The Disruptor Series: Naveed Cader

Jan 21 2021. views 1342

“The Disruptor Series” profiles businesspeople and entrepreneurs making waves in their industries; redefining their businesses, spearheading innovation, tackling unprecedented change and disrupting the status quo. In our kick-off interview, Naveed Cader, Chairman of Scope Cinemas and Co-Founder & Deputy Chairman of Food Studio talks about his journey, shares key elements of running a successful business and highlights the importance of pursuing ventures you are passionate about.

Naveed Cader had just completed his BSc in Economics and Management at the University of Essex when coincidentally, Sri Lanka had just ended the three-decade-long civil war the same year. Excited and feeling very patriotic, Cader decided to come back to the country. “Joining the family business was always a part of what I wanted to do because I felt like we had a lot more to offer. Especially with the cinemas, because we were fortunate enough to have at least that infrastructure in place, but I felt like we were not utilizing it properly. So I was very determined to come back and work with the seniors and try and change it, which I'm happy I did. I had offers to work in the UK and work for another company, but at the end of the day, it's nothing like coming back to your country and doing your own thing. I had a chat with my parents once I got here and my dad said, ‘you're not joining the family business. You need to go elsewhere, you need to learn skills that we don't have’”.

Cader is the third generation of a business founded by his grandfather, ex-Mayor of Colombo Jabir Cader. “He was one of the pioneers of the cinema industry” Cader shares. “I think that's where he really started his roots before he went into politics. He started his first cinema which was the Central Olympia, which became the New Olympia, then the Central and he slowly started his journey with the Liberty”. Following the launch of Liberty cinema, he signed Paramount Pictures, becoming the sole distributor for the country. He soon added Universal Pictures to the list. “Subsequently, he followed up and opened the hotel. It was a Holiday Inn at the time.”

Jabir Cader’s three children eventually took on the reins of the business, and Cader credits their unwavering support, not discounting the opportunities and doors that were opened for him and his cousins because of their parents' hard work. “For them, it was a much harder environment with the war and things like that, so my cousins and I are very thankful that they kept things going for us. Being a family run business, I wouldn't say it was as well structured. But I think it was pure passion and heart that kept things going for all of us. As we were the third generation, I think we were more fortunate thanks to the second generation’s sacrifice. We were sent abroad to be educated, which gave us a lot of exposure and gave us the opportunity to see the world as a different place, as opposed to being stuck in Sri Lanka alone, specifically during 30 years of a civil war”.

Cader began his education at Royal College and was very involved in sports; he was a swimmer, and also played squash for school. “I’m very passionate about my sports. That was where I developed a lot of teamwork and skill. Following that, I went to Stafford international for my OLs for two years. It was a different experience because going from Royal to Stafford was a complete transformation of culture, but I met a lot of really cool people and made very good friends. Because I swam, I was given a place it Asian international as that was a swimmers’ heaven, at the time, and I finished my A levels there.”

Because of his father’s wishes that he “go through the mill”, Cader joined Aitken Spence and then worked at a hotel. “I made a different set of connections with people, and all in all, it was a holistic experience. After about four and a half to five years, I came back and sat at the table with my dad again”. Cader finally joined Ramada. “It was good, but for me personally, it got a bit too crowded because all of us were focusing on one thing”.

Cader then decided he’d focus on pursuing ventures he was passionate about. “Cinema was something that I naturally loved and it's something my grandfather also started his career with. Back when I was in uni, it was a habit where every Saturday I would go to a theatre there, just to experience buying popcorn, ordering good food, good service, clean seats, a good screen and sound, which I felt we lacked here. I was fortunate enough because we have given the Liberty on lease to EAP films and the lease was coming to an end. And then told my  dad I think it was time that we got back into the cinema.”

“He shot me down.  He said it wasn’t lucrative anymore. But I told him, you've been very supportive, give me a chance, because I think we can do something. We can make a change here because there are a lot of gaps in the industry. I spoke to my uncle who was the most supportive one at the time. So I submitted a good proposal. Cader then called up an old friend who was in the theatre business and was also a movie buff, inviting him to come in as a partner for this project. “My friend just said, why not? and that’s how Scope Cinemas started”. Cader is grateful to Thushan Meemanage, Ceo of Scope Cinemas for standing by his side through all the challenges they faced.

Having returned from England with fresh ideas to implement, Cader began to notice many gaps. As exciting as it was, it was also a huge challenge. “It was a big risk I was taking not just for me but on behalf of the family as well. It turned out well because we believed in a passion, we believed in the project. It was the best decision I made so far”.

Food Studio is also a venture resulting from one of his passions: food. Inspired by Singapore’s mall culture and food courts, and having noticed a definitive lack of a good food court operator in the country, Cader began talking to the contacts he’d made at malls in the country when he started Scope. “I'd been inquiring to try and bring down a franchise called Food Republic that's all over Singapore. Got in touch with one of the Founders through a friend. I really needed to convince him, but he saw that there was a lot of passion, heart and potential, as well as benefits for the country. So he came to Sri Lanka and after visiting he said, ‘I feel like Sri Lanka today is Singapore 20 years ago. This place is going to erupt. So we will support you if your family can also come in’ and that's how the Food Studio story started. It was a thought process. Then, as I was already negotiating with the malls, I went to Abans first. They really helped us and supported us throughout the journey for Scope as well as Food Studio. They gave us the opportunity when we had nothing to show. It was very early on, and they trusted in merit.” Food Studio brought in new concepts and standards to the Sri Lankan food court sphere, but Cader adds that he “wouldn't say we're the best yet, we're working towards it. We've learned a lot in the last year because it's a new project for us. I would like to mention Nadeem Rajabdeen (CEO, Food Studio) for all his support in working tirelessly in streamlining operations and strategy during these difficult times.”.

