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Educational toys, his forte

Entrepreneur ready to meet country's requirements:

Some people become entrepreneurs at various stages in their lives. Some at a young age follow their father's footsteps or perhaps after completing their higher education. But Managing Director, Panther Enterprises, Nihal Athukorala became an entrepreneur in 1994 after his retirement with a wealth of experience in the field of printing. Today, he is the only manufacturer and exporter of educational toys made out of paper and board in Sri Lanka.

He was interviewed by Daily News Business.


An employee takes out a print for an educational toy.

An old boy of Ananda College, Colombo, Athukorala obtained his BSc degree from the University of Colombo and joined the State Printing Corporation as a trainee. In 1973 he got the opportunity to go to the London College of Printing in UK for further studies for three years.

Overseas assignment

On his return he was promoted as the General Manager. As the GM he was given another overseas assignment in Zambia for four years. Again he was posted to Seychelles on a Commonwealth appointment. He returned to Sri Lanka and was appointed Chairman of the State Printing Corporation and completed four years in office.

Although Athukorala retired from government service he did not want to retire from work with his wide experience and talents.

He said, "I started 'Panther' with an investment of one million rupees and two people 15 years ago to mainly manufacture stationery items such as exercise books, CR books and note-books.


Nihal Athukorala

However, the demand for those items was seasonal and I did not have work for the staff off season.

toyed with the idea of importing educational toys from India at that time and later thought that I can manufacture them in my factory.

It also helped me to retain my staff in the business continuously.

International exhibitions

I visited a number of international exhibitions in foreign countries and gathered ideas before starting it. I first started in a small rented out place in Battaramulla and later shifted to Kalubowila.

As the business expanded gradually I obtained a land from the Industrial zone in Ratmalana, the present location and built a factory.

With the progress of the business, his only daughter and son completed their school education.

Athukorala decided to get both of them involved in the business while pursuing their higher studies.

Direct marketing

His daughter, Mohanthi, joined the company in 1999 taking care of marketing and the son Charith joined in 2004 after obtaining a degree in IT and was responsible for the operations.

The company has a Rs. 50 million asset base and a workforce of sixty people today. It manufactures 40,000 pieces of educational toys per year for the local market and 20,000 pieces for the export market. The products are distributed islandwide through direct marketing and the exports market are in the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the Maldives and the United States.

The Panther product range includes seventy products including puzzles for children between three and eight, alphabets in three languages, box files, note-pads, games and other toys.

A new outlet was opened at Kalubowila displaying all types of products by the company. The products have been approved by qualified Montessori teachers and the company has obtained EN 71 certification and also won several awards from the Printers Association.

Challenge

Asked about the challenges, Athukorala said that the lack of skilled designers is a challenge because there are no opportunities in the country for people to acquire this skill. We introduce new products every three months. I have even written to the universities for them to cater to this need in their courses but there was no response.

Another factor is that we have to import 90 percent of the raw materials required to manufacture our products paying various taxes. Inspite of it our products are thirty to forty percent cheaper than imported educational toys. The small quantity of raw material that we produce in the country is also more expensive than imported goods because of the high cost of production.

Our products are also affordable to the average income parent in our country, Athukorala said.

However his future plan is to mechanize the production process and partly automate the factory. The company has the capacity to manufacture the total requirement of educational toys in the country and provide more employment to people if imports are stopped. There is a huge potential to expand this business in the north and east when the war comes to an end, he said.

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