FEATURES

Simon (Sriyantha) Senaratne: Lawyer, CEO & Leisure Business Visionary

Published

on

With Simon at the Bavarian German Restaurant and Pub in Colombo in 2023

PLACES, PEOPLE & PASSIONS (3Ps)
Part five

Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
chandij@sympatico.ca

Profile

Simon is the founder and Precedent Partner of ‘Simon & Associates’, a well-established corporate law firm. He was the first Managing Director of ‘Walkers Tours’ the leisure arm of John Keells and led the development of their first hotel – Habarana Village. He was also one of the first Sri Lankan investors in the Maldives leisure industry. He is a social activist, an active Rotarian, and a past President of the Sri Lanka YMCA movement and the Ceylon Bible Society. His wife, Anthea, a short story writer, and Simon have two children and three grandchildren.

I have met Simon only four times over a period of 46 years: in 1977, 1980, 1983, and then after 40 years, in 2023. Each meeting was special, and I was inspired each time…

A Low-Key Leader

When I commenced working in resort hotels in the south coast of Sri Lanka in 1973, Walkers Tours & Travels Limited (later rebranded Walkers Tours) was the most influential and the leading tour operator in the island. They represented two of the largest European tour operators, from West Germany and Denmark, who were actively promoting tourism in Sri Lanka. Young hoteliers in the south coast loved dealing with fun-loving and friendly people who coordinated the Walkers Tours operations at hotels during that early stage of the organized tourism in Sri Lanka. They made us feel that we all were a big family involved in the building a young leisure industry in Sri Lanka.

Walkers Tours team who interacted with us regularly included Sri Lankan travel trade legends such as Norman Impett and Neville Arnolda, as well as their younger colleagues such as Christopher de Alwis, Bobby Jordan, and Jansi Ponniah. However, we only heard very little about their boss, who was a young lawyer, Sriyantha (Simon) Senaratne, who had been appointed as the Managing Director of Walkers Tours in 1971. Our friends respected their boss, who was the key business strategist in the corporate office but did not interfere with the operations experts of his company. That reflected the leadership style of a visionary leisure industry leader.

As a part of the business expansion vision of the Managing Director, Walkers Tours entered the hotel industry in 1973 with a unique project in a remote area – Habarana. After that Walkers Tours soon became the leader in hotel management in Sri Lanka. Just before the opening of the Village, Simon and his team finalized an agreement with Dr. Neville Fernando to manage his Hotel Swanee in Beruwala. After that, within the next two years, Walkers Tours took over the management of three other hotels. Those were Hotel Dulmini in Beruwala owned by a local businessman, Sanasuma Hotel in Weerawila owned by film idol Gamini Fonseka, and Hotel Ceysands in Bentota owned by Lalith Kotelawala. That was the foundation of the largest hotel company in Sri Lanka today.

Simon having a relaxing meal at home with close family – (L to R) granddaughter Audrey, Simon, wife Anthea, grandson Akash, son-in-law Dinesh, and daughter Sonali

Our First Meeting in 1977

In the summer of 1977, Walkers Tours decided to organize a one-week-long coach tour around Sri Lanka for representatives from all hotels in Sri Lanka providing rooms to their clients. As the Assistant Manager and Executive Chef, I represented Coral Gardens Hotel in this tour. It turned out to be a fun-filled, thank you tour. It was a great, public relations initiative by Walkers Tours with their hotel industry partners.

The day after the trip when I returned to the Coral Gardens Hotel, Captain D. A Wickramasinghe (Captain Wicks), called me. He said that “I now work at the corporate office of John Keells/Walkers Tours Group, and I need to meet with you urgently to discuss something very important.” We met the next day. He explained that Walkers Tours had taken over the Hotel Ceysands management from the owners – Ceylinco Group, and Captain Wicks was appointed as the General Manager of Hotel Ceysands.

“I report to a fine gentleman, Mr. Sriyantha Senaratne, who has given me a free hand,” Captain Wicks said. I told him, “I have heard so many great things about Mr. Senaratne, but never had the pleasure of meeting him, yet.” After a few weeks, I joined the hotel re-opening team of Hotel Ceysands, as the Executive Chef and Food & Beverage Manager. I met Mr. Sriyantha Senaratne for the first time at Hotel Ceysands during our pre-opening period. I had a brief chat with this soft-spoken gentleman. I was impressed to hear that it was he who initiated the Habarana Village hotel project, despite a few barriers.

Job Offer in 1980

In 1980, Mr. Sriyantha Senaratne now as the Managing Director of rival company – Gemini Tours were completing the Sigiriya Village project. I was approached by the architect who designed both Habarana Village and Sigiriya Village – Somaratne de Silva, who made an offer to me to be the hotel opening Manager of the Sigiriya Village. “Simon and I are very impressed with you, and we would like you to join us” he said. It was an attractive offer, and I met Simon to thank him, but I did not accept the offer.

