Have we lost the fibre in our apparel industry?

The future lies in the past


An interview with Carol Duncumb

By Maheen Senanayake

Most recently Carol Duncumb spent a few weeks in Sri Lanka recuperating from 2013. She first traveled to Sri Lanka in 1994 and has been here many times since sometimes making more than two or three trips during a single year. But her first visit was an absolutely memorable one.

Do you remember why you came to Sri Lanka for the first time?

Yes, I remember exactly why I came. I was sourcing textiles/finished garments for a company I was working for. I was very fortunate because that was a year when there was so much turbulence in factories. Textile and apparel manufacturing was going through rapid decline in the UK. And I happened to be at the forefront of that change. It also coincided with the time when companies were less rigid about expenses so they were least concerned about what you did and where you went. I had just been in New York three months prior to coming in to Sri Lanka and over in the States you could see the `country of origin’ (in the labels) but you can’t see that in Europe. I noticed that there was a lot of production coming out of Sri Lanka. So I made a case for coming, and I did on January 5, 1994.

Do you realize that by tomorrow (We were talking on Jan. 4) its exactly 20 years since?

That’s right, she says in half realization.

My coming itself is an interesting story. Guy de Alwis had decided that there was life after cricket and was concerned about what he was going to do. And he was a very resourceful man. He had written to the British High Commission saying that he would offer his services through his network of friends to anyone wishing to source production. And this email (uhh she corrects herself) this fax from the British High commission somehow landed on my desk. It basically said that if you are traveling to Sri Lanka and you want someone to contact you, ‘please contact me’.

Anyway, I made contact with Guy. I had no idea who he was, Google did not exist at the time for instant research. And we had a fact exchange, he booked me into the Hilton and said that he would meet me at 7 pm in the lobby. And I asked him, ‘how will I know you?’ And he answered, ‘you will know me.’

So I came down from the executive floor and came down thinking `how am I going to recognize him?’ I was one of the few white skinned guests at the hotel ( this was 1994 – and pretty much a year of great debacles for us). As I walked out of the lift and towards the front door, there was this enormous man standing there with a whole lot of people, at least a dozen, and I walked towards that crowd, he looked up and immediately dismissed everybody, walked up to me and said "you must be Carol."

‘Yes I am. Pleased to meet you.’

‘Would you like some tea?’ I said `yes.’ Then he said, ‘I don’t eat at the Hilton, I have a table at the Galadari’, and added ‘please be my guest.’ We walked next door, we went into the restaurant, he speaks to one person and immediately a table is cleaned and prepared overlooking the swimming pool – the best table. By now I am wondering who this exceptional man is, this guy is supposed to be a textile agent but you know I am thinking, when the waiter who serves us comes upto him and says, ‘Mr. De Alwis can I have your autograph?’

And I said, enough!! What is this all about. Who are you?

Well, look I have an office and a team of people who will look after you. But I am actually a professional cricketer and I played for the national team. I am actually the wicket keeper.

And ever since that meeting his passion for sport and my passion for sport immediately made us strong friends. We worked together for almost 12 years sourcing textiles from all over Sri Lanka. It was wonderful, Carol reminisces.

It was wonderful, because he was the frontline for me and there was not a factory who wouldn’t take a phone call from Guy.

Actually, he struck me as a very unique individual. For instance even then he didn’t drink alcohol and it took a lot to open him up to his cricketing stories.

So it’s a long story but it’s how I came to like Sri Lanka.

So did you keep coming on work?

No. eventually I kept coming on holiday.

I re-visited in a personal capacity after I stopped working with Guy. The reason I stopped working with Guy was because Sri Lanka became increasingly uncompetitive. And China was rising fast and to be frank, the lead time out of China was longer because of the distance. The other problem with Sri Lanka is that it does have a source of raw material, but not a big source. When you are in lingerie you need a lot of component, and consequently China and Thailand were becoming competitively more attractive.

What changes do you see in the country today in comparison to 1994 when you first came here?

Colombo has changed beyond recognition. When I first arrived in Colombo it felt like an Indian city.

How do you see the Sri Lankan Economy today? Specially from the perspective of your own trade?

You can’t deny the fact that the tsunami has had a major impact on the economy. There was a huge interest in Sri Lanka after the tsunami and an enormous amount of money came into Sri Lanka. Where that money went, I am not sure. I do know that I have seen a great deal of reconstruction and if you spend any time in economies similar to Sri Lanka, I can draw a comparison with Thailand. There has been an enormous amount of infrastructure built there. Sri Lanka has not kept pace with Thailand. And certainly it has not kept pace with China. And if I go back to when I first arrived here, China didn’t feel that much more advanced in its development than Sri Lanka. But since that time China is unrecognizable and is really an engine room of today’s economy.

