- Nihal Senaratne marks diamond jubilee in insurance industry today
60 years ago today, on 1 February 1953, Chairman of Senaratne Associates Nihal Senaratne commenced his career in the insurance industry, when he started work at Bosanquet & Skrine Ltd., a part of the Whittalls Group and the local agent for Liverpool & London & Globe Insurance Co. Ltd. Looking back, six decades down the line, Senaratne has absolutely no regrets, asserting that he loved insurance from the very start.
Seated at his office in Colpetty on the eve of this diamond jubilee, Senaratne exudes satisfaction – and with good reason. His achievements are many, having stayed in this industry for so long and contributed immensely towards its betterment, with a highlight being the key role he played in the denationalisation of insurance in Sri Lanka.
Senaratne’s father was eminent eye surgeon O.L.F. Senaratne and his mother, Loranee Senaratne, was a diplomat, who was Sri Lanka’s first lady ambassador (to Ghana and Italy). He is the great grandson of C.H. de Soysa, one of Sri Lanka’s greatest philanthropists. Senaratne received his education at Royal College, along with his two brothers, and was, in his words, “a sports fiend.”
Senaratne started Senaratne Associates Ltd. in 1979, with just two employees, after 20 years with the Whittalls Group. Today Senaratne Associates has 35 employees and is “holding its own” despite stiff competition, affirmed Senaratne in an interview with the Daily FT, which looked back at his life’s journey over the years.
Following are excerpts:
Q: How did your entry into the insurance industry come about?
I suppose I was in the right place at the right time. I was in school at Royal College and it just so happened that a vacancy had arisen at this British-owned agency house called Bosanquet & Skrine, which later became part of the Whittalls Group. A message was given to my father asking whether I would be interested. I didn’t know anything about insurance but at that young age when I was told that I would be send to England for training, it was enough of an incentive for me to jump at it.
Q: When you started out, did you think that you would stay in the field for this long and how do you feel about it now?
Oh I loved it. I was to go immediately to England but then my manager who was training me, an Englishman, who suggested that I should do part one of my Chartered Institute Insurance examinations before I go because I could then easily fit into the business world there. So I started studying for the examination and found it most enjoyable really; I loved the subject from the time I started studying for it.
Q: Could you describe a day in your life today?
I come to work every day and run the company as Chairman. I work half day from 8:15 to 1 p.m. and then take it easy and sometimes play some bridge. I have a daughter and son who have followed me in this field and my daughter works with me.
Q: When you were growing up, what were your dreams and have you realised them?
Initially more than anything else, I was thinking I would be able to follow a course in engineering. In my younger days I used to take things apart and then make them again so my parents thought I was an ideal candidate for engineering. But of course I switched to insurance and I have enjoyed every minute in the field.
Q: Going back to the early years, could you tell us about your childhood – where you grew up, about your siblings and parents and what life was like?
I grew up in Colombo. My father was an eye surgeon and my mother finally turned out to be Sri Lanka’s first woman ambassador and in fact had the distinction of being the first woman diplomat to set foot in Africa.
I have two brothers – my older brother is in Australia and my younger brother is in New Zealand. Life was good. With my father being a senior Government doctor, we had a Government bungalow at Brown Ridge Road. Actually, we happened to be only the second local family to get such a bungalow; they were all occupied by Europeans at that time. It was a good life and my father provided for us well.
My mother was someone who was very much engrossed in empowering women and together with Mrs. Bandaranaike and a few other ladies, I think it was that group that started the Lanka Mahila Samithi, which provided opportunities for women and less-abled people.
Q: What about life at school? How would you describe that time?
I was at Royal College throughout. In my time at school I was really a sports fiend. I represented the college in every single available sport at that time at some stage of the other. Cricket was really my first love, largely because of my father who in the early days was one of the first Sri Lankans to play for Ceylon. Later, he was a selector and a Board of Control member as well. He was so keen on cricket that he laid out a cricket pitch in our garden and we played cricket from our very young days.
I was an average student. Looking back I spent most of my time on sporting activities and not enough on studies.
