A combo of strength, success & elegance The incoming RI President believes in straight talk, but wears his power and authority lightly, and promises to ensure optimum use of the $55 fee every Rotarian pays.

RIPE K R Ravindran
RIPE K R Ravindran

In an era gone by RI’s incoming President K R Ravindran, known to the entire Rotary world as ‘Ravi,’ would have been compared to a cowboy who shoots straight from the hip. He has the height for sure, to begin with…

After great persuasion and one failed attempt at the Chennai Institute, Ravindran agrees to an interview. Extremely shy of “publicity,” he makes several attempts to fob me off, but finally agrees, tying it up with the multidistrict PETS, ‘Sangamitra,’ on his home turf — Colombo. Ushering me into his study, which is strictly his personal space, at his elegant and tastefully done up home in Colombo, the Founder-CEO of the publicly listed Printcare PLC, “arguably the largest producer of tea bag packaging in the world,” talks about his childhood, college days in Chennai where he met his beautiful and graceful wife Vanathy, admired across the Rotary world as much for her sarees as her poise and elegance, the setting up of his business, and his long years in Rotary.

In Germany with a Jaguar.
In Germany with a Jaguar.

For his term beginning next month, Ravindran has several aces up his sleeve for his year, one being to run Rotary like a business. When people ask him why, “I tell them I know Rotary is not a business, but I see no reason why it shouldn’t be run as a business, with accountability and transparency.”

No Rotary moment

Both his grandfather and father were Rotarians, and he first joined the Rotary Club of Bandarawela and shortly after, the Rotary Club of Colombo. He was 21. Candidly he says he has no single “defining or Rotary moment”

Don’t evaluate success by money alone; look at the values and the excellence you practise. We run a highly ethical company.

to relate. Though involved with some very significant projects such as leading the polio eradication drive in his country or rebuilding schools destroyed in the tsunami, his best moments are those “that I spend with my friends in their homes in many countries, chatting away till the early hours,” he smiles.

He pays a tribute to his uncle — R Krishnamoorthy, a highly respected former Advocate General of TN — and his aunt Kanagam, for their guidance and support during his formative years in Loyola.

K R Ravindran and Vanathy in Philippines.
K R Ravindran and Vanathy in Philippines.

I ask him about the moments that led to his acceptance of his nomination for President. He explains that when the committee met in August 2013, he had gone to sleep by 10.30 p.m. because he was not expecting to be nominated. “I was only expecting a call the next day to be told who won the nomination.” But his phone rang at 3 a.m.; PRID M K Panduranga Setty, a member of the committee and someone he respects a lot, was on the line. “I said: ‘Pandu, go to sleep, we’ll talk tomorrow.’ Pandu quickly interjected: ‘Wait, wait, Chairman Eric Adamson wants to talk to you.’ ”

The procedure is that before announcing the RI President-nominee, his consent is sought and because the committee met well past 5 p.m. the switch board operator at RI was not available. So Setty volunteered to get him on the phone. When his consent was sought, he responded: “I’ll ask my wife! By then Vanathy was also up and when I posed the question to her she nodded with a smile! The rest is history. And by morning my phone was so hot it stopped functioning.”

Cars are a weakness! Used to participate in rallies and races in my younger days and owned a sports car. I guess I am too old for these things now.

Early years

Born into a well-to-do Sri Lankan Tamil family, Ravindran graduated in commerce from the Loyola College in Chennai, where he met Vanathy, an Economics graduate from Stella Maris College. With his college mates he would “hang around” the sylvan surroundings of the ubiquitous Woodlands restaurant near Stella. “But we never met alone,” he smiles. He was very much into sports in his school and college days, playing Rugby (for South India), cricket, tennis, water polo and even boxing.

After graduating at 21, he returned home to work at the family tea plantation in Haputale near Nuwara Eliya in 1973. The idea was that he would learn the job and return to Colombo after a few years where he could run the head office. But it did not quite work out that way for it was a socialist era and soon the family’s plantations were nationalised; “leaving us without our assets and me without a job,” he recalls.

