Wednesday, 4 June 2014 00:00
Engineer, entrepreneur, philanthropist and wildlife enthusiast traces his journey over the years
Chairman of BAM Holdings and Honorary Consul of the Republic of Madagascar in Sri Lanka, Bamunu Arachchi Mahipala is a firm believer in discipline. While acknowledging that education is very important, he however asserts that without discipline, education is useless. “My dream is that we should have disciplined people in politics. A democratic country should have disciplined people running it,” he says, describing his dream for Sri Lanka in an interview with the Daily FT.A graduate in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Peradeniya, Mahipala harnessed his entrepreneurial talent early and started his own business enterprise soon after graduation, creating an organisation which generates annual turnover in excess of $ 100 million today. Partly retired now, Mahipala, a renowned philanthropist, divides his time between the Bamunu Arachchi Foundation and wildlife interests.An avid wildlife lover, Mahipala published a book titled ‘Odyssey into the Wild’ recently – an account of his expeditions in six continents and over 20 countries, capturing memories of nearly 50 years of his passionate relationship with nature.Following are excerpts of the interview:Q: You are an engineer by profession but your chosen career path has been in the garments industry for the last 35 years. How did your entry into the industry come about and what do you consider the most memorable moments?A:Entering the garment industry came all of a sudden. I passed out in 1971 from the University of Peradeniya as a Mechanical Engineer. From there onwards I worked for a private corporation, then at Insurance Corporation, then I was doing something on my own for some time. Next I went to the UK to do some higher studies but suddenly I had to come back because my eldest brother, B.D. Dharmasena, passed away. He was a wildlife lover who kindled my interest in nature when I was young. He passed away in 1974 when he had a heart attack while taking a picture of a tusker in Yala.
When I came back from the UK I joined Walkers; after that when the open economy came in with the UNP Government coming into power, I started doing some business – importation of motor vehicles. I built up some capital on that but after a while I asked myself whether this was what Sri Lanka needed, since I was burning foreign exchange. I realised that countries like Japan and Taiwan were always focused on exports. I thought I should start something that was export-oriented, so I started Colombo Garments with 45 machines and some partners. Subsequently we expanded to Miami Exports.
Today under BAM Group for garments we have Miami Exports, Perfect Garments and BAM Apparel and on the accessories side we have Thermo Plastics, BAM Knitting and BAM Export Services. The holding company is BAM Holdings, of which I am Chairman.
There were memorable times such as wondering how to get into the business at the start, whether I should continue with garments or not when I was running at loss, mismanagement issues, orders getting cancelled, banking liabilities, so on and so forth. But I had self-determination and wanted to go ahead. That was the turning point.
As an Engineer, I like to do a lot of projects. It’s my nature. When you look at the history, 90% of those in the garment industry are female. When I passed out in 1971, we had the JVP insurrection. At that time, you would find 50 females and 50 males in the insurrection. Then it came in 1989 again; at that time there were 90% males and only 10% females. During that period, the females had jobs. I told my people ‘we have created jobs for females, now we must create jobs for males’.
We had a property at Hanwella called Hanwella Estates, where we produced latex sheets. I said we should start producing a finished product and started the pioneering manufacture of latex examination gloves in Sri Lanka. To get this thin film was tricky but we started it and expanded from thereon. With finished products, we also get added value for foreign exchange.
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?A:My father died when I was six months old. You can see a man who grew up without a father, who respected his father a lot. My father was 53 when he had a heart attack in the late ’40s. My brother, who passed away in 1974, was more like a father to me.
Homagama is my hometown, but I studied in so many places. I am a Thomian. I went to S. Thomas’ Prep up to Grade 5, from Grade 6 I went to S. Thomas’ Gurutalawa, after O/Ls I went to S. Thomas’ Mount Lavinia. From there I went to University of Peradeniya.
At age 12, I was boarded at S. Thomas’ Gurutalawa. Life was fantastic. At first I thought the hostel was like a prison but later I really enjoyed it, with my friends who were from all over Sri Lanka. That life is something that still talks to me. It was about discipline. Education is something very important, yes; but if you don’t have discipline, that education is useless. You can have someone who has just passed O/Ls who is well-disciplined and he will be much better than the person who is well-educated without discipline. My schooldays were the best part of my life.
