The Report Company: As chairperson of the Exporters Association of Sri Lanka, what is your overview of the current situation for exporters?

Dawn Austin: We cannot predict where the cost of living is going and that will negate the benefits of the recent currency devaluation, and that’s going to have an impact on every commodity price, and we’re going to be having people ask us for wage increases to support the cost of living. These are things that will make it more difficult for the roadmap to development as some of the variables are totally out of our control.

However, the mindset is right, the commitment is right and the country has everything going for it. We as an exporter group see that there is a lot of transparency. We are allowed to make submissions for budget proposals, and we have small group meetings with the secretary of the treasury which augurs very well.

Since the currency devaluation we are competitive but everything else has hit us as well. There’s the oil crisis, the global financial crisis and the reduction in the world markets. Sri Lanka traditionally looked to Europe and the US for its export markets particularly in high value products such as garments, gems and jewellery, but those markets cannot support what our expectations have been in the past.

TRC: What regions and new approaches are Sri Lankan exporters looking at to overcome these challenges?

DA: The exporter community here is very resilient. A lot of companies are looking at vertical integration with India, because India is a very fast growing market. Japan is difficult to work with but i know companies who are shoring themselves up for going into places like Japan. Sri Lankans are quite versatile, they will look at new markets, and there is a lot of encouragement from within the government.

There are trade missions, fact-finding missions and people coming in. One industry that is growing by leaps and bounds is the IT sector. The export development board has also started looking at places like South East Asia. There is also a small segment going into Africa, for less sophisticated manufactured goods.

Because Sri Lanka isn’t a huge country, it has the capacity to cater to markets that don’t need huge volumes.

However, GSP is coming up for review in 2014 and we need to make a case for Sri Lanka to remain in the GSP regular program for the European Union.

Sri Lankans are very versatile and what we’re finding is that some of our solutions which are generic and home-grown are very practical. Our exporters need resources and it’s something the government is looking at.

TRC: Nidro Supply is a pioneering export with a very innovative background. Can you give us an overview of the current situation and next steps for the company?

DA: We used to do chandelling for ships in the port of Colombo for the British and American naval vessels. When the Maldives started developing we saw an opportunity there and started the fruit and vegetable export business.

The company has now developed into a hospitality resource base for products of Sri Lankan origin. We’re also looking at other islands in the Indian ocean. We used to work with the Seychelles until they stopped the direct flight from the Maldives and it became too expensive.

Our next step is to build up production bases around the country to service the business we now have, put up collection centres, proper packing centres and give farmers the seeds, technology and support they need.

We’ve also now got quite a good banking system where a farmer can go and get his own funding as we burnt our fingers in the past trying to fund people because we didn’t have the mechanism within the company to regulate this.

We’ve also set up cold rooms, and we’re very customer focussed. The best compliment we were given was that every customer thinks they are our only customer. That’s the personal involvement.

There are a lot of very clever craftsmen in the country. We bought a company recently that manufactures ceramic products. They have an amazing product, but they didn’t have the management skills or the resources, so we went in and gave them that back of house operation.

Today a lot of the al fresco’s dining outfits in the Maldives use their product. We have buyers in the Maldives that we conceptualise for. We have the capacity to custom make anything because our own manufacturing units are small. For example, we foster companies who manufacture paper made with paddy husk, and take that to the Maldives.

I can’t see us going public, because it’s about having the a heart in the business

TRC: What about Europe and the UK as a potential market?

DA: That’s a problem. We did quite well into Europe and the UK up to about 5 years ago, but nothing that you do which is original remains original. Somebody from Bangladesh can always do it more cheaply. We haven’t gone where the Indian industry went for example, which is into mass production. What are we doing right now is looking where we can go. We are too expensive for some countries so we’ve got to scale down our operations to come inline.

TRC: Through your business, you’re giving a lot back to the country. What message would you like to give about Nidro Supply and Sri Lanka?

DA: Sri Lanka is a good manufacturing base. At Nidro, we are substantial exporters and have a very good reputation.

The way I run the company, absolutely every single email has to be answered within the day, and I have got to be copied on it. It’s a bit of micromanagement but it works because it incentivises people to get things done. We’re probably the only company that doesn’t close on any day of the week; we’re open 365 days a year. We’re looking to grow to a more corporate level, but it’s difficult to work at a corporate level and give the personalised service which is what differentiates us. We’ll get there.