“Simply Professional”: that was what he was



Upatissa Hulugalle

Remembering Upatissa Hulugalle

By Podinilame (DMP) Dissanayake

“Simple” would be the one word I would pick to describe him: simple in character, approach and attitude. His brilliance and acumen was wrapped in simplicity that would put any client, authority or commoner at ease in equal measure.

His father, the famed journalist HAJ Hulugalle, named him Upatissa, an alternate name of one of the chief disciples of the Buddha, Arahat Sariputta.

Upatissa Hulugalle (UH) had his early education at Trinity College, Kandy (TCK), where he excelled in studies and sports. He represented the school at Rugby, Cricket and Athletics and was sent to Christian College in South India for higher studies at the age of 16-years when his father noted the boy’s inclination towards leftist ideals. In India he earned a BSc with a second upper and converted to Catholicism in the process.

On his return to Ceylon he completed his Chartered Accountancy exams in the first batch of the institute in early fifties and formed one of the oldest audit firms in the island with Mr Gamini Wikramanayake and went on to become a versatile and creative financial consultant; arguably one of the best.

I, having passed the finals of ICA many decades thereafter, and the institute refusing to admit me for associate membership for good reasons (as I had wandered off from the required professional accounting career), was forced to hunt for audit firms for due completion of my accountancy examinations.

The versatile artist late Jackson Anthony (“Panaputhra”) time and again iterated his firm belief in fate. It was my fate that I met Harin Hulugalle, a contemporary at school, down Galle Road quite by accident.

This was many years after my leaving school and after years of his foreign sojourn on higher studies. Having listened to my predicament Harin mentioned that his father, Upatissa Hulugalle, was planning to revive, the then defunct audit firm Hulugalle Wikramanayake & CO (HW&CO).

The following day I was seated at a table by the side of the receptionist at UH’s office at Rotunda Gardens, Kollupitiya around noon, awaiting his call for the meeting arranged by Harin when a friendly figure emerged from nowhere, and embarked on a conversation with me. When the informal and friendly chat continued for well over 15 minutes on a variety of unrelated subjects amid loud chuckles and laughter, I politely made it known to him that I had an appointment with Mr Hulugalle.

“I say men I am Hulugalle, when can you join us?” he said amid a series of belly laughs. It was followed by a quip …”so man how was the Ryde House “satyagraha”; Harin had let the cat out of an infamous activity at school!

I decided to go along with his offer despite receiving other invitations seemingly with more prospects. His stark simplicity and fame as a financial wizard may have tilted me towards that decision. His financial wizardry however was an art which he was shy of practicing for his own gain; he lacked the skill of drafting invoices!

Revival of HW&CO, apart from dreaming of reaching the heights it once enjoyed, was far from easy. The rented property at Rotunda Gardens in Kollupitiya was very well suited for a medium size professional firm. It was in close proximity to “Temple Trees” and adjacent to the location was a busy YMCA property in addition to the famed “Tharanga” musical enterprise headed by Wijaya Ramanayake (in appreciation of whom the actor politician Ranjan adopted his name)

The initial momentum and gusto with which the firm began with three experienced partners (Upatissa Hulugalle, W.K.Karunaratne (WKK) and I.V.A Gunathilake] withered away in less than two years, with IVA leaving the partnership to go it alone and WKK (an England & Wales qualified Chartered accountant with Canadian exposure) who was the driving force of the practice, infusing it with the much appreciated procedures and work ethics he had imbibed from foreign climes, pursuing other business interests.

So the reins were transferred to a junior team – myself and Vishvalal (Lal) Kadirgamatamby, UH opting to be a silent partner making himself available for very select and exclusive consultations.

UH was associated with several professional firms while HW&CO was dormant, and he left his important clients at those firms when he moved on in the typically benevolent style he functioned in throughout his career. The new HW&CO was left to attract new clients and assignments which it did slowly and surely. UH’s fame in the bygone era, along with WKK’s connections attracted many institutions.

We sought assignments from the Auditor General, attracting a positive response on par with other old audit firms. Audits of government controlled banks, plantations, corporations were awarded to us with Mr Gamini Epa, AG at the time inquiring whether we could manage.

