Autobiographies can illuminate untouched corners, away from the mainstream of history. In Sri Lanka, in recent years, there has been an upsurge of interest among many people to relate their own tales in print. What was earlier spoken verbally only, is now translated into beautifully illustrated books and available to a wider public, such as this one. Most autobiographies in Sri Lanka have been written by public servants, and there are only a very few from the private sector. Now, with the private sector playing the dominant role in economic and even sociaql affairs, it is time we hear more stories from it.
As Nihal Jinasena’s volume proves, there are many interesting stories in the private sector, of which the general public are mainly unaware. Since the 1970s, there is a new generation of businessmen and others in the private sector, who have created new ventures and enterprises, and we should be glad to be enlightened as to how they emerged. There are institutions teaching business administration, and for their teaching to be relevant and properly informed, a stronger research base examining local business development is vital. The London School of Economics has set up a faculty of business history some time back, and it is time that a more concerted effort is made in Sri Lanka to look at business development and the rise and fall of individual companies and enterprises, to learn lessons from those experiences. There is the opportunity for one of the economics or business faculties in universities to take the initiative in this regard.
Nihal Jinasena’s volume is a fascinating read. He is one of those businessmen who inherited his father’s company. Jinasena Ltd. was over 100 years old, when it broke up into four parts very recently. The volume is not only about business and the Jinasena company, and it includes his wider experience working with government, as a businessman. There are very informative chapters about his school days at St. Thomas’ College and at the Loughborough University in England, with which the Jinasena family has been associated for four generations.
There is an interesting historical chapter on the development of motor racing in Sri Lanka, in which the Jinasena family were pioneers, spending their own money in developing the sport. Nihal Jinasena has also been a pioneer is developing the sport of yachting in this country. Then of course, there are two chapters on the running of the Jinasena company of which he was chairman, and its subsequent break up due to family dissension. There is much personal information about his life, especially two engaging chapters on his wife Sheryll and son Lalin.
The story of the Jinasena Company has been told in an earlier volume, published in 2005, its centenary year. Nihal Jinasena’s volume has a short chapter, which is more personal. We know of families in Panadura and Moratuwa who made money from the liquor trade. Here is a Moratuwa family which made money, initially from carpentry, and later from engineering. That was something novel at that time. Five big British firms, like Walker Sons, dominated the engineering sector and it was difficult for the Jinasenas to make a mark.
“… the Jinasena company was a family business that was launched as a very modest bicycle repair shop in Hospital Street, Colombo Fort. Later, around 1910 he (Nihal’s grandfather) moved into the premises – No 4, Hunupitiya Road, Colombo 02 which has been our headquarters ever since. He also set up a foundry and a small machine shop there. He began manufacturing rubber rolling machines in 1915 and became a repairer of boilers for steam engines which powered the graphite industry, the rubber industry and the tea industry.” Obtaining orders from the large estates was almost impossible, as they were owned by the British and they ordered their equipment only from British companies. At that time, it was a struggle to manage an indigenous engineering company. There was also the difficulty of raising funds, as Sri Lankans did not have access to banks and had to depend on chettiars.
Until the early 1970s, the two previous generations of Jinasenas, confined their business largely to engineering. The third generation of the Jinasenas expanded their business interests into new fields. They went into hotels, garment and prawn farming, and they seem to have made a success of these ventures, although not for long. With the opening up of the economy by the late 1970s, the Jinasenas found it difficult to compete with imports in their traditional range of engineering goods. Nihal Jinasena himself wrote a letter to the Sri Lankan president regarding the decimation of local manufacturing capacity. The government’s reply was that they should go into new fields which are profitable, and that is exactly what the Jinasenas did.
One of the great achievements of the Jinasenas was the success they made with a new company, Loadstar, and Nihal provides a brief history of how this company came about. It achieved a turnover nearly 15 times that of all the other Jinasena businesses, and emerged as a leading international company. Loadstar manufactured solid rubber tyres through what Nihal calls a “revolutionary method”, and it was given to them by a Belgian called Pierre Pringiers. Pierre and his friend, Philippe, an expert in marketing joined up with the Jinasenas to develop the new venture. After several changes in the structure of the company, it is now one of the largest single export companies in Sri Lanka. The four Jinasena brothers collectively own twenty percent of this company.
One striking feature of Nihal Jinasena’s life is the range of his interests. Having qualified as an engineer at Loughborough College (now a University), he joined his family company and ended up as chairman. He devoted most of his time to the company, but had the good sense to enjoy other things in life. The Jinasenas had been pioneers in motor racing and Nihal’s father was deeply involved in developing the sport, making their own racing cars in their own garages. Nihal provides us an enjoyable glimpse into the sport of motor racing in Sri Lanka, taking part in races all over the island, and in India. Nihal became president of the Ceylon Motor Sports Club. Nihal then developed an interest in sailing and yachting. The Yacht Club in Colombo, in those days was only for the expatriates, and Sri Lankans were entitled to be members only later, and Nihal was one of the earliest members. Nihal represented Sri Lanka at the Asian games in 1970 in Pattaya, and also in 1974. He also managed the Sri Lankan team for the Asian games in 1976. He became president of the Yachting Association later, and is now the chairman of selectors of the Sri Lankan yachting team.
Nihal Jinasena was always anxious to offer his expertise and experience to serve the wider common interest. His most striking contribution came immediately after the tsunami. He was appointed by the President of Sri Lanka, to the board of TAFREN (the Task Force to Rebuild the Nation). Nihal took charge of one of the key sectors – the rehabilitation of the fishing industry, including the replacement and repairing of boats and rebuilding fishery harbours. “We did a fantastic job repairing 10,000 boats and getting donations of 10,000 more. We repaired 10,000 engines that had been damaged by sea water and sand and we set up repair stations right round the coastal belt from Panadura to Trincomalee. We also replaced all the nets that had been washed away… It was in recognition of this service that President Chandrika Kumaratunga conferred on me the title Deshamanya on November 14, 2005.”
This was a well deserved honour. Nihal was also a member of the boards of the DFCC and the Export Development Board. This raises a more general question about the role of businessmen in government. They have been engaged from time to time to serve on boards of corporations and government commissions and committees and the approach so far has been of an ad hoc nature, appointing someone for a particular circumstance. This approach fails to take advantage of the enormous expertise in the private sector which could be relevantly engaged in government tasks. Nihal Jinasena’s enjoyable autobiography has many lessons to offer to a younger generation in business and in government.
Leelananda de Silva.
This review appeared in the Sunday Island of February 15th 2014