Face2Face with Mike Cooke
by Tilak S. Fernando in London

Microphone in one hand, counting money with the other, dancing toes on the floor, mouth busy in speaking to customers during the day and singing in the night would be a fair description of Mike Cooke , a well known business tycoon and an entertainer in the UK. His 'Fast Cash', business, a money transferring operation where one could enjoy the benefit of transferring foreign exchange to their kith and kin back at home, at cheap rates, within a matter of hours, has today become a God's send to many Sri Lankans, especially those who want to transfer cash. This admirable service through his company Currency Exchange Corporation Ltd has pushed all other competitors, including that of the London representative of the Banking giant of Sri Lanka, Bank of Ceylon, to the shade!

As one enters his offices in the West End or at Oakwood in Middx., one is struck by a prominent notice, which reads as follows and speaks for itself, a business motto which stands out as a good example for many Sri Lankan entrepreneurs to learn and follow:

" We recognise that you are the most important person to us. We understand that without winning your loyalty and custom we cannot continue our business. We will always strive to offer you an excellent foreign exchange service based on trust, reliability and unbeatable exchange rates. We will always treat you politely just the way we like to be treated. If we have impressed you with our service, please recommend us to your friends and colleagues. If we have not lived up to your expectations, please let us know and we will endeavour to put it right. We will always offer you a better deal every time",

In the evenings Mike Cooke becomes an entertainer as bandmaster in his musical group "The Islanders" to bring nostalgia to many Sri Lankans who organise dinner dances. Mike Cooke is a rare specimen where talent, business acumen and good principles are inborn within him. His policy to be polite and be of help to customers and making sure that no customer walks away from him has made him today as one of those self made, most successful businessmen in London. Face 2 Face was privileged to steal a few valuable minutes from this busy business tycoon for an interview.

Q. You are a man of many talents - entrepreneur, entertainer, bandmaster and vocalist. How do you cope and accommodate all these disciplines into a busy daily routine especially in a highly pressurised environment in London?

A. I have always been a people's man. I love working with people face to face and never get tired of them. You are correct; I don't stop from the time I get up in the morning as I am involved in so many businesses and projects at present. I never let pressure get into me and I do my best to manage my time as efficiently as possible. I always prioritise things and make it a point to meet deadlines.

Q. Tell me a little about your background, shall we say from your college days in Sri Lanka?

A. Well! I am a boy from the village and I am so proud to say that. I was born in Anuradhapure and studied up to my 'O' Levels at St. Joseph's College, Anuradhapura. I completed my higher education at Iowa State in the USA, graduating in Business Administration, Marketing and Economics. My father was a civil servant who spent over 25 years attached to the Irrigation Department in Anuradhapura. He was a real disciplinarian who valued the meaning of family life. Our Family stayed together during his entire posting in Anuradhapura and as much, my brother and my sisters all schooled locally instead of being boarded in a high-class school in Colombo. Even today, I believe that being born and having being given the opportunity to live in Anuradhapura has undoubtedly been the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life. My humble up- bringing in this town, has taught me to be fair and reasonable to people and shown me how to relate to anybody at any level. I am eternally grateful to my father for his wisdom and the great values that he has implanted in us all.

Q. When did you come to England and what made you decide England of all places?

A. I came to England in 1983 on a short holiday to visit my sister who was residing in the UK. At that I was working for the Maharajah Organisation marketing Yale Locks in Sri Lanka. From my school days I was a keen and well-known badminton player who represented Sri Lanka at junior level and senior levels. Due to the 1983 communal violence, The Maharajah Organisation was badly affected and my division was restructured. I then decided to stay in the UK and pursue my studies further. It was at this stage that I decided to rejuvenate my badminton career with the Middlesex County. From 1983-1987 I represented Middlesex as a first team player in County Championships travelling the length and breath of the UK. The highlight of my badminton career was qualifying to play in the prestigious all England Championship in 1985. Unfortunately in 1987, I sustained an injury to my knee, which forced me to retire from competitive badminton.

