The Econsult Asia research team visited Cubby Wijetunge at his residence at Charles Avenue where in retirement he enjoys a simple yet elegant life style in a pristine environment. We were anxious to learn about his journey toward a Corporate Leadership in his stellar career whilst speaks for itself and the wealth of knowledge and experience gleaned during this time.
It is important to mention that during a career spanning over 50 years where he interacted socially and intellectually with top corporates and foreigners alike, Mr. Wijetunge remained true to his Sri Lankan roots. His home and his life style boasts of a simple elegance with a local flavor, inclusive of traditional furniture. Cubby sat with our team and talked freely, imparting a deep reservoir of knowledge and experience whilst allowing us insights of his views on many subjects proving to us Sri Lankans as to why he remains a Giant in the Industry.
Cubby Wijetunge known by his friends as Cubby – is a proud product of one of the country’s leading school’s St. Thomas’s College, Mt. Lavinia. Growing up his only ambition was to join the Sri Lankan Army upon leaving school. However heading the advice given by his parents he abandoned the idea and pursued a career as a Tea cum Rubber Plantation Manager in the areas of Uva, Kandy and Sabaragamuwa. His plantation career began in the year 1958 and spanned over a period of 16 until 1974 when he retired from the plantation sector as a Visiting Agent of over 15,000 acres managed by George Steuart & Co. In 1973, Mr. Wijetunge was appointed Director of Whittalls Estates & Agencies Ltd. becoming the youngest director to be appointed to the Board. However, in late 1974, Ceylon Cold Stores Ltd. was in need of a dynamic Leadership and Cubby was appointed as Chief Executive Officer representing Whittall Boustead’s. He proudly speaks how ‘Elephant House’ manufactured the bulk of the food and beverages locally due to the then import restriction systems prevalent in the country, and of how Elephant House became the much sort after household brand ranging from fresh milk and ice creams to a vast range of frozen foods such as their famous sausages as well as the Elephant House Ginger Beer. Thereafter, in 1983 Cubby joined the world renowned multinational food and beverage company Nestle as food and beverage corporate affairs and recently retired with an honorific title Chairman emeritus of Nestle Lanka PLC.
‘’How do we get out of the box’’
In 1994, Cubby headed the Industrial Association of Sri Lanka i.e. the Industrial arm of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. His main task here was to ensure that the Government sought a degree of protectionism and support for local manufacturers with a view of ensuring that the local products retained their ability to complete in both the local and international markets.With a view of achieving this insisted the Government introduce and implement policies that would support the local entrepreneurs subject to them maximizing the use of local resources in national interest for economic and social progress. He spoke of few names such as his guru the late Mallory Wijesinghe and giants like Sohli Captain, Ken Balendra, the late D.S. Jayasundera, the late Michael Mack, the Akbar Brothers, the Gnanam family, Micky Wickremasinghe, Merrill J. Fernando and late Edgar Gunathunga who were corporate personalities, their achievements and their contribution towards the development of our island nation. How they were instrumental in scouting out those from rural schools and developing local talents and grooming the new generation Corporate Leaders to take over the private sector for the future. He went on to say that whilst working in the Private Sector and the Multi-National Sector he was also well exposed to the public sector. He voiced his belief in the role the public sector has to play as facilitator, promoter, regulator, financier and navigator in the development of Sri Lanka and its need for honest technocrats and support staff following best practices and maintains their integrity at all times. He emphasized on the need for ‘profit motive’ sustaining private enterprises and a balance sheet free of barnacles.
Whilst reminiscing, Cubby fondly remembers, how the late President J.R. Jayawardena suggested that he should give something back to his country by managing some State owned enterprises. This resulted in Cubby taking up the challenge as Managing Director of the Fisheries Corporation. He was involved in the Central Bank reform process with the IMF Resident Head, Dr. Nadeem Ul-Haque. He also spoke of having a few interesting arguments with former Governor, the late Mr. A.S. Jayawardena regarding dollarization. Cubby was also involved in the Tax and Financial Sector Reforms. He also spearheaded the famous De-regulation Committee. He has served as a Board Member of many State enterprises, including the Bank of Ceylon and Securities & Exchange Commission. He strongly feels the way forward is impeded as Sri Lanka is over regulated in all aspects and far too bureaucratic. He explained that we need much simpler and less cumbersome procedures and less Government involvement in order to install a highly efficient economy.
However, he stated that he believed that certain enterprises can play a lead role in the development of our country. “When I was highly involved in the private sector, I saw potential in some of these Organizations, and personally think, in my considered opinion, that the Bank of Ceylon, Peoples Bank, Ceylon Electricity Board and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation should not be privatized”. The Water Board, in his view, should be a regulator, but the generation of water and its distribution has to be privatized to develop that industry which has a huge potential. He was strong in expressing his views on rail transport stating that “privatizing the management of railways was vital, whilst the Government retained ownership. Such a policy is worth pursuing”. “The Government requires, to a point, competent and responsible people to manage enterprises, accountable to the shareholders – a leaf they can borrow from the private sector corporate culture. This thought is applicable to all Boards of Directors and the managements that run those enterprises, and it is their responsibility not to burden shareholders.
He was quite radical in his view on taxation, which he argued that only the Western Province should be liable to modest taxes, and the rest of the country dependent on a low VAT regime, thus making Sri Lanka a new haven to attract worldwide investors with no strings attached. Quoting his own exposure to the Central Bank, he says the Central Bank must have confidence in the market. Our well known entrepreneur took this opportunity to send a message to political leaders and the public service. ‘THINK OUT OF THE BOX AND BE BOLD AND HAVE THE GUTS TO IMPLEMENT REFORMS’. There is no other way by which Sri Lanka can be made progressive – a country that is a better place to invest, a better place to live and a safe country for our tourists as well as our citizens. Let us make Sri Lanka a proud place in the world.
‘’Think local – Act global’’
I do not believe in ad hoc Public Sector Reforms – suggest to the Private Sector to re-evaluate their concept of Corporate Social Responsibility. The current Interest Rates are far too high. It should be and can be lowered by arresting waste. Cost of power/electricity should be lowered. We need to pursue obtaining power from garbage.
Such a policy will be a better one, and sustainable in the long term, rather than power generated from coal. We have so many other safe options, but despite issues, we may need to explore nuclear power as a last resort. With regard to foreign policy after 1948, Sri Lanka as a Nation has not been able to manage its affairs. History, unfortunately, proves to be so. For example – Do other countries trust us? Sri Lanka must be in a position to tell other countries that we are a trusted partner. We need to lead from the front, and we need to unite within the country as a priority. Thinking out of the box, why can’t we re-examine a way for Casinos to be established in Sri Lanka, and ways and means of giving other employment to our people.
‘’I am, you are, we are, SRI LANKAN’’
By: BiZnomics Special Economic Correspondent
Photography by: Chameera Dasun