June 14, 2024

Pelawatta Milk Owner Interview – Never say Never

Mr Ariyaseela Wickramanayake

Resilient, Determined and Committed are the three words that we would use to describe this personality who quite stubbornly believes that nothing is impossible. It is this determination and perseverance that has placed him at the helm of success today. A diver turned entrepreneur – we delved into the life and journey of Mr. Ariyaseela Wickramanayake, the Founder and Chairman of Pelwatte Dairy Industries.

He greets us with a pleasant smile, upon our arrival at Master Divers (Pvt) Ltd. His demeanour is calm, patient and collected and yet his presence commands the room like that of a born leader. After a quick exchange of pleasantries, we are eager to ‘dive’ right into his story and get to what inspired the first Sri Lankan diver to be qualified to conduct ship repairs, to divert from his course and become the chairman of a dairy products manufacturing organisation.

“In 1970, I was the fastest swimmer in Sri Lanka,” he begins. He says that diving became his passion after seeing the foreigners who used to get into ‘astronaut-like’ big suits and dive into the sea to conduct ship repairs, when he was schooling in Galle. “Back in the day, a foreign diver got paid the highest salary and you had to be trained in England to get into the industry. Naturally, the young boy in me aspired to be like them. I wanted to dive, earn a good living and lead a life of luxury,” he says.

He states that while the dream of becoming a diver was a mental goal, he continued his school career. “Upon completing Advanced Levels, I came across a vacancy posted by the Colombo Ports Commission (CPC) for a diver and applied for it. He arrives at crossroads when he receives admission to study medicine at the University of Peradeniya and gets selected for the vacancy at Colombo Ports Commission. “I didn’t think twice and chose diving because that was my passion. Leaving medicine to become a diver was very much akin to an uphill battle in the 1970s,” he mentions humorously.

In 1980, Wickramanayaka, while being employed at CPC, got the opportunity to work on Sri Lanka’s first container terminal – Queen Elizabeth, a project funded by the United States. His stellar performance in the project catches the limelight through a newspaper article, which catches the eye of a German engineer who offers him a lucrative job opportunity in Bahrain.

“At first, I was reluctant to take up the offer, but I told him that I would be willing to consider it, if he could pay me a salary that is equivalent to what I would be making in Sri Lanka till my retirement at 55, within the project duration of 24 months. I requested for a salary of US $ 5,000 and he agreed with a legally binding agreement,” he says.

Having completed the project in 9 months (with 15 months to spare), he leaves Bahrain to travel to Singapore, with all of his earnings from the project, tucked in a bag. Befriending another German tourist on the plane, Wickramanayaka arrived at a homestay in Singapore, eager to bank his bag full of cash! He states, “On the second day in Singapore, I got out of the house, got into a taxi, went straight to the nearest bank which was the OCBC and opened a savings account. It was only then that I let out a sigh of relief.”

Upon returning to Sri Lanka, he registered at CPC as a licensed diver to conduct shit repairs. His endeavour achieves success as he is able to provide a faster and more convenient service to ship agents which would otherwise undergo several procedural delays, had repairs been conducted through CPC.

“When the Jaya Terminal was being commissioned and funded by the Japanese in 1983, I was offered a contract by the Japanese to build a fisheries harbour in Kirinda. I would travel back and forth from Colombo to Kirinda and would stay at the Hambantota Rest House, from where there were panoramic views of the vast Hambantota beach. While looking at the sea and the ship traffic passing, I couldn’t help but think that this would be an ideal spot for a port,” he says.

He mentions that even the experts that he worked with at the time such as Prof. Mendis Rohanadeera agreed that Hambantota would be an ideal place to build a port given its strategic location. In 1994, he presented a proposal on the idea to Navin Gunaratne, then Chairman of Southern Development Authority under the government of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunga. “It was my idea and initiative to get the port shifted to Hambantota,” he states.

In 2002, Wickramanayaka tenders to buy the Pelwatte Sugar Plants, against the advice of his friend who is an economic planner. Though his friend warns him not to invest in a plant as sugar cane plantation is a dying industry, he makes it his goal to turn the factory around.

“I spoke to the farmers and asked why they couldn’t continue harvesting sugar cane. The answer I got was that since it took 12 months for a plant to mature and harvest, they did not have an interim source of income to support their families. My involvement in the dairy industry was initiated when I wanted to find a solution for this issue. I told them that I would give them cattle, so that they could rear it, collect the milk and sell it to Milco to gain an interim income until it was time to harvest.”

In his pursuit to provide cattle to the farmers in Moneragala, he meets a Buddhist monk who conducts projects to free cows from slaughterhouses. “I agreed to look after the cows that were freed, and provided them to the farmers. About a year went by with this project and there was an excess of milk than what Milco could buy.

Thus began the initiation of a project with Denmark to build a manufacturing facility that could produce 2,000 L of milk per day. This factory would soon progress on to manufacture butter and cheese. “I wanted to do more for the industry.” He says. “In 2005 I negotiated with the government to pay Rs. 40 per one litre of milk to the farmers. In 2010 it was increased to Rs. 50 and subsequently in 2015, increased to Rs. 75. Thereafter, the price has been on a continuous upward trend.”

Pelwatte Dairy Industries is home to the only spray powder plants in Sri Lanka and the company currently operates three of these. Wickramanayaka states that he got into the dairy industry, because of sugar and was able to develop both.

“In 2012, the government approached me to produce alcohol since the sugar plant was doing well. I refused this proposal. As a result, the government changed laws, and took over the plant. Four to five regimes have changed since then, and none of them were able to initiate their plans. Had I continued with manufacturing, by now the country could have been self-sufficient in sugar,” Wickramanayaka states.

He opines that Sri Lanka’s heavy reliance on imports have pushed us towards our decline. “Sri Lanka is a prosperous country with a rich soil where we can plant and harvest anything. We spend US $ 1850 per month on food imports and most of what is imported can be homegrown. I have created an example by leading the way in dairy production and value addition. We have the capacity to become a self-sufficient country and no time is apt than the present to start that journey.”

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