Interview: Navin Amarasuriya for B.P. de Silva

Garrisoned at the vanguard of his family-owned conglomerate, Navin Amarasuriya is poised to induct the B.P. de Silva Group into a brave new world. Flanked by his siblings, Navin is set on steering the company towards a competitive yet compassionate paradigm of business—and he'll do it by bike if necessary

Interview: Navin Amarasuriya for B.P. de Silva

If you are meeting Navin Amarasuriya for the first time, it may be disconcerting to note just how unassuming and charmingly polite the privileged scion of a 140-year-old company can be. Right on schedule, Navin is standing at the glass entrance of his office building, all set to greet this interviewer—and to hold the door open while we fumble awkwardly for our namecards. Also striking: Navin's refreshing lack of big cheese ostentation. Nary a stuffy three-piece suit or constricting tie to be seen—not even a watch on his wrist, doubly striking given that his father sits on the board of one of the most venerated Swiss manufactures today. All we see is a personable young man, well turned out in a crisp white shirt and pants, whose eyes crinkle merrily as he ushers us into one of B.P. de Silva's conference rooms for a sit-down.

Of course, Navin's affability is in no way an indication of the 28-year-old, fifth-generation leader's gaucheness or inexperience. Having grown up in and around his family's business, the man was officially inducted into B.P. de Silva as a Director in 2010 (his father's ex-secretary fondly recalls the boy addressing her as his Aunty years ago, an anecdote which when mentioned brings a wide smile to Navin's face).

Today, Navin oversees B.P. de Silva's signature jewelry brand Risis, toggling between product development and manufacturing, although he acknowledges with boyish sheepishness that his professional interests reside in a slightly different sector: "I'm most passionate about engineering, to be honest. There’s nothing quite like seeing your concept go from paper to the plant into your palm."

As the conversation segues to his obession with machinery, we bring up the noticeable absence of a timepiece in his ensemble. Navin laughs and says that a watch would be "wasted" on a man like himself: "It’ll probably be damaged the first couple of days I wear it. If I did have to get a watch, it’ll probably be an Audemars Piguet model in carbon fiber, a material I love for its sheen, strength and association with spacecraft, Formula One cars—and bikes, of course."

Indeed, biking appears to be an abiding part of Navin's life: to wit, his press biography contains no "professional" shots of himself, only an image of him in a sports jersey, posing—and there's no other adjective to describe the look on his face—happily with his spiffy wooden bike. (The polished portraits you see here were requested for after our chat.) Navin has elevated the happiness he derives from the sport to a philanthropic level by spearheading B.P. de Silva's involvement with Cycle on Ceylon, a project affiliated with Practical Action, an NGO which sources for sustainable, low-cost solutions to poverty-related issues besetting Sri Lankan society.

On his drive, so to speak, to reach out to Sri Lanka, Navin says: "My ancestors originate from Sri Lanka. 140 years ago, a young Balage de Porolis set sail from Galle with nothing more than a handful of gems and a spirit of adventure. I want to use Cycle on Ceylon to highlight the plight of a country emerging from the ashes and gain a better understanding of the country myself."

When we wrap up, Navin requests for a copy of the audio recording, saying he would like to keep the transcript for "future generations, should they be interested in listening to what [he has] to say." Feeling mischievous, we ask the bachelor if he plans to start a family. Laughing, he demurs: "I keep my personal matters out of the office. Just being able to interact with people like you is pretty bloody awesome in itself!" Well, surely no one can say Navin Amarasuriya is not a media-savvy businessman. 

You’re currently working for Risis, which is famous for its floral jewelry. Can you tell us about a particularly memorable or favorite piece from the collection?

Sure, I am a big fan of our orchids, and I get that most people think of flowers when you mention Risis, but here’s the thing: Let’s go back a decade, when Risis was bought over in 2000 by BP de Silva. The context of the sale was that we had always been peddling in European goods throughout our history as a company, and my father felt that we ought to have something of our own. Singapore, as you know, is not exactly known for its homegrown labels, so we wanted to make Risis as recognized across the world as the other big brands in our stable.

The orchids that are so synonymous with Risis are indeed its core product—for now. Like Audemars Piguet with the Royal Oak and Hermès with the Birkin, there are the icons and then there are the supporting characters around it. We hope to conjure up a range of universal, equally lovely objects around Risis’ floral-inspired accoutrements, and that’s what we’re gunning for right now.

What material is most difficult to work with, and which is your favorite?

If it is a piece of jewelry, then my personal inclination leans towards simplicity in design, so I like the white gold or silver objects in our collection: there’s a certain lushness and elegance to the metal that doesn’t come across as being vulgar or too in-your-face. That being said, yellow gold figures prominently in our popular Zodiac creatures, and all the better for it, I think, because of the rich cultural connotations and celebratory opulence of yellow gold.

