by Sumi Moonesinghe told to Savitri Rodrigo
I had a long vacation and Susil and I decided to come to Colombo on vacation. As we didn’t have a home of our own at the time, we were warmly welcomed by our friends Sena Kiridena, Director of JL Morison Son & Jones, as well as Dr. Seevali Ratwatte and his wife, Cuckoo. Susil and Anura (Bandaranaike) were both good friends with Sena.
Once we landed in Colombo, Susil’s fairly large network of friends ensured there was no shortage of lunches, dinners and even teas in between, as sometimes fitting in to all social engagements seemed impossible. One of those many dear friends was Killi, who together with his brother Rajendram Maharaja (or Maha as everyone knew him) had built the Capital Maharaja Group into a formidable business group. Killi’s hospitality was endless – whether it was providing us with gastronomic delights in great restaurants or giving us beautiful gifts. Since I was already funding Ganga, Tara and Susil’s mother, in addition to handling house fires, those luxuries were beyond our reach with this salary alone. For us, these gestures of warm hospitality and friendship were a real treat.
One evening, while having dinner with Killi at his home on Inner Flower Road with his girlfriend Canice, whom he eventually married, Killi said, “Sumi, why don’t you end your contract in Singapore and aren’t you coming back to work for us?” You could have heard my jaw drop, I was so surprised. But I pulled myself together and said, “But I’m just an electronics engineer, Killi You run a company and you’re asking me to join a company. I don’t know anything about trade and industry.
But then Susil looked at me, smiled, and added, “Sumi, I can teach you business.” Like I said, I always trusted Susil to do the right thing for me. I didn’t hesitate and before dinner was over, I agreed to join the Capital Maharaja Group.
It was definitely a turning point in my life – the moment I gave up my academic career and entered the world of commerce, a world I knew nothing about. The prospect did not scare me because Susil had promised to hold my hand and guide me. For me, it was a solid pillar that I could hold on to and move forward.
We returned to Singapore. My priority tasks were to end my contract and start packing. My brother Ranjith, also a graduate engineer, accompanied us on our return. We got him a job and delayed our departure until he was settled.
When I finally handed in my resignation, it was accepted albeit with some sadness as Singapore Polytechnic had been very pleased with my performance during the two and a half years I had been with them. They also didn’t expect me to leave before the end of my contract.
In the meantime, we also bought a Peugeot 504, which was the car of choice for any Sri Lankan returning from a stay abroad. The Peugeot 504 also had a high resale value in Sri Lanka due to a certain prestige attached to the marque. We now owned two cars – our Vauxhall Victor 2000 and the newly acquired Peugeot 504. Susil and I had a moment of laughter about our vehicle acquisitions – in a Sri Lankan context, these two cars would qualify us as successful at home.
It was the second half of 1974 and Sri Lanka was still in a closed economy with scarce imports. Under Ms Bandaranaike’s government, the country had fallen into an economic abyss with food shortages, an environment of rationing resulting in long queues for basic foods and a “produce or perish” policy. The cost of imports had skyrocketed and export earnings had stagnated; this was exacerbated by a mix of government mismanagement. Basic necessities were a luxury and knowing that, I remember packing the boots of both cars with plastic Tupperware, bottles and jars that could hardly be found in Sri Lanka.
In the meantime, Killi and his brother Maha started Jones Overseas Limited as part of Capital Maharaja group with a registered capital of Rs. 10,000. They gave me a one-third stake in the business. I was appointed Managing Director of Jones Overseas Limited and at 30 probably the youngest to run a business within a conglomerate.
Then the wheels started turning and sugar was top of the agenda.
In January 1975, Susil went to see Ms. Bandaranaike at the Prime Minister’s office. He was in the waiting room when he overheard a conversation between his secretary Dharmasiri Peiris and Ms Bandaranaike about the Australian Prime Minister’s impending visit. Dharmasiri suggested that Ms Bandaranaike ask the Australian Prime Minister for wheat, which was more urgent than sugar, even though sugar was very scarce. Susil, in his wisdom, knew that if there was a shortage of sugar, things would not bode well for the country. The population would retaliate. He was in that office with a recipe that could soften the sourness that now gnawed at the very heart of the country’s existence.
Susil sat patiently in the hall and was finally called. Without beating around the bush, he said: “The country is short of sugar and things do not bode well for the government. I can arrange to bring a representative from Robert Kuok’s office in Singapore to negotiate the purchase of sugar for Sri Lanka. Whatever her faults, Ms. Bandaranaike was a woman of action. She knew Susil was telling the truth and immediately accepted his suggestion.
