After escaping political upheaval in Sri Lanka, the Ratnayake family has worked hard to rebuild their lives in Melbourne. Just over a decade later, their business is recognised as an Australian leader in Australian made rubber mats and solid tyres.
Lakshman and Sumana’s exceptional business achievements were recognised through the 2009 Telstra Business Awards in which they were the Victorian finalists for two award categories: Small Business and Social Responsibility. They were also finalists in the 2008 Ethnic Business Awards.
'We are very proud of our business,” said Sumana. 'We are providing a unique eco-product which provides jobs, helps with recycling and reduces the amount of rubber products that need to be imported. Our staff also makes us very proud. We have a very good team who work as if it is their own business, we are like a family.'
Political unrest and an attempt on their lives in 1997 forced Lakshman, his wife Sumana and their eight year-old daughter Monasha to flee Sri Lanka as refugees.
They left behind their family and friends and a successful rubber manufacturing plant, which Lakshman and Sumana established in 1985.
‘My family was from a high profile political family which was out of favour at the time so we had to leave,’ said Sumana. ‘It wasn’t safe for us. We left everything behind and came only with our lives, $650 and our courage.’
Sumana said a close friend of the family helped them escape from Sri Lanka and made all the initial arrangements.
‘We chose Australia because we had been here on a holiday in 1990 and I thought it was very clean and relaxing, and the people were very friendly,’ said Sumana.
Lakshman said Victoria was a natural choice because of its strong manufacturing base. ‘I always hoped to re-establish my business and Melbourne had the facilities I needed to access such as a strong industrial sector, excellent transport and a large container port.’
After arriving in Melbourne the family received temporary protection from the Australian Government and later successfully applied for a business migration visa.
‘We were very lucky to have friends in Melbourne who helped us a lot in the first month,’ recalled Lakshman. Not long after the family were offered a fully furnished house to rent in Doncaster through a migrant housing association.
One of Lakshman’s first steps to re-establish his life was to complete a forklifting course at a technical and further education college, and start looking for a job. But as a result of his business experience he also visited a few rubber factories in Melbourne and immediately saw an export opportunity.
Lakshman noticed Australian companies sent much of their rubber by-products to landfill when they could be recycled. Within three months of arriving in Melbourne he set up his own business in the suburb of Braybrook exporting rubber materials back to Sri Lanka and later to Malaysia and Indonesia.
‘When I first came here there was no recycling of rubber products and companies paid to send their byproducts to the tip,’ said Lakshman. In total he estimates he’s stopped 15,000 tonnes of rubber from going to landfill.
‘I’m a risk taker, I suppose so it just seemed like the right thing to do,’ Lakshman said.
In the beginning the couple did all the work themselves. Lakshman collected and treated the rubber materials as well as loaded the shipping containers while Sumana arranged transport and organised customs, sales and administration. They sometimes worked seven days a week.
Within two years the couple’s next goal was to achieve the Australian dream of owning their own home, and they made the decision to buy a block of land in Berwick, a suburb in Melbourne’s outer eastern fringe.
‘The reason we chose Berwick is that it reminded me a little bit of my homeland, especially the hilltop city of Kandy,’ said Sumana.
‘We were showing an Indian friend around Melbourne and went for a drive. It was so pretty and hilly near Berwick we decided to go back a few weeks later and we put down a deposit on a block of land.’
Within a year the couple built their own home and the suburb has grown around them. ‘We are now part of growing community with all the facilities we need such as a new shopping centre, parks and quick access to the city on the new freeway extension,’ said Lakshman.
In 2005 Lakshman saw an opportunity to expand his business into manufacturing and opened a new factory in the industrial suburb of Dandenong South, about 20 minutes drive from Berwick. ‘Because of my background I’m always thinking and innovating,’ said Lakshman. In 2011, due to the increasing demand of their products and need for further space, a larger factory in the same area was sourced.
Initially, SML Mats’ product range included safety mats for industry, horse float and stable mats – designed to absorb sparks and prevent slipping. Due to the companies overwhelming success, they now manufacture an additional eight types of matting for the horse, farming, racing, agriculture and transport industries. And SML Mats are recommended by Racing Victoria for use in all racing clubs nationwide.
The most highlighted milestone for the business is the inclusion of solid tyres to the rubber product range. SML Mats are the only forklift tyre manufacturers in Australia. Manufacturing seven types of forklift tyres for sale in Australia and for export purposes.
Lakshman and Sumana signed a major deal with Australian retail giant Clark Rubber to supply its products throughout Australia as well as manufacture six, new fast-moving mats. ‘I feel very happy because it’s a direct result of all our hard work,’ said Lakshman.
Lakshman found another opportunity to innovate by re-using a byproduct from the manufacture of car tyres, called crumb rubber. ‘I’ve developed my own machine which removes the steel wire from the crumb rubber and makes it a usable resource.’
Much of the factory’s manufacturing processes are automated, which minimises labour costs and enables SML Mats to compete with overseas products. They currently employ four machine operators.
‘We love Melbourne and Victoria,’ said Lakshman. ‘It’s welcoming, peaceful and multicultural with so much to offer in the way of work and business opportunities.’
Sumana agreed, and said it was easy to make friends as well. ‘When we built our house all the neighbours came over to introduce themselves and help us settle in.’
The couple are also very proud of Monasha, now 20, who is studying for a commerce degree at Deakin University and works part-time in the family business.
‘I really like working with mum and dad,’ said Monasha, who wrote her first business letter at age 10. ‘It would be great to use my accounting skills in the future to help the business grow and expand.’
On weekends the family spends time with their German Shepherd, Bushy, who is a much loved member of the household, and Sumana also loves gardening. They regularly attend a nearby Buddhist temple.
On the 16th of every month Sumana prepares food for the monks and visits the temple to give thanks for their new life and pray for family members who have died. ‘We also pray for a peaceful and happy life for all Australians.’