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33 Talent Expat Series: Sri Lanka


33 Expat is a series of articles, curated by Jennifer Mullen, focusing on global talent mobility and the experiences of skilled professionals working away from their home countries. This week we are offered an insight into working in Sri Lanka by Australian expats and business partners Marita Thornton and Scott Elsom who run an offshore back office services company, www.all-sorted.com.au based in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is an island country with a population of over 21 million people, based in the Northern Indian Ocean. Known as Ceylon until 1972, Sri Lanka is a diverse country, home to many religions, ethnicities and languages. The country's recent history has been marred by a thirty-year civil war which decisively ended in 2009. More recently Sri Lanka has been experiencing a period of economic growth, driven by large-scale reconstruction and development projects designed to develop business, boost agricultural productivity and assist regions where development is lagging. The per capita income of Sri Lanka has doubled since 2005 and unemployment has substantially decreased, making it an increasingly attractive destination for expat workers, not to mention the long, sunny beaches, tropical climate and rich, vibrant culture.

Where are you based and how long have you lived there?

We are both relatively new to Kandy, Sri Lanka and have been here since May, 2014. Marita has previously lived and worked in Switzerland and Scott is certainly not afraid of an adventure, having previously managed a team in a water bottling factory in Iraq!

Describe briefly what you do for a living

We are a start-up that outsources bookkeeping and admin functions via the cloud, for small to medium businesses, predominantly on Queensland’s Sunshine coast. Our services include accounting, bookkeeping, administration, as well as IT support. We streamline business processes and obviously being offshore can offer significant cost-savings.

What is the benefit to your organisation of having an expat in your role?

It is a win/win for both sides. We both bring Australian commercial experience to the business, which our staff in Sri Lanka do not have. Being based in-country allows us to transfer this knowledge to our local staff, as well as ensures that our systems and procedures reflect Australian business needs to keep customers happy. We are very proud of our international culture and mindset!

What was the biggest challenge when you moved to your new host country?

The same Sri Lankan team actually worked with Scott in the water bottling factory in Iraq, and in turn have brought invaluable contacts and relationships to the fledgling business here. Without this local knowledge building the business would have been near impossible. At every turn the colour of our skin screams ‘dollar/rupee signs’, plus corruption and bribery are rife. Having a local team who you know and trust has saved us valuable time and money, and continues to do so every day.

Does the language/culture barrier play a major role?

We have been here nearly four months and still can’t pronounce the name of our street: “Srimathkudarathwatta Mawatha”! We are lucky in Sri Lanka because nearly everyone speaks English, however, just because they speak English does not mean that things don’t get lost in translation! For instance, who would have known that “doing the needful” was a nice way of saying “do what you need to do, to make it happen”?! Sourcing local staff with international experience has been tougher than we expected, but that just means we have to look harder, however jobs with international companies are sought after, which helps with attracting and retaining staff.

Tell me something interesting or surprising about an average day in the office.

An average day in the office involves a Muslim driver, a Sinhalese cook, a Tamil Operations Manager, a Hindu Bookkeeper, a Buddhist landlady and two Aussies thrown into the mix! From monkeys outside the office trying to trash the place, learning to operate on ‘Sri Lankan time’, power and internet outages, to trying to schedule your workload around 21 public holidays, every day is full of surprises and uncertainty. You have to think on your feet and be ready to adapt, as well as problem solve. We believe it works because we all have the same goal and are kind to each other. It’s a simple plan.

What advice would you give to someone looking to take on an assignment overseas

‘Just do it!’ If nothing else, working overseas, particularly in a developing country, will make you appreciate home a whole lot more. With the absence of family and friends you develop long lasting bonds with the people with whom you work and live. These unique connections and friendships can be extremely valuable to you both personally and professionally. It’s a world of adventure, excitement and it is changing quickly. Pack half as much clothing and double the amount of money that you think you will need. Smile often and enjoy the journey.

Finally, sum up your host country in just 3 words:

“Unknown, untapped and unbelievable!”

Marita Thornton

Scott Elsom