I am not saying in any way that Sri Lanka is big enough to be that but I am saying that Sri Lanka may have lost its moment. Whether the tsunami bruised its economy, or disrupted it or whether successive administrations have not been wise in the way they have invested in Sri Lanka, or the way in which they have opened their eyes towards Sri Lanka, opportunities from other possible partner countries have been lost. I can’t be clear nor can I be specific but what I have heard is that Sri Lanka has lost ground to other competitively developing countries.

In your circles, is Sri Lanka seen as an opportunity for any type of business?

I feel the skepticism in Sri Lanka towards westerners. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is. And by that what I am saying is that Sri Lanka cannot alone develop the economy that it needs to develop to become a competing nation in the same way that Britain couldn’t without joining Europe. And we do have a free economy.

Even though Britain did join the EU the Iron butterfly did not rush in did she?

Yes, we pick and choose what we want from the EU.

With respect to this skepticism towards foreigners, do you see us isolating ourselves?

Yes! (The answer is quick and succinct)

Is that feeling shared among other people in your professional circles?

I don’t think it has anything to do with my friendships. It’s just that there are too many unanswered questions about what happened in Sri Lanka. And there seems to be too much going on behind closed doors, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of transparency.

So in the backdrop of what has happened, what do you think Sri Lanka should do to give the British business community the confidence to invest in Sri Lanka?

That is a good question. We have just had the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Sri Lanka and that was quite disappointing. There were several leaders who were not present. That is a vote of no confidence in some respects. Government would see just holding that conference as a huge success and even now when you walk through the airport this huge photograph of dignitaries is there. I read about it in the Inflight magazine as well.

Did you fly SriLankan?

Yes I did, and that was because that was the only direct flight to Colombo.

I think that this is the problem that people in business have. It’s not too difficult to see through the gloss. Actually during the CHOGM we had through the BBC a fair amount of critical reporting and that has got to stop before business people start investing here.

Compare that to the situation in 1994.

It certainly felt very different. For ten years it did seem like there was a real influx of foreigners coming in and there was a strong sentiment of strong relationship between Sri Lankan and European businessmen.

You do realize that this was war time?

Yes! This is the biggest irony. Actually at the time when I felt there was a real strong dialogue between businesses. The war was at its worst. I was in Colombo on several occasions when there had been incidents of terror. Can you imagine me coming over here? I was a single woman coming here without any hesitation.

Let’s get back to the garment trade. What is your take of the industry in Sri Lanka given your expertise?

It’s very specialized now. And its concentrates on huge retailers and large volumes that are more commodity type garments than specialist. So if you want to buy a pack of underpants for example, there is a good chance that you would see a Sri Lankan label on it; but not if it is one high end product that requires a bit of design and execution. And that is very sad because there is a lot of manufacturing and creative talent and I don’t see it coming through the apparel industry.

So you still do not see Sri Lanka as a source of fashion?

No, not at the moment.

You mentioned the moment. Is it too late for the apparel industry in Sri Lanka to regain lost ground?

No. In fact this is a good time.

Why do you say that?

Because China is struggling.

What is it struggling with?

There is a new generation of workers who come from China who no longer want to be in manufacturing. Chinese children are becoming more educated and they do not want to follow their parents’ footsteps. And the problem for the manufacturers is that whereas they went over the border from Hong Kong to Shenzen, they then have to go for about an hour inland from Shenzen to get a strong work force. And now they have to go for hours to draw a strong workforce.

In other words what you are saying is that China is now with infrastructure but no manpower?


So by that same token getting the finished garment out would also be a great task?

Yes, that is correct.

Are time lines manageable? Working from China?

It is getting much harder. Then freight costs are really high. Cost of transportation is also very high. Add that to the lead time and bringing that in to the European retailer is really demanding specially in the backdrop of a weak European economy when margins are key. China is becoming less competitive.

If you had the entire administrative machinery at your disposal, what would you do first?

I would look very seriously at collaborating with Indian textile mills because you do have a great resource of textile and woven fabric in India close to Sri Lanka. But Sri Lanka is at a disadvantage because she cannot draw on a huge labour force. I think that the schools and the universities should start to train the talent of design to become more creative. I could be ambitious in saying this but in my mind Sri Lanka could be the Milan of Asia.

Given the strength of textile manufacturing in India would you not just make it easier to source from India, I mean we have an FTA with India instead of going into manufacturing?

I am not sure this is looked at.

Would you not see that as a USP?


I have been buying textiles out of India for a long time now and when I compare the product in my memory, comparing production out of India, production out of China and production out of Sri Lanka, Chinese products would always be far superior in its makeup and today is probably the best in the world. India for some reason has never made a good garment.

Has it made a good material?

Yes. She makes a very good material but does not execute it into a good product.

Is this due to dexterity, skills? Could you tell us why?

I think it’s to do with the education of the workforce and consequently to do with attention to detail. I don’t know if Sri Lanka can take that as an opportunity not just in textiles and apparel but in all kinds of industry. I have yet to eat a meal in Galle where I had first class service. So I do think that there is some issue there with the training and pervades through many industries and services and I certainly see an opportunity here for Sri Lanka to create an economy of excellence.

