Lalith Kotelawela bares his heart


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Lalith Kotelawala

By Malinda Seneviratne
Jawarhlal Nehru once said that monuments should not be erected to those who are still alive because one can never know if or when the greatest of personalities can break down. Lalith Kotelawala, entrepreneur par excellance and head of Ceylinco Consolidated, one of Sri Lanka’s oldest and largest business conglomerates, would be among the first to agree.

And yet it is also true that the worth of people are rarely appreciated in their lifetime. Sometimes society owes a small note of thanks, especially when the person concerned happens to be as self-effacing as Lalith is.

Lalith will no doubt understand that this commentary of certain salient aspects of his life necessarily carried the caveats implied in Nehru’s pertinent point, for he certainly speaks like a man who understands that fallibility is the badge of the human tribe.

So who is this Lalith Kotelawala who has been awarded the titles Deshabandu, Deshamanya, and Vishva Prasadini by Ranasinghe Premadasa, D.B.Wijetunge and Chandrika Kumaratunge respectively over the past 10 years or so?

Much has been written about Lalith Kotelawala, his business acumen, relentless pursuit of excellence and of the various enterprises that resulted from the ferment of a creative and bold mind. Little, however, is known about the person behind the name. Too often, it seems, his name has been followed by an almost cursory mention of his lineage, that he is the son of the late Senator Justin Kotelawala and nephew of Sir John Kotelawala, almost as though he did not merit separate identification on the basis of his own work and contributions to society . Lalith, being the kind of man he is, would of course never deny the privilege of name and family background and moreover would add that these helped mould the values that have shaped his life, both as a businessman and as a human being.

His grandfather, who had fought the British had committed suicide while in prison, a fact that had prompted his son, John, then 16, to vow that he would not rest until the country was rid of the last white man, a promise he kept when he appointed Sir Oliver Goonetilleke as Governor of Ceylon.

Justin, had taken a different line with respect to the notion of "independence". He believed that true independence is tied to freeing the economy of the country of the shackles of colonialism and therefore his efforts were focused on developing Sri Lankan businesses. Whether or not our country has really liberated itself economically is of course a moot point, but Lalith claims with some pride that Sri Lankans hold the majority shares in all the companies in the Ceylinco Group and says that he shares the love his father and uncle had for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans: "Whatever we do here in Ceylinco, we first evaluate the effect on the country and the people".

Good childhood

Lalith admits that he had a good childhood. He grew up in a mansion with 18 servants and 7 cars. He started playing polo at the age of 13 and loved riding horses. And yet, he insists that the greatest gift he received from his family was a sound set of values.

Speaking about his school days at Royal College, Lalith laughingly said "I was last in class". The old man had intervened at one point, taking away his horse and insisting that he deliver the goods with respect to his education. He says that he proved that he could do well in school if he wanted to by passing his O/L exams well. He did athletics in school, winning school colours and setting a record in the 100 yard dash in the public schools meet and had been a member of the winning 4x100 relay team to boot. This was in 1950.

He remembers his school friends fondly. P.H. Wickramasinghe, Astrophysicist, Upali Mendis, Eye Surgeon and V.K. Samaranayake, Professor in the University of Colombo had been his classmates at Royal College. He also spoke endearingly of Upali Wijewardena, who had been a year senior to him in school.

"The example of Upali affected me. He was a courageous and daring man. He had a great love for Sri Lanka and the people in this country. Also, he had faith in the talent available in this country, which is probably why he gave up a promising career at Lever Brothers to stake out on his own. In many ways he was a pioneer entrepreneur and a strength to all of us."

After leaving school, as was the practice in rich families back then, his father sent him to London, where he studied accountancy. "I hated accountancy; as school arithmetic was my worst subject," he said, but added that being in London taught him a lot. It was there that he learned to be independent and also it helped him discover the workings of the commercial world. This he learnt while working as an auditor. He had returned home without passing his final examinations.

Lalith said that he finds it appalling the way the children of the wealthy are pampered by their parents. When he returned from London in 1960, Lalith’s father had made him a "trainee" in his insurance company with a monthly salary of Rs.250. He was 23 years old then.

"I am grateful to my father for not making me a director. Instead, he made me work under engineers, electricians, plumbers, clerks etc., for two years," he said.

