Tharaka keeping his eye on the ball to build Sri Lanka business for Inchcape

Tharaka Nanayakkara considers his biggest career achievement to date was orchestrating the recent joint venture between Inchcape Shipping Services and John Keells Holding (JKH) that enabled Inchcape to reconnect with its roots in Sri Lanka. And, fittingly, he now presides as Country Manager in the historic listed building once owned by the former Earl of Inchcape in the capital Colombo.

“It was truly a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime experience to initiate this process and facilitate negotiations to bring together a major global entity in the port agency business with local shipping giant JKH – and overcome the challenges of doing this in the midst of a global pandemic,” he says.

Tharaka was recruited by JKH as head of business development in 2017 to revive the company’s traditional port agency business Mackinnon Mackenzie Shipping, which had been dormant for nearly a decade, and quickly realized that tying up with an international player was the way forward.

At the same time, Inchcape was looking to expand its limited representation in Sri Lanka by establishing a fully fledged local port agency operation, given the South Asian country’s important strategic regional location on the East-West trade route connecting the major industrial centres of North America, Western Europe and Asia, which is traversed by around 31,000 vessels a year.

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Tharaka Nanayakkara (centre) with team members at the Colombo head office of Inchcape in Sri Lanka.

Homecoming in Colombo

Interestingly, Mackinnon Mackenzie Shipping was originally established in 1871 as Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co in the former Ceylon by Inchcape’s founders, Scottish merchants William Mackinnon and Robert Mackenzie, before being acquired by JKH in 1974.

With Inchcape evaluating local partners, Tharaka made contact to promote JKH as a potential candidate and, in a seemingly inevitable twist of fate, the joint venture named Inchcape Mackinnon Mackenzie Shipping (Private) Ltd was finally launched in the summer of 2021.

Tharaka, who switched roles at the same time, now runs Inchcape’s country operations from the Colombo head office, which is a designated national landmark developed by the first Earl of Inchcape after he gained a major stake in the Mackinnon Mackenzie business in 1893.

“This marked something of a homecoming for Inchcape and we feel we have recovered part of our history,” Tharaka reflects.

But the rebirth of Inchcape in Sri Lanka was not without its labour pains as the joint venture was conceived in 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant that negotiations between the two parties had to be conducted online, as well completion of business registration documents for the authorities.

“This was unfamiliar territory for most of us, including officialdom, and meant we all had to adapt to a new way of working in order to finalize the transaction,” he says.

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A street scene in Colombo from the late 1800s showing the historic Mackinnon Mackenzie building at right.

Tackling tough times

Tharaka, aged 36, is though no stranger to adapting to difficult situations given the son of a police officer grew up in the capital during the civil war in Sri Lanka fuelled by the insurgency of the Tamil Tigers rebel militia that raged from the early 1980s until 2009.

That did not prevent him from completing his education in his homeland to achieve a degree in marketing with the Chartered Institute of Marketing, as well as gain an MBA with the University of Wolverhampton.

Tharaka was also able to make his mark as a rugby player and, after taking up the sport at the age of 11, he captained both school and college teams to win trophies at junior level, while also representing his country at international level in the Asian Cup and other tournaments.

He points out that growing up in Sri Lanka was “not without its benefits” as the island nation hosts some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and landscape, which meant he developed a passion both for chilling out on the beach and exploring nature from a young age. Travelling both at home and abroad remains a popular pastime together with his wife, who works in shipping logistics, while he also pursues other sports such as boxing and cycling to stay in shape after quitting rugby in 2005 when he started working full-time with Danish shipping giant Maersk.

Tharaka subsequently gained broad experience in shipping through working in various business areas including liner, project logistics and freight forwarding, before shifting to business development with JKH that now incorporates port agency services with Inchcape.

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Tharaka enjoys the great outdoors in Sri Lanka.

Leveraging JKH alliance to advantage

He is now reaping the business benefits of that tie-up as Inchcape is able to leverage the local market-leading position in bunkering of JKH subsidiary Lanka Marine Services as part of husbandry services for vessels calling at the four main ports of Colombo, Trincomalee, Hambantota and Galle. Furthermore, Inchcape is able to capitalize on port calls at South Asia Gateway Terminals in Colombo that is also part of the JKH group.

Inchcape provides the full range of maritime services in Sri Lanka based on compliance with global standards in anti-corruption, governance and transparency, including full port agency, husbandry, crew logistics services, ship chandling, liner agency, marine survey & inspection, logistics services to oil and gas, construction, dredging, cable-laying sectors, cruise tourism solutions, military support services and maritime consultancy.

This service offering is supported by Inchcape’s global network and the World of Ports digital platform, as well as the Optic port operations and finance platform.

As Country Manager, Tharaka is responsible for day-to-day management, including operational excellence, quality assurance and customer relations, to ensure everything is done in line with company policy, as well as strategic planning and development of the joint venture.

Furthermore, he acts as Inchcape’s representative towards its stakeholders in Sri Lanka and is an executive committee member of the Ceylon Association of Shipping Agents – the main industry body representing the interests of the country’s shipping community – in which capacity he regularly interacts with the Shipping Ministry and other government agencies.

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Tharaka (right) interacts with Inchcape stakeholders in Sri Lanka.

Keeping calls in a crisis

Tharaka says having the backing of Inchcape’s global organization “makes life a lot easier in terms of business development” as he is able to call on resources of knowledge and expertise from around the world to assist in decision-making.

“This global scope also makes it possible to progress in the organization. If you excel at your work, then the sky’s the limit. It is all up to you and how you approach your day-to-day tasks,” says Tharaka, who admits he is a perfectionist at work but still knows how to relax on his time off.

His typical day entails reviewing the planned port calls for the day, holding staff meetings with Inchcape port agents across the country and ensuring customer requirements are met.

But some days are more challenging than others, as was the case last year when Sri Lanka was rocked by an economic crisis resulting in food and fuel shortages that caused widespread power cuts and triggered mass riots.

“This required the Inchcape team to call on all our resources to get through this difficult situation. But I am really proud to say that we were able to keep delivering our services – sometimes up to 12 hours a day – and not a single port call was delayed even at the height of the crisis, which reflects the dedication of our staff to customer service,” Tharaka says.

The domestic situation has now normalized and he says customer confidence in Sri Lanka as a port call destination is gradually returning in the wake of the crisis. Tharaka’s primary aim now is to make Inchcape a market leader across the various ship segments within the next five years as it grows its traditional husbandry business while also building up in cruise.

“Sri Lanka is an exotic island that is ranked among the top 10 destinations for travel by Lonely Plant, Forbes and others. Tourism is really coming back after being hit by the pandemic, as well as economic factors, and we have seen between 50 and 60 cruise calls so far this year,” he says.

And the ex-rugby star concludes: “We intend to convert these cruise opportunities into new business by seizing the initiative in this segment.”