By then Vanathy was also up and when I posed the question to her she nodded with a smile! The rest is history. And by morning my phone was so hot it stopped functioning.

An enterprise begins

So he returned to Colombo and joined the family’s printing business and he is grateful to his uncle A Ramanathan, who readily welcomed him in. It was a period when tea was being exported in bulk out of Sri Lanka. The youngster had a smart business idea — to introduce high quality packaging for tea bags, for which Sri Lanka had neither the technology nor the quality. When he met Merrill Fernando, a tea industry heavyweight, there was a meeting of minds and after just one conversation Fernando agreed to invest with him and thus was born Printcare.

From left: Son Krishna, daughter-in-law Neesha, Vanathy, K R Ravindran, daughter Prashanthi and son-in-law Nicolas Mathier.
From left: Son Krishna, daughter-in-law Neesha, Vanathy, K R Ravindran, daughter Prashanthi and son-in-law Nicolas Mathier.

A strong friendship which began then has endured and Ravindran looks up to him even now for advice and counsel.

Ravindran started Printcare in a garage-sized space, printing tea bag labels. The first four years were tough; “for three years I was struggling financially, worked the machines myself sometimes, carried the finished products to customers in the boot of my car and had only two workers to begin with. It wasn’t that I was struggling to make a living. Vanathy and I were happy with our modest lives and we had a great family to support us.”

His father, the son of a district court judge in India, settled in Ceylon after marriage and was the MD of a newspaper, “and my mother was a lady of remarkable fortitude.” She was paralysed early in life, but made a partial recovery. “She was a wonderful supporter of mine and very proud of me.”

A polio-free world is around the corner. We need to prepare for that success, and handle it correctly. Or it will come and go and we’ll miss the bus and the best opportunities that await us.

Printcare has evolved into one of Asia’s most respected printing, packaging and digital media solutions provider with cutting edge technology and multiple factories, including one in India. Ravindran is of the view that labour laws are so stifling in Sri Lanka that companies like his are automating more and more. That, he says, is a pity.

Classy company

You have to coax out all this information from Ravindran as he admittedly has a “phobia about publicity,” and faced a dilemma while taking his company public “because you’re supposed to be in the eyes of the media to support your company’s share prices and I was a very reticent MD who preferred to keep a low profile.” The company’s (SL) Rs 2 share is now trading at Rs 42.

With granddaughter Raika.
With granddaughter Raika.

But slowly he opens up to say, “we are a unique and pretty classy company, excelling in what we do. Our packaging is quite stunning and absolutely world class. Just walk into the Harrods tea department in London and you will see the array of our packaging.” Apart from Dilmah, Printcare’s packaging is also used by renowned companies like Unilever, Twinnings, Tetley, Typhoo, Hallmark, Victoria’s Secret and others. Companies like Target, Best Buy, Decathlon use their digital services and buy their RFID labels. They are also the biggest suppliers to the telecom industry in Sri Lanka.

An astute businessman, he visits stores overseas and deliberately buys products containing his packaging. Sometimes he will search for defects that only his trained eye can note, carry it back to Sri Lanka to his factory “and throw it at them saying: ‘What is this junk that you are producing!’ ”

A lingerie moment!

Once, at the lingerie section of M&S in Sheffield, England, where he was checking out the packaging, a matronly lady supervisor stood behind him, and stared hard at him with folded arms. “I looked at the bra box in my hand, looked at her and thought there was no point in telling this lady that I’m only interested in the box and nothing else. So I dropped it and walked off, quite embarrassed. I do go through some situations like that!” Last year he was declared one of the country’s top 10 ‘business personalities of the year’ and his company listed among the “top 15 best places to work in Sri Lanka.”

