15 September 2014

Otara: Business Personality of the Year 2015

‘Some are the melody, some are the beat, youth is like a diamond in the sun and we all know that diamonds are forever.  So many dreams swinging out of the blue and I decided to let them come true. I have created some diamonds in the shape of jeans and tops and decided to call the collection Forever Young.  The designs are pushing some boundaries but that is ok, because we are all…Forever Young’ –Otara.

Clearly a brand apart
For being exceptionally smart, not just in the chic sense of the word, but as it pertains to business decisions that make waves for more reasons than one, ‘The Nation’ picks Otara Gunewardene as the Business Personality of the Year 2014.

Otara Gunewardene obviously knows words but she didn’t just turn a phrase or create a line of jeans and tops. She created a retail brand of international standing. She was not only ODEL’s brand ambassador, she was a brand herself. Odel and Otara go together. Went together. Past tense. Otara and her siblings sold their respective stakes in ODEL to Softlogic last week and Otara’s 25 year long association with ODEL, the brand she built from scratch and which she is most identified with, came to an end.

From the boot of a car to hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space has to be about a long journey and an epic story. It is not exactly a rags-to-riches story of course. Otara’s father Norman Gunewardene was Chairman, Aitken Spence while her brother Ajit is Deputy Chairman, John Keells Holdings.

Nevertheless, it is story about icon-making. Speaking strictly of physical presence, the ODEL outlet in Town Hall is today what Millers and Cargills used to be in a different era. Otara was no run-of-the-mill CEO. She was the signature of her company; her boldness, innovation, business acumen and sheer presence marked everything and everyone associated with ODEL.

The lady is powerful.  This has been recognized.  She is identified with ‘success’.  She is an icon, at least in Colombo and among certain circles.  She parts with ODEL with certain tangibles and she leaves behind some questions. 

First of all, the numbers.  Otara sold 80.8 million shares or 29.7% of the issued share capital of the company to Softlogic.  That’s 1777.6 million rupees coming Otara’s way.  It was not that Otara was retiring from a government job and going home with just a monthly pension to look forward to or from a mid-range private company taking her ETF savings.  It was, Otara clearly states, ‘a pragmatic business decision’.  She is a passionate individual but at point has she ever demonstrated that she let emotion interfere with the clinical matter of making business decisions. 

It is not unknown after all that a steep rise in administrative costs and drop in other income saw ODEL reporting a net loss of Rs 7 million in the first quarter of FY15 (April to June 2014) against Rs 51 million net profit in the same period of the previous year.   It cannot be easy for anyone to part ways with an entity that’s been part of half one’s life and one which has defined who one has become.  That kind of renunciation one would not expect from someone who affirms not just life but all its fascinating frills with the kind of vivacity Otara embodies.  Regardless of business pragmatism, there is something special about being able to let go.  That’s a facet of ODEL’s signature-face that’s new to the consumer. 

But what of ODEL without Otara, though?  She says she will ‘remain with the company for the foreseeable future,’ but that sounds clichéd.  She has stated, after all, that her future is with animals, in particular dogs and Embark, that other brand Otara created and dedicated to take care of the canine needy.  The problem is that ODEL and Otara were or developed into twin-brands, almost ‘Siamese’ in complementarity.  True, neither are national icons, yet, but to the extent that they are recognized elements in the up-market retail scene, they are talked of together. 

Will ODEL be just another shop without Otara?  Otara has other passions and she’s left with enough capital to develop other businesses and brands if she so wishes.  ODEL is a well-positioned brand and yet the Otara-tag as much as her hands-on decision-making presence always was impetus, back-up, cutting-edge and all those other things that make for success. 

As she embarks on a different life, which according to her ‘goes beyond material gain’ and heeds ‘true calling’, what happens to Otara the Businesswoman, Otara the Innovator, Otara the Fasion Icon, Otara the Retail Guru?  In what ways will she re-invent herself or else in what ways will she surprise us?  She is an immense talent, has immense capacity and is immensely rich.  And forever young too, let us not forget.  



Madhushka Kannangara said...


Anonymous said...

Well, I believe there are several highly critical points you’ve missed on this matter of her sudden desertion. It is truly natural that being a profit venturing business for ODEL to go through a rough patch with numbers during the first quarter which incurred hefty losses in the ledgers. But that’s what businesses are all about and I’m quite sure it is not the first time things went wrong like that for ODEL. Those management & administration issues can be taken care of in a flash considering the amount of resources available to her and her business. Another major point can be the political impact & pressure coming adversely on top of her due to the late incident of a high powered brawl happened inside ODEL premises involving a son minister in the parliament. Minister’s son was also about to launch his campaign to contest for the cabinet and was highly critical among the public for his notorious acts. Even his father the minister was famous in performing so which showed to the world that how much influence & power vested in them. But in this case it was not the same. Things went the other way round and hunter became hunted. The law enforcement authorities didn’t have a clue about the perpetrators who made the clash even after going through the CCTV footages of the premises. Therefore an immense pressure from the victim’s party redirected & was piling up on the management for allowing the premises to act as a safe heaven for the goons.

Anonymous said...

"she created a retail brand of international standing"

What EXACTLY is this INTERNATIONAL standing ODEL has?

If ODEL is an "international" brand, then people who live in the FASHION CAPITALS of the world like Paris, Milan, London & NY should be wearing ODEL clothes and accessories. But there is NOTHING like this happening.

Why on earth would the glitterati (i.e. glamours people) of Paris wear ODEL??

ODEL is nothing but a 3rd-world clothes shop. 3rd rate stuff at FASHION CAPITAL prices. It's daylight robbery if you ask me. Nothing else to it really.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

i think you are right. i went overboard there.

Nalin R said...

ODEL: “Avoid !!!! Low quality & over priced”

I visited this place few times after visiting pettah market
I analysed this place is targeting white people for 10 times high prices
For example in pettah the same wallet is 250
But here it's 2500
A gift souvenir I found for price 750
We can buy it outside for 50 rupees
Also I saw some tea for 1300 for 100g
But it should be less than 100 in out
They have put the same tea to different kind of packets taken from the lot of refuse tea from srilankas factory's which ordered to be destroyed
Every t shirts & trousers we can buy the maximum for 1500rs
But here it's over 10000
I was told their garments from Srilankan factory's rejected things who didn't meet export quality & bought for low price like one piece for 200 rupees

Visited January 2016

Anonymous said...

I go to ODEL for one reason only: To buy sandwiches from the Delifrance outlet. Not bad those sandwiches.

Peshala Gamhewa said...

After all that superficial side of her, what about Otara the hypocrite who talks non-stop about elephants and stray dogs with no voice for streetwise kids turning the dustbin for their daily bread, Old people lying in desperate states without attention from their grown up children. No voice about school kids in rural areas with no toilets for schools.
Well..human beings are such convoluted soles that its easy to talk about elephants and dogs. So…..what about monkeys getting dragged out of their habitats to be killed for meat.
Oh but monkeys are not that cute as elephants and dogs are they!!