50 Most Powerful Women- Lawyers

By Echelon.

Published on December 16, 2014 with No Comments





MAS, a giant apparel-manufacturing firm, has gone through a number of business transformations. It introduced lean manufacturing years ago when the concept was unknown here and now the group-wide focus is on innovation. MAS have gone beyond manufacturing capability in to services, particularly those around research, innovation, supply chain and design. Rajitha Jayasuriya, who set up the legal team at MAS over a decade ago, has been in the thick of this transformation with responsibilities around corporate law, intellectual property and corporate governance. An evolving business constantly challenges leaders who have to figure how an altered future will impact and challenge them.

Recently the group has also become active in cross border acquisitions around intangible assets and startups in adjacencies to its core areas of specialisation.

MAS’s dynamism and diversity has for a long time stretched the legal unit’s responsibility beyond reviewing contracts. It has to keep pace, adapt and anticipate new demands from the transformation of the group’s global operations.

Rajitha Jayasuriya leads an all female team of lawyers who deal with the entirety of the group’s legal needs.


PRESIDENT, GROUP HR & LEGAL, John Keells Holding


Dilani Alagaratnam’s responsibilities at the John Keells Group has been getting wider and now includes Sustainability, Enterprise Risk Management and what’s called Group Initiatives – all functions that didn’t have an established JKH playbook.

Alagaratnam took on the responsibility for group sustainability initiatives about the time John Keells decided to invest in the Water Front project, an integrated complex that includes a hotel, shopping, residences and perhaps even gaming facilities. She says that sustainability is the umbrella under which many of her other responsibilities, like HR, risk and CSR, fit in.

Dilani Alagaratnam is one of six holding the designation of President, at JKH. The group also has three executive directors. Group Initiatives includes centralized sourcing for the group to benefit from economies of scale and also includes working with suppliers, and potential ones, to align them with the group’s sourcing policy. Alagaratnam says that it’s important to outline to suppliers ‘what will get them in the door and highlight to them that the group takes issues like child labour or rights violations seriously’. Alagaratnam has been surprised by how she has managed to align what initially looked like disparate responsibilities under sustainability.

As JKH grows and its businesses have a wider impact in Sri Lankan society the group has to look deeper than ever and take responsibility for actions, even those of its suppliers, that other companies may choose to ignore. She is also volunteering her time as a Chairperson of one of three committees tasked with recommending how the Sri Lanka Administrative Service can be reformed. She says the discussions at the committee includes how the public services can attract and retain top talent, reviewing existing polices, identifying issues and discussions about recognizing and rewarding performance




In Sri Lanka the legislative process is often a rush. Manoeuvring around the constructs of the outcomes of their legislative process: with its ambiguity and contradictions is a challenge.


It’s not Nadija Tambiah’s responsibility to direct the legislative framework of the republic, but she has to work within its constructs to facilitate John Keells Holdings, Sri Lanka’s largest listed firm, to realize its ambition of growth and other shareholder interests. The legal framework applies to every company here and challenges all of them; however not in equal measure. Behemoths like JKH that are determined to nimbly invest in ventures, which have no precedence for scale and complexity are at the forefront of having to decipher the legal framework.

Nadija Tambiah heads the legal unit at JKH and also its social responsibility initiatives. To generate extraordinary rates of growth despite its size – something shareholders have come to expect of JKH – the group needs to undertake ever larger and complex investments which allow businesses it manages to grow in leaps their dominance. Often this requires its legal team to find solid legal ground that JKH’s shareholders will find acceptable in a legal framework that is at times opaque, ambiguous and contradictory. Nadija identifies three distinct challenges.


Managing a volatile regulatory and policy environment

Ensuring that due process is followed, not only by JKH but also by external partners, including regulatory authorities. “Ultimately, we are here for the long run and short term solutions are not in the interests of JKH or the country. It has been a challenge to ensure that everything we do is backed by the necessary process – in today’s context, external stakeholders do not always appreciate the need to pay attention to such minute detail, specially new entrants,” points out Nadija. There has been hastily introduced legislation sometimes with retroactive provisions that impact businesses directly and erode investor confidence.


Enabling the business to manoeuvre in the existing framework

“As lawyers we have had to evolve from being theoreticians to pragmatic solution providers within the legal framework,” points out Nadija.The JKH legal team looks at how things are being done elsewhere to try and then adapt them to local conditions. Nadija also says legal ambiguity and regulatory volatility make bureaucrats reluctant to make decisions, which is a challenge for JKH because often its investments require bureaucratic approvals. An example is a requirement by the Insurance Board of Sri Lanka, the industry regulator, for insurance firms to segregate their life and general businesses. “A lot of thought went into how this can be done without wasting and duplicating resources,” says Nadija who had to advice the group on segregating JKH owned Union Assurance. “Ultimately we used the provisions of the Companies Act to “demerge” Union Assurance. This is not something that has been done often in Sri Lanka. It acts as a reverse of a merger. So one entity splits into two. The legality and methodology of doing this was debated at length and ultimately we also were guided by other jurisdictions which have segregated their insurance in a similar manner.” The Union Assurance General Limited demerger, which takes effect at end December 2014, is an example of flexible thinking and use of novel documentation and processes to ensure businesses can thrive.


Building and training a team

Getting younger lawyers interested and committed enough to look around corners and see what may not be immediately visible is also a challenge according to Nadija.“As this is a human skill, much of this development and training comes with mentoring and on the job training but we have also tried to document processes and formats so that the knowledge is retained within the organization,” she says. She feels that there is very little stability from a legal perspective, adding that the challenge is finding a way the business can thrive in this atmosphere. “It is interesting because it challenges you to find new ways to work and makes you rethink things that you’ve accepted as the norm.”


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