‘I moulded the world’s first woman tea auctioneer’


One of the most fulfilling and pleasurable experiences that Just retired John Keells Holdings Executive Vice President (Plantation Services and Corporate Social Responsibility) Lalith Devakumar Ramanayake has in a rich and variegated career spanning 42 years, is the creation of Sri Lanka’s first woman tea broker who also became the world’s first tea auctioneer!

With JKH adopting more scientific practices in Human Resources Development and Sri Lanka receiving more and more international business practices such as Total Quality Management and HACCP and other parameters such as gender balance and breaking the glass which was bandied in the business world, there came the interviews which were for trainee tea tasters for which the announcement did not say male or female!

" There were some charming ladies who applied and I decided to recruited one of them ( Rapthi De Zoysa) who was extroverted and who also became the first female tea auctioneer in the world!, he said.

There have been female tea tasters in both England and in India, but Rapthi was not only the first woman tea broker in Sri Lanka but also the first tea auctioneer in the world, he recollected.

Rapthi came for the interview on the basis that she will give it a try and within the next eight to nine months, she got on the rostrum to conduct the tea auction in what was a very male dominated industry where the auctioneer gets on the rostrum where he/ she has to face over 150-200 buyers where she has to announce the lot, keep speaking non- stop till the catalogue was over, announce the lots, take the bids and knock the lot down. Here was a world first where she got on the rostrum and conducted the auction.

Several things happened that day. The market in the John Keells Ltd a catalog went up by Rs. 5 that day and all the bidders that day were bidding upwards as they were impressed by the lady which was far more than the market price!

Lalith recalls with glee how he got telephone calls in the evening from senior tea traders in an otherwise male dominated industry who bellowed at him: " Lalith! What have you gone and done? What was a skirt doing on the rostrum?!! "So, what?" Lalith rebutted asked in lighter vein. However, all of them later accepted that changing times needed changing strategies as well. With that development, JKH has two lady tea tasters- Thushari Daulwatte and Anoushka Mohotti and lady auctioneers as well.

Benchmarked tea warehouse

One of the other unforgettable experiences that Lalith had at JKH was the construction of the tea warehouse which is the largest and the only one of its kind in the entirety in the world for pre-auction teas spanning100,000 square feet which came under the tea broking sector and under him. JKH needed quality warehousing and we decided to put up this beautiful warehouse, he said. Multinational giants may have larger tea warehouses but those are for teas which for sold teas.

We were looking for a good location and this was available with the opening up of the Kerawalapitya Industrial Zone, which is off Welisara on one side and off Canal Road on the other side.

That was a huge transition where tea was handled in chests which gave way to tea packs which were carried by individuals on their backs and this warehouse made sure that no one had to carry these chests or bags on their backs. Once they are unloaded from the lorries, they are conveyed through fork lift trucks, reefer trucks or palate trucks which move and locate the teas which now come in sacks, he said

He was a Chairman of the Colombo Brokers Association, Director of the Sri Lanka Tea Board, Deputy Chairman of the Tea Exporters Association. One of the most fulfilling experiences that Lalith recalls with nostalgia is that he was asked by the Tea Cluster of the National Council for Economic Development to chair the Committee to prepare the ten- year strategic plan for the tea industry which was presented to President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006.

One of the cornerstones that John Keells Holdings taught me was business ethics and the rules and ethics under which the tea industry has functioned over the years. The tea auctions which are held every Tuesday and Wednesday, are held at the Chamber of Commerce and sharp at 8 am. It is not a minute before or a minute after. So, that kind of rules and adherence to governance which were a fantastic experience at Kohn Keells, factors gelled me to continue in the tea industry and JKH without wanting to move, Lalith reminisced with obvious pride.

Lalith was in tea trading, though not a traditional planter, up in the hills. However, being the sector JKH head of plantations, he once had Namunukula Plantations under him. Even up to the time that he retired, he had the Tea Small Holder Factories Ltd under him, which purchased tea leaf of small holders. Nurturing small holders, ensuring their sustainability was also a huge challenge, he remarked.

Apart from being a member of the Colombo Tea Traders’ Association for many years and being an Executive Committee Member of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, he also served on the board of the Sri Lanka Tea Board and the tea Promotions Bureau and working on the apex body of the tea industry, which gave him immense satisfaction to make a contribution at that level in the tea industry in decision making and policy making.

