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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.