Actually there was a big disappointment in my life. Although I represented college at every level from Under 12 to the 1st XI in cricket and was in fact the first-ever captain of the newly-started Royal 2nd XI and also played six out of the nine matches that season for the 1st XI, as a result of not playing for the Royal-Thomian, I didn’t get my full colours. This was a big disappointment, but I suppose this is how life works out.
In fact, the following December when I went and told Mr. Corea who was the Principal then that I had got a job and I was leaving, he was quite taken aback and said, ‘Aren’t you going to play for the Royal-Thomian this year?’ I said no and that I had to follow a career and had got a good opening which I would be taking on.
Q: Could you tell us about your family?
I have a son and a daughter and four grandchildren – three girls and one boy. Two of the girls live with me and my daughter; we all live together. Of course they are the lights of my life. Both my children are in insurance. My daughter works with me but my son has a consultancy firm of his own.
Q: Why did you decide to set up your own company and what were the key challenges you faced in doing so?
In 1961 to 1964, both Life and General insurance in this country was nationalised by the Bandaranaike Government. Before that time there was over 50 companies operating here, largely foreign, but then with this nationalisation came a monopoly.
I was all this time at Whittalls and Whittalls had just become an agent of the Corporation, where you just raise business and get a commission from the Corporation. Before that, we represented several overseas insurance companies as principal agents, which had a lot of underwriting and claim settlement controls. All that changed with nationalisation.
Whittalls’ main business was the management of plantations and they were the largest in the country, with something like 140,000 acres under their control. I asked to start on plantations, which they agreed to, and whilst overlooking the plantation division, I also undertook the management of plantations. Eventually I was a Director of the Whittalls Group.
Apart from insurance, I was also Chairman of the Colombo Tea Traders Association. Since I was handling plantations at Whittalls and used to represent the group, I was asked to take on the mantle.
I was with Whittalls for 20 years. I left Whittalls to undertake a project that I was offered in England to set up an insurance division for a particular group. I went to England for one year and when I came back, I decided that I should start my own insurance company.
This was in 1976 and at that time it was a monopoly and I could only be an agent of the Insurance Corporation. I also did a lot of consultancy work on insurance. Then in 1988, insurance here was privatised.
Actually, a fact of interest in this respect is that Sri Lanka was the first country in the world to denationalise insurance. That statutory provision also for the first time recognised insurance brokers. Before that we had no real official standing as brokers. Now of course we come under the regulatory control of the Insurance Board of Sri Lanka.
It was not easy to set up my own company. Actually I started off with two employees and gradually built it up. Largely I think for my good fortune there were a lot of people in the commercial sector I knew and who were aware of my insurance background and they began to give me various business insurances to handle.
Now we have about 35 employees and the company is holding its own, although competition is rife. We maintain a strict professional role.
Q: You have been in the insurance industry for 60 years. What do you consider the most memorable moment?
The most satisfying moments were when both my son and daughter passed the Chartered Insurance examinations. I must say they were the most satisfying moments of my life. They chose to follow this profession; I never persuaded them and it was of their own choice.
Q: Which would you single out as your best contribution to the insurance industry?
My best contribution was when I served as the Chairman of the Insurance Advisory Committee of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce for over 20 years, because it was during my time as Chairman that the chamber started discussions with the Government towards denationalising insurance. It involved a lot of hard work, with meetings going on till late at night and talking to various Government bureaucrats, as well as politicians, before it became a reality.
All this started with the 1983 riots, where there were a lot of different views expressed by the insurers concerned through the Insurance Corporation about whether there was liability or not followed by long delays in settlement of claims. This brought into focus the need to have a highly-competitive private sector-oriented market place for the consumers so that they might get a better deal.
The Insurance Corporation was the monopoly from 1964 and then they brought in an element of competition by starting the National Insurance Corporation, so in effect there was a Government duopoly, but it was the same thing with a different name, that’s all.
Representing the chamber was one of my most satisfying achievements.
Q: What is your advice to corporate leaders today?
To emphasise on all their employees the need for maintaining good business ethics, which I find is often lacking in many areas. As they say, business is merely the maximisation of long-term owner value by the sale of goods or services, whilst respecting the principles of distributive justice and ordinary decency.
– Pix by Lasantha Kumara