There were other two highlights in his life where JKH clinched the award for the best two broker in the only occasion that the Colombo Tea Traders Association decided to make such an award in 2003 and in 2007, just prior to his moving into the Group transportation sector as the head, JKH also won the super brand status for tea broking, which gave him immense fulfillment, in addition to JKH having the highest market share as well. These were some of my most fulfilling and rewarding experiences, he said.

Lalith was also a member of the Sri Lanka delegation on six occasions for the Food and Agriculture Organisation Inter governmental conferences on tea. He also was the repertoire at the plenary sessions for the producer countries in 2003.

Sector Head of Transportation

Two years as Sector Head of Group’s Transportation, was also rewarding, a sector once headed by the incumbent JKH Group Chairman Susantha Ratnayake himself. That was the major contributor to the Group’s top and bottom lines as well. " It was immensely rewarding as I was a Director of 14 companies which included South Asia Gateway Terminals. There was freight forwarding, travel outbound (Mackinons Travels), logistics, shipping , the airline services and also bunkering (Lanka Marine Services). It was a diverse learning experience was also awesome where the transportation sector continued to be the number one earner for the group, he said.

Asked whether he had any teething problems in shifting from tea to logistics and bunkering, he said that the JKH policy was that one had to be able to move into any field at managerial levels and run any business.

Head of CSR

He has also been actively engaged in CSR activities for the last two years as the head of that Division at JKH and vice president as well. What Lalith has learnt from his Corporate Social Responsibility Activities is that it gives apart from giving people, it also gives a lot of personal satisfaction of seeing people benefitting from your actions, he said.

In CSR, there are various components and JKH wanted social responsibility in all their actions. The structures were put into place where there is a lot of Human Resources components also coming in under the CSR banner to ensure that it was a socially responsible company.

Some of the key projects that were selected by the conglomerate were of nationally important or business related. One of those was teaching English to the less affluent, deemed important. The government made 2010 as the year of teaching English but JKH had started the venture in 2005 as there was a national need to improve English to make it a business language. The mission was taken in islandwide and the vehicle that implemented it was the Gateway College, which had centres, opened up classes nationally with the advent of peace, in Jaffna, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Trincomalee and Batticaloa as well.

JKH which is a big IT player, also tied up with the NGO named FARO which invited the Group to come on a BPO project and the first project was opened at Maha Vilachchiya, a border village by the jungles which took the city jobs to the village. The city office was replicated with the partitioning and they are doing a BPO operation for JKH.

JKH, on a request by the government developed a village at Halmillewa on a five year project where the villagers by the end of five years, could manage by themselves. There were so many initiatives there for the five years, Lalith recalled.

The Group had also got involved in giving eye sight to people who are in villagers and that was also a good cause. Eye clinics were conducted and they were given spectacles and there were other instances where people who were given eye sight through cataract operations.

Lalith- the Cricket Lion, Rugby and Hockey Coloursman

It was at 19 that Lalith entered the portals of the 130, Glennie Street Blue chip as a Trainee Tea Taster as the only successful applicant among over 50 others. After all, he was a benchmarked inter collegiate sportsman, having won his Royal College Hockey Colours playing inside right in the forward line and was selected to play for Colombo schools at the nationals in 1969 where he scored two goals in the semi finals. He shifted to Trinity in 1970 and then the much coveted Trinity College Cricket Lion in 1971 and rugby colours in 1970.

However, what Lalith remembers most with nostalgia and affection was the big match versus traditional home town rivals St. Anthony’s College where he struck a belligerent century (110) as a fresher in 70 minutes in a total of 327 runs for which he was awarded the much coveted Cricket Lion, though in 1971. It also turned out to be the fastest century by a schoolboy that season. Among those who toasted him at the Katugastota grounds were also his subsequent JKH Group Chairman Susantha Chaminda Ratnayake, who earlier, was striking different partnerships at Asgiriya at under 12 and 14 levels with his then captain and later International Cricket Council Chief match referee Ranjan Senarath Madugalle!! That was the status quo until that duo "migrated" to Reid Avenue!!