You do realize the education system we follow is what the British left behind?

(Carol laughs her head off—in a manner which reminds me of the Meaning of the LoL in mobile SMS parlance. I join in and tell her "I just had to rub that one in")

Do you know that I walk around Sri Lanka and I don’t feel the English presence?

In 1994?

No. Not particularly. There is the legacy of language and we both drive on the left side of the road, steerings are on the right, but beyond that..no, nothing.

You mentioned language. Do you feel that there are enough people speaking the language?

Well it’s not difficult to find someone who speaks English. But then again it depends on where you are.

I also had quite a big initiative in Sri Lanka. I flew SriLankan Airlines on Boxing Day, the day of the tsunami. We were the only passengers on that flight UL 506 to Colombo. The news broke in the morning. It was shocking. There was also talk of the airport being flooded but I didn’t think of that too much. We walked into Terminal 4 at Heathrow and we were only 12 people on that flight.

When I arrived at the airport here and asked the driver he said "it’s very bad.."

We stayed in Mount Lavinia and we saw some horrifying things. When we switched on television, they were reporting the incident on the train at Ambalangoda (Pereliya) and they showed such horrifying sights with bodies lying everywhere, and we would never have done that in the UK. There were just hundreds of people trapped inside the train. Shocking – in various states of exposure.

I texted my friends and told them that whatever they could spare they should send to me because I would make sure it was spent meaningfully. In hours I had 36,000 pounds. And initially I was only able to spend a small amount actually about 6,000 really to raid all the supermarkets in Colombo, hire trucks and drive them out.

Back to business. How important is the strength of the rupee?

Very important it can mean the difference between profit and loss.

How do you see the current state of the rupee?

It’s very strong at the moment.

Would you like a weaker currency?

Yes. It’s not competitive at the moment.

How much would be competitive?

When I first came to Sri Lanka the rupee to the sterling was averaging 175. Today it is around 215. It feels like the currency is too volatile. When you are buying textiles you are looking at 5-6 month lead times so you do need some level of stability. Since you are fixing your prices early and therefore fixing the margin of that product, if the currency moves somebody is going to have to take that hit. It’s usually a combination of both manufacturer and buyer. An unstable currency is another indicator of an economy.

What is your take on brand owners? They have been continuously migrating to cheaper sources of labour.

I have been at the vanguard of that.

Given this nature have the brand owners done anything to encourage a long term relationship with a manufacturing market?

Yes and there is evidence of that here in Sri Lanka with the number of textile manufacturing plants that are joint ventures. That is a way of mitigating currency and quality issues. For a lot of larger retailers it is the only way forward. And I have spent the last 30 years helping production around the world.

I saw the demise of the apparel trade in the UK. In my student days I walked around cities like Leicester and there were streets where you couldn’t have a conversation in because the buzz of manufacturing would be so great. The roar of sewing machines and the clatter of knitting machines were so loud that you couldn’t have a conversation in the environs of these factories. And within ten years these cities have been silenced.

What happened to all those people?

That is a very good question. In actual fact it’s a very sad story in England.

I am interested in that story as a premonition of what may be in store for Sri Lanka.

We briefly touched on Margaret Thatcher and she was great for many reasons. But what everybody remembers in the 70s is the miners’ strikes, the coal strikes; dismantling of the car industry in the UK; dismantling of the steel mills. They hardly ever talk about the apparel industry. And that was the biggest labour market.

There were millions of people in the textile industry and we still don’t know how many because the unions were not militant and could not be militant because it was made up of a majority of women and mostly part time. They just didn’t have a voice. And itvery very sad. If you just wander around even today, famous cities like Bradford, Leicester and Yorkshire, there are derelict knitting mills everywhere, There are great buildings, just standing there as a memory of what was.

And the irony for me when I went to Shanghai and Shenzen for the first time was that I was walking through these huge vast new developments in these Chinese cities absolutely brand new and it just reminded me as to how it may have been like to be in Victorian England. And it just reminded me of what exciting periods it would have been to be in the late 1800s in Industrial England to see this manufacturing boom in England the way it is now in China, where vast areas of land become cities overnight. That is the same thing that happened 120 years ago in England and today these same places lie still like a ghostly memory.

Were these people in England compensated in anyway?

No. Nothing whatsoever. ( I repeat the question and the answer is the same. She is pensive as if to pay homage to those who sacrificed so much for an otherwise thankless industry)

I remember some time ago the government making a huge cry about investing 100 million pounds to revive the apparel industry but it was just too little too late.

So they do make these announcements in your country as well?

Yes, they do she says laughing.

Carol is a ardent golfer and looks forward to golfing in Sri Lanka. She sits on the boards of directors of five publicly held companies in the UK.

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