K R Ravindran insists you call him “Ravi” immediately after you’ve been introduced. He has bearing: He is tall, with excellent posture, and he has the off-handed self-assurance of someone who is impressively accomplished. His disarming features are his restless curiosity and profound modesty.
Ravindran is CEO and founder of Printcare PLC, Sri Lanka’s largest printing and packaging company, with a worldwide clientele. It is publicly listed and has won many national and international awards for excellence. It provides design-to-delivery printing, packaging and digital media solutions, and is arguably the No. 1 producer of tea bag tags and sachets in the world. Ravindran insists that his company maintain a focus on environmental sustainability, social responsibility, community engagement and high ethical standards.
A member of the Rotary Club of Colombo since 1974, Ravindran has served as RI treasurer, director, and Foundation trustee, as well as in many other offices. When he was his country’s PolioPlus committee chair, he headed a task force, which worked with UNICEF to negotiate a cease-fire with northern militants that allowed National Immunisation Days to occur. Ravindran also chaired the Schools Reawakening project, sponsored by clubs and districts in Sri Lanka, which rebuilt 25 tsunami-devastated schools, benefiting 15,000 children. He also serves on the boards of several other companies and charitable trusts.
Editor in Chief John Rezek reports: “When I first met with him, he decided to ask me questions about the magazine instead of answering mine. It’s a safe bet that he is the best-dressed person in any room. He gets extra props for his highly polished monk-strap shoes. He is a man of many parts, all of which are put together with precision and thoughtfulness.”
THE ROTARIAN: You’re successful in business. Rotary isn’t a business, but it sometimes behaves like one. What have you learned in business that you would like to apply to Rotary, and how do you plan to do it?
RAVINDRAN: Success is a relative term. Albert Einstein said, “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” It’s more important that I am known as a man of value. But to answer you, Rotary is not a business. That’s clear. But there is no reason it cannot be managed along the lines of a business. In business we are beholden to our shareholders. In Rotary we are accountable to the Rotarians who trusted us and placed us in a position of responsibility. Every investment we make in time and resources must have a return. Every expenditure must be justifiable. The goals we set for ourselves should be transparent and measurable, and the leaders at every level must be accountable for their performance.
TR: Some people believe we are products of the place where we grew up. Do you think that’s true?
RAVINDRAN: Without question, when it comes to developing your character, I doubt whether any institution can compare with, or effectively substitute for, the home’s potential for positive influence on the development of a personality. It is true for me. I am thankful to Rotary for reinforcing the values my parents taught me. Today I can proudly proclaim that I am what I am in my life because I was moulded by Rotary. I can personally vouch for the ability of our organisation to blend commerce with cause, friendship with service, and know first-hand that each of us is lifted even as we lift others.
TR: How would you describe Sri Lanka to a blind person? What other senses would take over?
RAVINDRAN: As our tourist literature would say, Sri Lanka is a resplendent island in the Indian Ocean and a leading tourist destination. But Sri Lanka’s secret lies with its people. The spice-addicted, cricket-crazy, and tea-drinking people of Sri Lanka are famed for big smiles and bigger hearts and a culture enriched by 3,000 years of knowledge. It’s an island country of endless beaches, timeless ruins, welcoming people, and oodles of elephants, schools of blue whales, a killer surf, famous tea, flavourful food, and good value for money, with, most important, great, friendly people.
TR: What first drew you to Rotary, and what prompted you to take higher and higher leadership roles? Do you assume a leadership position in everything you’re involved with?
RAVINDRAN: Sometimes life takes you on a path that almost seems predestined. I joined Rotary for the fun and fellowship it offered, without any idea of taking on responsibility. In fact, if I had been told that I would have to take up leadership positions, I may not have joined at all. Over the years, in spite of being involved in some history-making projects, my best Rotary moments have been sitting with friends from diverse cultures and countries and laughing and talking half the night away. One does not go in search of leadership positions, but I think if you are a good follower, then leadership comes around to you in a most natural manner.
TR: What are the three most important rules of leadership?
RAVINDRAN: First, honesty and integrity. If there is no trust between leader and follower, then all is lost. Integrity goes hand in hand with honesty and is an essential trait in an effective and trustworthy leader. Don’t stray from your beliefs just to get ahead in your company. Remain true to your principles in any situation, and your team will know it can depend on you. Keep communication open, honest and genuine at all levels of the organisation.
Second, management. A good leader must know every aspect of his organisation or surround himself with people who know and, in fact, are better than he is. You must be able to gain the respect of your stakeholders — both internal and external. Management must demand high ethical business standards and practices at all levels of an organisation.
Third, transparency, which is a reflection of your character. If you do not know something, admit it, and then do your best to find out the answer. Make your feelings and the reasons for your decisions known so people understand your reasoning. Then, they will be more likely to come along for the ride. Watch, listen and acknowledge the work and opinions of others. Base your management style on cooperation, ethical behaviour, respect for diversity and commitment to the success of the organisation you serve.
TR: What does a person in your position never do?
RAVINDRAN: Don’t speak from the lectern what you don’t practice yourself. Only politicians do that.
TR: What character trait do you think every Rotarian should have? Is it inherent or learned? Do you find it is in short supply?
RAVINDRAN: Character is moulded by environment. There are many members in Rotary who you would have thought should not be in Rotary when they joined, and yet we believe that these people will be influenced by their colleagues to become productive members. A well-functioning Rotary club has a way of changing the character of its members. I was one of those who joined Rotary for fun, and after 40 years, I still have a lot of fun. But fun alone could not have kept me in Rotary all these years. It was a sense of achievement, and the ability to leverage your own meagre resources with others’ and reach out to thousands, even millions, that kept me in Rotary.
