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Ken Balendra’s impact on John Keells

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

Much information is available in the public domain about Deshamanya Ken Balendra (KB), the visionary Chairman of the John Keells Holdings Group (JKH) from 1990 to 2000, who recently celebrated his 81st birthday. For quite some time, I have wanted to pen a tribute to the great man but hesitated to do so as I felt many others ranging from his close friends from school days to those who worked closely with him, are more qualified than I to write about him.

However, given his advancing age and health challenges, I felt that it was my duty as a former employee of the JKH Group of over twenty-five years to express my admiration and appreciation to a man under whose leadership JKH forged to be the largest conglomerate in the country.

Leader par Excellence and Numbers Savvy

Great leaders are a rare breed, whether in politics, sports or business. Arjuna Ranatunga is acknowledged to have been an inspirational leader. He was not the best batsman in the team. However, he galvanised others to perform to their maximum capability, created an ethos of self-belief and risk-taking and used his instincts to strategize a winning formula and backed potential players. Under his astute leadership, a world cup winning team was assembled. I do not think too many will disagree that KB did the same with JKH over a more extended period and left a solid foundation upon which his successors could take JKH to even greater heights. Just as Arjuna is synonymous with Sri Lanka cricket KB will always be synonymous with JKH.

Having joined the JKH Group in 1993 as an Assistant Manager, I was appointed as a director of a subsidiary company only about a year before KB retired in 2000. My day-to-day interactions with him, therefore, were minimal. Still, his influence and leadership style were ever-present in the working environment. My early recollections of him were how he smiled and greeted whomever he met when walking along the corridor. Despite his stature, he seemed friendly.

However, I soon realized that most of my superiors were pretty nervous or even petrified when preparing for meetings with him. As a member of the finance team of the hotel sector, I remember extensively collating figures and information for them before a meeting. They all knew that KB was pretty savvy with figures. In the book “They call him Ken”, authored by Savithri Rodrigo (SR), the former Group Finance Director Anushya Coomaraswamy expresses her amazement at KB’s grasp of numbers despite not having formal financial training. She further states, “He expected answers for questions he brings up and stops you peremptorily in the corridor if he wants an answer. So, you had to have the facts and figures at your fingertips. That is the kind of training which keeps you on the ball. If you didn’t have the data he wanted, he was not happy, and he showed it!”

Work Ethic and Super Sense

of Humour

The JKH culture was built around the principle “play hard, play smart, play together and have fun.” The Chairman was undoubtedly an embodiment of such a work ethic. Moreover, his sense of humour was legendry amongst those who worked closely with him. Many anecdotes are chronicled in the book referred to in the previous paragraph and Richard Simon’s account of JKH titled “Legacy”.

The one that I enjoy the most is how KB as a board director, had requested David Blackler (DB), the then deputy chairman, to get board approval to buy a new vehicle for the company trading in diamonds to replace the sad-looking Sri Lankan assembled Upali Mazda. KB felt this was necessary to be on equal footing with the wealthy gem merchants who used to turn up in rather expensive cars. However, DB had said that this would not be possible as the board was, in any case, weary of the project. So, the story goes about how KB then proposed that DB, a white Englishman, dress up as KB’s chauffeur as none of the gem merchants had a white chauffeur! KB had felt that this should negate the disadvantage of arriving in a dilapidated car! I am sure the story has undergone a few alterations over the years, but hopefully, the readers will appreciate KB’s humour.

Succession Planning

One of KB’s most profound and far-reaching decisions early into his tenure as Chairman of JKH was appointing Susantha Ratnayake, Ajit Gunewardene and Anushya Coomaraswamy, all in their early thirties, to the Board of John Keells Holdings Plc. It was highly unusual for Sri Lankan companies or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world to appoint people as young as that to the Main Board of the holding company that was also listed. As SR in her book says, “His perceptive judgement of people has proven to be spot on.”

No doubt in appointing them, he was thinking of succession planning, a crucial but often neglected aspect of leadership. He undoubtedly would have been pleased when Susantha and Ajit took over as Chairman and Deputy Chairman in 2005 and successfully steered the group to even greater performance for nearly 15 years.

During KB’s tenure, senior management was structured into three layers known as “A” team, “B” team, and Team 2020. Although it might sound hierarchical, it was more a case of fitting people to slots where the seniors could mentor them and also give them an indication of their future path in the group as long as they kept performing. Team 2020 comprised talented youngsters he believed would be in senior management of JKH by 2020. Coincidently when I retired in 2018, nearly 80 per cent of the twenty senior-most had been at JKH for more than two decades.

Significant Investments and Initiatives during the decade

The substantial investments and initiatives JKH undertook under KB’s leadership are explained below. They have all stood the test of time and have contributed significantly to the company’s bottom line over an extended period.

The acquisition of the Whittalls Group in 1991 for Rs 300 million was to prove an excellent decision. At the time, however, the investment was considered risky by many in the private sector. The two Whittals hotels were in financial difficulties due to the civil war raging from 1984. In addition, Ceylon Cold Stores (CCS) was under government control, and the unions were ruling the roost.

Nevertheless, the deal gave JKH ownership of two hotels (291 rooms) in Bentota and Hikkaduwa, and CCS, the manufacturer of Elephant House soft drinks and ice creams and nine acres of prime land in Colombo. Despite severe challenges, particularly from the unions, the JKH team comprising Sumithra Gunasekera, Raji Goonewardena and Jit Guneratne slowly but surely brought about the necessary changes to CCS to be a highly profitable enterprise and compete on equal footing with Coca Cola on market share. As a result, I believe the initial investment was recovered in less than five years.