My mother was a teacher but when she got married to my father, she became a housewife. My father was married twice; his second wife was my mother. We never called each other stepbrothers and stepsisters; we were one family. I had three elder brothers and two elder sisters. Two brothers passed away and the other is in London, he is also an Engineer. Two sisters are here; one is married to a surgeon, Dr. H.S. Perera, and the other was married to H.A. Munasinghe, who passed away last year. He was the Surveyor General.
Q: What about life at school? How would you describe that time?A: At 66 and going back to those days, it’s completely different. Look at this phone and communication technology now. Those days you had land phones; to dial Colombo from home you had trunk calls. When you were in Yala, you had to come to Tissamaharama and get a call to Colombo. It was a different era.
When you talk about the economy, say you want to go to Singapore tomorrow. You go to a bank or the airport and get foreign exchange by giving them rupees. In the ’70s you could only take around three dollars and you needed approval from the Central Bank. Someone else has to send you a prepaid ticket. The first time I went to the UK, my cousin sent me a ticket. Then there were limited things you could buy, even if you had money but look at the supermarkets now.
However, the political environment then was much better. The people who entered politics were different, you had intellectuals in Parliament. They didn’t go there to do business; they were there to pass laws. For sittings they got some money, they never got duty-free cars. They didn’t get pensions.
Q: You met your wife while reading for your degree at Peradeniya University and her piano playing grabbed your attention. Could you tell us about her?A: I went to university in 1967. The first year I was in the dormitory but the second year you had to stay out. I was staying at a place on Peradeniya Road owned by a music teacher. When going up and down, there were various girls of 16 and 17. It was human nature to turn around and look at these girls. My wife-to-be was among them.
It so happened that I had seen her at a carnival and I thought she was a nice girl. Subsequently I saw her again at the music teacher’s place. I knew I was going to graduate anyway and didn’t want to waste time so we got married in 1971, just before my graduation. We have been married for 43 years.
Q: Could you tell us about your children and grandchildren?A: I have two sons and one daughter living and eight grandchildren – six boys and two girls.
Q: You are continuing in your father’s footsteps of philanthropy with the Bamunu Arachchi Foundation, with a focus on healthcare. Could you tell us about the foundation’s work?A:My father had a bus company and estates and so on. I was wondering what made my father build a hospital on his own land and give it to the Government rather than manage it himself and make money out of it. That puzzled me, but he did a very great thing. It was handed over in 1946. Ceylon then was under British rule.
In the late ’70s, they wanted to expand the Homagama Hospital and we had some land adjoining it. When they approached us, we gifted it to the Government. Subsequently in 2000, the hospital asked if we could build a paediatric ward. One of Dr. H.S. Perera’s daughters is a doctor attached to a Government hospital as a director and she told me she didn’t think that was what Homagama needed, so we got a master plan done and found that the need of the hour was an OPD.
I was wondering how to go about the project. First I thought I would put my own money and do something but then I thought I should form a foundation instead, so that all my relatives get involved in it. It was for participation; some may not be able to contribute in money but they can contribute in various ways. That was the start of the foundation.
In Phase I, I put my own money and built a three-storey state-of-the art building which can accommodate 600 patients. It was handed over to the Government of Sri Lanka on 16 February 2009. This date is very important. That was the date my father chose to open the hospital in 1946.
When my father built the hospital, he got the people of the area to help him, not in terms of money but manpower. In this case, a lot of people helped me in getting equipment for the OPD. The colonoscopy and endoscopy – the best in the world, of Olympus make – were funded by some of my friends and relations. Recently a doctor was telling me the equipment has done a great service not in detecting illness and then doing an operation, but in catching cases at the initial stage which can be resolved without big operations.
Phase I – Stage 2 is a 300-bed hospital. I said I had two sons and a daughter living. I had another son, who passed away on the day I opened the hospital, 16 February 2009, at the age of 30. I was so happy he passed away, because from day one he was invalid. So I thought I would fund Phase I – Stage 2 as well. Most of the beds were given my friends and relatives. That was opened on 16 February 2012 in memory of my son Gayantha.
