Sri Lanka’s entrepreneur Otara Gunawardene says “I have no regrets selling Odel”

Apr 23, 2015 (LBO) – Sri Lanka’s entrepreneur Otara Gunawardene, who started her retail business selling garment factory surplus stock from the back of a van and then turned it into one of the largest fashion and lifestyle retail chains in the Island says, she has no regrets selling her 25 year old business empire.

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“Not a day has gone where I regret selling Odel,” Otara Gunawardene said.

“By that time it was really to make a change in the company and the company was ready for it at that time as well as,”

“It gave me the option to make a change which I always wanted to do one day.”

She was speaking at the 61st LBR LBO CEO Forum themed “Life after ODEL: A Fireside Chat with Otara Gunewardene” held at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, Colombo with the participation of business leaders and senior executives in the Island.

After a twenty-five year old journey of success with Odel, Otara has made a conscious decision to embark on a different journey, a journey that intends to impact society and a journey where she could leverage her business acumen, celebrity status, network and the trust she has built to create greater good for society.

In order to move towards that path, Otara and her brothers, Ruchi and Ajit sold their stake of 45 per cent at Odel for 2.7 billion rupees to Softlogic Plc Sri Lanka.

“I can’t tell you how difficult it was after 25 years of living, eating, breathing and building the brand and fashion,” Gunewardene says.

“It didn’t happen overnight. It took a while for me to think about it and to see whether it was really what I wanted to do,”

“But I think the time was right and I started Odel originally to help animals. But, after a while it was so driven on profit, numbers and that sort of pressure,”

Otara Gunawardene

“My passion was to help people and animals and it was so difficult to do as it went on. So I thought it is time for me to see the options and choices,”

“For me, the next five years at Odel would have been all about huge expansion.”

“I was thinking whether that is what I wanted to do or if the time had come for me to change the lives of people and animals by spending more time “giving”,”

“That was choice I made.”

Otara, didn’t want to be defined by the ODEL story. This is a rare quality among entrepreneurs and they generally find it very difficult to let go of what was created.

However, Otara says letting go of things they are attached to is not always an easy decision, but it has not stopped her following her passion.

That kind of a decision demands courage, faith and deep intellect.

From a perspective of Buddhist psychology, such a decision is also deeply spiritual.

A journey to a memory

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As demand increased for Odel clothing sold from a minivan, Otara ventured into her first store opening in 1989, a 500 square feet shop located on Dickman’s Road.

She stacked up all the surplus garments there with her mother’s helps as the cashier.

Her shop was gaining popularity but the store caught fire which made her move the business to a larger store on Alexandra Place, Colombo 07.

Odel had about 20 stores around Sri Lanka by the time it was sold and was established internationally as well.

“I was never interested in fashion,” the 50 year old, business women who has two young sons said speaking about her life journey.

“I was this girl at school who loved athletics and sports, I never dis well in my studies. I was not that good in school,”

“I just loved animals,”

“I started Odel to really raise funds to help animals,”

“I was learning every day, every month and every year but most of all I enjoyed it and I loved what I did and it was exciting for me,”

“Everything even advertising was based around that at the beginning which I continued throughout the business until the very last day,” Otara said.

However her business pioneered fashion retailing in the Island and has had a significant impact on the tastes and preferences of Sri Lankans.

ODEL never lost its competitive advantage, which was nurtured and sustained by Otara’s business acumen, passion and insight into retailing.

Strategy of creativity

Otara launched her first in house brand Embark – a line of animal t– shirts and then ventured into other brands like Backstage, an accessory brand which includes jewellery, bags, belts, etc, and Luv SL, a sovereign brand.

“For me the inspiration was the people who came to the store to buy the products and used to love shopping there,” Otara said.

“That kept me expanding and keep offering more, styling more,”

“Obviously I have no idea about business or finance. So I had to learn everything and you know I had to get tuition classes on accounts and finance which I had no clue,” she laughed.

“It was never about the money or the sales or the numbers coming in. It was always just the pleasure of doing it, the more I could offer the more I could excite people. It was the pleasure people walking in to the store. That was really the most exciting thing and that was the time I realized that I loved the fact of growing all the things and changing all the times and setting goals and moving from one to the other.”

She said it is important to keep offering new things to keep a brand moving up in the ladder. That was the strategy Otara used by bringing all the experience and inspiration from around the world and blending into Sri Lankan taste to suits Odel and Sri Lanka.

“We wanted to make sure every month and every year there is something very different that customers could come and see and could buy, because anybody gets bored seeing the same thing over and over again specially in retail and fashion, the ever changing fast moving business.”

She said her staff were given tough challenges in order to keep ahead in creating fashion.

“The more you are challenged, the better you get.”

Odel had 950 employees at the time it was sold.

Family Support

Otara says, the support that she got from her family in stepping to each stage was enormous. She said she would not be able to create what she had created if not the family.

She said the first loan she got to start the business was from her brother Ajit and her mother.

“My family has been extremely supportive of me,” Otara said.

“When I stated the business I actually borrowed 50 dollars from Ajit and my mother. That is how they were involved in the business in the beginning and my mother used to help me out a lot,”

“And over the years she (Mother) was a tremendous support to me with my children and that is one of the reason that I was able to do what have I done,”

“Ajit skills in financing was used heavily at the start until I managed to learn it on my own.”

After selling Odel, Otara continued her passion for helping animals though Embark’s campaign dedicated for the wellbeing of stray dogs whilst preventing rabies in Sri Lanka.

“I always say if you want to do something, you can do it.” Otara Gunawardene said.

(Await, Life after Odel’s second part of the chat with Otara)