[APPRECIATIONS - (11-02-2019)] | Daily News

[APPRECIATIONS - (11-02-2019)]

George Ondaatjie

Humble and high-minded

He stood on the virgin beach of Nilaweli in July, 1971 and cast his eyes beyond the sunbathed emerald waters into the horizon. Mihindu Keerthiratne, the enterprising young architect, and a few of us including George’s father A.P. and wife Christobel, were by his side. The foamy waters circled and caressed his feet. The soft waves receded as if signaling a withdrawal. But forward-looking as he always was, he waited for the next wave. That wave seemed to carry a message. And then he quipped: “Mihindu, this is it. Let’s do Nilaweli Beach right here.”

In an instant, George asked his driver to fetch a hoe, dug the ground and symbolically laid the foundation for what became the first beach hotel in that backwater fishing village. It was one of the many great business decisions that George made, prompted by his gut sense rather than resorting to cumbersome analytics.

At that time, following the 1971 insurrection, investors were wary of putting precious rupees into brick and mortar, least of all in far-flung areas. The only well-known occasional visitor to this hamlet was David Paynter, who would retire into a rented hut and sketch what later became some of his famous murals.

If David had the opportunity, he may well have—with a few brush strokes—profiled this handsome, fair-skinned young man in his early 30s, with radiance in his smile and piercing visionary eyes which would see opportunity in a flash. When you met George, you saw in him a sense of purpose; an inquiring mind and a decisive, almost impetuous, urgency to get on with it. Carpe Diem!

George and Mihindu designed that first beach hotel with attention to detail to a fault: moulded to catch breezes, use water pools to cool the interiors, direct vistas to contemplate and catch light and shades—all to suit the various moods of the day. The design was unwasteful and minimal. He fought to preserve every tree, bush and branch and built structures around them. Even to this day, nature in Nilaweli would bow to him for his respect for the environment.

This experience spawned several other hotel ventures as George, along with his dear friend Herbert Cooray, worked together to make their many dreams real. The master builder and gentleman par excellence Herbert was of Marxist leanings and George somewhat of a budding capitalist. Strange though the combine was, their friendship and symbiosis offered a unique platter to the tourism industry in the making. They shunned the limelight, but anchored many a progressive initiative in the industry.

Whether it was Nilaweli or Tangerine or Royal Palms, or the surprise acquisition of the Grand in Nuwara Eliya, or getting into apothecaries or investing in a tea cum rubber estate or forming mercantile fortunes, George believed in the dreams of the future than get entangled in the history of the past. Imagination was the real start of the day for him; creativity and risk-taking was in his DNA. He had a gut-sense that often ran counter to norms of business prudence, but then such are the risk-taking geniuses created in the mould of Midas. George would often say he was not in the tourism business nor in finance, but in the business of customer service! And that was what endeared him to those who dealt with him. The banks had reverent respect for him and his credit rating in the Bank of reputation was beyond Triple-A!

Manik de Silva, in an eloquent tribute, referred to the ‘rags to riches’ tale that George would, with refreshing humility, relate of how he came to the city only with a shirt in a paper bag and hitched a ride from Chilaw’s Shirley Corea, who later became the Speaker of Parliament.

When George asked leave of tycoon Cyril Gardiner to embark on his own used car sales business, Sir Cyril gave him an IOU. It read: “Come back if you need me!” George never looked back.

From simple beginnings, he laid the foundation for Mercantile Investments with the support and advice of Attorney-at-Law Lucien Perera, Chartered Accountant Kingsley Perera, Gamini Divitotawela, A.C. Dominic and Vivian Wijesinghe. With simple hire-purchase beginnings, George’s Mercantile Investments was in the dim shadows of the then mighty Mercantile Credit. It took a couple of decades of nurturing when the profiles of the competitors reversed. That with sheer hard work and focused strategy and corporate integrity Mercantile Investments lives to carry the flag as one of the premier finance houses in the Country is the legacy George Ondaatjie leaves behind.

Yes, integrity mattered so much to him. I was with George in his office, as his friend and then personal tax-advisor, when in the mid-’70s the Tax Department had launched a raid on Mercantile Investments. George was alerted that a VIP was online. It was none other than Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. She was furious when she got to know about the raid. “How can they do this to you, George, after you’ve done so much to build this company? What can I do?” she asked. Out of respect to the PM, George got up from his seat with the telephone receiver in hand and smiled, and then pleaded, “Madam, I have nothing to hide, please let them carry out their investigation. You will see. Thank you, Madam, for your kindness!”