Lalith may have gone on to score back to back centuries in the big match after the 110 in 1970, but in 1971, he was cruising towards what would have been his second successive big match century, but unfortunately was run out at 79! The batsman at the other end – Niroshan De Silva, went on to score his century and was the other Cricket Lionsman with him in 1971. Lalith scored 48 in the second innings. He also scored a half century ( 67) versus his old school Royal as well. Being a left arm seamer, he also got 6/39 for Trinity versus Dharmaraja, 5/39 and 6/27 versus Kingswood and 3/32 versus Wesley. He also recalls how he had Thomian and Ceylon Schools opening batsman Kamal Samarasinghe (younger son of late Cabinet Secretary GVP Samarasinghe) trapped leg before in the first ball of the Trinity- Thomian encounter where the visitors were led by Ravi Sathasivam at Asgiriya in 1971.

Trinity’s 1970 cricket skipper - Nihal Ranjith Marambe ( later Major General in the Armoured Corps) also was Cricket Lion, having being the first Trinity Double centurion (202 n.o.) versus Kingswood that year which was only eclipsed last week with Trinitian Niroshan Dickwella scoring 212 . Lalith was also member of that epoch making Trinity Rugger XV as the Lock Forward under SP ( Sivali) Samarasekera which locked horns in the annual Bradby Shield encounter with the Royalists led by Jagath Fernando ( himself later JKH Deputy Group Chairman), and trailing 0-12 with fifteen minutes of the game left, won 16-12 at the long whistle. That encounter was titled by the then live radio commentator- Major RJB (Bob) Harvey (himself a Trinitian and later Business Development Manager of this newspaper) as "the death of a hoodoo- the most memorable Bradby of all!!"

That was the time that most of the centre three quarters did the scoring and they were brilliant, Lalith said. Trinity also had on the three quarter line- cricket, rugby and athletics triple Coloursmen Jayantha Weerasinghe (cricket captain in 1971) and Rohan Kulatunga who were both champion track sprinters. Winning the lines out was virtually impossible against the Royal forwards ( Maiya Gunasekera and Fred Amarasinghe) who were very tall and Trinity won the ball in the second phase, he recalled.

Among the others who played both cricket and rugby with him at Trinity were the openers Cuda Wadugodapitiya and Naresh Ratwatte ( and now Chairman Finlays Teas), Athula Unantenne ( centre three quarter and Centenary Cricket, Rugby and Badminton Captain, Athletics Coloursman, Senior Prefect and Ryde Gold medalist in 1972) Nihal Marambe (Fullback). Of the team mates who played only rugby with him were the halves combination of scrum half Nihal’s brother Tikiri Marambe and Fly Half Irwin Howie, both of them Trinity Rugby Lionsmen in 1971, and both of whom went on to skipper Sri Lanka Rugby with distinction

Lalith- the international sportsman

Lalith was selected in two separate interviews by no less than two JKH Group Chairmen- David Blackler and Mark Bostock, both of whom were on his interview Board. JKH was then a produce broking company and the diversification came in the post 1977 era with the economic liberlisation. "I was the only one who was picked among a galaxy of sportsmen and I don’t know how and why I was picked. Obviously, the liked me," he chucked.

Lalith in the process of his career, qualified as a Chartered Marketer (CIM-UK) and went to read for his Sri Jayawardenapura University MBA as well.

He also played Badminton for Royal and Sri Lanka while in school, but the knee injury that he sustained at the Trinity- Peterite rugby match in 1971 put paid to what may have been a fulfilling club or national rugby career. He played squash to maintain his fitness, he ended up playing squash for Sri Lanka. He lost the national championships narrowly, to Gehan Fernando, some fifteen years his junior. Lalith played in the Asian Championships beat some of the sides but not the better ones.

Having played Tennis, he won the over 35 national title. He also played Golf and went on to play for Sri Lanka. Having won the Mercedes Benz Country Finals in Sri Lanka, he also won the Asian Finals in Taiwan, making to the World Finals in Berlin. It was an amateur tournament with a handicap.

He was also a member of the National Selection Committee for both Badminton and Squash. He also served as the President of the Royal Colombo Golf Club, President of the Golf Union, an International Umpire for both Squash and Badminton for the events that took place in Sri Lanka, enabling him to give something back to the sports that he played with much passion and vigour.

Lalith is currently enjoying his retirement visiting the places that he could not all this time. He is passionate about travelling and wild life; whale watching at Mirissa.

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