Rienzie T. Wijetilleke celebrates 50 years of banking
Fifty years ago, on 31 October 1960, a young man walked into Bank of Ceylon to accept his letter of appointment. He started work at the bank the next day, 1 November.
The young banker in question was none other than Hatton National Bank (HNB) Chairman Rienzie T. Wijetilleke, a colossus in Sri Lanka’s banking industry. Now celebrating an astounding 50 years in banking, Wijetilleke is still standing strong at the helm, at 70 years of age. Following are excerpts of an interview with Wijetilleke as he approaches this monumental milestone:
Q: Can you single out a major milestone in your 50 year career?
A: There are more than one, but the most significant one was my leaving a very lucrative job in the Middle East at a time when my eldest son had just entered university in London from Dubai and my younger son was getting ready for his university education. I was invited by the HNB management to rejoin HNB. To take up the challenge, I believe, was a very significant milestone, which has given me good results and immense satisfaction.
Q: What was the turning point in your banking career?
A: Leaving Bank of Ceylon and joining HNB in 1971 was a major turning point.
Q: Which would you single out as your best contribution to banking?
A:Developing a younger generation of bankers not only in HNB itself but through associations such as the Association of Professional Bankers, which I founded with some senior colleagues and also my contribution to the development of the village economy and making the poor people bankable, recognising their strengths and resources and helping their further economic progress.
Q: What legacy do you leave at HNB and for the banking sector in general?
A: HNB is well run now. For the past five years it has been run by a very smart Managing Director and the Board of Directors are overlooking the operation with the new governance rules and ethics and others requirements. We have to make sure that the directors are much more accountable than in the past.
I believe the values we have established in HNB, quite apart from the material gains that the bank has created, is one of the legacies. The values that we have established, bearing in mind that we are handling other people’s resources at all times and ensuring that we look after those in the best interests of the stakeholders overall, is the most important factor, which I would like to see continue.
Q: Where did you fail in your career? Do you have any regrets?
A: I have no regrets or failings as such. However, when we embarked on putting up HNB Towers, we had very sound reserves and a very good profit base. That was in the mid ’90s when the economy was booming. The Board of Directors, with my strong backing, set upon making a huge investment on this structure which we now call HNB Towers. I believe at that time, when there was pressure on me from the regulatory authorities requesting me to stop building or cut down on the size of the building because we had insufficient capital. Our profitability had come down due to outside problems such as the security situation and the Central Bank bomb blast and things like that. I wondered whether we had taken a wrong decision, but thank God it turned out to be all good. That was the only seriously worrisome situation that I faced in my 50 years of banking.
Q: What is the immediate challenge for the banking sector and what are the key challenges in the medium term?
A: An immediate challenge for the banking sector, as I see it, is to be participating in the tremendous growth opportunities that are available to this country after a traumatic 30-year period. I strongly believe that the banking sector has a major role to play in exploiting these opportunities and identifying the growth sectors on the basis of short term, medium term and long term results.
The short term results require immediate infusion of capital and investments. Investors should be given confidence and barriers removed. To cite an example, tourism and construction sectors require immediate investment for quick returns. We don’t know how long these sectors will remain strong. Then sectors such as roadways, health and education require medium to long term investments. The banks have to look at those as well.
Most importantly, the banking sector has to join up with the Government sector and take the economy forward actively. I say this because the banking sector has 90% success stories whereas the Government sector has much less success stories.
However, for growth to come to this country, Government participation – particularly in relation to infrastructure development and provision of essential facilities to the villages – is of utmost importance. Without such things, the banking sector’s contribution will not become visible.
We have to make sure that the people exist not just for survival but that they transform themselves – I’m talking about the SMI and SME sectors and the village people. They should start looking at their future and the country’s future from a commercial angle and start developing themselves and also contributing to the economy. More equitable distribution of growth in the country will only take place if that proper attitude is adopted.
Q: Where would you like the Lankan banking sector to be in the next five to 10 years?
A: The banking sector has to at all times essentially be in the lead, because we are a part of the international financial structure. Take technology, take professional development, take outward appearances – physical and well as material – we have to be in the forefront for the country’s economy to do well. In that context, the Lankan banking sector has got to play a major role not only in the next 10 years, but right along.
Banking sector professionals have to have a good mix of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values, going very closely with ethics and standards. This is very important for the banking sector to take forward the economy and the country.
Q: Your advice to young bankers and those aspiring towards a career in banking?
A: Young bankers must remember that they should not endeavour to be in the comfort zone in their professional lives. Today there is risk management, which is a very famous term. I am very sorry to tell you that the present young risk managers think or believe that risk management is taking no risks. They should learn to take risks and mitigate the risks and also realise that if they want to actively participate in the economic development of their organisations, the industry and the country, they should not seek protection, sheltering or tolerance and at all times they must remember that they must act according to their conscience and also look out to make best use of opportunities that come their way every moment. If they understand the order of their priorities – of course, their families will come first – but then they should also everything possible next to develop and do their best for their organisations, the industry and then the country.
Q: Do you plan to retire any time soon?
A: At 70, what more do you want me to do?
Q: Does that mean you will be stepping down?
A: No, I will not be stepping down. I have not been told. Having done this job and having HNB be my bread and butter, nobody will just expect me to walk out of the bank. But I have indicated to the directors and the board my keenness to call it a day. But when they can do it and when they are going to do it is entirely left to the Board and the shareholders. As for me, I cannot leave if I feel that the Board will be stranded by my leaving. I am waiting for the day – sooner rather than later.
Having been 50 years in the industry and especially 23 years in this organisation as the head of the bank, I don’t expect the person who takes over as chairman to do everything that I did, but if a new chairman or whoever who comes will understand the values, strengths and potential of this organisation, I’ll be the happiest man to leave sooner rather than later.
Pix by Daminda