Before he gives a speech, K.R. “Ravi” Ravindran doesn’t like flowery, adulatory introductions. They make him uncomfortable. The 2015-16 Rotary president would rather keep a low profile and share the credit. If it were up to him, you probably wouldn’t even be reading this article.
Negotiating Days of Tranquility during the Sri Lankan civil war so that health workers could administer drops of polio vaccine? Although it was on his desk that the agreement landed, he says, a lot of people worked to make that happen. Rebuilding 23 tsunami-damaged schools for 14,000 children? He merely led the committee. Taking a label-printing business from a small outfit operating in a space the size of a garage to a global powerhouse in the packaging business that has helped change the value-added tea industry in his country? Well, he simply happened to be in the right place at the right time.
“I’m sometimes introduced as a self-made man,” says Ravindran, a member of the Rotary Club of Colombo. “You’ve got to be utterly egocentric to believe you are self-made. Each one of us is made because so many people helped us become who we are.
One of the reasons I work so much for Rotary is that I have been helped by so many people, and often you never have a chance to reciprocate,” he explains. “The only way you can is by helping others. When the people I help ask me, ‘What can I do?’ I say, ‘Go and help someone else in return.’”
For Ravindran, paying it forward isn’t a fad, it’s a way of life. His theme for this Rotary year, Be a Gift to the World, also summarizes his personal philosophy.
This is heaven. A dizzying drive has led us up 5,000 feet, past rice paddies, gem mines, and the occasional elephant roaming in the fields, over a thundering waterfall, and down a bumpy cobblestone road to the tea estate of Ravindran’s family. Lush tea bushes blanket the rocky cliff sides. We’re at the edge of the world, above the clouds, in a scene from a movie come to life.
The property, called Kelburne, is mere miles from the fields where Thomas Lipton – yes, that Lipton – began growing Ceylon tea. Ravindran frequently takes his visitors to tour Lipton’s first factory, a long white building humming with conveyor belts, dryers, and fans.
Ravindran’s maternal grandfather grew tea at Kelburne in the 1950s; he was one of the first Sri Lankans to buy land from British plantation owners in that region. After Ravindran graduated from Loyola College in Chennai, India, with a degree in commerce, he came back here to learn the business side of the estate.
The long days began at 5:30 a.m., with assigning duties, surveying the fields on foot, and visiting the factory. For Ravindran, they reinforced the value of hard work and of treating others with kindness. “I realized that I related very well to people on the estate, and I started getting involved in their lives – finding ways of supplementing their income, improving housing,” he says.
Ravindran and his family thought his life would revolve around growing tea on the estate and later at their head office. But in 1972, Sri Lanka’s new socialist government enacted land reforms that nationalized tea plantations. His family’s estate shrank from thousands of acres to 50. Ravindran was soon out of a job.
He moved to the country’s capital, Colombo, and began helping out at the family commercial printing business, which also produced stationery and ledgers for tea estates. But Ravindran was restless. He knew that Sri Lankan tea was being shipped out in bulk and packaged elsewhere for customers in places such as Europe, Australia, and the United States. He figured that if good packaging were available in Sri Lanka, the business would move to his country, with its lower costs. So he launched a new company to provide high-quality packaging for tea bags – tags, sachets, and boxes – a move that would help jump-start the value-added tea industry in his country.
There were many who placed their trust in him. His business partner (and now friend and mentor), the founder of Sri Lanka’s esteemed Dilmah tea, invested with him even though he barely knew him. A bank manager took a chance on him in his early days; they were members of the same Rotary club. Ravindran’s wife, Vanathy – whom he’d met in college and married in Colombo – and their son and daughter, Krishna and Prashanthi, supported him through the long hours and uncertain future of a fledgling business owner.
Today, the company is arguably one of the best-known suppliers of tea bag packaging in the world. Value-added tea – tea that’s packaged in Sri Lanka rather than shipped overseas in bulk – plays a significant role in the country’s economy.
On the sprawling factory floor at Printcare, ultra-modern printing and packaging machinery roars rhythmically, like a fast-moving train. A rainbow of packaging surrounds us: red boxes of Typhoo tea, destined for British grocery shelves; green Dilmah for Europe; blue Tetley for Australia. Other machines churn out nearly 100 million tea bag labels a day.
Ravindran jokes that he’s called the company’s “chief executive gardener” because of his delight in the fountains and lush landscaped grounds he’d had planted when he bought the land from a tire factory in 1994, transforming this industrial site into an unlikely 10-acre oasis.
Printcare does business all over the world with clients including Unilever, Target, Hallmark, and Twinings, with multiple factories in Sri Lanka and India. There’s a good chance that something in your cupboard right now was printed by his company.
“In regards to technology and managerial style, he’s a visionary,” says one of his general managers. “If he takes on a project, from plan to execution, it is done perfectly within the specified time. He has a charismatic leadership style. He also believes in sharing.”
Ravindran implemented a matching grants program, similar to that of The Rotary Foundation, through which his company helps the community. The company matches the combined contributions of its 700 workers on a mutually agreed-upon project, often with a focus on water and sanitation for area schools. Children of workers who earn less than a certain amount receive free books, funds for transportation, and shoes for school. (Education itself is free in Sri Lanka.)
In 2014, Printcare was named one of the top 15 businesses to work for in the country, and Ravindran was honored as one of the business leaders of the year. Treat people with love and respect, Ravindran says, and they usually will reciprocate. “He looks after people – he cares about them,” says another general manager.
