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OPERATING SEVEN HOTELS – Part 44

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CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY

By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil

President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada

Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum

chandij@sympatico.ca

At the beginning of 1981, I was transferred to the John Keells corporate office in Colombo. I was proud to get this opportunity to work within the largest group of companies in Sri Lanka. I had been promoted from my previous post of Manager, Hotel Swanee to number two of Keells’ hotel company, Hotel Management & Marketing Services Limited (HMMS). My wife and I quickly settled in well into the Colombo social life style with regular trips to Keells hotels on the weekends. I also re-commenced judo at the Central YMCA. Having stopped judo for six years to focus on building my career as a resort hotelier on the south coast, I was happy to get an opportunity to practice judo, and study for judo grade promotion tests once again, whenever my busy work schedule allowed me to do so.

It was a big adjustment to get used to the corporate culture of John Keells which was very different to the living in and working at resort hotels. Since the nationalization of tea plantations by the socialist government in the early 1970s, John Keells commenced diversifying to multiple industries, including tourism and hospitality. In 1981, some 33 years after Ceylon/Sri Lanka gained independence from British colonizers, John Keells was still headed by two Brits (Chairman Mark Bostock and Deputy Chairman David Blackler). Nevertheless, I liked the atmosphere at the head office as John Keells had a unique and dynamic culture. It faced the historic Beira Lake built by the Portuguese colonizers in the 16th century to prevent Colombo from being re-captured by Sinhala kings and their armies.

John Keells Corporate Office in 1981

Having associated with the group’s chairman since 1972, initially through rugby football and then as a hotel manager, I was an admirer of Mark Bostock. I was extremely grateful to him for fully sponsoring my first, overseas trip and training in London in 1979. My personal friendship with him continued in 1984 when my family was invited to visit his family in their home in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent for an overnight stay during my graduate student years in the United Kingdom. Later in 1985, he supported the re-hiring of me to John Keells to manage their two largest hotels (The Lodge and The Village) as the General Manager.

Mark Bostock, was a great visionary leader but a little eccentric. All the executives came to work in our company cars dressed in shirt and tie, but our chairman took pride in coming to work on a scooter from his home in Colombo seven. His usual attire was a white shirt, no tie, white shorts and long white stockings, exactly the way he dressed for work during his early career as a tea planter. He enjoyed a good drink. One day at an office party, his wife was annoyed that he had a couple of extra drinks. She stopped addressing him as ‘Mark’ and said to him, “Bostock, time to go home. I will drive!” They left immediately. She was a very proper English lady and they made a good couple. I also knew their daughter Clair who was studying hotel management in the United Kingdom.

In addition to the directors, senior executives, executives and secretaries, there were office aides who served us excellent tea regularly. They also brought us our mail and office memos. During this pre internet and email era, we depended on them to have speedy inter office communications. One of the earliest memories at the corporate office that I fondly remember is how Mark Bostock often distributed memos from the Chairman’s office personally. “How are you settling in the head office, Chandana?” he asked me in my first week during one of his visits to my office. “Here are some memos for you”. He handed over a few papers to me and left very quickly. It was his clever way of getting some exercise while checking different offices and engaging in a causal conversation with all levels of his vast growing team.

At that time, most of the directors in the top of the group hierarchy were tea specialists or chartered accountants. They usually hired male management trainees with a middle-class English-speaking upbringing and from good schools. Most of those trainees had excelled in sports. These trainees were in their late teens and had no post-secondary education. John Keells tended to hire the attitude and train the skills. Those who learnt the ropes quickly and were dynamic, rose rapidly in the corporate ladder to board positions with impressive stock options. Once they got in, hardly anyone thought of leaving John Keells. They played a “long stay ball game” which provided job security, fun and great career prospects. They also had to play corporate politics and watch carefully where the wind is blowing.

