Tissa Gunawardena- joint creator of TAAS Agencies, sole agent for KYB Shock Absorbers
If ever there was a synonym for world-renowned KYB Shock Absorbers here in Sri Lanka, one name springs into mind. And that is TAAS Agencies. MOTOR magazine was fortunate enough to catch up with the joint creator of TAAS Agencies, at their iconic address at No. 20, Hyde Park, Colombo 2. What was unfurled at the interview in the plush Director’s chamber was quite a revelation! Tissa Gunwardena had an amazing passion for dismantling cars to their very nuts & bolts when he was just in his mid-teens. No they were not toy cars, but very much the real thing! He minutely studied every component whether it was a Gear Box or the very core of an internal combustion engine – down to the pistons & cylinder heads. And when he fitted them back again, the once dismantled car or even critically vital major component, fired back to perfection! He didn’t slip up even once, Tissa proudly claims! The boy Tissa attended St. Aloysius College, Galle and studied to be an Accountant contrary to his passion: automotive engineering; but suddenly decided to ‘retire’ from his profession of Finance at age 30 and took the plunge to become an entrepreneur in his own right. TAAS was created; and he never looked back!
Dyan: I am now in this very familiar building painted in a striking dark yellow with red, prominently marked lettering denoting TASS with pictures of the shock absorbers virtually every other motorist the world over seeks: KYB shock absorbers! Tissa, when did you and your business partner launch TAAS?
Tissa: Way back in 1978 my friend Athula Silva remarked, “Now is the time to start a business as the Economy has been opened” – this was a year after former President J R Jayawardene was swept into power in 1977 and one of JRJ’s goals was to open the economy after years and years of stagnation! So I hopped onto my Lambretta scooter and rode to the Registrar of Companies [where now Hotel Hilton stands] and requested for the requisite form to set up a Company; when it came to question of ‘Name of Company’ we thought of the then ‘Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union [TASS], but we changed it to ‘TAAS’. Although at that time the name of our company TAAS didn’t make much sense as it was just on a whim, you know! In fact when interested people wanted to know the meaning of TASS we were simply nonplussed! However five years or so later, after we registered the company, the penny dropped! We suddenly realized that the name TASS did make sense! After all, the first letters of our names Tissa And Athula Silva made it obviously stark and simple! And so the name TASS did have much significance!
Dyan: What a ‘smart coincidence’ if I may coin a phrase! From meaning nothing; to be so meaningful!
Tissa [laughs] still in 1978, with the business world in SL about to wake up from long slumber, we referred to a KYB catalogue we had and wrote out an official Order for 450 units of shock absorbers to the KYB principals in Japan. Alas! There was no response to our ‘Air Mail’ letter with the precious order [emails & the Internet had not yet become main-stream then!]; sent a reminder, also by ‘Air Mail’ – no response! Never giving up, I went to the OTS [Overseas Telecommunication Service] at Fort and sent a Telegram to Japan on same subject. KYB Japan responded saying they are manufacturers of KYB shock absorbers and that if the order was for 500 units, they would consider responding positively. It took us two days to re-consider, as 500 units were a huge number in backdrop of mostly European cars such as Morris, Austin, Fiats, Fords etc found in Sri Lanka then, save for a few Jap brands, mostly Mitsubishi, Isuzu, Toyopet Coronas and some Datsuns those days! I then hit upon a brain wave and imported around 10 Part Numbers that if fitted with KYB shock absorbers could be used for European and British vehicles too! So whilst agreeing and accepting the 500 units of KYB shock absorbers; we started selling Japanese applications to then mostly majority European vehicles such as for the then popular Ford 105E; then for the Fiat 1100: rear shock absorbers; also I had the Part Numbers for VW Beetle front and rear shock absorbers too; also for the British Mini Minor! So soon KYB which were meant solely for Japanese vehicles became THE brand of shock absorbers for British & European vehicles, expanding our market!
Dyan: Thanks to your ingenuity and expertise of selecting the ‘perfect fit’ for all cars from wherever!
Tissa: Precisely! Just about that time the Japanese vehicles also started coming to Sri Lanka first with models such as the Mitsubishi Delica, Toyopet Tiaras, Toyota Hi-Ace vans etc, along with commercial vehicles, i.e. buses such as the Isuzu Journey, Mitsubishi Rosa etc. Then Toyota handled by Freudenberg was hardly known as the Mitsubishi Lancer, Datsun Sunny were the cars of choice of discerning motorists!
Dyan: How the ‘Japanese entry’ was a mere trickle before and expanded or boomed to a deluge, isn’t it!