Now that we got the green light, we quickly contacted Singapore and Robert Kuok sent his brother’s son-in-law Kenneth Yeo to Sri Lanka for negotiations. As general manager of Jones Overseas, I had to accompany Kenneth to scheduled meetings with various officials.
Our first meeting was with the Food Commissioner, Tom Pathmanathan, who under this government was in charge of purchasing all essentials. After this meeting, he arranged our next meeting with the Secretary of the Ministry of Commerce, Dr. Jayantha Kelegama, and the Director of External Resources, Austin Fernando. During all these discussions, Kenneth confirmed that he could supply the amount of sugar Sri Lanka needed in a month. For the Sri Lankan team it was like picking fruit out of thin air and I could see they didn’t quite believe it.
In the current context, this promise was a virtual impossibility. Loading the cargo alone would take a minimum of 10 days, on top of the sailing time for a 10,000 tonne vessel which was well over a month, Kenneth said. All of this information was completely new to me, but I just sat there soaking it all up like a sponge.
When we left the office, I asked Kenneth how he could meet this impossible deadline. He smiled and said: Being the biggest sugar trader in this region, we have many ships all around in the seas at all times. All we have to do is divert one to Sri Lanka. It made sense to me. We were dealing with the sugar kings of the world after all.
Once we got the approval from the government, the paperwork started. Back then, emails were unheard of and faxes were a thing of the future. We only worked with telexes. I looked into all the contracts, learned the terms of ship loading, logistics and all areas related to exports, goods and shipping. The sales contracts were finalized, with Kenneth Yeo and Food Commissioner Tom Pathmanathan signing on the dotted line, completing the sale of 10,000 metric tons of white sugar for a total value of $12.5 million.
This was the biggest deal the Capital Maharaja group had done so far, and as a third-party shareholder, I got a substantial amount of money as a result. For me, it was like winning the lottery.
Kenneth kept his promise. The sugar arrived at Colombo port on time and our first deal was a success.
My next task was at hand. As managing director of Jones Overseas, I had to expand the company’s reach into importing and distributing other essentials – rice, flour and even powdered milk. Our cold call to 15 Carpenter Street while still residing in Singapore had finally paid off as the very large commodity business Jones Overseas had created could only be attributed to the relationship we had forged with the Kuok Brothers, especially Robert Kuok. , the “sugar king” of Asia.
After our very successful sugar deal, Robert Kuok invited Susil and me on an all-expenses-paid tour of Singapore. However, just before we left for Singapore, as we were returning from a visit to Susil’s cousin, Dr. Ananda (Jacko) Jayatilleke in Kandy, I started to feel quite nauseous. Although we were sick, we made our usual stop at my parents’ house and the moment she saw me, my mother immediately said, “You are pregnant Sumi. I can see it on your face. Do not take any anti-nausea medicine. It is a natural process.
With my mother’s words ringing in my ears and Susil very excited by the news, an appointment was made with gynecologist professor Henry Nanayakkara. However, when we went there at the scheduled appointment time, there were far too many patients waiting to see him. Patience is certainly not one of my virtues. I persuaded Susil to see Dr. Siva Chinnathamby at Hewa Avenue, Colombo 7. When we met her, she examined me and told me that everything was fine.
Then I told him about my next vacation in Singapore. She agreed to let me go but ordered an effortless vacation as I was still in my first trimester. “There will be no walks or shopping trips,” she said sternly. “But I love window shopping and my walks on the quays with Susil,” I grumbled. She was undeterred and gave us both strict instructions.
When we arrived in Singapore Robert Kuok had us booked into the Shangri-La and from the moment we landed we were treated like royalty. A warm and hospitable man, his friendship extended to meeting his family – his lovely wife Poh-lin and the children who eventually became the CEOs of the various companies he owned. I also remember meeting Richard Liu, who ran the sugar company. Richard and I have formed a strong friendship that will last a lifetime.
It was he who became my contact and my commercial sounding board, always there to listen to me and give me good advice. In fact, in its first year of operation, Jones Overseas sold 120,000 tonnes of sugar, with the Kuoks winning every tender issued by the Food Commissioner.
We were always looking for opportunities to grow our commodities business. One of them was a call for tenders launched by the FAO in Rome. The Kuoks wanted me to fly to Rome. I don’t remember if I told them about my pregnancy but, even though I was seven months pregnant, I didn’t really show. So I wore clothes one size bigger and took the flight to Rome. The airline didn’t notice either.
In Rome we stayed at the Hotel Excelsior on Via Venito, which was called the Legend of Rome. One of the most iconic palaces in the city, the hotel promised a true Roman Emperor experience which, for Susil and me, was truly memorable. We won the tender and I was delighted.
(Extract from Memoirs recently published by Sumi Moonesinghe)