Q. What is your background in your present financial business?

A. My degree in Business Administration, Marketing and Economics from the United States in the early 80's and my BA in the late 80s from the UK has certainly been my foundation. My early work experience with Thomas Exchange in the UK, a well-known Foreign Exchange company in Central London, and the steady progress I made within the organisation as well as being appointed CEO of their Exchange Operations in the UK helped me to achieve the level of experience, which I now apply to all my business ventures.

Q. Would you like to say how successful you are now?

A. Business wise, my Group currently represents six varied fields of business. These businesses do not run on a bank overdraft or borrowed money. Perhaps that may be regarded as my sign of success in this modern day and age of business!

Q. It appears that you are out running all your competitors in the fast lane in your 'FastCash' business, including that of the Bank of Ceylon, which has been sitting in the City of London for well over 50 years. What is the trick behind your success and your motto?

A. Our commercial discipline is quite clearly displayed as you can see at the counter, which we adhere to very rigidly. Apart from that, unlike my competitors in the remittance business, I cater to the modern day needs of customers who are looking for a speedy and reliable way of sending money to their loved ones back at home. Why should a customer have to wait over a week to collect payments in Sri Lanka? This is what inspired me, thus my business motto became, "Send today - Collect today" and you do not have to keep your loved ones waiting or your business commitments on hold until the money is received at the other end.

Q If I am a complete novice to your operation of Fast Cash, how would you describe it to me?

A. With'Fast Cash' transfers we offer our customers two options of payment in Sri Lanka. Option 1- Fastcash person-to-person service: The sender in the UK nominates a collector of funds in Sri Lanka stating their identification details. We issue a 5-digit pin number to the sender, which is then passed on to the collector. When this pin number and proper identification is produced at any Seylan Bank, the receiver collects funds instantly without any commission charges in Sri Lanka. Option 2 - Fastcash Bank Account Credit: We are able to credit any bank account held with any state, private and commercial banks in Sri Lanka regardless of the location.

Q. Obviously you have to be within the framework of Banking Laws in the UK to operate a monitory business in the open market. Do you have any agreement or bond with the Bank of England in this respect?

A. All UK money transfer businesses are regulated by HM Customs & Excise. Currency Exchange Corporation and Fastcash are both registered and authorised by Customs & Excise to carry out Money Service Business. CEC fully complies and implements anti-money laundering controls and procedures as laid down by HM Customs & Excise.

Q. How about in Sri Lanka? What is your binding agreement with other Sri Lankan banks, and especially with Seylan Bank?

A. I am proud to state that FASTCASH is the only private sector company that is approved and authorised by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka to carry out money transfer services through the Seylan Bank network. FASTCASH money transfer services are also bonded with Seylan Bank in the event of any loss. At present we have an exclusive arrangement with Seylan Bank for all our remittance needs.

Q. Why has your business caught up especially with the Sri Lankan community and what do you think are the main ingredients or the quality of service that your organisation has, as opposed to the giant government institution in London, the Bank of Ceylon?

A. There are many factors. It's mainly the speed and reliability of our service, the excellent Exchange rate we offer and, above all, our professionalism and politeness towards our own people. Unlike some of the other Sri Lankan businesses, we treat all our customers humanely and go out of our way to explain our services and be helpful towards their requirements.

Q. Bank of Ceylon officials over the years have been boasting about their facility and ability to open up Letters of Credit and sitting comfortably in their executive chairs while their dis-satisfied customers, including their business customer base, has seemingly leaving them and are enjoying the latest facilities your efficient serives. Can your company also open up letters of credit as opposed to their disbelief and/or challenge?

A. At this present moment Bank of Ceylon has certainly got the monopoly on opening of Letters of Credit. This is an area, which I have still not explored, but who knows if my customer base warrants such a service from our organisation in the future I would certainly look into all the options available to us.

Q. Has Bank of Ceylon had been a challenge to your operation at any time at all?

A. Initially when I launched FASTCASH in 1999, Bank of Ceylon was a challenge, but as FASTCASH was promoted more and more, the word got around about the speed and reliability of our product. People constantly spoke about the kind and helpful nature of our staff and the organisation. Our customers constantly remind us about their loyalty towards us as they enjoy doing business with a friendly and reliable company.

Q. Apart from dealing with fast cash you are involved in other financial businesses as well aren't you. Would you like to talk about them?

