Shamindra Marcelline on leading by example, digital transformation and scaling a large business

Despite the pandemic, Shamindra Marcelline, who joined People’s Leasing as its Chief Executive only months before its outbreak, is driving the business towards a strategic transformation. Here’s how he is doing it

In the Sri Lankan financial landscape, People’s Leasing & Finance (PLC) is a unique Non-Bank Finance Institution (NBFI) due to its ownership and nationwide reach. Founded as a fully owned subsidiary of the People’s Bank in 1995, the company was listed after an oversubscribed Initial Public Offering (IPO) a decade ago. It’s since emerged as one of Sri Lanka’s largest financial institutions with a significant lending book, in leases and loans. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, PLC continued to unlock the power of responsible finance providing uninterrupted customer service, and relief for Covid-19 impacted businesses. The company’s resilience has been impressive; recording the highest ever volume of loan disbursement and collection during the last quarter of the 2020/21 financial year in very challenging circumstances.

PLC’s Chief Executive Shamindra Marcelline has already begun establishing an effective and fit-for-purpose governance structure as the fundamental to become a model of what the public sector and private capital can together achieve. Excerpts from an interview with PLC’s Chief Executive Shamindra Marcelline.

People’s Leasing has a strong growth track record. It’s emerged as a leading financial services provider. What’s the vision for the business for the next decade?

We’re a formidable player in the Non-bank financial institutions (NBFI) sector due to our financial performance and how we service customers. However, I look at it from a different perspective. We are unique in this space due to our Public Private Partnership (PPP) operating model.

Sri Lanka is a well-regulated market for financial institutions. We are a 75% subsidiary of one of Sri Lanka’s largest banks. Also, 25% of our shares are owned by the public. It’s high time to forge ahead with a stronger purpose to empower businesses and livelihoods of our customers through inclusive and accessible financial wellbeing solutions. With a good governance framework, ethics and policies in place, I aspire to establish People’s Leasing to be a model PPP in the financial sector. We have the best of both worlds, the stability of the People’s Bank, and the private sector’s vibrancy.

I want to showcase that Sri Lanka is a country where public-private partnerships can be successful. It’s essentially like Singapore’s Temasek model. That’s the kind of vision I have for the company.

What are the main outcomes in those several areas you target likely to be?

We want to stand out as a responsible and ethical player. Our digitally enabled operations should make service more accessible, inclusive, efficient and productive. Productivity is generally considered a challenge in our country context.

Most importantly, we would be bottom-line driven while delivering sustainable shared value. There is a misconception that the bottom line is not important. That sort of thinking is not going to take our country forward. We need to educate, inculcate, and transform our stakeholders’ mindsets on the generation of ‘benchmark beating- responsible returns’ from our business. That’s the mindset change I’m driving. The transformation has already commenced and I anticipate the changes will be visible in another 18 months.

I suppose you will have to achieve a cultural transformation at PLC?

The tone at the top is important. Leading from the front, being open, honest, transparent, and ensuring that our stakeholders receive fair outcomes is crucial. It is not possible to please everyone. Nevertheless, a fair outcome to everybody is important. I am confident that stakeholders would agree with that. We also need to identify talent within the company and in some instances from the outside of it. We need to build a smart business with the required operational structures and invest in processes.

Self-doubt and fear to speak up are inherent in Sri Lankan society. I encourage action with integrity. We have to collaborate internally to connect with our customers. Because our geographical footprint is wide, we have a rich mix of staff from various cultures and with varying perspectives. Valuing and respecting one another’s differences and experiences is vital. I am confident that my team will embrace that change to take our company to the next level.

How do you scale this business and in what direction?

There are several external factors beyond our control; ranging from regulatory changes, limitations in customers’ purchasing power, for example. On the other hand, leasing has been our bread and butter. There are also market niches we can move into. We need to be more innovative and introduce new products and services that people will be interested in, for that to happen. We are examining our retail channels to explore how we should market our purposefully designed products and services with better reach and inclusivity. The importance and the contribution of women to economic development is accelerating. We intend introducing products and services for working females and female entrepreneurs to support and empower them. We have a micro commerce unit, which in my view cannot be considered as typical microfinance. We plan to recalibrate our approach from our current model to a lending-security sensitive one.

