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Rienzie, at 80!


By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Rienzie Wijetilleke, one of the brightest stars in Sri Lankan banking, has just scored four scores. His extraordinary career in banking culminated in being appointed the Chairman of the Board of Hatton National Bank, HNB that became the leading private bank in Sri Lanka under his stewardship. Though he had the zeal to continue to steer HNB to even greater heights, he retired in 2010 thanks to, what may be considered to be unfair, statutory regulations.

Never the retiring type, he then shifted his focus on travel and tourism to set up Osara Lanka, in addition to being on the board of directors of many companies that were eager to tap on his vast experience. He also set up ‘Pansala Hadamu’ foundation for the upliftment of village temples, realising the plight of the Bhikkhus who lived in these sans even the basic toilet facilities. This foundation also helps to spread modern technology to deprived areas, encouraging the setting up of minicomputer-labs, developing a temple-centric village awakening in remote areas.

My assessment of Rienzie’s achievements, perhaps, would be partial as I am fortunate enough to be related to Rienzie, through marriage, his wife Dhammika being my wife Primrose’s sister: daughters of late Mr P D S Jayasinghe, Colombo Municipal Councillor, and late Mrs Teresa Jayasinghe of Kirulapone. In fact, I remember the first day he ‘visited’ to see Dhammika and it was no surprise he ‘fell’ for her; a beauty and a dancer who adorned an Elephant House calendar. In no time they were married and sailing off to London on ‘The Fairstar’, for Rienzie to work in the London Office of Bank of Ceylon while doing his banking examinations.

The next time I met them was, three years later, in 1969, when I went to the UK for post-graduate studies. After a very long exhausting flight, in a BOAC Viscount aircraft which had a small board inside indicating that it was on loan to Air Ceylon, it was refreshing and reassuring to be met by Rienzie, Dhammika and her brother Pandu but the centre of attention was Harsha, their first-born who was talkative as ever with Upul Mama. After attending a course in Edinburgh, when I returned to London, their generosity in accommodating me in the, already crowded, one -bedroomed flat is an act of kindness I can never forget.

When my wife arrived in London and she got employed in Farnborough Hospital in Kent, we were eagerly waiting for the weekend to visit them, to see the antics of little ‘Sashi’ who would explore my pockets for the anticipated sweets and also the hand bag of ‘other aunty’. Shortly before they left London in 1970, Rienzie and Dhammika were blessed with another addition, Chamira, but Kusum had to wait a long time to arrive, till Rienzie went to Dubai to work for the British Bank for the Middle East, in 1984. All three sons followed in the footsteps of their illustrious father and took to banking.

Rienzie was born in Galle, on 10 November 1939, youngest son of the large family of Tudor and Regina Wijetilleke, and had most of his education in Wesley College, in spite of his parents being devout Buddhists. He was ever grateful to his alma mater and was the President of the Old Boys’ Union from 2000 to 2003.

In 1972, Mr M Dharmarajah, the first GM/MD of Hatton National Bank, snatched Rienzie from Bank of Ceylon. Not only that, he persuaded Rienzie to return to the fold of HNB, from BBME, in 1986 offering him the post of Assistant General Manager, which Rienzie could not refuse. On the retirement of Mr Dharmarajah, in 1987, Rienzie was appointed Managing Director of HNB, a move that saw HNB being catapulted to be the leading private bank in Sri Lanka, in no time. On the unexpected and sudden death of the then Chairman, Chrishantha Cooray, in 2004, Rienzie had to accept the invitation of the board of directors of HNB to be the Chairman, in spite of being contemplative of retirement at the time. He had been offered the Chairmanship of Browns Group but the realist in Rienzie made him stick to the subject he knew.

How Rienzie steered HNB to tremendous success is far too well known to be repeated but the obstacles he faced in his monumental project, HNB Tower, is less well known. The visionary in Rienzie was itching for a ‘headquarters-like-no-other’ for his bank and went ahead with this project in spite of many an objection. His vision was one of optimism and wanted to produce an emblem for a positive tomorrow. At a time of economic slowdown, to persuade his Board of Directors to go ahead with such a mammoth project was no mean task, as there were many critics who called it a rash, reckless almost, project that would certainly be a waste of shareholder funds.

Rienzie was a futurist and could not be undaunted by critics. With the support of his Chairman Chrishatha Cooray and the Board of Directors, Rienzie saw to it that the HNB towers, with 23 floors and futuristic features like energy saving devices, rose to be a landmark in the Colombo skyline. HNB towers, opened in January 2003, remains unmatched by any other bank, silencing his critics.

It was, therefore, very fitting that a simple ceremony, graced by Karu Jayasuriya, was held on 9th November, at the impressive Conference Room, surrounded by glass panels which gives an enchanting panoramic view of Colombo including the dazzling waters of Beira Lake, in the 22nd floor of HNB Tower, to launch "Rienzie Wijetilleke – Revisited"; a book edited by the well-known Journalist, Savithri Rodrigo. It is a compilation of excerpts from speeches and articles authored by Rienzie, with additional comments by the author.

In the preface to the book, Rienzie sums up his life’s philosophy:

"I also want to impress upon my family and friends that doing good is an inherent trait in all humans. Some let it bloom, others don’t. For me, doing good is about ensuring that the goodness we impart has a sustainable factor. There really is no point in giving a man fish to assuage his huger; we must teach him how to fish because that’s the only way he will never go hungry again. As you will see my social work has been constructed on this foundation – that whatever good we do must be long-standing and sustainable. It must be empowering, strengthening and, most of all, uniting. We must permeate that goodness to as many as we can so that they, in turn, will do the same."

"Rienzie Wijetilleke – Revisited" is a book full of pearls of wisdom and having read it fully my only regret is that it is only for private circulation but not for sale and do hope Rienzie would find a way to make this accessible to the youth of today, badly in need of such guidance, perhaps, publishing it on-line with free access. To say the least, it should be compulsory reading for any young man or woman taking to banking as a carrier.

As long as the HNB tower stands tall, behind the White Dome of the Colombo Municipal Council, adorning the Colombo skyline, Rienzie will be remembered. In 1999, Rienzie, as the interim head of the Board of Control of Cricket of Sri Lanka, pulled Sri Lanka Cricket from the mire it was steeped in, breathing a fresh lease of life of profitability and success. Therefore, let me wish in cricketing parlance "Rienzie, don’t give up till you hit a century!"


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