For over a century, the Sri Lankan unit of the UK-headquartered global banking group Standard Chartered, was headed by an expat chief executive officer. In 2019, traditions were dispensed with and Bingumal Thewarathanthri was appointed the first Sri Lankan CEO. Thewarathanthri’s career arc most certainly propelled him towards this role.
Sri Lanka is an emerging market and Thewarathanthri is well-positioned to unlock its growth potential for two reasons: first, he has an intimate understanding of the new wealth being created by Colombo’s outsiders.
Second, he appreciates the challenges businesses venturing overseas face, having experienced for himself the challenges of starting successful corporate banking businesses for Standard Chartered in Africa. By 2020, half of Sri Lanka’s 21.5 million population will be in the middle income group. While this is a harbinger of new opportunities for Sri Lankan businesses, growth will be contained by the relatively small market size. The tech-driven fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0, is disrupting traditional business models the world over. Global wealth is also shifting from west to east to places like India, China and ASEAN.
“We believe in growing Sri Lanka’s economy by globalising entrepreneurs and companies, by backing their global markets access. I believe that’s our differentiator,” Thewarathanthri says.
“We believe in growing Sri Lanka’s economy by globalising entrepreneurs and companies, by backing their global markets access. I believe that’s our differentiator.”
Standard Chartered has a long history and large footprint across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, which will give Sri Lankan businesses access to larger markets and drive economic prosperity. “This will be our legacy,” he says.
The GDP of African nations combined is around $2 trillion and growing at over 4%. China and India are growing at 6%. India’s GDP is nearing $3 trillion while China’s is $14 trillion. Bangladesh and Vietnam are other exciting destinations with trade treaties with developed markets. “We were not the first movers when China opened up; we were already there. It’s the same with Hong Kong and Singapore; Standard Chartered was part of their journeys,” Thewarathanthri says.
Apart from apparels, Sri Lanka has brands in FMCG, cosmetics, logistics and technology, and has the potential to invest in these markets for growth, Thewarathanthri says. He’s a firm believer that most top corporates here fundamentally have what it takes to compete globally. The top 200 Sri Lankan companies have governance structures, processes, standards and values that are on par with multinationals. They have built outstanding brands in Sri Lanka but need to take the next step and venture overseas.
Thewarathanthri knows something about venturing into emerging markets. For two years he was posted at the banking group’s Tanzania offices, tasked with setting up a transaction banking business there. The sub-Saharan nation was home to multiple ethnicities and the experience of bringing people together for a common goal was both enriching and rewarding.
He later had a second stint in Africa, completely different from the first. Standard Chartered had acquired a transaction banking business in Mauritius and entrusted Thewarathanthri with its restructure. He also set up new businesses in financial institution booking and custody services for the African region. “Mauritius was an eye-opener for me. It was an investment-grade economy and international financial centre with a per capita GDP of $9,000. It’s Ease of Doing Business ranking was around 25, the highest for an African country,” Thewarathanthri says.
He believes Sri Lanka’s inclusion into China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the development of the Colombo Port City have the cataclysmic potential for growth. Proximity to India must also be exploited to leapfrog the economy. Thewarathanthri believes Standard Chartered is best placed to exploit these opportunities. “In these markets, we’re much more than a foreign bank. These are home markets for us,” he says.
After Mauritius, Thewarathanthri returned to Sri Lanka to head the bank’s transaction banking unit. It was a significant business, making a third of the bank’s topline and profits. He then moved on to head retail banking, managing 200 frontline people, thereby receiving an all-round exposure of the bank and cementing his credential for CEO. He suggests a new area for growth is the new wealth created outside Colombo, an area he understands well.
Before joining Standard Chartered, Thewarathanthri specialised in financial services for small and medium businesses, most of them outside Colombo. He joined Standard Chartered to develop a supply chain product for multinationals sourcing from small businesses outside the capital. “Over the past 20 years, people have quietly grown their businesses outside Colombo. We now see them buying property in the city, enrolling their kids to the best schools and sending them overseas for education. Some of their children are returning with new ideas for their family businesses. We are positioning ourselves as a bank they aspire to engage with,” Thewarathanthri says.