Business philosophy

But doesn’t so much time devoted to Rotary affect his bottom line? “Who knows? If I had devoted cent per cent of my time only to business, I may or may not have done better in numerical numbers but I would not have been richer in mind and body,” he says, adding, “I would never have built a professionally managed company as I have now because everything would have revolved around me. Don’t make the mistake of evaluating success by money alone, but look at the values you cherish, and the excellence you practise and create. We run a highly ethical company shunning business which requires any element of unethical practices. We are good role models by any standards, following the highest levels of transparency and honesty. We neither make contributions to politicians nor are we prepared to give kickbacks to buyers and government officials at any level. A lot of these values came from my association with Rotary including the joint community projects we do with workers. The community around us has benefitted hugely
because of us.”

So is it possible to be ethical and do business? “It’s tough at the beginning but then it becomes a habit and everyone in the company begins to speak the same language. It becomes the company culture. I have to admit though that we succeed largely because we are so heavily export oriented with very little dealings with Government.”

And now, “nobody solicits anything from us, for our reputation is strong. But it does mean that you must have the courage to turn down seemingly lucrative business deals,” he adds.

To a question on his decision to list his company in the stock exchange, he responds, “I went public not because I needed the money but because I have this ­philosophy that you must live as though you will die tonight. But plan as though you’ll live 100 years. When you think you might die tonight … my table is always clear, my emails answered the same day or next, my calls returned and my bills paid. I don’t have outstanding to anyone. Your perspective to life changes.”

K R Ravindran and Vanathy in 1991 with Sri Lankan Prime Minister D B Wijetunge, introducing his guest Maneka Gandhi.
K R Ravindran and Vanathy in 1991 with Sri Lankan Prime Minister D B Wijetunge, introducing his guest Maneka Gandhi.

Also he “thought if I die tonight, my wife and children (who were then young) can never run this business, and should be able to sell the company. But of course our Board saw other benefits too.”

Family

But that has changed now; his son Krishna, armed with a management degree from Georgetown University, Washington DC, and having worked for J P Morgan for a while in New York, joined his father 7 years ago. But Ravindran believes that while inheritance is by birth, management positions have to be earned by proficiency and skills for the job. “Because if you hand over a good business to an incompetent and incapable child, he will ruin himself, the business and the family as well. You and I know many such cases.”

But Krishna, with his “analytical skills and experience at J P Morgan,” has added great value to the management team and has rapidly moved up the ladder by his own ability, winning the confidence of his colleagues. He is married to Neesha, a software engineer from Carnegie Melon, and they have a daughter Raika who is the apple of the grandpa’s eye. As we chat, the child is back from her immunisation shots and Ravindran leaps out of the chair to cuddle her and introduce her. “The biggest thing I’ll miss being RI President is being close to her,” he rues.

Ravindran’s daughter Prashanthi, educated at the ­London School of Economics, is married to Nicolas Mathier, a person of Swiss origin, and lives in Singapore. Prashanthi, an advertising professional, is a clone of her father, able to mix and work a room with ease, is affectionate and full of fun.

Natural grace

Her father has the rare ability to wear his power lightly and not strut around like the salt of the earth. He has a natural grace … when Rotarians mob him and seek pictures with him at the few events I’ve seen him, his smile is warm and genuine.

So how does he manage this? He smiles: “The other day at San Diego somebody senior told me you are now RIPE, you can’t go around between tables talking to everybody like this. I told him, ‘Why don’t you walk out of this building with the President or anyone you consider senior, hail a cab and then tell me if the cabbie cares two hoots who you are!’ All these bundas, as we say in our language, are only within these four walls. To me this is just another job and a temporary one at that. It is best I keep my feet firmly on the ground and not lose my head in the clouds.”

But it’s more than just that … it has to do with pedigree, upbringing, childhood values. I come away from the interview musing on this, and seek a final comment on his impeccable sense of dressing and the well-groomed look. Clearly embarrassed, he shrugs it off, saying “I dress like this,” pointing to the simple cotton shirt in floral design he is wearing for the dinner he is hosting for senior leaders of the multidistrict PETS meet that begins the next day.

At a glance

More women in Rotary:

Critical; we’re now at 20 per cent, if that hadn’t happened, we would have crashed by now. Women brought numbers, more vibrancy.

