JKH reshapes business in post-pandemic world: Krishan Balendra | Daily News
Agile, adaptable and online:

JKH reshapes business in post-pandemic world: Krishan Balendra

John Keells Holdings (JKH) looks forward to welcoming local travellers to its resorts, with the easing of lockdown measures. “With the lifting of the curfew islandwide, we are able to operate our restaurants and function rooms with certain restrictions,” JKH, Chairman Krishan Balendra said. In this interview, Balendra discusses how the conglomerate, one of the largest listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE) whose shares foreign investors usually buy when investing in the country, responded to the Covid-19 crisis and how it is adapting to new ways of doing business in a post-pandemic world.

The company got involved in many Covid 19 response programmes and also closely worked with the government by offering its resorts as quarantine facilities, funding a laboratory at the IDH and providing relief measure of various forms to the small-time suppliers and providing dry rations.


Q: COVID-19 is the biggest challenge - health wise, economy wise and politically around the globe today. As the head of a leading company in the country what are your key measures to ensure the survival of your business interests during the pandemic and afterwards?

A: Ensuring that we have a healthy workforce is key; as such even before the lockdown in Sri Lanka, when we fine-tuned our Business Continuity Plans, we set out robust additional processes to facilitate the safety of our people, and also all basic PPEs such as gloves, masks, sanitization liquids and wipes and other equipment as relevant, were provided to those working in the frontlines in our retail and logistics businesses. Ensuring that we are agile in meeting evolving consumer expectations and adapting early to new consumer trends is also important. Given that the operating models and assumptions of certain businesses may fundamentally change going forward, improving our digital infrastructure and digitization initiatives will assist in this evolution. Further, we also focus on ensuring we stay lean and agile in the short term for positive longer-term prospects; we have evaluated the financial position of the Group, where each of the businesses were stress-tested under multiple operating scenarios and have in place certain measures Group-wide with the intention of preserving cash and maintaining a strong financial position. We also ensured that we continue to support the lives and livelihoods of our communities which is interwoven with our sustainable business practices; be it working with the government to provide dry rations, offering our resorts as quarantine facilities, funding a laboratory at the IDH or providing relief measure of various forms to our small-time suppliers.

Q: What initiatives have you taken since the pandemic started to ensure smooth operations?

A: While the detailed Business Continuity Plans, and Crisis Communications Plans we had in place, helped us navigate these unchartered waters better, the senior leadership team maintained a continuous dialogue with each of the business to understand the issues on ground as they evolved, which enabled us to make quick decisions to resolve them and to be transparent with our staff, customers and suppliers about our capabilities at any given time and manage expectations. Further, in addition to the work from home and flexi hours policies we already had in place, in order to provide clear guidelines to all employees on health and safety protocols, the digital first approach, working hours and to communicate best practices on mental and physical well-being, productivity and employee engagement during the COVID-19 lockdown, we released a new work-from-home and work on-premise protocol, which is applicable to both the lockdown period and the back to work transition period.

Q: What was your first message to your employees?

A: My first message to all staff with regards to pandemic, was early March, and it was on the business preparedness and guidelines for managing COVID – 19 in the workplace, which essentially carved out the Group’s position on increased levels of general hygiene and cleanliness in the workplace and restriction on non-essential travel. Once the lockdown was in effect, my message in that first week, was to thank those working in our frontlines, reaffirm that the health and safety of our people is of paramount importance to the Group, that we must all align ourselves with Government directives in this regard, informed staff that JKH was one of the first responders in offering relief aid in different forms, and finally to also reiterate our responsibility in facing these challenging times with resilience and commitment to overcome this crisis together. Since then I have periodically been communicating with all staff, on different platforms and forums during the lockdown, about the prudent measures we have taken to manage our operations across all our businesses and business continuity, our relief efforts and the outlook for the Group and the Sri Lankan economy.

Q: How should the manufacturing/distribution process be done – in keeping with health guidelines – such as physical distancing in the future?

A: All our workplaces, including our factories, are committed to strictly following government regulations and guidelines for operating under the safest conditions, now and in the future. We have adopted new ways of working at our factories limiting the number of staff present at a given time, which leads to us not being able to operate at full capacity. However once new consumer behaviours are analyzed post lockdown, we are in a better position to focus on product needs and improve efficiencies where required. We have already ventured into being present on new distribution channels such as third-party online food ordering and delivery platforms and online stores and we have also launched our own online platform for Keells Foods with delivery to your door step. We will also continue to extend support to our distributors in the traditional supply chain, who have been impacted the most.

Q: What should the attitude of a company’s management be in a post-Covid scenario? What CEO qualities have helped you so far to manage JKH during the pandemic?

A: There is opportunity in every challenge and the senior leadership must lead by example in being agile, adaptable and open to and prepared for disruptive innovation and digitization. The leadership must also manage change in their teams with openness and empathy, to ensure that everyone works together towards common objectives in the ‘new normal’ and overcome challenges as we have done many times in our 150-year history. Our Group-wide open-door culture during normal circumstances which has continued virtually during the pandemic has helped me and the entire leadership team to continuously engage with our people which is critical for new thinking and adopting best practices.

Q: How are the key sectors of your company operating right now?

A: The operations of the Consumer Foods sector I’ve mentioned previously; where manufacturing activities have commenced gradually with priority being the health and safety of staff. Moving on to our retail sector; we were operating with about 1/3rd of the staff at the beginning of the lockdown at our outlets, but gradually strengthened the human resources by obtaining curfew passes for outlet staff and also the support of the Sri Lanka Air Force and staff volunteers. Our supply chains are still settling with some manufacturers having only recently recommenced operations and we continuously closely engage with our suppliers to ensure stocks are replenished. With the staff strength of back end operations gradually improving, we were able to strengthen our online presence by increasing the number of orders we are able to handle per day, and to safely facilitate the in store shopping experience further to the easing of the lockdown. We have enhanced our health and safety measures to protect both staff and customers and have included a priority queue for senior citizens.

The logistics and port operations businesses in our transportation sector also classified as essential services, continued to operate throughout the lockdown and the volumes handled will largely depend on how regional trade will evolve post recovery. In the Insurance business in our financial sector, which witnessed a disruption to new business and moved to online platforms collections during the lockdown, we will place a renewed focus on the transformation to digital platforms and other online methods of carrying out the business, particularly with regard to improving renewals and pursuing new policies in future.

Given that there are no tourist arrivals to both Sri Lanka and the Maldives, operations of the City Hotels and the Resorts have been suspended aside from a few restaurants at the city hotels operating on a limited scale on food delivery platforms and we expect a longer lasting impact on the leisure sector which was only just beginning to recover after the 2019 Easter attacks. However with the lifting of the curfew islandwide, we are able to operate our restaurants and function rooms with certain restrictions and we look forward to also welcoming local travellers to our resorts.

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