An academically qualified engineer turned HR professional, Sapumal Thibbotuwawa answered his calling 14 years ago when he made the monumental shift from an ambition of building machines, to building people.
Today he reveals in exercising his passion for unleashing the potential of people; one that has taken him on a unique journey, culminating in his recent move from the local Human Resources team to the HR Director of Fonterra’s Thailand operations.
As a young, talented, logic-driven student from Kandy studying to become an engineer – a discipline held in high esteem by most Sri Lankan parents – it seemed like there was no room for anything to get in his way.
“Building machines may be more lucrative than building people, but careers are about passion,” he says.
Being a part of the purpose-led AIESEC, the world's largest non-profit youth-run organization that drives to develop the leadership potential of young individuals, Sapumal had already begun to think about the power of a career built on a simple but powerful vision.
In 2004 Sapumal met Imran Khan at the CIMA Global Leaders’ Summit in Sri Lanka. Hearing Khan’s speech about never compromising on ambition gave Sapumal the courage to give up engineering and move to HR.
“Having clarity of my purpose in life has enabled me to help others embrace their future – and that is what drove me to join Fonterra. It has allowed me to take great strides in the growth of my career and has allowed me to reach a place where I can make a direct and real difference. I am empowered to do what I love every day by helping people develop themselves.”
Early in his career, Sapumal had the good fortune of travelling to different countries and experiencing different cultures.
“Both in my early career and at Fonterra, I’ve had many opportunities to participate in international events. Interaction with different people and cultures allowed me to discover my passion for empowering human beings. These early experiences have helped me a lot in my new role away from Sri Lanka, as an HR Director managing two countries with distinctively different cultures.”
Sapumal cites leading by example and humility as some of the biggest lessons learned at Fonterra.
“Humility is at the core of the Fonterra culture because of our roots. We are a dairy cooperative owned by simple and hardworking dairy farmers. Humility has influenced how we value leading people by example. We cultivate leaders who are humble enough to get their hands dirty and show their teams how things are done, who pitch-in and volunteer when people need support, always thinking about the good of the whole company first.”
Sapumal was the project manager behind the conceptualisation of Fonterra’s new purpose statement in 2016 – a rallying cry to its people to work towards making Sri Lanka a healthier and happier nation. He was also the leader of a cross-functional Organisational Health Initiative team, set up to engage and empower teams across the company to work towards achieving this purpose.
During his time, Fonterra won the Human Resource Professionals Gold Award in 2014 and a Special Award for Performance Management.
He is enthusiastic about the opportunity to head the Thailand business and seeks to place the country on the global dairy cooperative’s map.
“In Thailand, it’s a challenging role filled with great opportunities to test HR principles in a complex cultural context. People management involves ‘reading the air’ and interpreting the same message in multiple ways to understand sentiments.”
“The business model is quite different to Sri Lankan FMCG organizations. With virtual markets, a different portfolio focus and a hugely connected and technologically savvy workforce, the opportunities and challenges here will allow me to further develop and grow.”
“After 15 years my motto continues to be: there is no such thing as extra-ordinary people; it’s just ordinary people who choose to do something extra.”