Female RI President: Not too long before we have one; not because we want to make a statement but because they will win it on merit.
Youth and Rotary: We need them, but have to change the ambience. We can’t keep talking about the Paul Harris days and ways. We have to embrace technology. But we should also concentrate on the 50–60 age group — those who are retiring. They’ve got experience, finance, everything and not forget the old people; they form the backbone of our whole movement.

Vanathy’s role: Very crucial, if Vanathy does not cooperate, then I’m dead and can’t perform. She has to play a supportive role, but be careful her role doesn’t supersede mine. She is the key to my happiness and she has been a massive support all these years.

Religion: I am not ritualistic, Vanathy is. But I’m a very god-fearing person and believe that I am accountable for every aspect of my life to Him above. The work I do with Rotary is my service to Him.

Music: Classical Western.

Relaxation: Rotary is relaxation for me. Watch Tamil, English and Hindi (with sub titles) movies when I have time.

Cars: That’s a weakness! Used to participate in rallies and races in my younger days and owned a sports car. I guess I am too old for these things now.

Exercise: Important. I work out for about 40 minutes regularly except when I have early morning flights. Unfortunately I broke my neck in a car accident in my early 20s, which put an end to all my sports.

Food: I eat everything in small measures. Strictly keep away from desserts. Allergic to mushrooms.

Reading: You can see books all around (in his study). I’ve stopped reading fiction, have no time. I constantly look for philosophical books and follow speeches made by great and important people.

Technology: Enough to get by; my company runs on technology, so I need to know some technology.
Gadgets: I have three phones which are synchronised through icloud with my secretaries here and my assistant in Evanston.
Cooking: I can make tea, good tea!

Membership in Rotary: Very critical for more reasons than one; need more members to keep us financially viable and expand our service network and reach.

Future of Rotary: If PolioPlus is done, Rotary will be on top of the world; every major organisation with money will want to work with us. They all understand that our services come free; you can’t hire me. When you work with Rotary, you have a bigger return on investment.
Polio-free world: It’s around the corner. And we need to prepare for that success, as it must be handled correctly. If we aren’t prepared, it will come and go and we’ll miss the bus and the best opportunities that await us. A lot hinges on polio; so much of money and time of a whole generation has been invested, so we have no choice but to see it through.

Criticism: Don’t fear it; welcome constructive criticism but know that there will always be critics to everything you do.
Importance of PETS: Very important; by mid-May I’d have spoken to 14,000 Presidents-elect; I’ve been maintaining a horrendous travel schedule because these are the real leaders who make Rotary, not the directors or governors or President of RI. Rotary happens at the clubs and its success hinges on the performance of their President.

Hectic work, travel schedules: It’s a job I’ve undertaken. I travel on Rotary account — the $55 members pay.
I must give them value for every cent they pay and every second of my time. I have discouraged large receptions at airports and gifts of any nature. I only insist that they try to book me into a hotel with a proper gym!


Standing up when it matters

K R Ravindran enjoys “a great relationship” with his workforce. During the ethnic war years, once when a group of army and police personnel came to his facility to “interrogate” the Tamil workers, he refused them access saying all the workers were the same for him and that he was not prepared to selectively hand over or even differentiate between them in terms of community, and that to his very educated knowledge none of them was involved in any terrorist or illegal activities, “or else our HR department would have known. So question them all if you so wish, I have no objections,” he said.

But he bowled a googly: “But I and my senior managers must be questioned first; I am also a Tamil. And then you figure out who is Tamil and who is not, for I’m not going to tell you.”

As the stumped officers went back and forth to headquarters on the phone for suitable directions, a group of workers collected at the entrance and told the group positioned there, “If you mess with our boss, you will have to contend with our entire workforce.” Eventually the visitors, who Ravindran admits were only doing their job during those difficult days, left, indicating that they may choose to visit the workers in their homes to interrogate them if necessary, and recording their unhappiness at the lack of cooperation from the company boss!

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