The Oxford Guild had the opportunity this week to host Sri Lanka’s most important and reputed entrepreneur and corporate executive Dian Gomes, who flew in especially from Sri Lanka to talk to a group of Oxford University students. As the managing director of MAS Intimates Ltd and Slimline Ltd; Gomes is the CEO of the leading suppliers of Victoria’s Secret and M&S clothing. His other involvements include professional boxing, sitting as vice-president on the national Olympics committee and co-authoring the prize-winning book ‘Costumes of Sri Lanka’.
Dian Gomes could not be any further from your typical entrepreneur.
Known for his undisputed ‘passion for people’, and recognised as one of the first ethical-factory enforcers; meeting Gomes was indeed an extremely inspiring experience. Warm, friendly and genuinely open to talk to, he came across as wise and thoughtful to everyone who had the opportunity to be there. With thanks to the Oxford Guild, Cherwell Fashion were able to have twenty minutes of Gomes’ time to ask him a few questions on his well-known Victoria’s Secret factories in Sri Lanka.
Since 1999, and particularly in the last couple of years, Victoria’s Secret has received an enormous increase in popularity. Do you feel that you, as supplier, have played a role in this boom as a result for example, of the highly ethical working conditions of your employees? And if so, how could other suppliers learn from this?
If you want to work with the top brands of the world, you have to have ethical manufacturing because without it, the European and the US consumers put so much pressure on the brands, that if something goes wrong, if it is a sweat-shop or there is child-labour, the plan will get extremely damaged. History has shown that any brand that has taken short-cuts has always had damage done to the branding. So that is one of the reasons Victoria’s Secret has always placed their resources in places with ethical manufacturing. Sri Lanka has a very good reputation for ethical manufacturing.
You have previously been quoted; “I don’t think any other apparel factory has so much brainpower”. Yet Victoria’s Secret is primarily concerned with exterior, sensual appearances. Why do you think it is important that your apparel factory has this level of brainpower, (some of the tricks you picked up from Harvard business school) and how does this improve standards and levels of manufacturing?
It has been my personal philosophy to recruit people who are better than me. People ask me whether I need all of this brain-power to make panties for Victoria’s Secret. Yet today we invent tech-products, items that give you the heart-rate or the fatigue-rate of the muscles when you wear the clothing; things that we’ve already released, and will continue to release, to the market.
We have guys who are scientists, and mathematicians, people who have the best brains. In a place like Sri Lanka there are not many opportunities. I have been privileged in attracting the best talent in the world. I have people from Oxford University, PHD doctorates etc. Generally in the western world there are the investment bankers, and many other of those who have highly-paid jobs; but I’ve been able to create a culture within an organisation that attracts the best talent, attracts many people, and there are many reasons for it. We have cafes, and the gym within the factory; something that is, and was even twenty five years ago, very different from the rest of the industry. We have created this; something that has given us a huge advantage over other such organisations around the world.
We can deal with any kind of requests. If we are asked for a ‘non-bouncing’ bra or some other fantastical thing, we have the talent to execute it and get it done. Take all the best brains, and put them together. Once you have done that, managing them is tough but as a leader, that is your key skill. Manage all the skills and the talent, and you will always create the most superior of products. But you must be humble enough to realise that you are not the best at everything.
You say you can’t be the best at everything. What are you the best at?
I am certainly not the best at everything. Over the years, I have realised that I am probably the best at being a motivator of people. I didn’t realise I could do this until I was into my forties. By motivate people, I mean, motivate large organisations of about seventy thousand people.
I mastered the art, learnt with trial-and-error but today I am confident that I can inspire quite a lot, especially in my part of the world. I do practice this a lot in other parts of the world where we have plants also, such as in India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and I have realised that people all over the world have the same aspirations and feelings, same emotions and ultimately, it is about the sincerity and the humanity. If they feel that you are humble enough, that you are genuine enough; you can motivate anybody.
Ignoring international boundaries for the moment, how far ahead of your competition are you?
We are still unique. Most of the biggest apparel companies in the world are still family owned. We have moved away from this, we have moved into a much more professionally structured organisation. When I joined we were a six million dollar company, today we are a one-point-seven billion dollar company.
Victoria’s Secret were recently heavily criticised for one of their ads, which showed a gathering of extremely slim models, the slogan of which was ‘The Perfect Body’. What is your opinion on the detrimental effects that some of the Victoria’s Secret’s advertisement may have on female mental health? For example, if women start to believe that the body of a Victoria’s Secret model is naturally ‘the perfect body’ , leading to potential eating disorders and insecurities?
I think that if you look at the manufacturing that we do for Victoria’s Secret, we do all sizes, we encompass them all; the large, the slim. Sometimes when you want to purchase a product, you don’t necessarily know what it looks like and need the advertisement to help; but that is just an advertisement. If you walk into a Victoria’s Secret store, it doesn’t only cater to slim women, you get all sizes and all kinds of people in there. So long as they all enjoy lingerie it doesn’t matter.
You are the co-author of ‘Costumes of Sri Lanka’ which looks at
the evolution of garments dating as far back as the 6th century B.C. Do you think that the clothes which you help supply now, such as those by Victoria’s Secret fits into place in this evolution of styles in Sri Lanka today as much as in Western society; and if so, what aspects of culture and society does it best represent?
Lingerie now, is so popular in Sri Lanka. Twenty five years ago a worker who would start at my plant was less worldly than the workers now. Today, eighty per cent of my work force own smart-phones. They Google-search and know the happenings of the world, of America, of the UK, even if they have never been there. The world is open now. Lingerie is a beautiful thing, all women like lingerie, men do enjoy it too. The reason why I decided to write this book was for all the western buyers who used to come to Sri Lanka and who needed to know the two-thousand-five-hundred year old history of clothing within Sri Lanka. I always wanted to make them aware that Sri Lankan history has a two thousand five hundred year old history of costumes, and I trace the way in which this was transformed from then to now. So yes, now I suppose you could say Sri Lanka is the lingerie capital.
There are reportedly huge photographs of Victoria’s Secret models in your Sri Lankan factory, the reason being so that the workers can understand where and how their work will be appreciated. You call this ‘brand reinforcement’. Why do you think that it is important that your workers have a sense of what they are making, and who the consumers are going to be?
In life, people need heroes. They need role models. They need something visual. I could tell you a hundred things but before I even leave the room, you will have forgotten half of them. Yet if I showed you images of faces, people, etc. it will strike you. So if my workers know that they are creating a bra for a beautiful woman out there in the world, that many people are looking up to to her; it inspires them.
With many thanks to the inspiring Dian Gomes and the Oxford Guild for allowing Cherwell Fashion to interview him.