UH was dynamic but auditing was not to his liking and nor was it his forte. He delighted in strategizing modes of enhancement of net wealth in a balance sheet rather than ascertaining whether the numbers presented a true and fair view of the status of affairs in a business. This he considered a technical exercise.

We reached out to our senior dormant partner for two reasons: for his signature and when some clients requested to meet up with him for tax strategies. Most interesting sessions I had with him were when we had chit chats after work; not on work or even distantly connected to work related matters.

His comments and views on politics, social issues, ancestry of important personalities etc. depicted the vast array of knowledge, connections and contacts he possessed. He genuinely treated all humans as equals, though he was well versed with the local caste hierarchy and knew who belonged to what caste in ample detail delightfully declaring how his extended family was a conglomerate of most castes in the country.

This was the period after UH’s consultancy days with the famed Sri Lankan businessman Upali Wjewardena and the series of articles he authored with Vijitha Yapa to “The Island “on the “Man in a million”.

Though his fame, in the popular mind, revolved around Upali, he guided many other relatively unknowns towards successful entrepreneurship. He advocated diversification and quick grasping of opportunities afforded by the environment (business and regulatory).

Once through a close contact I was able to arrange for him and one of his prodigies to take a detailed tour of the giant steel corporation factory in Athurugiriya. UH was suggesting that the youngster, who had inherited a textile business and ventured into garment manufacture through UH’s guidance, to explore opportunities in the iron industry (recycling scrap iron). UH made it appear simple and I wondered how this youngster would switch from garments to iron that simply. Well, later UH moved him on to a metal more solid than iron and the youngster operated very successfully in the gem industry (cutting, polishing and exporting).

UH had a flair for agriculture and farming and talked extensively on the subject. Most of what he said was miles over my head. Knowing that I was from a business family, time again he advised me to get back to my roots. ‘I say man you people have feel for money, get back to Rambukkana”.

Once we did a round on his Godagama agricultural property when he advised me to buy an adjacent property on sale at Rs. 4,000 a perch. “This whole area is going to be a hub of activities in 20 years” he told me. It took only 10 years for that to happen and I missed the deal.

If my joining HW&CO was fate, my abruptly leaving of the firm too was also that. An opportunity to seek advantage abroad fell on my lap at the time that the insurrections that exploded in the northern and southern parts of the country.

I met UH in Los Angeles years later and had the opportunity of inviting him for a radio discussion, conducted by the veteran journalist Deeptha Leelaratne on his “Tharanga” program, sponsored by Channel KPFK of Southern California. This he graciously accepted.

Around two decades ago I visited the ancient Hulugalle village, seeking treatment from a famed veda-mahattaya in the area. The slow moving queue was rather long and my turn was to come around midnight. That was an opportunity for me to mingle with the people and wander around. I saw the remnants of the Hulugalle walauwa and listened to folk tales told by the villagers.

The veda-mahattaya’s wattoruwa (prescription) given to me included a few rare herbs (veda kalamana) found only in that area. The villagers volunteered to go into the surrounding jungle at dawn to find them for me refusing any financial reward other than a benevolent wish of “bohoma pin”. It was in the same spirit of non-pecuniary reward of a “thank you” for services rendered, expected by Colombo’s financial wizard Upatissa Hulugalle!

I made it a point to visit him at his Asoka Gardens home during my frequent visits to Sri Lanka and saw the gradual decline of the property and that of its owner, similar to what happed to the Mahagedera in Martin Wickramasinghe’s classic “Gam-Peraliya”.

When I initially met UH, he was in his mid-fifties, during which time he frequently mentioned that the period lived beyond 60 would be considered bonus years. He enjoyed his bonus for 35 years, which ended on the Xmas day of 2022.

To the devout Catholic he was, I would say “Rest in Peace dear boss”; and as a follower of his ancestors’ doctrine I would wish his presence among us in his sojourn in samsara until he attains the supreme bliss of Nibbana.

(The writer could be reached at pdissa72@yahoo.com)