The Upali I knew

By Nimal Welgama

It’s hard to capture in a few words the flavour of Upali Wijewardene, the founder the Upali Group, who tragically went out of this world when his Lear jet disappeared over the Straits of Malacca on February 13, 1983.

Upali was a vital man with tremendous energy which he employed in everything he did. He was mischievous, had a sense of fun and in the last lap of his life, not only gave of himself to his many private enterprises but also contributed his time and skill for public purposes; hence his period as Chairman and Director General of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC), the predecessor of the Board of Investment (BOI).

He had enemies and he used to enjoy ribbing them. The Parliamentary Select Committee on High Posts, chaired by Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, found Upali unsuitable to be Chairman and Director General of the GCEC.

That conclusion was reached after he had long served in that office. When the Select Committee report was in, Upali presumably with the nod from cousin Dickie (President JRJ) ignored the conclusion and carried on regardless for quite some time.

He did not tender his resignation and the president, under whose ambit the GCEC fell, did not ask for it.

It was President Jayewardene who handpicked Upali to run the GCEC which was a major focus of the UNP’s open economy strategy. Upali had attained visibility in the business world outside our shores and the President, obviously, judged him as a man who could successfully attract the “robber barons” (as JRJ once famously referred to them) to invest in Sri Lanka.

Upali did attract investment but he was pipped at the post in realizing his ambition of getting a big name in global electronics to invest in the Katunayake FTZ. That would have been a major plus for the country which at that time had succeeded mainly in bringing in the garments industry partly for the reason that businesses in Hong Kong, affected by quota restrictions, wanted to utilize Sri Lanka’s quotas.

In his own “empire” if I may call it that, having worked for the Upali Group as a young man, he made waves in his own inimitable style. He successfully bought the Grand Central estates I despite the Land Reform laws and their physical control by the either the Janatha Estate Development Board (JEDB) or the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation (SLSPC) – I can’t quite remember which.

His Kandos chocolates, manufactured in Malaysia as well as in this country, was a favoured product in the South East Asian market. He pioneered the assembly of Mazda cars at Homagama. He made a foray, not altogether successfully, to acquire control of some Sri Lanka incorporated companies with valuable plantation assets in Malaysia. He did acquire a couple of them. He raced horses in England and Australia.

There were many things that he did starting with making toffees at Sedawatte, to soap, consumer electronics and much else.

He was interested in running for parliament from Kamburupitiya, from where the maternal side of his family hailed, but Prime Minister Premadasa, mindful of the constitutional provision for electing a successor for the balance term if the incumbent president dies in office, made sure he did not get the UNP ticket. That requires parliament to elect one among its members to serve the balance term.

No wonder then that Premadasa preferred to keep Upali Wijewardene, once described in a respected foreign magazine as “The man who would be president” out of the ring!

He founded the newspaper group which carries his name and was no respecter of persons, however important. In fact, the bigger they were, the more he liked to puncture their self-esteem. Among those he tilted at were the then prime minister and finance minister. The more he got under their skin, the greater his enjoyment!

Upali was ever conscious that his father died young and he did not expect to attain a venerable old age. At the time his life was so tragically snuffed out, he used to say that “the accent is on enjoying” and that he did with his insatiable appetite of getting as much fun as he could in everything he did and life itself.

The emblem of the business group he set up was a blazing copper sun with a ‘U’ in the middle. The warmth of his personality, like that of the sun, was felt by the many people he befriended. He was good to his employees, people who served him at various levels, and in return had not only their loyalty but their affection.

(The writer is the Managing Director/CEO of the Upali Group of Companies)

Thank you

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