In 1994 JKH raised US$ 35 million by issuing Global Depositary Receipts (GDR) from overseas investors. It was a first of its kind by a Sri Lankan company, and its success was a feather in the cap of JKH and KB and his team comprising Kailasapillai, the deputy chairman, Ajith and Anushya. The issue of GDR taking place amidst a civil war speaks volumes of KB’s vision and confidence in JKH and, of course, the investors in JKH. The JKH share has been the most sought after by foreign investors, and until recently, nearly 50 per cent of the shareholding was with foreign investors.

In 1995 the JKH Employee Share Option scheme was introduced and launched. I believe we were one of the first to introduce this rewards scheme in Sri Lanka. Once again, it was a brilliant initiative to bring a sense of ownership and loyalty amongst the management staff. Undoubtedly, the scheme’s success in the ensuing years enabled many of us who worked at JKH in that era to build a secure financial future for ourselves.

In 1996 JKH invested in the Maldives by acquiring an 80-bedroom hotel. It was our first overseas investment, and I was fortunate to be involved in the acquisition. Our management team comprising of less than ten quickly transformed a “dead” hotel into a thriving property. When I joined JKH, I realized that one of JKH’s great strengths was its systems and procedures and was thrilled to see how seamlessly they were implanted in the Maldives. Jagath Fernando, the then MD of the Leisure Sector and Jayantissa Kehelpannala, the Head of Sales, Marketing and Operations, provided excellent leadership that contributed to our success. As a result, the investment was recovered in a record quick time of fewer than four years. Given the lucrative returns, JKH quickly added more properties to the portfolio in the Maldives and it is now a significant contributor to the group.

In 1999 JKH and P&O, a renowned international shipping line, and several others entered into an agreement with GOSL and the SLPA to develop the South Asia Gateway Terminal (SAGT). This was after four years of arduous negotiations. The project was the brainchild of Susantha Ratnayake, the then head of the transport and logistics sector of JKH. A great story that is part of JKH folklore is how when Lord Sterling, the Chairman of P&O, had said, “Ken, do you know that the issued capital of this company is going to be about a hundred million dollars and we from P&O are putting in twenty-six million dollars. What can you do?”

Without batting an eyelid, KB had said, “We’ll match it.” Vivendra Lintotawella, the then Deputy Chairman and Susantha had a shock and thought, ‘Chairman, has gone bonkers.’ However, KB explains in the book ‘Legacy’ that JKH had the money from the GDR issue. That SAGT has been a highly successful investment is to state the obvious.

Retirement from JKH and the Legacy

On 31st December 2000, KB retired from JKH and handed over the baton to Lintotawela. It was the end of an era for us all who had worked with him. During his tenure, JKH had grown to be a highly diversified conglomerate with the highest market capitalization on the Colombo Stock Exchange. In its December 1998 edition, Fortune magazine listed JKH among the top 10 stocks in Asia.

However, for most of us, his impact as the first Sri Lankan born Chairman of JKH went way beyond just numbers. His skills as a visionary leader, combined with his uncanny ability to select and promote people who can deliver, made many of us perform that extra bit which is the difference between being good and excellent. He made us believe that anything is possible and wanted his team to “think big.” It was a way of life. For many of us, JKH was “the family.”

In her book, Savithri sums it up quite appropriately “What most old hands cannot forget is that Ken was inextricably linked with both the past leadership and pending legacy of John Keells. Some would even venture to say that John Keells is what it is in the present largely because of Ken – an assumption that Ken, with his usual modesty, dismisses lightly.”

In my view, the ethos that he created has resulted in JKH being voted as “the most admired” corporate entity in Sri Lanka for decades. Undoubtedly, those who succeeded him have continued his excellent work and even built on them. I was mighty pleased to read recently that the JKH Annual Report was voted the most transparent. I am not surprised because that is the culture that has existed in the group.

Charming, Charismatic yet Outspoken Statesmen

Despite being a hard taskmaster, as his former boss, David Blackler, says, ” Bala’s personality was a fine blend of charm and charisma, an asset that was a much sought after commodity in a rapidly expanding and diversifying conglomerate.” No doubt a quality that benefitted JKH immensely over the years when dealing with politicians, overseas business partners, diplomats and even tricky superiors and subordinates! Given JKH’s significant exposure to the leisure industry, relationships with our overseas business partners during the civil war were crucial.

Romesh David of JKH says in the book, ” In the chaotic aftermath of the 1983 riots saw major charter tour operators, many of which were global giants, retain their commitments to Sri Lanka based solely on the assurances given by Ken, driven by the confidence and close personal rapport they had with him. Being articulate, personable, warm, and friendly added to his charm and the building of some strong business relationships in his time.”

The book by SR includes a pictorial representation of a Reuter report titled ” Private sector needs guts.” The article, I believe, was published in 1994. It states, ” Mr Balendra, who as the chief executive officer, has guided the fortunes of the 125-year old company since 1990, is one of the few private-sector bosses unafraid to express strong views on the country’s political, economic and social fabric.”

KB had said, ‘The private sector should openly be able to criticize the government, suggest policies. That does not mean we are in politics,’ The report goes on to say, “His outspoken views have probably caused the company trouble. It fell foul of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa two years ago and was the target of a vicious campaign by rivals and state-owned media.”

I doubt my article has done sufficient justice to Mr Balendra. I feel I have just touched the tip of the iceberg. I am sure many will write with greater authority about the Corporate Colossus, who was voted by LMD in 2003 as the most effective business leader in Sri Lanka since the country’s independence in 1948.

I wish to acknowledge Ms Savithri Rodrigo, the author of the book ” They Call him Ken.” From which I have quoted in my article.



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Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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