Accountant breaks barriers in rise to CEO

An accidental accountant tells the lessons she learned on the way to becoming the first woman to lead one of Sri Lanka's largest public companies.
Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson, FCMA, CGMA, the first woman to become CEO of Hemas Holdings, says a willingness to take on challenges has driven her career path.
Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson, FCMA, CGMA, the first woman to become CEO of Hemas Holdings, says a willingness to take on challenges has driven her career path. (Photo by Tristan Laurens Bernard/AP Images)

Last June when Sri Lankan newspapers reported that Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson, FCMA, CGMA, was to take over as the first female group CEO at Hemas Holdings — one of the largest public companies in Sri Lanka — congratulatory messages flooded her way.

The country's prime minister said on social media that he hoped her appointment would inspire young women to follow in her footsteps. Admirers left comments on a YouTube video of a past interview she did, recounting their shared moments with her — whether during her younger days as a national basketball and netball player or in CIMA classes they took with her.

Wilson was surprised by the media attention, she told FM in an interview. But she realised later the reason for the public's interest — it had to do with the sheer improbability of such a CEO role for a woman in Sri Lanka.

Hemas Holdings, one of the 30 largest companies listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange, owns businesses in consumer goods, healthcare, hospitality, aviation and shipping, and logistics, and employs close to 6,000 people. Entrusting the top job to a woman speaks volumes to the possibilities for more women leaders in the company and, possibly, for Sri Lanka's largest corporates.

"If you look at the 35% statistic [of girls and women participating in Sri Lanka's labour force], the majority of them are blue-collar workers in apparel factories; if you remove that group, you're coming to sub 20% of women in the workforce; and then if you talk about women in leadership, it's in the single digits [in percentage]," Wilson said.

That makes Wilson one of the few women leading a public company in Sri Lanka. In focusing on the unlikeliness of her appointment, however, one can miss the confluence of skills, personality, and laudable performance she has brought to the companies she served.

An unexpected career in accounting

Her career began earlier than most. At 18, having just completed her A-levels, she crossed paths with Aruna Jayewickreme, a partner at accounting and audit firm SJMS Associates. At that time, Jayewickreme was her mother's Tamil language student.

As an audit firm, SJMS is not allowed to advertise its services directly because of the local code of ethics for the accounting and audit profession. One way to get the relatively new firm's name in the newspapers was to participate in mercantile tournaments, fiercely competed sporting events where companies from big banks to insurers in Sri Lanka field teams.

Wilson was a well-known basketball and netball player. The firm recruited her to join its netball team and offered her a position as a trainee auditor. She didn't know much about accounting, but she said yes.

It was 1988, and it was common for Sri Lankan accounting firms to hire school leavers without a college degree and train them on the job. Even without an accounting degree or a professional qualification on her CV, Wilson did an exceptional job as an auditor. The experience of learning double-entry accounting on the job instead of in classrooms helped her understand transactions and what they meant to a business. The lessons were irreplaceably valuable and set the stage for her career beyond auditing.

But even then, something more than her auditing skills was evident to those around her.

"She was very popular in our firm," recalled Jayewickreme, one of the founding partners of SJMS Associates and the firm's current senior partner of audit and assurance. "But more than anything, she has this leadership quality from her sporting background, and she was always able to lead from the front in whatever she did."

Jayewickreme remembered that Wilson "grasped with both hands" whatever she did. One example of such grit and determination left a lasting impression.

A few years into Wilson's working at the firm and playing for its netball team, a local bank poached members of SJMS's netball team. But Wilson chose to stay at the firm. She quickly formed a new netball team out of second-string players and trained them. That year, the new team managed to blaze through to the finals of the Mercantile Netball Tournament. There, they played against SJMS's former netball players, now playing for the bank, and emerged as champions.

"With the second stringers, she was able to somehow win the tournament; that was a great achievement," Jayewickreme said. "It took a lot from her, and I think very few people could have done that."

While at the firm, she married, had two sons, and acquired her CIMA qualification. She credits her bosses at the firm for allowing her to stay on as a part-time employee while she cared for her young children. She rose through the ranks to become the director of consulting in her eight years there. But right then, another change in life circumstances thrust her into a different trajectory.

She and her husband divorced. To provide for her two boys, she went into full-time work with the help of her parents, who agreed to look after her young children.