Chief Guest in 1983

In 1980 I married Captain Wicks’s daughter, and a year later commenced a family business with him – Streamline Services (Pvt.) Ltd., initially as a travel agency specializing in outbound travels, in Nepal, India and Thailand. As a Director of the company, I ran the Streamline Hotel Management Training Section. We had lectures on Saturdays and Sundays. With the increased business and student intake, we organized two award ceremonies a year.

Captain Wicks and I decided to invite two industry leaders whom we highly respected, as the chief guests of our award ceremonies – Mr. Herbert Cooray (Chairman of Jetwing Hotels Group, as well as the Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka) and Mr. Sriyantha Senaratne (Managing Director of Gemini Management Services Ltd.). At the brink of the commencement of the civil war in Sri Lanka, he gave an inspiring keynote address to my students.

After meeting Mr. Senaratne at our 1983 awards ceremony, I lost touch with him for 40 years. Soon after the war started, I left for the United Kingdom to do my graduate studies, and Mr. Senaratne returned to his first love – law.

Simon at Work

Re-connection after 40 years in 2023

After reading an episode of my newspaper column: ‘Confessions of a Global Gypsy’ dedicated to my time as the General manager of The Lodge and The Village, Habarana, I received more than the normal volume of reader’s mail. One was a long e-mail from a person with whom I had no contact for forty years – Mr. Sriyantha (Simon) Senaratne.

He wrote to me: “Chandana, this is a voice from the past. I have been following with great interest your series of articles on your life in the leisure industry appearing in the Sunday Island. Firstly, I want to thank you very much for the kind references that you have made about me personally in some of your articles. I would like to mention the background to Habarana Village, which almost did not happen.”

After exchanging a couple of further e-mails, he kindly agreed to collaborate with me in writing a question-and-answer article. During my last visit to Sri Lanka in March and April in 2023, we agreed to meet him after 40 years, in the well-appointed office of his law firm located in Galle Face Court II. After a nostalgic chat when we caught up our news of four decades over 40 minutes, he asked me: “Chandana, do you like German food?”

He then hosted me to lunch at the nearby Bavarian German Restaurant and Pub. Over lunch, I asked him the following 10 questions for this article. After that we communicated over a dozen e-mails clarifying and re-writing sections. As the old saying goes, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch!” especially when you are hosted by one of most successful corporate lawyers in the country!

Q: Out of all the places you have visited in Sri Lanka and overseas, what is your favorite and most interesting place?

A: Japan stands out in my memory as the most interesting, evocative and outstanding place I have visited. As one arrives you are immediately transported to an entirely different world and culture than you have ever experienced. The culture, manners and the discipline stands out in exceptional contrast to other places. Their rock gardens leaves you mesmerized. They are the most talented, cultured and most polite people I have ever met.

Mr. N. S. O.Mendis

Q: Out of all the inspiring people you have met, who inspired you most?

A: I am an octogenarian and have been inspired by many people in my lifetime. At Trinity College I was exposed to the most committed and dedicated staff, who moulded my character. At the university it was Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, a charismatic personality, brilliant intellect but yet a very simple, a down to earth human being. He taught me in life not to stand aside, but always to lend a hand to the less fortunate segments of our society.

In the law – At Julius & Creasy it was John Byrnell, the partner under whom I worked. He advised me “remember when you first meet a client he comes heavily burdened with his problems, when he leaves you, he must leave with the feeling that his burden is now on your shoulder.” He aptly summarized the very ethos of the profession, which has guided me all my life. In business – N. S. O. Mendis.

Q: At the present time, what is your key passion in life?

A: I have always believed that education is the only way to break through poverty. My wife and I make it a priority in our lives now, to fund the educational activities of the economically marginalized children in remote villages. We work in remotes villages in Anuradhapura, Vaharai and surrounding villages in the East Coast and in the deep South. I believe we have to give back what we have received.

Q: In leading a law firm with 500 corporate clients, what does your schedule look like on a normal work day?

A: During my early days of setting up the firm, I would work long hours virtually every single day, meeting clients, meeting counsel and travelling to sites which were of interest to my clients. Having established the firm on a good foundation, we have a brilliant, talented and efficient team of lawyers and chartered secretaries in whose hands I can confidently leave the nitty, gritty of running the firm. I still work every day, but with a lesser intensity. I balance my life, spending a lot of time with my family travelling together, working on our charity projects and reading widely and voraciously.

