To tell you the truth, the story of the extraordinary success that Otara Gunewardene has achieved in her life began in a very ordinary fashion…
Otara was your regular girl next door, taking ballet lessons and studying hard in Colombo’s premier girl’s school, Ladies College. Soon, she discovered a proclivity for athletics, her long legs marking record time at high profile athletic meets. She represented her school in athletics and swimming and the country in high jump and hurdles. Little did the striking young girl know that her tall, lean frame would soon catapult her from the starting blocks onto the catwalk, leading her into the glamour world of modelling.
At the time, she was reading for a Biology Degree in the US. Down in Sri Lanka for a holiday, she dabbled in modelling only to be drawn into it in a professional way – shooting for high profile brands and international apparel catalogues right after completing her graduation. Not an overly ambitious person, she considered herself very lucky with the fame and satisfaction of her new profession.
But destiny had much more in store for her. Otara hails from an illustrious family. Her father, Norman Gunewardene, is one of the best known corporate leaders in the country, steering Aitken Spence to its status as a blue-chip group; her mother, Delysia, has nurtured the Chitra Lane School for differently-abled children, giving them a new lease of life; while her brothers, Ajit and Ruchi, are respected professionals in Sri Lanka’s corporate sector. Coming from such a dynamic family, her life was to take an unexpected turn, as she was to soon discover. A chance request by an apparel manufacturer to help him dispose an assortment of export surplus garments led her to set up shop in the boot of her trusted car – Otara’s earliest retailing effort perhaps. Her friends were her first regular clientele and she consolidated this early success by selling to other stores in Colombo as well.
Realising the enormous potential in this segment, she set up her first retail outlet on Dickman’s Road - ODEL - a combination of her first name, Otara, with her middle name, Del. Incidentally, ‘Otara’ means ‘reincarnation’ in Sanskrit. This time was also fortuitous for the young entrepreneur, as she met and married Raju Chandiram in 1990. Although the two divorced 14 years later, they have two lovely sons, Kiran (born 1994) and Rakhil (born 2000), and the couple still remain friends. The boys are the centre of Otara’s universe and she pencils in free time with them at every opportunity.
By this time, the seeds of entrepreneurship had begun to take root and she realised she could take the ODEL brand to greater heights. The response to Odel’s offerings was so great that in no time Otara felt compelled to expand the number of outlets. Soon, that single outlet grew into a chain of nine outlets, including ones at Majestic City, Liberty Plaza, Trans Asia Hotel and so on. Realising she had merely scratched the tip of the iceberg, Otara confidently commandeered a lovely colonial property, which became her flagship store. Putting in a superlative effort to translate her vision for a world-class department store into reality, she painstakingly created what could be considered a model retail store for the region. Her dedication to fulfilling her vision was so deep that despite being in a state of advanced pregnancy, she was present at the site day after day, right until the birth of her child, even requiring to be rushed to hospital from the construction site to give birth to her first-born in the midst of putting finishing touches to her dream store.
Through all these stressful times, the love of her family, the support of her staff and disciplined work-out sessions helped her maintain inner balance and serenity.
Today, Otara is proud to see that Odel is considered a forerunner in retail excellence in Sri Lanka and indeed the region. It has grown into something of a legend - offering shoppers unique retail therapy and keeping them coming back for more. Designer wear, high street fashion and accessories to home wear and leisure products, it’s all available at ODEL.