Few Sri Lankan businesses are as well-positioned to benefit from growing consumer spending and a rise in Sri Lanka’s tourism fortunes as John Keells Holdings (JKH). For more than a decade JKH—a diversified company with businesses in seven industry sectors including banking & insurance, port operations, IT and property development—has targeted its investments to these two growth areas of their business. JKH is the largest listed company in Sri Lanka.
Keells food brands are market leaders. Its supermarket chain is one of the most profitable and when a new 800 room hotel opens in Colombo in 2020 JKH will have over 3,000 hotel rooms in Sri Lanka. As with any large business, continuing to deliver shareholder returns that beat hurdle rates is a challenge central to the senior leadership team. JKH’s dominant market position can also be its most significant growth challenge; how does a large business continue to grow?
“Right now, we have ample opportunity in all the sectors we have invested in. It’s possible to grow these businesses Gihan Cooray many folds from where they are today. We are not looking at the next big thing, we have plenty on our portfolio,” says JKH Deputy Chairman Gihan Cooray, who was appointed to the board in 2016 and elevated to deputy chairman in 2019. “We want to build businesses that are leaders in the region. We think many of them can become of a regionally significant scale,” he says.
“Ultimately, the ability to cross-sell and synergise across the group could potentially be a business of its own, giving us an edge over competitors.”
The group has bet on what Cooray calls ‘dark horse’ ventures, which he oversees. These are tech-driven ventures designed to generate significant growth opportunities for the group, over the medium to long term, as separate businesses or shared services. Much of Cooray’s career at JKH has been in finance. While enjoying his work at group corporate finance, he often wished to get involved in running a business unit. He had a taste for this before joining JKH, working at a hardware and consumer appliances dealership.
There, his work involved sales and collections and talking to household customers and carpenters and monitoring debtors, “the usual operational stuff of a consumer goods dealership,” Cooray did eventually run JKH’s supermarket business. Some recent executive members on the JKH board had at one time or another cut their teeth at leadership at the Keells supermarket unit.
Cooray now wears several hats apart from vice chairman of the group. He is group finance director with responsibility extending to finance and accounting, taxation, corporate finance, treasury and IT. Overlooking group finances and the operations side of running a business is a challenge he savours. While the group’s existing businesses, including retail and tourism, remain catalysts for growth over the next five years, Cooray also overlooks investments for the future.
The group is acquiring data and analytics capabilities too. Cooray suggests a centre of excellence for data and analytics will add significant know-how and skills the group will leverage over the long term.
JKH has 1.3 million individual customers across its various businesses. Without sharing identities and sensitive customer data across business units, JKH still expects to be able to leverage the insights in ways that can enhance customer experiences, reduce costs and improve productivity. “Ultimately, the ability to cross-sell and synergise across the group could potentially be a business of its own, giving us an edge over competitors,” he says.
Cooray also overlooks JKH Research, a science-led initiative seeking to create intellectual property, which is now gaining traction. “This is not R&D looking for the next sugar-free drink,” he says. The idea is to patent innovations that can be leveraged to partner global brands.
A commercialised patent at a global scale can lead to a windfall. Recently they registered a patent for a new energy storage devise developed in collaboration with a partner. The group’s software business is also developing next-generation platforms that integrate IoT, robotic automation process and analytics. Initially, this tech will be deployed across businesses of the group as shared services. “This is a small business within the group, but the investments we’re making in digital technology will give our group an x-factor,” Cooray says.
John Keells IT was created in 2018/19 merging John Keells Computer Services and strategic group IT for better brand recognition and to build end-to-end digital platforms for the group and external clients. JKIT has a mandate to incubate and rollout tech solutions for companies in the JKH group that could generate future revenue streams. JKIT has several partnerships with global tech companies like SAP, Microsoft, UiPath, Deloitte, Crayon and others.
The company has a presence in the Middle East and North Africa region, setting up a new office in Dubai. JKIT secured one of its largest contracts for SAP implementation outside Sri Lanka to digitally transform the sales and services functions for a client. It also developed a secondary departure control system for a leading Middle Eastern airline. JKH has a business process outsourcing business called Infomate.