He had written 5 letters of resignation, which his wife, Sicille, had torn up. He said "It was in this way that I learnt about the problems faced by the ordinary employee. My father never shielded me from all this. He wanted me to get a good grasp of the day-to-day concerns of the people. He never made me a soft, rich-man’s-son. Instead he made me strong and gave me values. Children must learn the value of money, they must understand what it means to be poor and to go hungry."

Perhaps being a rich man, it is easy for him to brush away his wealth, but it is certainly heartening to hear him say that "success is not about money, it is not a balance sheet; the most important quality of life is the ability to hear and understand another human being. If you don’t have the heart and humanity, you have nothing."

All was not plain sailing for the young Lalith Kotelawala. He recalled with a certain degree of pain the long years of nationalisation under the United Front government.

Speaking about how at that time families like his were almost wiped out as a result of nationalisation , called "dirty capitalists" and made to feel that they were parasites, he said:

"My father’s estates were taken away from him, the Kahatagaha mine was taken away, his firm, Ceylon Insurance Corporation , which was the first to be registered under the Companies Act, was nationalised. You must understand that by 1950, his insurance firm had surged ahead of 20 foreign insurance companies. My father went to England, where he died a broken man in 1973."

It was however without any bitterness or malice that he spoke of that time and the people who were instrumental in making deep inroads into the family enterprises, and also the process which, according to him broke his father’s heart.

"It was time when the Marxists were riding high and Marxism was emerging as the alternative to capitalism. There is no question about their integrity, they felt for the poor, they still feel for the poor. Unfortunately their theories were seriously flawed. They took out the ideas of ‘competition’ ‘entrepreneurship’ and what resulted was an enormous, inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy and state-sector monopoly."

This had been the lowest point in his life. He had to spirit away the machinery from their printing press to save it from being appropriated along with the estates. He had in fact been on the verge of suicide. Things changed after 1977, of course, and with great determination, he led the Ceylinco Group out of those "dark times" when they were left with a small insurance company and a tiny press, Middleway Printers.

Opposed father

Lalith Kotelawala’s relationship with his father, in spite of all the respect and admiration he holds for the man, has had its ups and downs. He recalled how his father had once proposed that they launch a family business. Lalith had vehemently opposed this suggestion and had earned the wrath of his father, who had locked himself up in his room and refused to speak with anyone for a week. Lalith had said "Just give me the press for which you paid only Rs.150,000. I know I have what it takes to turn it into something great"

He explained that family businesses typically end up destroying the family and pointed out that he has the best of relations with his siblings. His father, fortunately had relented in the end.

Lalith claimed that one of the secrets of his success was the staunch support he received from his wife Sicille, daughter of Sam P.C Fernando, Minister of Justice in Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government. He had met her at his farewell party when he left for London. She had been 15 and he 17. Apparently they had to wait until he was 25 before they could get married because of some dire prediction based on his horoscope. Lalith said although he didn’t believe in such things he had to bow down to convention in this case. Sicille, although the Director of Ceylinco Consolidated, has not lived under the shadow of her husband. She’s a accomplished artist and dancer who has even performed in Carnegie Hall. In fact she is an authority on Kandyan dancing, having written extensively on this particular dance form. She has also played the lead role in several theater productions.

Lalith says that there is perfect understanding between them and that there is enough space in their relationship for them to pursue their individual dreams. They had been great supporters of the anti-Nuclear movement in England and had participated in the marches led by Bertrand Russell. He said that these experiences had made them decide not to have children.

Lalith’s philosophy remains a healthy mix of hard work and compassion. He said that although he grew up in highly patriarchal surroundings, he learnt some important lessons which he later applied in his work. He said that you should never abuse those who work under you, and the notion of trusteeship is very strong in him. He considers all his employees as part of a large family and encourages lifetime employment.

"There are 9 employees who worked for my father. They are in their seventies and eighties They are paid full salaries, regardless of whether they come to work or not. I don’t condone the modern world, using people and then ‘restructuring’. Today Ceylinco has two persons who have risen to the position of Board Director, starting from the very bottom. One was a hall porter and the other a security officer.

Merit based

He said that caste, religious or ethnic differences are not important and that this was one of the main reasons for the success of Ceylinco

security chief came to me with a woman who was working in the canteen. Apparently he had caught her stealing two tins of condensed milk. I asked the woman, who was crying, why she had stolen these and she said that she needed the milk to feed her children. I looked at the security chief, basically telling him to let it go and that it was not serious. He told me that I have to fire her or else he wouldn’t be able to save even a single light bulb in the Ceylinco Group. So I fired her. I would never do that now, but maturity comes with time, no? The point is that I have to judge fairly and consistently across the board, regardless of the position of the person concerned."

