Biyagama would disrupt his ACCA study programme, and with it, his goal of becoming a financial controller before he was 30. “I had to choose between career advancement, which was taking the role at Biyagama, and fulfilling my personal advancement of getting qualified in ACCA in the comforts of Colombo. I was given a choice. I opted for Biyagama because it was a new challenge,” Semege says.

He completed a two-year stint as the dedicated plant accountant for the new MAS factory and got through his ACCA exams, winning the Top ACCA Affiliate Prize in the process. “I was proud of myself given the challenges I had to face, especially the time lost to travel, which was a killer. In hindsight, I made the right choice because today I am where I want to be,” he says. Semege joined MAS Holdings as a trainee accounts executive at 19. Today, at 25, he is the deputy financial controller at Hela Clothing, a Britishcontrolled company aiming to become a global apparel company, fast.

“The fundamental part of my career has always been accounting. I understood numbers and how they relate to the business. Later, I realised that managing people should be a priority. If you put people first, then you will achieve the numbers.”
Dian Gomes

Semege was recruited by Dian Gomes, then Managing Director of MAS Intimates and Group Director of MAS Holdings. Gomes is a legend at spotting, nurturing and retaining talent. Even MAS’s rival companies in the apparel sector have publicly admitted his greatness in this regard, and his ability to command a cult following.

“Tremendous” is how Gomes describes his journey as a professional accountant. He started out as a management trainee with audit firm KPMG and moved on to join British designing firm Saracen Interiors as financial controller at 22; in three years, he was promoted to finance director for Southeast Asia. He later joined US-based, Fortune 500 company May Group for a two-year stint before embarking on a stellar career with MAS Holdings. When he joined MAS 25 years ago, the company was making $6 million a year, and when he retired in 2015, it was making $1.6 billion. He retired in 2015 and is now chairman of British apparel giant Hela Clothing, where he aspires to double the revenue and take it public in a few years. “The fundamental part of my career has always been accounting. I was a good accountant, and I understood numbers and how they relate to the business. Later, I realised that managing people should be a priority. If you put people first, then you will achieve the numbers; this is my cardinal rule,” Gomes says.

MAS recruited a lot of accounting professionals. “With a qualification like ACCA, we knew the professionals we hired upheld stringent standards. They were expected to move into other areas of the apparel business and give leadership in marketing, planning and even manufacturing because they not only understood the numbers, but had the ability to understand people. We always looked at accounting professionals to move into other parts of the business, or ending up as chief executives,” Gomes says.

He made sure the young Semege got the opportunity to hone and expand his professional skills, and understand the business and the people.

“I wanted to give him battle experiences, so after a year at the corporate office, I sent him to one of our manufacturing units to lead a small team. He had to interact with hundreds of people, understand the process of running an apparel business and hone his skills in managing people. It was like pushing him into the deep end, and he swam! He survived the test. He came back battle-trained a few years later and took it to the next level,” Gomes says.

When Gomes retired from MAS to become Chairman at Hela Clothing, Semege followed his mentor, becoming the Deputy Financial Controller at 25 to manage a $140 million business, a meteoric rise compared to most professionals in his field.

“When I proposed him for the role of deputy financial controller, many eyebrows were raised around the boardroom. He proved himself at MAS and I believed he would do the same at Hela,” Gomes says. “He is one of our stars and will someday lead a big corporate entity.”

“I had to choose between career advancement, which was taking the role at Biyagama, and fulfilling my personal advancement of getting qualified in ACCA. I opted for Biyagama because it was a new challenge.”
Mahesh Semege

Semege says his stint at the production plant at Biyagama served him well. “In hindsight, that was the best decision I made. I now have a deeper understanding of the industry, manufacturing processes and people, who are the heart of any organisation. I can better appreciate how all of this relates to achieving better financial results,” he says about managing budgets, cash flows and strategic acquisitions at Hela.

Gomes’ strategy for Hela Clothing is to acquire or merge with other medium-sized apparel manufacturers to build scale and expand into Africa and South America. Since assuming the chair at Hela Clothing in December 2015, Gomes has been successful in merging with one small family-owned business, doubling the Hela factory count from seven to 15 and driving revenue up from $140 million to $200 million. The company recently opened a factory in Kenya, with plans to open production facilities in Ethiopia, Mexico and the Dominican Republic to make use of favourable trading terms and achieve faster lead times. Once Hela Clothing revenue reaches the $300 million mark, the company will go public with a dual listing in London or the US, alongside the Colombo Stock Exchange.