18 February 2015 13:26:53 IST

A mOdel life

With her slender frame and over 6 feet tall, one thinks Otara Gunerwardane, who owns the Odel chain of stores in Sri Lanka, would have made a great model. “I was a model and quite a famous one” she laughed. So I wasn’t completely off the mark. “But I initially wanted to be a vet, I love animals. I really wanted to do something to help them.” Her father, though, thought otherwise, and wanted her to start a business instead. To provide the required impetus, he had the name Odel registered even before she started modelling. ‘O’ from her first name and ‘Del’ her middle name.

Despite his insistence, she did start her career as a model. “I love fashion, like most girls. At that age, I was lured by the glamour and excitement the industry offered.” On one such modelling assignment a friend of hers from the garment industry asked her to help out with disposing of some export surplus. She readily obliged, and circulated the items among her friends, who were also models. They lapped them up. It was easier than she had assumed it would be. She decided to try her luck with her friends outside the industry. It was a winner! Soon, word spread and Otara was no longer just a model. “I officially started my business from the boot of my car — a blue Nissan van,” she added.

“I opened the first store in 1989 and followed it up with one in 1994,” she said. At present, the chain boasts 17 stores spread across Sri Lanka.

Price band

For Otara, Odel’s unique selling point is that it offers both international and local brands at very affordable prices. “The cheapest item in the store is a pair of earrings at SLR 30. The most expensive is a suit at SLR 100,000,” she says. The store functions on a mixed model. While some of the products are designed and manufactured in-house, others are internationally sourced. In 2013 Odel clocked a turnover of $35 million and recently went public. “Our average ticket cost is $30,” she added.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. “Growing a business through a war was one of the biggest challenges. The high taxes made products very expensive,” Otara said. Waiting it out was the only option. “But things have changed a lot in the last four years and it is a country worth exploring if you are looking to start a business or expand,” she added.

Giving back

Apart from being a successful business venture, Odel is also a means to an end for Otara. Giving back is important to her and she does this by contributing a percentage of sales from a particular line towards various causes. These range from supporting the elderly and disabled to animal welfare. “I really wanted to help people and animals. I never followed through on my dream of becoming a vet. This is my way of fulfilling that need,” Otara said.