In 1981, we knew that ‘charismatic’ Ken Balendra was destined to become the first Sri Lankan chairman of the group within a few years. Since he had such a good relationship with the two Brits at the helm, some of us in a light-hearted manner, referred to him as ‘Blackstock’, of course behind his back. We also fondly referred to him as ‘Ken Bala.’ One day when I addressed him as ‘Sir’, he tapped on my shoulder and said, “Chandana, call me Ken.”

Having managed the Maintenance and Projects Department at John Keells for a few years, my father-in-law, Captain D. A. Wickramasinghe (Captain Wicks) had been promoted by the board to re-organize and manage the outbound travel company of the group, Silverstock. That company focused on Buddhist pilgrimages to India and Nepal.

As all at the corporate office worked a half day every Saturday morning, I was ready in a shirt and tie for my first Saturday at John Keells. “Chandi, change into something more casual on Saturdays which is the Beer Day @ Keells”, Captain Wicks suggested to me. When I asked for clarification, he said that, “On Saturdays we work for a couple of hours catching up on outstanding work and plan for the next week. Then everybody is served beer and we socialize a little before going home for lunch.”

Building a Corporate Hotel Team

Hotel Management and Marketing Services (HMMS) was a small office at that time as it was started in 1979 with just two people, Director – Operations, Bobby Adams and his secretary. I became the first Manager – Operations in 1981. Our team quickly expanded to have an Engineer, Credit Controller, Hotel Reservations Coordinator and a Management Trainee. There was a vacancy for a Food and Beverage Manager on my team, so I initiated the recruitment of a well-qualified and experienced hotelier who had been educated in Beirut, Lebanon and at the oldest and the best-known hotel school in the world, The École hôtelière de Lausanne, Switzerland (Chris Weeratunga) to that position. Later, when I left John Keells, Chris was promoted to my position.

Accounting and financial services were provided by a team led by Senior Finance Director, Vivendra Lintotawela (who later in the year 2000, became the Group Chairman). He was very focused on raising our average daily room rates. Sales and marketing support was provided by Walkers Tours. The central purchasing unit of John Keells coordinated most of the purchases for our hotels.

HMMS team managed seven properties in 1981. There were four resort hotels on the South West coast – Bayroo, Swanee, Ceysands and Ambalangoda. I often went to Habarana to be engaged in operational projects at the Village and for pre-opening projects for the Lodge. The Kandy Walkin project (later opened as Hotel Citadel) was still in the planning stage, but I used to occasionally go to the Keells holiday bungalow on that site with my family and friends visiting from Austria. It was a beautiful spot close to the Mahaweli River.

Managing Temple Trees, the residence of the Prime Minister and his family, was a demanding management contract. I visited Temple Trees occasionally to support Fazal Izzadeen, our manager there and his team. Given the personal friendship Bobby Adams had with Prime Minister R. Premadasa, the Director – Operation had to be personally involved in managing this prestigious property. Being a perfectionist, Mr. Premadasa did not tolerate any sub-standard quality in maintenance, upkeep and cleanliness. Fazal did a great job in keeping the second family of Sri Lanka content with the services we provided, and more importantly, off our backs.

In Colombo, we had negotiated to take over the management of Ceylinco Hotel. “Finally, the Ceylinco deal was signed and sealed today Chandi. I would like you to take over the management of this hotel and re-organize it from now on. I know your style, and as you prefer, you have a totally free hand”, Bobby informed me. He knew that I had a personal friendship with the Ceylinco Group Chairman, Lalith Kotalawala, which was useful in taking over Ceylinco Hotel housed in, at one time the tallest building in Sri Lanka. Lalith and his wife Sicille, loved Hotel Swanee, where they used to visit occasionally when I was the manager there.

Taking over the Management of Ceylinco Hotel

One of the first things I did at Ceylinco Hotel was to have one on one discussions with each member of the management team of Ceylinco Hotel. The hotel manager decided to leave after the change. My choice for the new manager was to internally promote the Food & Beverage Manager of Ceylinco Hotel, Kesara Jayatilake as the Hotel Manager. Bobby thought that we should appoint a manager experienced with HMMS, but when he realized that I was very keen about Kesara, Bobby agreed with my suggestion.

