Some of the major projects he is currently undertaking are in connection with the building of the second terminal in the Colombo South Port where he is employed by Hyundai, the firm contracted by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority under a Hyundai/Korean Government loan; the Shangri La hotel project; supply of prestressed concrete poles to the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), supply of railway sleepers to Railway and several road projects executed by the Government of Sri Lanka.
Among some of the companies listed on his visiting card which he operates are Engineering & Laboratory Services (Pvt) Ltd. and ELS Construction (Pvt) Ltd., together with Maldivian (especially on their resorts), Malaysian, African (hydropower) and operations in Seychelles as well.
“However 90% of my income is derived from work done in Sri Lanka,” said Vithanage.
He has a cadre strength of 700 employees locally, of whom he said 10% are professionals. “I did have one PhD serving in my staff, but he subsequently left the company,” said Vithanage.
He describes himself as a creation of “JR” (ie with reference to the architect of Sri Lanka’s open economy, introduced to the island in 1977), but not one of his followers.
“The open economy created a class of entrepreneurs especially in the construction field like myself”, said Vithanage. “I don’t know where I would have had been if not for the open economy,” he said.
Vithanage began his working life as a lab technician in a multinational company (MNC) in 1978, before branching out on his own 14 years later in 1992.
Then in 1979 he left that MNC and joined the Mahaweli, also as a lab technician.
“What a lot of projects there were then,” mused Vithanage, referring to the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project that spawned gigantic hydro-electric power and irrigation projects such as Victoria, Rantanbe, Kotmale, Randenigala, Maduru Oya and Samanalawewa during that period.
Vithanage after joining the Mahaweli was attached to the Maduru Oya project as well as the Randenigala and Rantanbe projects and was based alternately in Polonnaruwa and Minipe, attached as a lab technician to the soil testing laboratories that were established there.
During this period he did his diploma in geotechnology at Moratuwa University and ended up as laboratory manager at the time his contract expired in 1988 with the Mahaweli, ie upon completion of the Mahaweli project.
He then joined a Yugoslavian firm (this was before the breakup of Yugoslavia) in 1988, which was employed by the CEB to set-up power transmission towers virtually islandwide (other than in the then conflict areas of the North and East (NE)) in an ADB funded rural electrification project as a geologist.
“It was then that I realized the vast potential that existed in my chosen field,” said Vithanage. “There I got the opportunity to travel almost islandwide, other than to the NE,” he added. “The Yugoslavians also gave me the opportunity to start my own geotechnical business,” said Vithanage.
“But with the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Yugoslavs left the country in 1992, that set me in course to start on my own that year,” he said.
Vithanage who began his business on a Rs. one million investment, with his office set-up in Boralasgamuwa, since then never looked back. A number of his clients are state agencies such as the Road Development Authority and the CEB.
“Getting one’s dues from state agencies may not be that easy, but one has to adjust oneself to these vicissitudes if one wants to survive,” said Vithanage.
Vithanage, other than organically expanding his business, also expanded through acquisitions by buying a precast factory formerly operated by a Korean company for Rs. 20 million in Embilipitiya and three years ago buying up a similar factory located on 17 acres of land in Gampaha which formerly belonged to the Free Lanka Group of Aloysius fame.
Additionally he has invested Rs. 40 million on a five bedroom apartment complex at Havelock City, which he said that its current value is Rs. 50 million, and which he could give out for a monthly rental of Rs. 250,000.
According to him, there is competition in his original sphere of work which is geotechnical investigations.
Vithanage however alleges that the state owned Irrigation Department and the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) though theoretically are equipped with the wherewithal to conduct such works, the very fact that they are state ventures and associated with the inefficiencies besetting such institutions, they are not geared to compete with the private sector in related projects.
Neither the Irrigation Department nor the GSMB participate in soil investigative projects, he said. Vithanage however said that he works closely with the Moratuwa University in his theatre of operations.
“I work 15-16 hours a day, the weekends notwithstanding, however I’m fortunate to have an understanding wife,” added Vithanage, who has two children, with the elder, a boy, entering a UK university next year and the younger a girl, still schooling here.
At one time he was toying with the idea of investing in agriculture but gave that up because he felt that local labour was costly and poor in productivity. “Mechanization and automation are agriculture’s future,” he said. Instead, Vithanage ended up investing in a hotel in Udawalawe (see the business pages of this newspaper’s last week’s edition).
Points To Ponder
* This interview was conducted with Anura Vithanage on Sunday.
However the previous night a section of his office in Boralesgamuwa caught fire, destroying drilling equipment worth Rs. 10 million.
“That is life,” Vithanage philosophically told this reporter. The place is however insured, he added.
* Three armed robbers broke into Vithanage’s office in Boralesgamuwa in the year 2000 and after stabbing him they got away with the office payroll valued at Rs. two million.
The money was never recovered said, Vithanage. And it was not insured either. “But thereafter I insisted that all of my staff should open bank accounts,” he said. No bank account, no salaries, it’s a process of learning.
* The open economy created a class of entrepreneurs especially in the construction field like myself, said Vithanage. “I don’t know where I would have had been if not for the open economy,” he said.
However, youth nowadays don’t think, was Vithanage’s lament. They have too many comforts.
* People talk about the July 1983 riots, but they forget that the cyclone of 1978 took 500 lives in one go.