Interview Navin Amarasuriya For Bp De Silva 7

"Some of the best experiences I’ve had have occurred when I’m cycling at a pace where, if someone were smiling at me, I can smile or wave back. There's this amazing feeling of interconnectedness."

Give us a peek into what a typical work day for you is like.

Well, at the moment my work lies somewhere between product development and manufacturing. My typical workday is split between the parent company and at the Risis headquarters. At Risis, I deal with on-the-ground issues revolving around manufacturing; at the holding office, I try to get a holistic understanding of the various subsidiaries and how to manage them as a whole. My passion really resides in engineering, to be honest—there’s nothing quite like seeing your concept go from paper to the plant into your palm.

Your biography says you are interested in machines. Does this extend to mechanical watches? What do you look for in a timepiece?

Oh, yes. I appreciate mechanical watches for the line that they blur between the incredibly artistic and the astonishingly complex, when you break them down into their individual components. It still amazes me every time I go to the Audemars Piguet factory and see the assembly of the different pieces into one single fine object. I admire products that transcend the boundaries of what the industry thinks possible.

There will be the cars or watches or whatever it is that customers buy en masse, but then there are also the hidden niches where a bunch of crazy guys are creating the most wonderful things, for themselves or for completely unknowable reasons. So in the horological space Audemars Piguet has always had a reputation as an independent watch maker with the most beautiful grand complications. Again, it’s not only the watch industry that has the mavericks who possess the boldness of vision to create things that are truly memorable.

As for myself, the truth is I don’t wear a watch. Outside of work I lead a pretty rough and tumble lifestyle, so a watch is wasted on me because it’ll probably be damaged the first couple of days I wear it.

If I did have to get a watch, I think I would most probably get an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak—I don’t think there’s a better balance between masculinity and delicacy in a watch to be found anywhere else. It’ll probably be a model in carbon fiber, which is a material I love for its sheen, strength and association with spacecraft, Formula One cars and bikes, of course. To have a piece of that on your wrist is pretty cool.


Interview Navin Amarasuriya For Bp De Silva 1

"The term 'family business' itself says volumes about the intricacies of balancing the aspirations of family and self. My father has given my siblings and I the independence to form opinions that may be contrary to his."

You’re an avid cyclist and once traveled across Europe by bike. What was that like, and what is your most vivid memory from that road trip?

I always tell people that long-distance biking is fast enough to cover ground but slow enough to actually experience a place and its people. It’s completely different from viewing a place from behind the windows of a tour bus or hotel. On a bicycle, you’re very much exposed to the world, which also means people are a little less intimidated to connect with you on a human level.

Some of the best experiences I’ve had have occurred when I’m just cycling in a particular direction and I’m at a pace where, if someone were smiling at me, I can pick it up and I can smile or wave back. That in itself can spark off an amazing feeling of interconnectedness.

Tell us more about the Cycle on Ceylon project and what you hope to achieve by participating in it.

Cycle on Ceylon was created in 2012, the 140th year of our company’s history, to celebrate our founder’s sojourn from Sri Lanka to Singapore.  B.P de Silva had its business roots in Singapore, but that would never have happened without the entrepreneurial, adventurous spirit of the company’s founder.

It seemed fitting for this project to go back to the beginning, to celebrate his life and to gain a modicum of insight into what might have motivated his epic undertaking. The Ceylon project covered 758km over eight days. During the pit stops between the cycling, we spent time with the local NGO called Practical Action, which undertakes community projects that rely on what they call appropriate technology.

The ethos behind this organization was that NGOs can apply very complex, very expensive and very technical solutions to improve the quality of life of a particular community, but in reality sometimes simpler, more elegant solutions by way of training leaders on the ground will allow people to not see themselves as victims, but masters of their own destiny.

An example of this is a mini hydroelectric station that we visited en route. This plant, had they bought it from China, would have cost a fraction of the amount it took to build it locally. But by choosing to build locally, they transferred the technology of hydroelectric manufacturing to the fabricators and boosted the confidence and know-how of the local welders and contractors. By leaving these ideas with the people, then they take on their own life, which is in line with the market-based solutions our own company believes in when addressing social and environmental issues.

We chose to partner with Practical Action very carefully. If you need hard figures, then I can proudly say that between 2010 and 2011, Practical Action spent GBP 26.7 million, 83% of which was spent directly on programmes around the world. Practical Action really makes a difference, and we at B.P de Silva are proud to be aligned with them.

Can you tell us about your future role in the B.P. de Silva group?

At the moment, our roles are split between subsidiaries. Like businesses in any era, we have our own particular set of challenges. Being a private company where control rests in the hands of a couple of individuals, we are able to be more daring in the way we approach problems—because we can reach a consensus among ourselves without sieving through layers of bureaucracy.

We hope to practice a kinder form of business, simply because we are not beholden to the imperatives of quarterly results. We have of course always been a very competitive company—and we wouldn’t exist if not for that raring-to-go spirit—but the difference is that we have the luxury of practicing that competitiveness with compassion.