A. The Currency Exchange Corporation specialises in the purchase and sale of all major and exotic currencies. CEC is well known in the UK among many multi-national organisations as a supplier of Foreign Currency Bank notes and travellers cheques. The group also specialises in worldwide money transfers to over 100 countries. We also issue foreign currency bankers' drafts in over 50 major currencies and also offer foreign exchange forward contracts to our valued customer base. The group is also involved in real estate and property development in Sri Lanka.

Q. Digressing from financial matters to an area of leisure, it seems that music gives you much pleasure as much as counting money, if I may put it that way? Tell me about your musical group (Band) and how you became interested in music and singing

A. As a young boy in Sri Lanka my mother encouraged me to take up music and under her guidance I won many talent competitions. So music has always been in my blood from the very early stages. In 1999 I formed my own musical band in the UK called THE ISLANDERS. As you well know, the band is very popular among our community and today I am proud to say that the Band is very much in demand and undertakes dinner dance performances for many well known organisations, OBA's/OGA's at the top venues in the UK

Q. Any memorable achievements as a singer/vocalist?

A. The most memorable achievement as a musician was the release of my maiden CD called " GANGA DIYA RELI" in 1997 under the guidance of that great musician Mr. Stanley Peries who is unfortunately no longer with us. He has always been my idol and inspiration and the beautiful melodies and great music compositions he created for me shines through my CD

Q. I have observed in some of your musical performances that your staff engaged during the day in your financial world becoming either a drummer or lead guitarist while you yourself becoming the entertainer, vocalist and the master of ceremonies. I must say it's quite a team work and how have you become such a lovable master-employer?

A. I am a great admirer of teamwork and always encourage teamwork. Yes, some of my staff who is involved in my money transfer businesses are also members of my music Group. In every aspect of my business I have always been a team player and never portray a master/employer role to staff. This has given them the confidence to always perform at the highest level in whatever they do without any interference or hindrance from " their boss".

Q. Usually Sri Lankan bands visit the UK to perform in London and elsewhere but recently you had a unique occasion to take your band all the way to California to play for a Sri Lanka dance. Was it a memorable experience?

A. Certainly, it gave the band the much needed foreign exposure and recognition as a top Sri Lankan band. Performing in Los Angeles for a large Sri Lankan gathering was in itself an experience. We were billed as the number one Musical Band at the Shepherdian Masquerade Ball, which attracted over 450 people. The band members enjoyed the experience and the hospitality of the Sri Lankan expatriates in LA. The tour also took us to Las Vegas, which was a ' dream comes true' for the Band.

Q. When you have part of your 'Fast Cash' staff being members of the band, how do you cope with financial business and pleasure in situations such as going abroad when the financial market is a volatile instrument which keeps on moving up and down like a yo-yo and the dollar getting weaker, pound getting stronger and Sri Lankan rupee equivalent to the pound sky rocketing and every day customers want to make the maximum out of better foreign exchange conversions?

A. Only a few members of my staff are involved in music. The CEC Group itself employs over 22 staff and my Central London branch is run by a dedicated team of highly qualified and experienced Foreign Exchange Dealers who can cope and make quick decisions under any market condition regardless of Mike Cooke being in or out of the country.

Q. Tell me about your new website www.UKLanka.net, and what does it entail and what are you aiming to achieve out of it.

A. Well! I am a man who takes great pride in promoting Sri Lanka at every available opportunity and through www.UKLanka.net my aim is to give Sri Lankans living in the UK a comprehensive gathering of information about social, cultural and business activities of our community here in the UK and globally. As in the words of the High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr. Faisz Musthapha at the web launch, www.UKLanka.net has put in place and fulfilled a long overdue much needed information portal for the Sri Lankans in the UK.

Q. Any new surprises in the pipeline Mike in the near future?

A. Through www.UKLanka.net I am confident that I can reach the global Sri Lankan web community. This in mind at present, I am working on two major projects, which at present I cannot disclose. Well! As you know, whatever I do is aimed towards making life easier for our own people. Both these projects will do that and would appeal to many Sri Lankans living globally. One would certainly bring a smile to a friend or loved one back home instantly. So watch out for this space!