Being open to lateral moves

In 2002, she joined a subsidiary of Hemas Holdings in the hospitality sector as the general manager of finance. In the years to come at Hemas, she would take on a series of roles outside the finance function that eventually propelled her to the top job at the conglomerate.

But if you were to ask Wilson for a formula to ascend to the CEO's office, she would be quick to say that there simply isn't one. At a CIMA convocation, she offered this advice to fellow management accountants: "Don't even stress about whether you can predict your future. What you can control is how you face what's thrown your way, and the choices you make. Your career doesn't have to go in the same trajectory of somebody else's. It may look like a snakes and ladders game. And that's OK. But the secret is, you have to be happy with it."

Two features mark her career in the past 18 years at Hemas — a willingness to move into unfamiliar territories and an unrelenting desire to learn more than finance skills. The journey was not always plain sailing. Sometimes, she was pushed to take on challenges she wasn't sure would promise triumph.

In what she calls "the first interesting twist" in her career, she was asked to move into a nonfinance role to head up the conglomerate's IT department.

"I questioned the board at that time as to why they gave me that role," Wilson recalled.

Their reply to her demonstrated that Wilson's understanding beyond finance concepts was already evident to Hemas's leadership team. They wanted someone with sharp business acumen, an understanding of end-to-end processes, and knowledge of how to use technology to improve efficiency.

Such horizontal moves were not common in Hemas's culture at that point. Moving Wilson from finance to IT was an experiment the senior management team undertook. Key questions they wanted answered were: What are the essential attributes for a Hemas leader? Are technical and industry expertise more important than having leadership behaviours?

"So it was a test, an experiment," she said of her transfer to IT. "Of course, now we have it as a design. We have talented people moved around."

A finance person in such a role would look at technology investments from a cost angle, she said. Her lesson there was learning to switch off her finance mindset.

"You need to remove your finance hat for a while ... give space for somebody to sell their business case to you," she said. "Then wear your finance hat again with a different view and check whether the fundamental assumptions would bring in the revenue or increase efficiency."

Leading people with more experience and expertise

Her toughest lesson yet was about to come. In her first role with profit and loss responsibilities as the managing director of Hemas's transport subsidiary, which has businesses in aviation, maritime, and logistics, Wilson was once again thrown into unfamiliar territory.

"I had been a custodian of P&L, but I hadn't run a P&L," she said. "That was my only fear."

In addition to meeting revenue targets, she had to lead a senior management team that had extensive industry experience and technical knowledge she didn't possess. How does someone without experience in an industry lead such a team?

"It was a lesson of how you get your leadership skills honed and how do you learn from people," Wilson said.

Within Wilson's first few days at the new job, a couple of the senior leaders there decided to be honest with her.

"We appreciate that you were brought here. But we wonder why one of us were not considered ... you're not from the industry," she recalled them saying.

But she was unperturbed. Their question was a valid one, she thought.

"I was lucky enough that they were mature people, and one advantage of having mature people on the team is that they can tell you to your face versus making it a big issue behind your back," she said.

So she struck a deal with them: Give her six months to prove her value to the team. "If I'm not adding value [after six months], let's have this conversation again," she told them.

She understood that she had to throw out her technical mindset to learn how to think strategically. Being performance-driven, solutions-oriented, and attentive to detail were skills she was proud of. It required tremendous courage to give up what she was good at to learn something new.

"I was known as somebody who cannot be strategic because I was so operational," she said. "I had to unlearn my attention to detail that sometimes distracted me and got my mind bogged down by small things. My role then was to think big, envision strategy, and push the teams."

In those first few months, she played the role of a coach.

Using a team sport analogy, she explained: "When you play a team sport, the success of the team is when every member of the team is doing their best. Just because I'm doing my best doesn't mean the team will win. It is up to me to influence others to be committed to practise as well."

What Wilson sees as her role as a leader — to engage, influence, and rally employees to deliver business results — is one of the behaviours of top exceptional CEOs identified in a ten-year study by ghSMART, a leadership advisory company in the US. The study, published in 2017, showed that successful CEOs have the ability to "engage for impact" by aligning the priorities and interests of employees and stakeholders to reach a goal. This includes refocusing detractors' resistance to something positive.

For Wilson, this was how it played out in the first few months: When her team wanted a decision and asked for her opinion, she pushed back and forced them to consider their options.