“There’s no point in just coming and making money and going home,” Ravindran explains. “Anyone can do that. The community around us should benefit from our presence here.”
At the Rotary Club of Colombo’s first meeting of 2015, white Christmas trees line the hotel corridors and a buffet covers nearly one-third of the meeting room, which seems to be the norm in Sri Lanka. The club will soon celebrate its 86th year, and in that time, it has made its mark on the country. It founded the national organization for the prevention of tuberculosis; the nation’s first blood bank; the Sri Lanka Anti-Narcotics Association, which launched while Ravindran was club president; and most recently, the only national facility dedicated to the screening, early detection, and prevention of cancer. (In the past five years, more than 35,000 people have been screened free of charge, with more than 7,500 showing symptoms requiring further investigation. One of the club’s main partners for the project is the Rotary Club of Birmingham, Ala., of which Ravindran is an honorary member.)
In 1974, while working at the tea estate, Ravindran became a charter member of the Rotary Club of Bandarawela, one of the first clubs in the country’s remote highlands. His grandfather was a Rotarian, as was his father. But as a 21-year-old, Ravindran’s focus in Rotary was fun and friends, not service.
Even today, after many years of volunteer work benefiting thousands of people, one of his favorite parts of being a Rotarian is meeting individuals from around the world and chatting the night away. “His sense of fun is part of his DNA,” says Abbas Esufally, a close friend.
When Ravindran moved to Colombo, he joined his current club and began to take on more leadership roles. For Esufally, Rotary was one of dozens of extracurricular activities, but for Ravindran, it was a passion. “He had a focus, a single-minded focus, on Rotary and its fellowship and service to community,” Esufally says.
In 1983, war broke out between Sri Lankan security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant rebel group that wanted to create a separate state in the north and east of the country. (The group is known for pioneering the suicide bomb jacket.) In the more than quarter-century of fighting that followed before the war ended in May 2009, over 100,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. As of 2014, 90,000 people still had not returned home.
The conflict was rooted in tensions between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. But in Rotary, ethnicity didn’t matter. Although most members came from the majority Sinhalese population, clubs in Sri Lanka have elected as their leaders members from the Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim communities – including Ravindran, who is Tamil. “In Rotary, there was no place for religion nor caste nor language. Everyone was just a Sri Lankan, and they picked the best potential leadership that was available,” Ravindran says. “You often wondered, why can’t the rest of the country act like Rotarians do?”
The conflict also didn’t stop Rotary members from trying to help all of Sri Lanka’s children. In 1995, the government had planned to carry out a National Immunization Day only in areas unaffected by the war, which would have excluded about a third of the country’s children from the polio vaccination effort. Rotary leaders, including Ravindran, then the national PolioPlus committee chair, worked closely with UNICEF to establish contact with the rebel party and negotiate Days of Tranquility. As a result, nearly all of the nation’s children were vaccinated. And after the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lankan Rotarians, led by Ravindran, made a point to diversify the locations of the schools built through a nearly US$12 million project so they would serve children of all ethnic communities.
Fellow members of the Colombo club say Ravindran has high standards that he expects people to meet – and they do. “He has the attitude, ‘Don’t tell me why you can’t do it,’” says Derek de S Wijeyeratne. Adds Ruzly Hussain: “He has the innate ability of making his dream and his vision also your dream and your vision. It’s not ‘I did it,’ it’s ‘We all did it together.’”
If Ravindran has any regrets about becoming Rotary president, they can be summed up in his ear-to-ear smile as he cradles his first grandchild, Raika, who was born in October. Living in Evanston, Ill., where Rotary headquarters is located, he’ll miss the early moments of her life that he otherwise would have been involved in. (Ravindran and Vanathy live in the same home as Krishna; his wife, Neesha; and now Raika. Prashanthi and her husband, Nicolas Mathier, live in Singapore.) “Vanathy and I would have loved to have been in Sri Lanka for her first two years,” he says. “But I guess there’s lots more time to reconnect with her and spoil her.”
With the civil war in the past, Sri Lanka is blossoming. Investment in infrastructure is up, and in downtown Colombo, barricades and checkpoints have given way to parks, playgrounds, and upscale malls. The landscape is dominated by cranes amid the construction of luxury hotels; even the historic Galle Face Hotel, where the Colombo club held its first meeting in 1929, is getting a facelift. The smooth transition of power in January, after a presidential election in which the incumbent lost, reinforces optimism for a peaceful future. The country’s pristine beaches, jungles, and cultural sites, which led Marco Polo to call it “the finest island in the world” and Forbes to list it as one of the top 10 coolest places to visit in 2015, are luring tourists once again. “We are all excited about the future of Sri Lanka,” Ravindran says.
As Rotary president, he’ll help put his tiny island nation on the global map. “My national anthem will be played in every country that I visit. My flag will fly wherever I go. The flag of this country will fly outside Rotary headquarters,” he says. “What more can I do for my country than this?”
Ravindran says he doesn’t expect to leave a legacy as Rotary president, but he hopes to use his skills to leave the organization better than he found it – and pay forward his debts to all the people who got him where he is today. “Rotary molded me,” he says. “Rotary changed me, and that is why what I do for Rotary now is a hundredth of what I’ve gotten out of Rotary.” — by Diana Schoberg, photography by Alyce Henson