The first man to envision the Magampura Port, Founder Chairman and Managing Director of the landmark marine industry company Marster Divers and of Pelwatte Milk Powder, underwater diving expert, ship owner, and dairy man Ariyaseela Wickremanayake opines that the port can be converted into the largest in the region, and that by becoming self-sufficient in dairy products, Sri Lanka can save a mammoth US$ 500 Million annually.
Also a Director of Aitken Spence Plantation Management, Palwatta Sugar Company, Bogawanthalawa Plantations and several other companies, Wickremanayake spoke to BiZnomics about his life journey: building his empire, simple pleasures of life, and one’s responsibilities to the nation.
Initially tracing back his school days, Wickremanayake credits his Europeon teachers who shared their lives with the boys at the Jesuit School of St. Aloysius Collage in Galle by saying, “They moulded us students to become chivalrous men, and stamped in us that life is about service to others especially to our motherland, and not in serving ourselves”. he states.
As a youngster in the early 1960s Wickremanayake was down to admire the lifestyle of the highly paid British divers and fathomed of being one himself, with a niche carved as a national swimming champion. Although selected to the Peradeniya Medical Faculty, opportunity of realizing his dream came his way when the Colombo Port Commission called for trainee divers and effortlessly he made the grade.
Deep sea diving although is synonymous with risks, Wickremanayake’s capabilities, commitment and dedication to his profession stood out in his favour to be classified as highly efficient and productive in a comparatively short time. These also led him to become one of the most sought after, with newspapers splashing details of his skills and workmanship.
“At 23 a German company contacted me for a tow-year assignment in Saudi Arabia. During the first three months I worked over normal capacity and earned a fantastic US$ 16,000 a month” he says adding, “Everybody was shocked with my skills and abilities when I completed my assignments in a mere nine months. I collected a lump sum payment for the balance period and returned home with an unprecedented amount of money”
Wickremanayake pioneered a diving company named Master Divers in which at times 1500 were employed, and built his legacy. The Colombo Port Commission immediately engaged his services for the Queen Elizabeth Quay extension, the first container terminal on South East Asia which attracted American container shippers, resulting in Wickremanayake’s reputation expanding many fold. Shippers who faced complications in obtaining diving services from the government due to bureaucratic procedures turned to Master Divers, leaving Wickremanayake with a tight work schedule doing a typical daily dive between four to ten times which saw him breakfasting in the Trincomalee and lunching in Colombo before rushing to Galle, yet he claims that he had been nowhere in the ‘tired line’
Wickremanayake proudly explains the circumstances under which he became an owner of boats and ships: “During the early period when ships were anchored in the outer harbour, we were compelled to use pilot boats whenever available as there were no boats to go out to sea. As this became a hassle, I thoughtfully bought three boats from the Netherlands”. He continues in the same tone: “Another problem we faced was that although fuelling brought us good income, ships were unable to dock in for fuelling purpose. Fuelling was crucial and demanded urgent attention but the authorities were lackadaisical on the whole. I then stepped in and brought three oil tankers, got the necessary fuel from the Petroleum Corporation and satisfied the shipping industry with a prompt service.
When in his zenith, Ariyaseela Wickremanayake was invited to join the Board of Directors as a shareholder of Aitken Spence. It did not take long for other companies to spread their tentacles to grab hold of this master- mind entrepreneur.
With the lunching of the Southern Development Project in the 1980s Wickremanayake was deeply involved in the fisheries harbours in Galle, Kirinda and Hambantota. It was at this stage in 1996, preserving the strategic location of Hambantota in the sea lane between the Middle East and the Far East he conceived the thought of a harbour at Magampura, and devoted time to studying the locality. In ancient time civilisation flourished with temples abounding, and kings had their chief seat of government in Magampura at one end where rice production thrived and salt panning was the major industry in the coastal area. However, it took some time for Wickremanayake to convince the rulers of the country to implement his proposal which finally become a reality in November 2010 when his vision and endowment was realised, and the first ship sailed in to the harbour.
Wickremanayake laments that only two percent of what could be done at Hambantota has been completed so far. “The Hmbantota Port has potential to be the largest in the region. It lies beside on of the world’s biggest sea routes, and we should make proper use of it. A dry dock where ship repairs can be done should be constructed. This would enhance services provided. The hinterland agro- industries such as rice-based production and dairy-based products can be exported though Hambantota. Employment opportunities, direct and indirect, can be expanded, and even engineers could be provided with world-scale salaries”, he told a seminar on ‘Entrepreneurship’ organized by private sector engineers.
Switching on to the dairy industry, with statistics to support, Wickremanayake emphasise that the country had been self-sufficient in milk at one time. “Of the present cattle population of 1.2 Million only 240,000 cows are milked. Milking another 250,000 cows will make us self-sufficient in milk. We know how to churn our own butter, and also produce yoghurt, ice cream, and other value-added dairy products. We need not import dairy products at all. We even the technical knowledge of producing owdered milk. We can save US$ 500 Million annually in this way”, he explains. Wickremanayake’s Pelwatte plant already produces milk powder, ice cream, yoghurt, and butter – a quantity of which is exported.
By sheer face of commercial ingenuity an energy, the market has become an oyster. But Ariyaseela Wickremanayake has not hesitated to use the knife to prise it open and try to get at the pearls. He has launched the ‘Maubima Fund’ to give local producers a future’, as one with nationalistic feelings. He states that everybody should contribute his might to the country.
‘Country’ property considered is not just the soil or the spot of earth on which we happen to have been born, not the forests and fields, but that community of which we are member or that body of companions and friends and kindred who are associated with us under the same constitution or government protected by the same laws and bound together by the same civil polity. In other words, it is our politics and not our topography that gives us our true national allegiance. All the rest is just selfish bluster.
By : T V Perera
Image Curtsey : Eranga Pilimathalawwe