From The Vision of Aban Pestonjee
Set in the closed economy and male-dominated arena of 1960s Sri Lanka, Aban Pestonjee embarked on a quest to add value to the lives of local housewives via expedient household appliances, armed only with uncanny intuition and indomitable will.
Today, as the founder and chairperson of the Abans Group which holds over 22 diversified companies with more than 30,000 employees, she stands as a business paradigm in her own right and an inspiration to future generations of entrepreneurs. The Abans brand is eminently synonymous with community enhancement in every possible respect; from technology and land development to environmental and social improvement. In this insightful interview, Aban Pestonjee sheds light on her humble beginnings and shares precious gems of advice on navigating the unpredictable nature of the entrepreneurial sphere.
Abans is presently a corporate superpower in Sri Lanka, take us back to its origin story.
It all began in the 60s when my children were young and I was a full-time housewife. At the time, it was very challenging because everything had to be done by hand, including the washing, and this took up most of my time and energy. Consequently, I was very keen on giving other housewives like me a means of support. The only appliances available during this period were used appliances auctioned by foreign diplomats and expatriates leaving the country. So I started visiting these auctions and buying used household goods, including reserves for spare parts and I sold them with a guarantee at a little corner shop in Bambalapitiya. Repairs were carried out in my garage and this assurance of an “Abans backing” was paramount to building trust with my customers, leading to my increased market knowledge, so that by the time the economy opened I knew exactly what sort of products they wanted.
What was the most challenging or game-changing moment during the span of your career?
A really difficult stage was when I was operating my second-hand business and the imports started coming in as the economy opened. I had no bank facilities because banks weren’t too obliging towards entrepreneurs and there wasn’t a financial support system backing a small business for imports, at the time. Fortunately, my husband had some connections at a bank and I was finally able to obtain Letters of Credit. While sourcing had been a challenge in the closed economy, I was now facing the brand new hurdle of getting down reputed British brands in accordance with the market demand here. It was an uphill battle for our small start-up business to get their attention but I was very persistent and continued writing to them until Electrolux responded favourably. Soon after that, we were able to bag other major brands including Hoover, Belling, and Pyrex from large British firms like Browns, Walkers and Hunters who had the agencies for these products.
Our Sri Lankans had an affinity towards British goods and Abans was able to secure the agencies for popular brands like Hoover, Electrolux and Pyrex. British goods became very expensive and Abans then started importing products from Japan such as Washing Machines and Refrigerators. We became agents for Mitsubishi, importing Japanese goods such as refrigerators and washing machines. Once the Yen began to appreciate, we switched to the Korean Goldstar brand which later became LG. Initially, Sri Lankans did not take to Korean goods thinking they were inferior, but we assured them that they have the Abans backing if anything went wrong. So they gave it a chance and were not disappointed.
Can you comment on the growth of the Abans group over the years, in terms of its diversification?
Once my children came back from studying abroad they brought new ideas to the table and helped me to grow the business along different avenues. We gradually ventured into areas such as Tours, Manufacturing, Logistics, Automobiles, and Cleantech. Recently we initiated a huge mixed development project which is the Colombo City Centre. This is a huge shopping mall, with luxury apartments and a hotel on the upper floors. The main reason I wanted this cutting-edge mall was for Sri Lankans to get together and have fun somewhere to enjoy as a family. All this was a combined effort and included a lot of hard work and perseverance. This could not have been achieved without our Abans family, some members who have been with us from the very beginning.
What does being an Entrepreneur mean to you, and what advice would you give someone who wants to start their own venture?
At first, the title didn’t enter my mind, I just put in the work and effort to grow my business and people gradually started recognizing me as an entrepreneur. As the company grew, more people were employed and I was happy that I could add to the country’s development and prosperity. It really started to hit me when I began receiving awards not just locally but also in places like India and Thailand.
If someone wants to start a business, they must first make sure that they are truly passionate about it. I would advise them to work at a related business that is already established to gain sufficient knowledge and experience before venturing out on their own. It can be anything; landscaping, cooking, handicrafts. I myself have made many mistakes from which I have learnt and become stronger. Its always better to be armed with the knowledge to help you navigate in your chosen field.
What is your view on the Sri Lankan woman?
Our Sri Lankan women are very intelligent, enterprising and forward-thinking. I also believe that a woman is more instinctively attuned to things than a man. This is because she has to perform a balancing act every day at home; from controlling the expenses to juggling between the varying needs of different family members. Women are natural economists and they have an edge over the men in terms of multi-tasking, which is beneficial when running a business.
Because you are a woman, were you at any point, subjected to differential treatment? And what are your thoughts on shattering the glass ceiling?
No, never. Even when I was working in a closed economy and my main counterparts in the industry were men, our transactions were based on mutual respect. I believe that when you know your business, a man looks to you as his equal in the field. I’ve never experienced any sort of discrimination when dealing with foreigners or Sri Lankan men in my line of work. In fact, they look up to you as long as you are a woman who knows what you are doing. I think our Sri Lankan women are already realizing their potential and gaining confidence in their abilities; an increasing number of them are making their mark in the corporate world. It’s very much about being a visionary and knowing exactly where you want to go.
Can you comment on the future of Abans Group, where do you see the business going? Are any new developments coming up?
We hope to pursue our diversification strategy and venture into technology, hospitality, construction, and property development. We want to stay true to our maxim of always being “ahead of time” and offering sustainable, authentic and progressive solutions and experiences for the benefit of the Sri Lankan community.