Reviving businesses and creating new ones haven’t been without their fair share of challenges for Cader. “The cinema industry in Sri Lanka - it's worked out well, but it's never been easy. But then I'm the type of person who never gives up. I have been discouraged many times, like when we were ready for a launch of a film, and then suddenly there are certain authorities or certain people trying to cause a stir and block our titles from coming in. It is quite disheartening because you're so passionate and you're trying to do something for the general public” Cader states. “The biggest challenge is the bureaucracy. Additionally, at a point everything was open, but cinemas were not given a green light even though we had taken a lot of risks and put in a lot of effort.”

The COVID pandemic posed perhaps the biggest challenge as of late, not just for Cader’s businesses, but every industry as a whole. “It taught us to go back to the drawing board. I've seen this in a lot of articles about businesses - the way business people looked at a business pre-COVID was very different. I think we were very complacent and we were very comfortable because the world was just going spinning around.
But when this happened, we all had to actually go back, think and re-strategize. So it gave us an opportunity to rethink the way we want to work. It’s been challenging, but it's also given us an opportunity to think and restructure about how we work. You have to see the light at the end of the tunnel”.

Establishing one’s own business is punishing, especially for youngsters who are starting out without financial backing or connections. For Cader, many may remark that he has been handed a launchpad on a silver platter. “There are advantages to having a good family background. But at the same time, it's not as easy as getting a third party nine to five job and coming back because you have nothing else to think about. Yes, I'm lucky that it turned out well. But that does not mean that there have not been challenges to get to where I  have already. And I'm sure that as time goes on, there'll be more problems, more challenges that will come. But I look forward to it.” Nevertheless, Cader believes that a lot more elements come into play when starting your own business. “The best advice I can share is to surround yourself with the right people, hire the right people, work fairly, genuinely and honestly, and you should believe in the project. That’s the best way forward at any point of time in any business. You can't be a lone wolf. You can't dictate, you need a team. You need to be able to trust them and you need to also follow a set of rules and procedures to get to your final destination”.

In order to be successful in whatever one does, Cader elaborates, “you need honesty. You need passion. You need to be consistent and you need to be able to listen to other people. You need to be able to hear the ideas. You can't let your ego get the better of you, because there's always someone who knows a little bit more than you do. And if we're able to listen to others and also discuss ideas and be open to that, I think that will be a defining factor that will set you apart from the rest. I think you no matter how successful you are, I think it's important that your core remains strong. That you remember your beginnings as opposed to forgetting where you started. Because at the end of the day, who you are is what's important and it's what enables you to connect with people and also be a better person”.

“Based on the industry that each one wants to get into, everything's got its own challenges. Funding in the current environment might be an issue. So that can be one of the primary reasons. Things don't work out as we want it all the time. But I still do believe that if we have a good proposal, if we have a decent project or something that we really believe in and feel passionate enough about, and if you're willing to work hard, eventually you will gain some traction. Starting is the first big hurdle, but then it's about sustaining. You need to give it some time because this is a very bad time locally, but once we get through this I think even freelancers can start businesses, given that they have a sound proposal.”

Despite the precarious pandemic stained environment, Cader shares that he has plans to implement changes based on the lessons he has learned thus far. “In terms of the food courts and cinemas and even on behalf of the hotel, we want to obviously continue to grow. We want to increase our footprint. Cinemas and Food Courts I can talk very openly about - we have signed a few more projects and we're trying to go islandwide first. We also have the intention to see if we can actually take a Sri Lankan brand out like a Spa Ceylon or Dilmah. There is a lot of potential in certain markets and we will be evaluating that too. But plans have been pushed back a little bit due to COVID, but I think the first thing is to expand and give all our Sri Lankans an equal opportunity to come and see what we can actually offer. And I look forward to that. I like creating things and I like working with the teams, so it's quite interesting. And I think, the first thing is to grow local, and then try to take out one of our brands as well”.

Cader is also looking to dip his toes into more philanthropic efforts. “This is something we've been thinking about - I want to start a Trust and help reduce poverty and help educate people. Provide scholarships, provide funds, provide access to medication. This is something that is very close to my heart and something I’d like to work on.”

For now, Cader’s focus is on getting past this pandemic. “I think the fact that we've been able to survive.  I feel confident that we've got a great team behind all our businesses, and I think there will be a good future for all our companies. We're always trying to disrupt the market and do something different, and always be creative and innovative in what we do. So I see a good future, and I hope I'm right. But we will continuously work hard because hard work will pay off at the end of the day”.

Pics Waruna Wanniarachchi


Rihaab Mowlana

Foodie • Bona-fide expert on Harry Potter universe • proud Slytherin • Unapologetic know-it-all • Keyboard warrior • Occasionally sarcastic • Incessant retweeter • Self proclaimed funny girl •



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