"I asked what they would do if they were in my shoes. Then I'd say, 'Give me two choices', and I asked which they preferred. I would let them go ahead with it and ask them to come back to me if something goes wrong," she explained.

Further discussions would involve her offering opinions on the matter, but she would leave the decision to the team leaders. She also made it clear that it was OK to sometimes make the wrong decisions, but when that happened, they could come back to her for further advice.

"I had pushed them to think about opportunities generally not thought about," she said. "Coming from a nonindustry perspective, I asked them the dumbest questions and allowed them to think and come back with reasons for or against an idea."

In less than the agreed time, Wilson had proved that industry experience and technical knowledge are not the only prerequisites for a good business leader. Her team finally understood why she was given the job — she had made them better leaders who delivered better performance.

An impetus to more women leaders?

Lopa Rahman, corporate governance officer at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member organisation of the World Bank Group, said that Wilson's appointment as Hemas's group CEO is a much-needed female representation in corporate Sri Lanka.

An IFC study found that between 2015 and 2017, only one company in the country's 30 largest listed companies had a woman chairing its board. Rahman attributes this phenomenon to a "leaking pipeline" problem. More women than men complete school and enter universities in Sri Lanka, but there are more male workers in the country.

Nothing legally restricts women from going to work in the country. "But [in Sri Lanka] the restriction seems self-imposed. Cultural nuances are such that women are the primary caregivers of a family," Rahman said.

In a 2017 World Bank study to understand Sri Lanka's persistently low female labour force participation rate, researchers found that marriage significantly lowers women's odds of being employed by 26 percentage points compared with unmarried women. Having children younger than 5 years old also is significantly associated with a reduction in women's labour market participation by 7.4 percentage points, compared with women without children. These factors have no effect on men, the research found.

Rahman added that while Sri Lanka takes pride in having the first female prime minister in the modern world — Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was elected to office in 1960 — the country needs more female public figures, especially in business, to encourage more women into the workforce.

"I've often heard it said that [Sri Lanka] keeps celebrating the past, but there aren't many modern role models Sri Lankan women can look to," Rahman said.

Having appointed its first female board members in 2018, Hemas is a latecomer in introducing board diversity compared to other Sri Lankan public companies. Wilson is Hemas's third female board member since its founding more than 70 years ago.

Rahman added that the Sri Lankan Ministry of Finance, in step with practices in the region, introduced a voluntary quota of 30% of women for corporate boards of listed companies in 2019. After 2024, the 30% quota may become mandatory.

"Quotas are not the best solution, but it's the best we have now to accelerate the pace of women participation," she said.

Staying true to self

Throughout her career, whether as a novice or a leader, Wilson's constant refrain was that she would stay authentic. In job interviews, she has found that companies respected her for being honest that her children came first and the job second.

Her children are now in their 20s, allowing her to dedicate more time to her career. But during her children's younger years, juggling motherhood and a career was not without challenges. In an interview with a researcher at the University of Colombo a few years ago, she opened up about her struggles as a career woman and mother, and views on how to retain female talent.

"There were times where I would be attending an official function, knowing I was eating into my kids' quality [time with me]. As a mother, I battled internal conflicts within myself," she said. "If you want a female [employee to progress], you cannot treat her the same way you treat a man. A career woman would always be juggling other roles — as a homemaker, a mother, a daughter, and a wife — and these roles too are equally important to them."

Her advice to other women is to be their authentic selves rather than trying to lead like a man — or like another woman, for that matter.

"Don't try to own your space the way a guy would own it," she said. "I wouldn't apologise for not talking cricket and politics because they don't interest me. I will talk about how we can impact society, the underprivileged, or taking care of national needs."

Wilson added, "The key is you have to own your seat, not because of a quota [for women representation in senior management] but because you earned it."

Standing out as an emblem of her philosophy is her choice of attire. She wears a sari — a traditional Tamil dress — both for a typical day at the office and for formal business events, and the reason is simply because it works for her.

"I was an audit manager very early in life, and I needed to look mature for my age," she explained. "If I were in a western skirt, blouse, and suit, I would look much younger and nobody would take me seriously."

Whether in a suit, a sari, or her off-work clothes of T-shirt and jeans, confidence is cardinal for Wilson. "I'm owning my space with my sari."



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Alexis See Tho is an FM magazine associate editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at