Interview Navin Amarasuriya For Bp De Silva 8

"I would ask young people like myself to define success on your own terms. The greatest danger is to do what others expect of you. You go down that path and realize, hey, maybe this isn’t what I really want to do."

My father, the fourth generation of the company, felt that it would not make sense to work externally before we came back. To understand that decision you have to understand his personal circumstances. While he was in his final year of school, his father suffered a stroke. At 29, he had no choice but to return home to take on the helm of the family business.

Since then, the business has grown exponentially. In that same way, he felt that if we plugged into the business as early as possible, he would be able to transfer to us the knowledge he had gained eking it out on his own over the years. In this way, we were also able to forge deeper relationships with the staff and the structures in place.

In the future, we could take on more operational roles, or we could take on less operational roles…frankly, this is really up to us to decide, and I think this decision is not completely one-way, because we as individuals have to balance the needs and interests of the larger company as well. We will go where we’re most needed, and right now, given my skill-set, I’m most needed in Risis…it’s a question that doesn’t have a real answer, really, because you can find problems if you want to, let’s put it that way. And you can create solutions and carve out a space for yourself.

What is the ultimate goal that you hope to achieve for yourself and your family company?

The overarching goal of the company over the decades it’s been around has always been to ensure that the company will be around for another few decades after. I think the platform that has been developed by the fourth generation really allows for that to happen. The danger of course is complacency, but to me I think an even greater danger than that is a lack of imagination.

What I would like for the company is to build products and to develop people in a way that would push itself out of its comfort zone, with pressure not coming just from the marketplace but also from an internal drive for excellence and daring.


Interview Navin Amarasuriya For Bp De Silva 9

"On a bicycle, you’re very much exposed to the world, which also means people are a little less intimidated to connect with you on a human level."

What qualities must a person possess to become a successful businessman?

I have found that a successful person tends to possess a  profound knowledge of the self, particularly one’s own weaknesses, and a simultaneous ability to both examine oneself extremely critically and yet not take oneself too seriously. You need to be able to be liquid and malleable, to be able to change and improve while hewing to a set of core values. Corny as it sounds, finding a balance between extremes and applying what you think best to a particular situation would be it, really.

What is one bit of advice you would dispense to aspiring entrepreneurs?

My dad has always been a huge supporter of entrepreneurship, so we were always encouraged to adopt that kind of can-do mentality from a very young age. Personally, I would ask young people like myself today to define success on our own terms as much as possible, despite the fact that our decisions have an impact on our loved ones, our families, our friends.

The reality is that they would be happy if you were satisfied on an emotional and economic level, no matter what you do. Sometimes the greatest danger is to do what others expect of you, even on a subconscious level. And then you go down that path and realize, hey, maybe this isn’t what I really want to do. So being able to know yourself well enough to define what will truly give you deep satisfaction would be the first step—and maybe entrepreneurship may not be the thing that would satisfy you the most.

There are so many buzzwords you could use to describe ideas that maybe are not fully understood, so yeah, entrepreneurship is a journey of being master and commander of your own enterprise, with all the accompanying sacrifices. Time is truly compressed in the first year of your business, so as long as you know yourself well enough to say that this is truly what you want, then the sky’s the limit, really.

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Risis 925 silver bracelet, available in plated 24K gold, rhodium or ruthenium, from the Ribbon Orchid Christmas collection

"The orchids that are so synonymous with Risis are indeed its core product—for now. We hope to conjure up a range of universal, equally lovely objects around Risis’ floral-inspired accoutrements."

The"very term “family business” gives an insight into the intricacies of balancing the aspirations of your family and your own self. My father has allowed my siblings and I the independence to form opinions that might be contrary to his, and he does his best to understand things from our point of view.

At the same time, he’s taught us the importance of responsibility towards an organization. Just because we’re a family business doesn’t mean it’s our way or the highway. The “family” in “family business” doesn’t just encompass my brother and my sister and I, because there are the key management, the employees, everybody. No one is expendable, because we’re all part of a group—in fact, we have some employees whose kids are coming into the business as well, so it’s a second generation of employees, so that kind of goes beyond a business, really.

We’re talking about a home here, so our decisions have always been made in light of the whole as well.

What to you is the ultimate luxury?

Time—I know this might be an answer you’ve received more than a few times, but I come from a company that actually owns watches, so I win.

Can a luxury product ever become a necessity? Is that even a good thing?

I don’t think it necessarily should be come a necessity, but when it comes to time, then it absolutely is a necessity, because it is the one time money cannot buy. 

Is luxury best shared with others or kept for oneself?

Since humans live in societies and communities and families, the best things are always shared, so I can’t imagine why luxury, however you define it, should be any different.

What are five luxury products or experiences that are essential in your life?

I only have one—to be alive and to experience the world. Just being conscious and able to interact with people like you is pretty bloody awesome.

B.P. de Silva



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