TR: What will be your focus during your term? What do you hope to accomplish?
RAVINDRAN: I am an average individual and an ordinary person, who has no plans to leave statues behind. Yet, as someone said, “It’s when ordinary people rise above the expectations and seize the opportunity that milestones truly are reached.” I hope I can be one of those people. I will focus on improving everything around me a little bit so that I leave the organisation just a little bit better than I found it.
I will try to make appointments based on merit and without bias. I will look to drive operating costs down, knowing full well that I can never achieve that unless I win the complete cooperation of our capable staff. I will look to add value to the individual Rotarian’s membership.
TR: Is there such a thing as a bad Rotarian? Have you met one in the wild?
RAVINDRAN: Rotary is a microcosm of society. What you find in society, you will find in Rotary. What you consider bad in society is also bad in Rotary. Each Rotarian does not come with godly habits and qualities. A Rotarian who qualifies as being bad can be good at another time. And a Rotarian considered good can be considered bad at another time. But so often we have seen transformations for the better take place once an individual absorbs the qualities of Rotary.
TR: Have you ever encountered a situation you couldn’t fix? What did you do?
RAVINDRAN: Yes, many times. You just move on and not let that one setback depress you or take your spirit away.
TR: Name some of Rotary’s most existential challenges.
RAVINDRAN: Of course, eradicating polio is our No. 1 goal, and every member needs to keep his eyes focused on that. We also know that our membership languishes in areas where it should be growing. We have the technology at our headquarters to help us communicate better. But it falters because it is not being properly exploited by many of our clubs. We know that our Rotary brand must be made to shine brighter and speak louder, especially to those outside our organisation.
TR: Is sustainability a goal in itself, or a natural by-product of a well thought-out plan?
RAVINDRAN: Sustainability is an endurance of systems and processes. If you increase membership one year using some method that temporarily bolsters growth only to falter the next year, then that is not a sustainable process. The organising principle for sustainability is sustainable development, which includes four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture. As far as Rotary is concerned, in recent times, especially through The Rotary Foundation, we have been espousing the cause of doing sustainable projects. We have also had debates about what we define as sustainable. Such differing opinions about sustainability are bound to arise, and in time will settle down as our freshly minted programmes under the new grant model begin to mature.
TR: One of the challenges of the polio eradication campaign in Sri Lanka was that the northern part of the country was an active conflict zone. You were a crucial factor in negotiating recognition of children as zones of peace, and therefore provoking a cease-fire to allow for vaccinations. We suspect you might be modest about your role, but please describe dealing with people who mean to do you harm. Do you think this experience could apply to Pakistan?
RAVINDRAN: The difference between Sri Lanka and Pakistan is the literacy levels. In Sri Lanka, the government forces were literate and thus knew that vaccinating children against polio was a good thing. The rebels were literate enough to know that their own progeny needed to be protected. The government members were literate enough to know that vaccinating children took precedence against temporary gains of war. In this scenario, all that was needed was an honest broker, and Rotary became one.
The situation in Pakistan is different because the Taliban are illiterate in the main and allow their anti-American sentiments to take precedence over the welfare of their future generations. That’s a pity, and that’s where the problem lies, although our Rotarians there, headed by Aziz Memon, are playing a heroic role.
As for my own role in Sri Lanka, I’d rather not talk about that except to say, it was a small one.
TR: Tell us how you came up with your theme, Be a Gift to the World. Did you pick out your theme tie by yourself, or did you seek help from those closest to you?
RAVINDRAN: It definitely was not a solo effort. My wife was fully involved and so were some close friends, as well as my family. I don’t have the brains to come up with a great theme like this by myself! But just think about it: We in Rotary aspire to great deeds. We look up to and admire the towering figures of history who gave such great gifts to humanity. Abraham Lincoln, who gave the gift of human dignity to so many. Mother Teresa, who gave the gift of compassion to the forgotten. Mahatma Gandhi, who gave the gift of peaceful change to the oppressed. All of them gave their lives to others — and their very lives became gifts to the world. Cannot we in Rotary be, in our own way, a small gift to the world?
TR: What are the unexpected benefits of being tall and well-dressed?
RAVINDRAN: Are you referring to me? At 6 feet 1 inch, I guess I am tall. Well-dressed — not too sure. I’m not certain there are any benefits, but I am well aware of the challenges of squeezing into airplane seats.
We in Rotary aspire to great deeds. We look up to the towering figures of history who gave such great gifts to humanity.
TR: During your presidency, what won’t you have time for?
RAVINDRAN: I won’t have time for my granddaughter, who was born last 22 October, and with whom I would dearly love to spend much more time. We all live together in one house, and I yearn for when I can go back to spend time with the child. I am looking forward to when, as a little toddler, she makes her way to my study at home, where I spend a lot of time.
TR: What do you read, and in what languages? Is there a book that you reread regularly?
RAVINDRAN: I keep up with the business magazines — The Economist is a magazine I enjoy reading. I read mostly in English. My wife, Vanathy, is strong in our own tongue.
There are two books I reread. The first one is Stephen Covey’s best-seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and the other is a book by Gurcharan Das called The Difficulty of Being Good. Das, an alumnus of Harvard and a former CEO of Procter &
Gamble in India, bases his book on the Hindu epic Mahabharata and the subtle art of dharma or behaviour, or dealing with real-life situations of acting in an ethical manner. I have given up reading fiction.
TR: What do you want your legacy to be? Which presidents do you think left a lasting mark on Rotary?
RAVINDRAN: I don’t plan to leave a legacy. I am a very ordinary individual. Many presidents in Rotary have left a lasting impression on the organisation. Of the presidents I know, Clem Renouf and the late Carlos Canseco have left indelible impressions on Rotary.
Reproduced from The Rotarian