‘Lightning did strike twice in same place!’
* Retired George Stuart Co Ltd Group Chairman Somasundaram Skandakumar reminisces
November 2, 2012, 7:59 pm
March 30th 2008. The Ballroom, Hilton Colombo. The Senior Management and staff of the oldest corporate in Sri Lanka- George Stuarts, was hosting a farewell for its retiring Chairman- Somasundaram Skandakumar. However, what had left an everlasting impression for the company that he served with for an uninterrupted 34 years, was a video documentary portraying his entire life story, done oblivious to him. Deeply touched, tears rolled down his eyes.
A further highlight that he was visibly touched with, was the company’s 175 anniversary souvenir-a coffee table souvenir, also mentioned that his eight year tenure as Group Chairman, was the best in the annals of all time.
Skandakumar, joined George Stuarts in 1974 after graduating from the University of Ceylon (Colombo Campus) as it was known then, armed with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Pure and Applied Mathematics along with Chemistry. Soon, it was not lost on him that his employers George Stuart and Co Ltd, the oldest corporate entity in Sri Lanka and his alma mater – Royal College. Colombo 7, were both formed in the same year – 1835!
"We celebrated our 175th anniversary almost at around the same time. It was an extension to the culture that I grew up in at Royal Primary initially where one of the masters took me to the college grounds for cricket practice and I saw that famous quote from Sir Henry Newbolt " when the one great scorer comes to write against your name, what he writes not whether you won or lost , but it was how you played the game," which I carried not only into my commercial life but also my personal life………. the man who also once enthralled millions of Sri Lankan cricket fans with his scintillating and crisp radio commentaries from his stentorian voice, clarity of exposition and meandering eloquence, akin to river water cascading downstream, told this columnist.
Those were the values that I was accustomed with both at Royal and at the Colombo University. George Stuarts was the premium corporate for managing tea plantations with gilt edged reputation and core values until I realised the uncertainties of life two years later, he said
Contrary to the popular axiom that "lightning will not strike the same place twice," Skandakumar believes that lightning did strike the company and the Group he worked for, twice within a span of 20 years, one after the other!
Reminiscing, all he could portend was a mere wry smile, or at most, a lecherous leer ! One was the nationalisation of estates in 1976 and the other was the LTTE bombing the Central Bank building on January 31, 1996, a few metres away from Stuart House, having a damning impact on it later.
George Stuarts, primarily and almost exclusively into the management of Plantations, saw them all acquired by the state under the nationalization program with no compensation to the Agency House and so and 99% of the Group income eroded almost overnight !. The staff was retrenched. A career which was taped out and two years later, was in disarray.
A short stint as a Regional Manager of the Janatha Estates Development Board in Nuwara Eliya but George Stuarts and then Chairman Trevor Moy personally summoned him back with no break in service. " Trevor Moy was Chairman and he told me, ‘Skanda, we do not have anything firm to offer but we are restructuring and would like to have you back " He was the gentlemen among gentlemen and my mentor," Skandakumar reminisced.
Then, another tryst with destiny. The government changed and President J.R. Jayewardene opened the economy. New lines of business , but also funds pouring in with the arrival of new global banks such as the Bank of America, Citibank, American Express, ABN AMRO and others. With the gilt edged reputation it commanded, GS was deemed as good as the Bank of England and so facilities for new ventures was no problem, he chuckles
That also had its own negative aspects as well. The company had brilliant management personnel but with very little or no hard experience in managing commercial operations. They failed to monitor businesses they got into. The company arose from its slumber five years later and found that it was in the red to the tune of Rs. 200 million plus in 1982. A prime block of land of 10.5 acres that it owned at Nawam Mawatha overlooking the Beira Lake, was sold in its entirety to liquidating borrowings. The commitments were honoured but the family silver was lost.
That was a very unsavoury transition in the GS annals where a perch sold at Rs. 100,000 then, but, is now valued at Rs. 4 million. But, that was history, he recalled.
The second was on January 31, 1996 when the LTTE lorry bombed the Central Bank which devastated Steuart House the Head Office building which was also at Janadhipathi Mawatha, directly opposite the beleaguered building.
In April 2000, he was appointed Chairman, and it was an anxious start as there were concerns by the auditors of the ability of GS to continue as a going concern, mainly because of the post recovery period of the 1996 bomb. His Deputy Chairman Jayantha Wimalagooneratne who succeeded him as Chairman was a tower of strength and with the unflagging commitments of the subsidiary Directors, the company was steered to heights undreamt of in its history. The next eight years were exceptional and was where we built GS to what it is today, he said.
There were the National Gold Awards which the company and the Group won including one for tea exports with Skandakumar in the chair, and this was deemed decisive for a company which had a gilt edge reputation in managing plantations at the time he started on the Executive cadre after graduation.
Another gesture of goodwill on his part at retirement was that he offloaded a generous part of his shareholding at GS, then limited exclusively to the Main Board Directors, at 50% of the value to a newly created Employees Share Trust, on the express understanding that those shares would be made available to the directors of the group’s subsidiary companies. That was his way of saying thank you to each of them for their contribution that made his tenure so successful. "They will be aware that there was a 100% premium on those shares when they exercised their option" he said.
He still has nostalgic memories in being the Manager of the Jewellery Division of George Stuarts in the early 80’s where the company was supplying jewellery to Cartier and Garrards the latter, being jewelers to the Queen of England and the Royal family. He recalled his visits to their offices in Paris and London as being awesome. With that also came the Presidential Award for Jewellery exports, in 1982, the first time such an award was made to that industry. Sadly the 83 riots put that line of business into disarray.
In September 2011,another significant turnaround, his predecessor Scott Dirckze and successor Jayantha Wimalagoonerate negotiated the sale of their shares to investors Dilith Jayaweera and Nimal Perera. His personal stake by then down to 7 percent he too followed suit.
"If GS were to fulfill its real potential it needed equity funds. One option was to go in for a listing or invite capital from special investors. Operating businesses entirely on bank borrowings had its disadvantages he noted.
He also was happy with the transition and manner in which Dilith Jayaweera was running the Group. Some of Dilith’s businesses outside the GS Group such as Finance, Inbound and outbound travel,,Engineering have the goodwill of the GS name, which was positive.
Pay back time
He walked away from commercial life upon retirement in March 2008, as he sincerely believed it was pay back time for all the opportunities he had, and the benevolence of Providence that saved his life in the aftermath of the Central Bank bomb.
So in Haputale in a modest retirement home he is into various charities that he did not wish to elaborate on as they were personal to him. However he did mention ‘Oru Paanai", ( one plate or pot ) a UK based approved charity of which he chairs the Sri Lankan branch that is currently providing 33,000 children in over 300 identified schools in the north and east of Sri Lanka with a single nutritious midday meal.
Reflecting on his Life he said, I have taken a line from the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, as a guide in trying to "BE THE CHANGE THAT I WISH TO SEE IN THE WORLD........".