For more than four decades, family-owned hospitality group Jetwing has shared Sri Lanka‘s unparalleled beauty with the world by booking itineraries and hosting visitors in their hotels.
Jetwing’s entrepreneurial journey – from a single 6-room hotel on a stretch of Negombo beach to the nation’s preeminent hospitality company – is more than just serendipity, however. Their devotion to their people, both those in their employ as well as their rooms, has carried Jetwing through civil strife and economic uncertainty.
Jetwing’s owning family, the Coorays, have flourished in an industry where many others have faltered by investing in their most important resource – human potential.
Now, the company’s founding family is taking steps to prepare Jetwing for the transition to the third generation by enacting a strategy to restructure the group and, by extension, individual family members’ leadership responsibilities – a concept ideated by Jetwing’s late founder Herbert Cooray.
Shiromal, an accountant by profession, took a position at the family business after a decade in finance. Her brother, Hiran, joined at their father’s behest upon graduating from his studies overseas. Their tenures at the family business, 30 and 32 years respectively, have seen Jetwing expand through some of Sri Lanka’s most tumultuous decades.
Recently, Tharawat Magazine spoke with Shiromal and Hiran Cooray, Jetwing’s second-generation leadership team, about loyalty, founder Herbert Cooray’s legacy and their hopes for Jetwing’s next-generation successors.
“During the civil war, our father went against conventional wisdom by investing in new properties and improving his existing hotels.”
What challenges has Jetwing had to overcome over the last 30 years?
Shiromal: When I joined the company, it was in a critical situation. The civil war was a catastrophe for tourism. There were bombings, and it was chaos, but we survived.
Natural disasters have taken their toll as well. After the tsunami happened, we went through a period where we didn’t have a single booking. We pulled through without laying off any of our staff. We never even considered it – in our industry, quality people are our most important asset.
Hiran: During the civil war, our father went against conventional wisdom by investing in new properties and improving his existing hotels. He was a real stickler for ensuring his financial obligations were taken care of on time. As a result, banks and suppliers responded by offering the credit and supplies he needed to build up the company and take advantages of opportunities, even through periods of recession in the industry.
What are the operational dynamics of your company today?
Hiran: We have two main companies: Jetwing Hotels Limited and Jetwing Travels Limited. When our father passed away in 2008, he hadn’t decided who should be the chairman of the company because he treated us both equally. He gave us equal responsibilities, and we ran the company that way.
I was more involved with the hotels, and Shiromal oversaw the travel side, but she decided that I should serve as Chairman. However, with the transition to the third generation of leadership in progress, we decided to restructure the company last year. I remain Chairman of the two public listed companies – Jetwing Symphony PLC and The Lighthouse Hotel PLC, as well as the holding companies of hotels owned by our family. This arm of the business more focussed on asset management and development. Shiromal is now the Chairman of the two management companies, Jetwing Travels Limited and Jetwing Hotels Limited – the operations side of the business. The shareholdings remain the same but the responsibilities have been distributed.
Restructuring the company in preparation for the third generation is an unconventional strategy. How did you do it?
Hiran: The concept was established by our father. For business reasons, Jetwing Travels is a company involved in hosting inbound tourists and represents airlines and other tour operators from different parts of the world. That arm of the company also works with non-Jetwing hotels.
Shiromal: Conversely, Jetwing Hotels is a management company that controls assets owned by the family as well as assets that are not owned by the family. Hiran and I still work together, but we decided this model is ideal for a longer-term structure. Not only for the benefit of our children, but also for the company and its 4,000 employees and associates. Hiran has three boys, and I have one boy. Two of Hiran’s sons are already working in the company, and his youngest son will finish his tourism studies in New Zealand by 2020. Neither Hiran nor I expect any of our children to join the family business, but we would be delighted, of course, if they all did.
Much of our talent is homegrown; even though “they don’t have equity in the business, they work as if they did, taking an entrepreneurial interest in the company. We are as loyal to them as they are to us.”
If people are your most valuable asset, how do you attract and retain the right talent?
Hiran: Our people are undoubtedly our most important resource. We’re fortunate that we don’t have any trouble attracting or retaining people for either of our companies. Many of our managers have only worked with us, nowhere else. Much of our talent is homegrown; even though they don’t have equity in the business, they work as if they did, taking an entrepreneurial interest in the company. We are as loyal to them as they are to us.
If it looks like one of our new hires isn’t going to be a good fit, we establish that in the first six months, rather than prolonging the situation and creating ill feelings. Once an employee embraces their role as part of the Jetwing team, however, they often stay with the company until they retire and exhibit the same enthusiasm they had right from the start.
Shiromal: We’ve built on our father’s philosophy of offering exceptional customer service that people talk about. To provide that level of service, it’s essential that our people are passionate about what they do.
We look for passion and humility when we’re recruiting. These are the foundational values of the service industry. As such, we offer training programs where we take exceptional individuals who lack educational qualifications, initiate them in our corporate culture of enthusiasm and service and give them the opportunity to thrive (the Jetwing Youth Development Project). They advance upwards through the company at an astounding rate. We’re proud of the diversity, inclusivity and progressiveness this practice engenders. Jetwing is the only group in Sri Lanka that boasts five female general managers.
Is family ownership an advantage in the tourism industry even at your level?
Shiromal: Yes, family ownership shows people that we uphold values other than a corporate bottom line. The environmental and community-related work that we do is not measurable on a balance sheet. Furthermore, if Hiran and I were bound exclusively to shareholders for our livelihoods, then we would only think in the short term.
As an owning family that cares about its future generations, our decision-making is always long term.
“Growing the business past where it was when we took over was a real achievement for us. We’d like to see the next generation achieve the same.”
What kind of advice have you given the next generation with regards to Jetwing’s sustainability?
Hiran: Actions speak louder than words; they’ll see me in action and learn that way. That said, as outgoing leaders, we need to give them the space to take the company forward on their own. The next generation must draw their own conclusions and learn their own lessons. They’ll find out what works and what doesn’t.
Shiromal: Many family companies stagnate after the death of the founder. Often, it’s a case of sibling rivalry and conflict over relatively small issues.
Growing the business past where it was when we took over was a real achievement for us. We’d like to see the next generation achieve the same. For that to happen, however, Hiran and I need to get out of the way and allow them to succeed on their own.