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MTD Exclusive: Subasinghe Discusses What’s Next for GRI

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GRI Prabhash Subasinghe

Prabhash Subasinghe oversees all operations of Global Rubber Industries (Pvt.) Ltd. (GRI), from product development and manufacturing to the Sri Lanka-based company’s sales operations, which span 50 countries.

In this exclusive interview with MTD, Subasinghe, who - in addition to serving as GRI’s managing director, also is chairman of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board - discusses how GRI has weathered the COVID-19 crisis, next steps in its GreenX Circle initiative and the company’s plans for North America.

It’s very important for us to build our footprint across the U.S.,” he says.

MTD: How has COVID-19 impacted GRI’s business?

Subasinghe: The effect of COVID-19 on GRI was extremely minimal. The Sri Lankan government took very strong action with a very strong lockdown for almost two months. The government stepped up to manage the situation. They also allowed several industries to operate as essential services. Everything from the plantation side to the manufacturing side… we were able to operate. The impact of COVID-19 has been extremely minimal. And on top of that, GRI - at the very beginning, with Sri Lanka shutting down - was extremely active in understanding the problem and beating the curve. We went into overdrive to keep employees safe. I think we took very strong action.

MTD: What steps did GRI take during the early days of the pandemic to help ensure a steady stream of supply to customers?

Subasinghe: By the time Sri Lanka was affected by COVID-19, which was almost in March, we (had taken) action all the way back to January, in terms of securing our supply chain. We were ahead of the curve to make sure whatever material we needed was available to us. We also found alternate suppliers and got them on-board. And we also had a very large (inventory) of raw materials. GRI never closed, even during the time that Sri Lanka was shut down. We had to adjust. Our real concern is that we wanted to mitigate any incident at the factory level. When we had all of our protocols in place, we ramped up production.

MTD: GRI has maintained a robust new product roll-out schedule. Has the pandemic impacted your product introduction plans in any way?

Subasinghe: We have two different product lines at GRI… the material handling side, and then our newest (line), which is on the agricultural and construction (tire) side. (Editor’s note: Gary Stevens is president of GRI’s material handling tire business unit in the U.S.) You need to do product development almost six to nine months in advance. All the product development planned for 2020 is already planned in advance. So you have the rotation between the components - making sure material is in place. Our product development is quite focused to make sure we are able to (maintain) our progress - especially in the ag tire sector, which we consider to be a game-changer.

MTD: Demand for products like those that GRI produces remained relatively healthy during the early months of the pandemic, unlike some other product categories. To what do you attribute that?

Subasinghe: Let’s look at material handling tires first. Even though it slowed down a little, logistics operations continued to happen. When you talk about ag tires, I think one of the most important things has been food security. There has been an immense amount of focus on making sure (agricultural) production is maintained for the world. There’s such a strong focus on farming and producing. There’s a very strong need for ag tires.

MTD: We recently received a press release from GRI about its new natural rubber collection center that supports rubber farmers in Sri Lanka. What are the next steps in GRI’s GreenX Circle initiative? What will we hear about next? And why will those things be important?

Subasinghe: We look at things in a different lens in terms of the purpose behind what we do. The center we opened recently is our sixth rubber collection center. The ideology behind GreenX Circle is to build connectivity between the farming community and the farmer on the other side, who is producing to feed the world. We are even looking at some of the United Nations sustainability goals as part of this initiative. Sri Lanka has thousands of years of agricultural heritage.

We are farmers. Agriculture is the biggest part of our GDP in Sri Lanka. That’s our heritage. My company produces tires specifically meant for the world’s farming community, including the U.S. and Europe, and we want to make that connection more meaningful. We want to make sure there is a higher purpose to what we do. As we go along, we will (continue) phase-by-phase. GRI recently opened a natural rubber collection center in Sri Lanka to support local rubber tree farmers. The center is part of the company's GreenX Circle initiative. - GRI recently opened a natural rubber collection center in Sri Lanka to support local rubber tree farmers. The center is part of the company's GreenX Circle initiative.

MTD: When we spoke with Dr. Mahesha Ranasoma in late-2019, he mentioned that GRI, at the time, had two distributors in the U.S., covering both the northeast and southeast. He also mentioned that GRI ultimately wanted to have regional dealers in every U.S. state. Can you provide an update on how this is progressing?

Subasinghe: In our material handling business, we have operated in 14 different states for the last 15 to 20 years. In our newer business, which is our (ag tire) business, our plan is to be successful at the regional level. We’ve increased the number of dealers we work with to almost 10. All of them are more localized and are operating more at the local level. We’re still predominantly operating in the Midwest, the Northeast and the South. Our ambition is to move towards California, which will become an important point for us. We feel the way we can build business is by working with regional dealers, where they can build value in the supply chain and we can create solutions for the farming community. We are looking for people who are specialized and have very strong know-how. We’re also building a very strong sales team that can work with customers to understand their needs at the ground level. We believe in long-term relationships and partnerships. That’s our philosophy.

MTD: What are GRI’s priorities in North America for the rest of the year?

Subasinghe: Number one, we want to be able to tell our North American customers that they are guaranteed in terms of supply chain, especially with the COVID-19 situation. That’s the comfort we want to be able to give our customer base. Number two, we want to also build a very strong sales team - with more people - in the U.S. Along with that, we want to build a stronger dealer network.

Of course, bringing new sizes and products into the market goes without saying. “But I think when I look at the next six months to a year, supply continuity, being able to support that customer and working with them as a true partner is our vision,” he says.

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