Tissa: Oh! Definitely! We then stepped up our imports designed specifically for Japanese vehicles too, besides road surfaces being pretty horrible then, shock absorbers were in great demand, quite naturally! Then I recall one of the first motor vehicle shows at the BMICH say, 30 years ago when I prepared a KYB shock absorber leaflet for this Motor Show; this leaflet of mine gave simple instructions of general Do’s & Don’ts regarding shock absorbers and most importantly, how to install shock absorbers. Around that time when Japanese KYB reps meet us, it’s only lower level sales guys who do so; however soon after the BMICH car show, we were told that the Managing Director, along with the General Manager and senior sales Team of the Japanese parent company of KYB wanted to personally meet up with TAAS senior management. And that meant Athula & yours truly! We flew to Japan and called into their Board Room and the MD himself started off by asking us what special secret we had in achieving record sales of KYB shock absorbers surpassing all their expectations! I then explained with the leaflet I created for the Motor Show there was greater awareness amongst motorists, plus of course how we created a versatile product by making KYB to suit all models, be it Japanese, UK or European. We were pleasantly surprised how this globally known KYB brand where it sells shock absorbers literally by the millions across the globe should find something novel and interesting in little Sri Lanka! The KYB hierarchy was particularly taken up with the small leaflet I had created and then to cut a long story short replicated word to word contents of my leaflet and reproduced it with a more colourful and glossy brochure for their world wide audience! This was indeed a high point for me & TASS as we evolved along the way to our present state.
Dyan: This revelation is simply incredible! And thanks for sharing with me your original creation by way of this simple leaflet re the Do’s & Don’ts and how to install shock absorbers and also the glossy KYB brochure from Japan; yes, I confirm that they have reproduced each word you had used at first! Wow!
Tissa: We at TAAS take customer complaints very seriously as we aim for ‘zero defects’. Each complaint is studiously analyzed and an effective solution offered. However we have observed that more often than not people tend to make ‘self-diagnosis’ and pre-assume what the fault is usually by blaming the shock absorber before an independent professionally made observation after a thorough physical examination. For instance let me share with you and readers of MOTOR magazine a true story: there was a customer who had installed KYB shock absorbers; some time later when the customer had gone shopping with his wife they had inadvertently kept an empty bottle of ‘Coke’ in the boot. Result? An annoying rattling noise from the ‘rear of the car’; the highly annoyed customer then does a ‘self-diagnosis’ and makes a bee-line to the Agents of that particular model of car and tells them to replace the ‘faulty shock absorbers’. The Agents gleefully do so. But STILL the rattle persists! Finally customer sheepishly brings the car-with-the-annoying-rattle back to us and on just a cursory check we find the offending empty bottle of Coke which was duly removed. And Hey Presto! No more rattles! Similarly shock absorbers are replaced because of ‘some noise’ when the ‘offending part’ was ‘broken bushes’! Some are under the mistaken notion that when shock absorbers are fitted to a vehicle with a weak suspension system their vehicle becomes a rattle-free car, like a brand new one! In such instances when one does fit new shock absorbers amidst a weak suspension system, ‘noise’ will be more pronounced! Ironically when both shock absorbers and suspension systems are weak, one does not experience that much of a noise! So when new shock absorbers are fitted, let me repeat to a weak suspension system and when the ‘noise’ become more, customers assume that the shock absorber is the villain, unfairly! With faulty bushes & links the dampening pressures are more, impacting the shock absorbers. One must realize that all these components are inter-related and shock absorbers are not the panacea for any ‘noise’ to be reduced or eliminated! In fact there are instances when people remove the new shock absorbers and put back the old ones and experience ‘less noise’ and reach conclusion that the fault was with the ‘new’ shock absorbers! So self diagnosis amidst a lack of awareness is an issue, unfortunately!
Dyan: An analogy here is like when a patient treats himself sans medical advice and asks for big trouble! Tissa, could you please share how you used to strip cars ‘just to get to know how things worked’ when you were just a little 15 year old boy without any prior directions or lessons in mechanical engineering!
Tissa: When I was attending school I was passionate about cars; my father then had a Riley 1500 with a vinyl top; I used to be fascinated with the Workshop Manual of the Riley and used to read every word of it whenever I had the opportunity; but this Manual did not elaborate at length how components really worked. So I resolved to check out matters personally by stripping sections of the car, say the Gear box by getting permission from my father saying that some noise needed attention! As I was physically frail and could not lift heavy parts of engine or gear box by myself, I used to deploy leverage systems well! I not only dismantled parts to see how things worked but ensured that I re-assembled such dismantled parts carefully, paying much attention to detail. And at all such attempts the re-joined parts worked like a charm or fired at first attempt of starting! Gradually I became more and more confident and competent and took on cars owned by elder brothers, uncles and whoever willing to let me take apart their cars! Not only cars, I also could dismantle big motor cycles too! Like my brother’s big Triumph motor bike!