With six popular restaurants and bars, this hotel needed a manager who was a specialist in food and beverage operations. In addition, I was impressed with Kesara’s well-established social connections in Colombo. After his promotion as manager of Ceylinco Hotel, Kesara was extremely loyal to me until his untimely death a little over a decade later, after managing a few well-known hotels in Sri Lanka, such as Lihinia Surf and Browns Beach Hotel. He was my good friend and I sorely missed him.

The rooftop restaurant of Ceylinco Hotel, Akasa Kade was a charming place. It was famous for its Sri Lanka specialities including egg hoppers. Music for dancing at Akasa Kade was provided by the popular band named after its legendary band leader and the lead singer, ‘Sam the Man’. It was also very popular for business lunches. I loved going to Akasa Kade in the evenings

I transferred a few food and beverage management and supervisory stars who worked with me at other hotels, to Ceylinco to strengthen Kesara’s team. We introduced theme events and opened a new evening restaurant using the front car park of the building which was never full after office hours. After brainstorming with the new management team of Ceylinco Hotel, we developed a concept unique to Sri Lanka in the early 1980s and gave the new restaurant a Sinhala name – ‘Para Haraha’ (Across the Road). It was the first ever side walk café in Sri Lanka.

An Assignment in Hong Kong

In the midst of my busy schedule with HMMS, Bobby Adams entrusted me, on short notice, with a very special assignment in Hong Kong. He wanted me to quickly plan and organize a large Sri Lankan and Maldivian food festival at the Hotel Furama InterContinental, Hong Kong. It was an important, two-week tourism promotional festival, in partnership with a few organizations. They were represented by well-known leaders of the tourist industry, such as M. Y. M. Thahir of Walkers Tours, Pani Seneviratne of Ceylon Tourist Board and Ahamed Didi of Universal Resorts, The Maldives.

The InterContinental Hotel Group was expected to be represented by a senior Sous Chef from their five-star hotel in Colombo. The festival included 28 large buffets for lunch and dinner over 14 days, promoting Sri Lankan cuisine and a few dishes from the Maldives. The Hotel Furama InterContinental had agreed to provide three of their cooks to assist the Guest Executive Chef representing Sri Lanka.

At the eleventh hour, the Executive Chef of Hotel Ceylon InterContinental, who was a Swiss-German, had refused to release his second in command to travel to Hong Kong. He had been concerned that the support in Hong Kong was inadequate to produce 28 large buffets over 14 days. He wanted three Sri Lankan additional chefs from his brigade to be provided with air tickets to Hong Kong. That request was not accepted by Air Lanka, the airline sponsor of festival.

The reputation of Walkers Tours (a key subsidiary of John Keells Group) as the main organizer of the festival was at stake. Bobby asked me, “Chandi, we need someone like you to rise to the occasion. Can you please help our company by organizing all aspects of food for this festival in Hong Kong?” I planned the menus, calculated quantities of all ingredients and purchased a few key buffet decorations on the same day from Laksala, and took off on an Air Lanka flight to Hong Kong the very next day. Having ceased to be an Executive Chef, two years prior to that, it was a challenging assignment for me, but I always loved a challenge!

During the flight, I was thinking of my father’s advice given to me just before my trip. He said, “Chandana, try your best to do even a short trip to China after the food festival. Future global tourism will be divided into two – China and the rest of the world! Don’t miss this opportunity.” As a former state visitor to China in the 1950s and the author of the first-ever Sinhala book about China in the 1960s, my father had a deep knowledge about China’s past and the present. Therefore, I was not surprised by his prediction for the future, although in 1981, it was difficult to imagine how China would eventually become one of the four top tourist destinations in the world.



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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