Q: In 1970 when you returned to Sri Lanka from the USA, you worked for one of the great corporate leaders in Ceylon of that period – Mr. N. S. O. Mendis. What are the key lessons you learnt from him?

A: Mr. N. S. O. Mendis had an extremely keen mind. He lived a simple life. In business he had a legendary ability to make investments. His visits to London were reviewed with apprehension by the sterling company directors, as they always wondered whether they would be the next acquisition. He had an excellent reputation with the London banks. In his operational style he left the day to day management entirely to the Directors whom he appointed and would have a fortnightly discussion with them.

The biggest lesson I learnt from him was when he told me “Sriyantha, in your business and professional life never ever lose your temper with the person sitting opposite you. Whatever outragous remark he would make, listen patiently and calmly and only then answer – a word spoken in anger can never be taken back.” I have never forgotten that lesson.

Simon (Sriyantha) Senaratne LLB, Attorney-at-Law

Q: At the age of 30, when you became the Managing Director at Walkers Tours, you were new to the leisure industry, but led a team of highly talented and experienced leisure industry professionals. How did you handle that?

A: When I became MD of Walkers Tours I had no experience whatsoever in the leisure industry. I was fortunate that there were experienced professional hands who were running Walkers Tours. In particular I would mention Neville Arnolda, and Norman Impett. I also recruited Christopher de Alwis who was an excellent PR person. I worked with the team and made them feel that they were partners and I believe that helped. I soon became quite experienced having met the CEO’s of the then two existing significant travel firms in Europe Hugo Stinnes, President of Neckemann Reisen and Pastor Krogager of Tjæreborg. They were very knowledgeable and I learnt much from them.

Q: By leading the Habarana Village project, as the first village style setting of a hotel in Sri Lanka, how did you make Walkers Tours, an innovative trend setter for others to follow?

A: I studied the operational pattern of the company and realized that the margins as a travel agent were extremely thin, but the highest margins were made by the hotel operators. When I analysed the tour patterns, I realized that most tourists visiting the cultural triangle divided their time between Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. I saw an immediate opportunity for a hotel in a central location, as that would enable a three night stay in one hotel. Accordingly the idea for Habarana Village was born and of course it set a trend with the kind of village style cottages that were set up, instead of a conventional style hotel. For this concept credit belongs to the visionary architect Somaratne de Silva. This was a trend setter. I also believe that it set up another trend whereby travel companies also became owners of hotels where they were able to control the whole package.

Q: As one of the first Sri Lankan investors in the Maldives leisure industry, how did you inspire other organizations to follow your footsteps?

A: I visited the Maldives because I observed that some groups were travelling from Colombo to the Maldives and they spoke very highly of the Islands. At that time there were no direct flights from Europe to the Maldives. I visited the main island Male and an island called Vellasaru. I was struck by the pristine beaches and the turquoise blue water, the fish, of different shapes, colours and sizes, swimming around your feet as you got into the water and you could wade far into the sea as it was protected by a reef all around.

We had nothing comparable to that in Sri Lanka. I was struck by the contrast. I had a gut feeling that Maldives would in a few years be a magnet to tourists from all over the world, as each island captured privacy, as the other islands were spread far and wide in the Maldivian archipelago. I suppose the fact that I had invested in a hotel in the main island and in another separate island, made the industry here sit up and take notice.

Q: As a social activist, an active Rotarian, and a past President of the Sri Lanka YMCA movement and the Ceylon Bible Society, what were your main contributions to our society?

A: As President of the Rotary Club of Colombo North, the YMCA and the Bible Society, I became totally immersed in the activities of each different Society. My contribution to each of these societies was to ensure that their primary objects were properly funded, and encouraging and motivating a team to give of their best. The Rotary is a society which serves the community in welfare work.

It helps individuals, villages and projects in urban areas, helping to uplift the living standards of the people they reach out to. The YMCA too is a social movement that undertakes similar activities but is founded on the Christian principles. The Bible society is primarily involved in printing, publishing, distributing and translating the Bible to as many people as possible, thus spreading the word of God.

Q: You have worked very hard as a CEO for over 50 years. How do you balance your work and family life?

A: It has been a principle in my work life that I do not carry a file home. My home life has been devoted entirely to my wife and children and I ensured that I spent as much time as possible with them and in particular when I needed to travel during my involvement with the leisure industry, whenever there was a conference out of the country I would take my entire family. I think my children benefited greatly being exposed to different cultures. Also in my hotel visits I would as far as possible take my family. As a matter of routine in my children’s younger days I would drop them at school and re-arrange my schedule to personally pick them up from school.

Next week, 3Ps will feature the Sri Lankan Chef par excellence, and a National Treasure…

Author