Gamini Hewawasam leads two businesses from his home in the western Chicago suburbs. The first manages travel contracts with major airlines for clients. The second, based in his home country of Sri Lanka, manufactures machine parts.
That is, they did until just recently.
When Sri Lanka’s quarantine was ordered, Hewawasam immediately recognized the challenge this would present for Fine Finishing Engineering, his manufacturing firm, and for his employees.
“Our main concern was getting food on the table for our people,” says Hewawasam.
With customer orders and payments slowed or stalled, cash flow problems were on the horizon, but Hewawasam was committed to not laying off any of his 117 staff members. Including their immediate families, Hewawasam says there are nearly 700 people depending on his company for their financial wellbeing. “Everyone is looking after each other,” he says, like a family.
In the first weeks of the lockdown, Hewawasam and his leadership staff spent much of their time just trying to make sure employees had access to food and medicine.
Once resources stabilized, Hewawasam assembled his team by video conference, the first time many had ever used Zoom, and announced it was time to pivot.
In our existing business, he told them, “there’s currently no demand and no way to export” Instead, they would focus on an industry that is in demand. “Today,” he told them, “we are farmers.”
Like many Sri Lankans, Hewawasam was raised in a family that farmed. “My father taught me the value of organic food and to know the importance of nature,” he says.
Though he followed a different professional path, he had some knowledge of the industry. He found his team did too; the members collected their knowledge about farming on a shared spreadsheet. Because the team came from across the country, their reach was broad. As a result, they were able to make contact with farming experts at universities, and within different industries, who advised the process.
Implementing an industry pivot in two weeks
Normally, a business decision to change industries would take months, even years, to plan and even longer to execute. “This COVID situation,” says Hewawasam. “I saw something totally different. Practically overnight, his team changed their mindset to become farmers.
With quick action, the team moved to launch a new business, Goviyoo, a name drawn from the Sinhalese word for farmer. In keeping with policy set by the Sri Lankan government, 20 of Hewawasam’s technicians are living at the factory, continuing to fulfill Fine Finish’s client orders while also transitioning to making a new product: greenhouses.
The small greenhouses are designed to fit on the balconies of Sri Lanka’s urban apartment residences. The government has encouraged citizens to increase cultivation; Goviyoo’s greenhouses will allow individuals to help supply their own food year-round.
Other team member are working from home, drawing on their broad networks across the country to find suppliers for cow manure and other products, which staff are mixing into fertilizer and packaging for household use.
The pivot to the farming industry meets Hewawasam’s need to find a cash-based local industry to keep his staff employed, and helps meet real needs for increasing food supply within the country.
“I’m pretty much confident right now. I smile much easier than three weeks ago,” says Hewawasam. The quick pivot and creative work of his team has even led to an unexpected benefit. “It’s created a strong bond between each other,” he says. “I’m seeing untapped strength within my team.”
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