Dyan: Simply amazing to know that as a mere teenager you could strip whole engines and gear boxes to their basic nuts, bolts, little springs or whatever and have them re-fitted! How was your knowledge of other areas of a car like electrical wire harness, body work, upholstery, you know seats and interior etc?
Tissa: Equally adept and thorough! For instance my father’s car used to suffer from chronic corrosion that required ‘attention to corrosion repairs’ and repainting etc once every two years. On one occasion someone had misplaced the ‘hood light’ and as a result all ‘upholstery people’ refused to undertake to stitch the hood lining cloth without the hood light; so I took matters to hand by making a template with cardboard that covered the exact dimensions of the hood light and stitched the hood lining perfectly with the help of my mother’s sewing machine; not only the hood lining, I also perfected the job of upholstering all the seats in my dad’s Riley to match the original standards at age 14 or 15! So much so that my elder brother [one of them as I was 12th out of 13 in family!] suggested in all seriousness, that if I don’t get a job on leaving school, I should start a business in upholstering and call it ‘Tiss-Upholstery’!
Dyan: What an incredibly talented guy you were and are! You said that you modified your scooter too?
Tissa: Yes, when I was studying to be an accountant I had a Lambretta scooter; I remember then my old friends who were also pursuing accountancy and various other fields also having Lambretta scooters like Freddie Alles and Bri Ponnambalam who became simply great automotive star personalities in later life!
Dyan: Of course both Freddie and Bri are synonymous with Classic Cars with Bri in particular, who dazzled the motor racing sports arena in Sri Lanka for decades like a colossus – a gentleman colossus, that is!
Tissa: They were buddies of mine then and three of us like I said used to go about on our Lambrettas! All three of them were 75cc scooters but I wanted my 75cc Lambretta to ‘look like’ a 150cc model; so I took it along to a ‘Bass’ who modified the shape of front apron & rear and made it look identical to a 150cc! Similarly when in around 1980 when I had a 125cc standard motor cycle I modified it to look like a futuristic motor cycle with wrap around chrome rear bars with neat and lovely signal lights – well what you see in today’s modern Japanese motor bikes! I was different; I always wanted something to look and feel great, away from humdrum, mediocre in almost everything I had, constantly improving whatever!
Dyan: They call it in today’s corporate global world as: ‘Imbibing Culture of Continuous Improvement’! It’s a prized trait one could possess to look beyond what one sees; no wonder you’re a top entrepreneur
Tissa: Reverting to my late school days I also used to dismantle my 3rd brother Nelson’s Borgward Hansa. In fact it was Nelson who was 20 years my senior, held me by my hand and took me in his Austin A30 soon after Montessori to St. Aloysius College in Galle. Back to the Hansa, as I said I stripped it also to its bare bones like in a production line of a new car and repainted it from Grey to off-white, whilst I was attending Accountancy studies in Colombo. So finding time to reassembling and painting of the Hansa had to be confined to weekends when I returned home to Galle – during the week, the dismantled parts of the Hansa were under my bed, drawing the ire of my mother who used to chide me for leaving parts of the car under the bed, preventing her from sweeping the floor, the way mother used to do – so well! The reassembling and re-painting of the Hansa took around three months; then when the electrical wire harness was also re-installed many, who used to gawp at my doings, felt that the car would not start!
Dyan: Then when the time finally came for the moment of reckoning did the Hansa fire at its first shot?
Tissa :Yes, it did! The purring sound of the Hansa engine was music in my ears to a skeptical audience!
Dyan: From the classic Hansa to the 21st Century sleek, hybrids that adorn our roads Tissa is THE man to go to if you need any advice on say improved and desired ground clearance for your Prius, Aqua or Axio because KYB is not only for shock absorbers, but coil springs also, required for better ground clearance; and when ordering requisite parts, always quote Year of Manufacture, Model No./ Chassis Number & Part No. and do go for genuine parts – never fake ones, as according to Tissa, some shock absorbers may look identical but will differ in critically vital areas, so looks don’t really matter but hard raw data does!
Tissa, it has been simply an awesome revelation listening to a person like you – a hands on mechanical guy; a founding partner/director of TAAS Agencies who does not rest on his laurels but continues to this day improve on his products proactively and above all even the powerful Japanese emulate! Thank you Tissa for giving us the time & space to speak to you so freely and being an ardent supporter of MOTOR!