The foundation doesn’t get involved in the day-to-day operations of the hospital. We help with whatever services the buildings need and look into whether things are happening properly. We also train doctors and staff on quality of service and teamwork and carry out seminars. The most important thing we are working on now is Phase II – Stage 1, the Operating Theatre. The opening date is fixed for 16 February 2016.Q: You recently published a book on wildlife. Could you tell us about your interest in wildlife?A:It goes back to my late brother, B.D. Dharmasena. He was an avid wildlife lover. I would join him when he went to Yala. We would get up at 2 a.m. and pack everything. Unlike today where you can buy everything in Tissamaharama, those days you had to carry everything from here. We would leave by 5 a.m. and take six hours to go to Yala. At the time Yala was famous for elephants; the leopards were there but they were shy. To be with nature is something very wonderful and interesting. If you protect nature, nature automatically protects you.My brother gave me one of his cameras, an Exacta, when I was 16 or 17. At that time focusing was manual, some people had light meters and you had to put the meter, open the aperture and take pictures. Everything was done manually and using film-rolls. Pictures were black and white. In the late ’60s, a company called Bin Ahameds started developing colour photographs. There in a picture in the book that I took in the late ’60s which was developed at Bin Ahameds. Now you can review your picture immediately; at that time you had to first come to Colombo and developing the pictures would take another week – one month would be gone by the time you saw the pictures.
After my brother passed away, I kept away for some time due to the shock. In the ’80s, my other brother Saranapala living in London used to come to Sri Lanka and then we started going to Yala again and taking photographs. In the late ’90s we went to South Africa, our first wildlife-related trip outside Sri Lanka. Since then I’ve been all over the world on wildlife tours.
I love tigers. I have been following a family in Ranthambore, Rajasthan since 2001. The icon of Ranthambore is a tigress called Machali, about 18 or 19 years old. The tigers running the place there now are her fourth litter. This litter had three females born in 2006 – T17, T18 and T18. They shifted T18 to another park, the other two were there.
T17 had a litter of three cubs. When the cubs turned one year old, the mother was missing. I was the first to find out that she was missing and I alerted the authorities. When it comes to wildlife, people have different priorities. Some are predators. Some take pictures, but some people are trophy hunters who kill animals. Some kill for economic value – tiger skin, tiger teeth and so on. Six years ago, on the India to China border, they opened a container and found about 600 tiger skins and 1,000 leopard skins. I can see that T17 has gone somewhere. I have taken pictures of her annually. T19 is still there and so are the cubs.
Today people tell me that a kilo of rhino horns fetches $ 300,000. We went to one of the parks last October in South Africa. The guide took out another phone when we saw a rhino instead of using his usual phone. When I asked him why, he said the poachers would overhear the conversation from the other line. Poachers are the biggest threat. People think the planet belongs to them, not to others. Animals have no say.
Q: What does a day in your life today entail?A:I have the hospital project. I am spending a lot of time on that to make it a beautiful thing. I also go on nature safaris, exploring the world. Then of course I am Chairman of BAM Holdings, although I am mostly retired. You should never allow money to control you. If you allow money to control you, that is greed.
Q: When you were growing up, what were your dreams and have you realised them?A:Growing up, especially during university time, being a graduate, that was free education. I thought I should give it back to the country. That is why I stayed here, became an entrepreneur and did all these things. The most important thing in life is to be an honest man and whatever you do in life, you should never hurt others – especially in business.
Q: What is your advice to corporate leaders today?A: Don’t let money control you. All the corporate people are using poor people’s money. The banks get deposits from poor people. What happened to Ceylinco and similar companies? They used depositors’ money. Who are these depositors? They are pensioners and people who got their EPF and so on. They put their earnings in these companies and they are still shouting on the road. What happened when the banks went bust globally a few years back? Take risks, but don’t take too much of risks using someone else’s money.
Q: Your words of guidance for the youth?A: Be disciplined. Everything else comes automatically. In today’s world, 90% is not disciplined. Recently I got a SMS saying a Pradeshiya Sabha man was killed. How? Why? In the papers I saw another fellow had asked a teacher to kneel. In the ’70s, we never had that.
Q: What are your dreams for Sri Lanka?A: My dream is that we should have disciplined people in politics. A democratic country should have disciplined people running it.
Pix by Daminda Harsha Perera