And as it turned out eventually, the Tax department was acting on a flimsy cooked-up complaint by a disgruntled employee. The Commissioner was gracious enough to call George a few weeks later following a thorough inquiry and to tender an apology for the embarrassment caused.

In later years, George was a willing mentor to countless people. He encouraged and freed up scores of those who worked for him to embark on their own ventures, recalling his own beginnings. The spring of his heart and the light of his vision made him the affable and approachable facilitator.

And yet, wealth and fame sat lightly on his shoulders. Always relaxed at home in his sarong and in his favorite hotels, he moved with guests, managers, and workers with equanimity. He was generous to every worthy cause. He had a giving hand and a warm and generous heart. As he once told me, while we sipped coffee served by his smiling mother, “What’s the point if I cannot make my loyal ammi smile and happy?”

M.V. Muhsin


Bernard Rodrigo

Versatile engineer

Bernard Rodrigo, the one-time Director of Telecommunications, passed away recently after a prolonged illness.

Bernard was born on November 13, 1940. His parents were Joseph and Sylvia Rodrigo. Bernard was the youngest of a family of six. He was educated at St. Joseph’s College, Darley Road, Colombo 10. He entered the University of Colombo Engineering Faculty and after graduating, joined the Overseas Telecommunication Services (OTS) as an Engineer of Planning and Development.

In 1984, when Bernard was 44 years old, he became the Deputy Director and Manager OTS and in the following year, was promoted to Director of Telecommunications and Head of the Department. He was instrumental in the establishment of the cellular mobile telecommunication system in Sri Lanka. Celltel Lanka Ltd became the first cellular mobile telephone operator in Sri Lanka. In due course, various telecom operators entered the field and prices of telecom services then began tumbling down due to the stiff competition that followed.

Being the Director of Telecommunications, Bernard was fortunate in receiving the opportunity to attend many important seminars, conferences, and workshops on telecommunications both local and abroad. He was among the group which embarked on the establishment of the Sri Lanka Earth station. COMSAT, or the Communications Satellite Corporation of New York, monitored the set-up, and the NEC, a reputed Japanese company, was contracted for the endeavour. The satellite Earth Station in Padukka began providing telecommunication and television satellite services in the year 1975 to countries such as the UK, Australia, Japan, and India. Bernard was selected as the first Manager at this Satellite Earth Station.

With the setting up of this station in Padukka, Sri Lanka was able to televise and transmit the proceedings of the Non-Aligned Nations Conference all over the world. These countries could watch the proceedings on their TVs. For the Sri Lankan public, this was not possible as there were no TVs at that time in our country.

Having considered his capabilities, Bernard was appointed a consultant for GTE in Algeria, a Boston-based company that managed Earth Satellite stations. On his return to Sri Lanka, he began serving as an Assistant Director of the Civil Aviation Department and was in charge of Radio communications of all airports, which covered navigation systems, Instrument Landing Systems (ILS), VOR (omni-directional), as well as radars at the international Airport in Katunayake and domestic Airports in Ratmalana, Ampara, and Batticaloa.

After being appointed the Deputy Director Telecommunications (SLT) and Manager (OTS) the SEA-ME-WE, plans for the laying of the Submarine Cable System were drawn up. This work was coordinated by Sri Lanka, and the Colombo/Medan and Colombo/Djibouti segments were commissioned as scheduled in 1986.

Bernard possessed a wealth of knowledge in the field of telecommunications and satellite transmission systems. Even after retiring, he received postings under several private telecom service operators. He was a Director of MTV at one time and later joined Lanka Payphones (PVT)Ltd, the pioneer pay phone company which installed card using pay phone machines in Colombo, Kandy, Galle, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee.

In his autobiography compiled few years back, Bernard recalls to mind the fond memories of his parents Joseph and Sylvia, his spouse Kanthi as the rock for the past several years, his son Anthony Nirmal and daughter Prasansani Therese, acknowledging that without their love and understanding, his journey in achieving all his expectations would not have been possible. I thank God for the life of Bernard Rodrigo. May his soul rest in peace.

Bernard Edirisinghe


In memory of Ranjith Gunaratna

Starting from a point like a dot,
You reached heights despite cold or hot
The incomparable versatality you had got,
Did often make us contemplate a lot.
An exemplary diplomat you were indeed,
Leaving much evidence for the world to read
With a vision and a mission undoubtedly rare
You: a Pasdun Pioneer helped the
Lion Flag shine everywhere.
Nature's law untimely took you away
The shock and loss, words can't say,
The bliss of Nirvana may you attain
Till then, dear, be among us again and again!

Ranjith Gunaratna was the Sri Lankan Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany. He passed away on January 22.

A. Jayalath Basnagoda


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