Looking back on his career and life, Lalith said that he was happy. The Ceylinco Group has 109 companies, employing over 21,000 people, with establishments in foreign countries. He has 14 deputy chairpersons under him.

"A good boss is like a good gardener, he allows people to grow. It is satisfying to take a step back now, in the winter of my life, and watch very capable and talented people taking this enterprise to new horizons."

Perhaps a watershed event in his life is the now famous caddie-incident at the Royal Colombo Golf Course.

"I used to play golf. There were of course the caddies, who you never noticed. You get caught up in the game and the company of rich people. You just paid them and that was it. One day, a caddie came to my office and asked me to give him some money. He had been hit by a golf-ball and it had broken his leg. He hadn’t worked in several weeks. I asked him if he had eaten, and got him lunch, in addition to some money. This incident moved me to write a letter to the Golf Club, requesting that they treat the caddies better. It was a simple list of things, which included raising the caddie fee to Rs 150, eliminating child labour, provision of medical and other benefits to the caddies etc.

"They didn’t reply me. I was treated like a pariah in the Golf Club. No one played with me. So I organised the caddies into a union. They promptly made me their patron. Anyway, since no one played with me, I played with the caddies. I would be followed by a host of caddies, since they were all ‘on strike’! They tried to take away my membership. Since the caddies were not employed, I provided them with money and food. Finally, the Golf Club relented and all the demands were met.

"I learnt a lot during that process. It put me off the upper echelons of society. They had no heart. They are little better than walking corpses, they have no feeling. In fact this is one of the biggest problems we have in this country. As I said earlier, they see life as a balance sheet, counting just the profits and losses and forgetting their humanity in the process. The rich find it hard to love. The capacity to love is found in much greater degree among the poor.

"This country has vast potential. Believe me, we can reach for the stars. We are stuck in this mess not because of the war. We don’t have the vision. We don’t have the leadership. And I must confess that most of us in the business sector plunder this country. My point is that the people need not suffer because of this manifest lack of vision among our leaders."

Being a man of so much experience in the business world, he had some interesting bits of advise for the young.

"There are three kinds of people, those who are enterprising, those who prefer to pursue professional careers and those who just want to live simply, working for someone else. So, first of all, you have to look within yourself and decide what type of person you are. For example, there is an employee of mine who has for the past 30 years done nothing but take out files from a cabinet and put them back once they are no longer needed. He is happy doing that. I cannot do that. I have to do something else. So you have to discover who you are.

"If you decide that you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to decide on your dream, that which you really want to do, whether it is building cars, machines or anything else. Once you have figured that out, you have to put everything you have into it; your money, your heart, your soul, your labour, and work until you drop down exhausted!"

Marxists who subscribe to the labour theory of value would argue that for all the caring for the common people that Lalith demonstrates, the process of capital accumulation cannot be benign and non-violent. Be that as it may, they would concede that there is great differentiation in the bourgeoisie, as so eloquently argued by Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Perhaps there will be some who will agree that Lalith Kotelawala belongs to a rare breed among the rich.

Lalith shies away from commenting on his social work with the simple dismissal "charity must be in silence". However, he did insist the importance of "giving back to society".

He said that what is important is not "collection" but "restitution" with respect to those who default on loan payments. His latest project is the setting up of the Ceylinco Grameen Credit Company, based on the famous experiment in Bangladesh pioneered by Dr. Yunoos. He is very impressed by the high recovery rates and said that among those who received micro-loans, the recovery rate is 99%. He was not aware of the Thrift and Credit Cooperative Movement nor the "Grameen" model that Janashakthi is trying out in Hambantota, but insisted that all these are very important interventions and that there should be greater cooperation among institutions that are working in the micro-credit sphere.

At 63, Lalith Kotelawala exudes a genial personality who is content with who he is and happy with his achievements: "I have met lovely people and earned the love of my employees. I have made very bad enemies, which is also a sign of success. More than all this, I have a lot of inner peace. And this is important."

It is left to be seen whether the rest of the business community are capable of pushing down self-aggrandizement and the ethic of "profit at all cost", and take a leaf out of Lalith’s book. Compassion, self-criticism, humility, and a realisation that the vastness of the universe of the unknown demands that it is prudent to be willing to learn and change, will perhaps take our nation in beneficial directions. Lalith Kotelawala would agree.