Then comes the biggest challenge, how do we diversify our revenues to better manage our consolidated risk. Prevailing market conditions present plenty of opportunities in the capital markets for mergers and acquisitions. We need to be strategic. Growth sectors such as Agriculture, IT, education and healthcare are some of our key areas of interest.

PLC doesn’t have to run every business it plans to invest in, we just need to become a strategic partner. We also need to think on cross–border connectivity by leveraging our existing Bangladesh operation to explore regional opportunities. Smart investments made today will pay off in another four to five years.

What has leading the company during the COVID pandemic taught you? It is during challenging times that we can truly demonstrate how a business can also be a force for good. We must appreciate our team, who despite Covid continued to serve customers uninterrupted. Several staff members impacted by the virus had to be quarantined at intermediate treatment centres. It’s been a challenging period for the sales teams and the support teams at the branches.

They don’t have the luxuries of a spacious head office like in Colombo, to ensure maximum safety protocols are in place and close monitoring carried out regularly. Our Covid 19 taskforce quickly responded by activating safety protocols company-wide to keep staff safe as they continued to respond to pandemic affected customer concerns decisively. The pandemic has been a challenge and also an opportunity in disguise. We have commenced many tactical initiatives to grow our business, partnering with key stakeholders along the way. Amid the pandemic, the company had a phenomenal last quarter in the financial year of 2020/21 for loan disbursements and collections.

What was the strategy?

I too was a branch manager. There are many challenges. You require mental stamina to engage and motivate a team consistently. Often, you can feel isolated and in some instances connectivity with senior management is challenged. Delays in granting approvals at head office can be frustrating. Yet managers must satisfy customer expectations. It’s a delicate balancing act.

Leadership is about walking the talk. It is crucial to share the vision for the business with our teams. I commenced visiting the branches soon after I joined. I’ve visited more than half of our 103 branches so far.

You have to be with your teams, engage them and sit with them to appreciate their challenges. Internal connectivity through different engagement sessions with employees to discuss how they feel about issues have been effective to understand the business and staff contribution to the company’s performance and strategy. I have asked my senior management team to frequently visit branches to engage, guide and appreciate the teams’ efforts and commitment. You have to be honest and open with staff about what’s possible. That’s how we must give confidence to our people, making them feel that we are with them.

We have scaled online training and have put in place a road map for staff development and career progression. We have also introduced several Covid-19 support initiatives to assist staff who might contract the virus with extended insurance benefits and company paid for quarantine at hotels.

The pandemic accelerated our digitalization and the adoption of “new ways” of working. We are moving towards a contactless experience for our customers and a paperless office. We aim to create more digital literacy among our customers. We’ve also digitized our processes so that all information to the head office from branches arrive digitally. I haven’t signed a single paper document since April 2021. To my knowledge, we are one of the few semi-government, or public sector organizations to implement digital signatures.

By reducing paper use, combined with plans to invest in renewable energy, we intend to contribute positively to the environment; we are walking the talk about cutting our carbon footprint.

We are now in full stride with 40% of our staff, of the 2,300 people at PLC, with a work from home option in place promoting a flexible, agile and people-centric approach to work. They are provided with the required infrastructure including electronic devices and connectivity by the company. We are reviewing head office seating capacity to complement better ways of working; no longer does everyone need to be in the office all the time. Also, people who go out to sell can do so based from their homes and send the relevant information to the head office.

The concept of ‘hot desking’ which I experienced during my days at HSBC is being introduced. By which our dependency to rent additional floor space is reduced and we aim to reinvest the savings to improve the working environment at head office and branches.

What do you think success will look like for you in two or three years?

An admired corporate that our stakeholders would feel proud to be associated with, a success model that our peers in the NBFI sector would aspire to emulate, and a compelling case study our regulator the Central Bank and our custodian the Ministry of Finance to benchmark and often refer to. That’s the success I foresee for our company to support our country’s growth and contribute to achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals.

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