Having served Aitken Spence for 40 years, the last four years of which were as Chairman and Managing Director and prior to that for two years as Managing Director/CEO, R. Sivaratnam retired yesterday. He will continue to serve on the Board as a non-executive Director.
After an outstanding career at Royal College, Colombo, where he captained the College Rugby Team, won colours in Tennis and Badminton, was a Senior Prefect and was the Regiment Sergeant-Major of the Colombo Regiment, which consisted of over 20 schools or 25 platoons, he joined Aitken Spence in 1960 as a Junior Executive in the Lloyds Insurance Division at a starting salary of Rs. 250. Speaking about his job interview with Mike Thornton who at that time was a Chairman of Aitken Spence, Sivaratnam recalls that what impressed him was the fact that he had reached the highest rank in cadetting, which a schoolboy could ever achieve. In fact very few Royalists have before or since achieved this position.
A contemporary of Ratna Sivaratnam once said, “Ratna thrives on challenges”. This appears to be quite true when one reviews Sivaratnam’s career. His first break came in the 1971 post insurrection period. The government of the day was following a policy of nationalisation and Aitken Spence found that most of its core businesses such as plantation management, shipping and insurance were being systematically nationalised. Hence the company decided to diversify into areas where the government would encourage private sector participation. One such area was Tourism.
Sivaratnam was summoned by his immediate boss M. A. Mack, and given the challenge of constructing the company’s first Tourist Hotel, which would mark the company’s entry into the Tourism sector. As Sivaratnam himself admits he was absolutely clueless about tourism but he accepted the challenge and firstly learned as much as possible about the business from friends and those at the Ceylon Tourist Board and Hotel School at that time. His first assignment was to provide the Board with a feasibility report, which was approved with some reluctance.
Together with his boss Michael Mack and his ‘guru’ in late years, the architect Geoffrey Bawa, he explored the South Western coastline for a suitable site. Having found it there were the series of negotiations and legal work and frustrating bureaucratic delays to get ownership. The final result was Neptune Hotel at Beruwala. Right from the start it was popular with the tourists who were captivated by its layout and location. It was also a ‘hit’ with Sri Lankans who flocked there on weekends for the much talked about ‘Sunday Buffet’.
After Neptune it was Triton at Ahungalla, which became the country’s first five star beach resort and became the company’s flagship hotel. Next was Kandalama, which proved to be the biggest challenge of all. Anyone with lesser resilience would have given up the struggle, but not Sivaratnam. Resilience was his forte. Kandalama finally turned out to be the company’s most prestigious hotel and a landmark in the country’s history in eco-tourism.
Aitken Spence Travels has now become the company’s second arm in tourism and one of the leading destination management companies in the country. However, there is no doubt that Sivaratnam’s biggest contribution to the company’s and the country’s tourism industry together with his deputy, Prema Cooray, was the entry into the Maldives. Here again there were tremendous obstacles to overcome. His was a lone voice, which spoke of the advantage to Sri Lanka having Sri Lankan owned hotels in the Maldives. While most of those in the industry looked upon the Maldives as a competitive destination he considered it as a complementary destination. Today it is the Maldivian hotels, which are bringing in the major profits to the company and with the increasing popularity of the concept of twin destinations bringing in additional tourists from the Maldives across to Sri Lanka.
Having put Aitken Spence on top of the country’s Tourism sector and having reached the top of the corporate ladder, Sivaratnam was not content to rest on his laurels. As Chairman he personally got involved in the company’s newest core business namely infrastructure development and with that into the power projects. There too the challenges were formidable. A less determined person would have given up or delegated the tasks to someone else. Instead of taking the easy way out Sivaratnam true to his nature, undertook the power projects as a personal mission. He was relentless in his pursuit for success. Today the two projects have got off the ground.
Aitken Spence is one of the leading Blue Chip conglomerates in the business of Cargo logistics (which include shipping agencies, freight forwarding, inland container yards and distribution parks and warehousing), plantation management (Elpitiya and Talawakelle plantations in a consortium with MJF Exports and Hayleys respectively), quality Printing and Packaging in a niche market mainly for exports and very recently into thermal power generation.
In the business world there is only one measure of success-what the financial analysts and shareholders call the bottom line. Under Sivaratnam’s leadership from 1996 company profits grew steadily from Rs. 58 million in 1996 with a dividend pay out of 14.4 million (10%) to Rs. 442 million in 2001 and a dividend pay out of 104 million (40%).
As he looks back Sivaratnam has every reason to be a proud and satisfied man. Today Aitken Spence is one of the leading "Blue Chips" with a financial stability and sound business base that very few companies in Sri Lanka can match. When asked what his message was for those still working and who will carry on from where he left off, he said, "I have instilled in my senior management that team-work is the key to success particularly in a large conglomerate. It is a fact that in the right formation, the lifting power of many wings can achieve twice the distance of any bird flying alone".
"One has to believe to succeed-the key to happiness is having dreams….the key to success is having dreams come true", he said.
Prema Cooray will assume duties today as the Chairman of the Aitken Spence Group.
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