March 12 at 11:26am · Edited ·
WALKING WITH THE DINOSAURS
This is the continuation of the story ……..
I was at Apollo Hospital’s with my Mother waiting for her Doctor, when I received a call from an unfamiliar number. If I remember correct it was 9th June 2009 and time was around 10 am. The caller identified him self as Sumith Abeysinghe, the Secretary to the Treasury and Ministry of Finance. Mr Abeysinghe inquired whether I was the former CEO of Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation. Once I confirmed, he said His Excellency the president would like to see me immediately. Mr Abeysinghe was so polite and upfront. “ Dr Godahewa we want a small favour from you” he said. Then he went on to explain that the government has taken over the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporationa few days ago from Mr Harry Jayawardane, following a supreme court judgment making the former privatisation program null and void. They needed someone familiar with the set up to manage the affairs of the company until a formal Board is appointed. Some one has recommended that I would be the ideal person for the task, because as a former CEO of SLIC, I understood the company well.
I visited Temple trees around 6 pm in the evening with Mr Abeysinghe. It was the first time I ever met president Mahinda Rajapaksa. The discussion was brief. President said that troubles have erupted after the supreme court order, as some employees were trying to chase out the former management. “ Get it under control. I do not want any nonsense. It is a good company. We should not allow it to be ruined by these stupid guys” he said. I was out from his room within 10 minutes as several minister were waiting to talk to him. “ You need to be tough” were HE’s parting words.
As soon as I walked out of HEs room, Mr Abaeysinghe who was waiting outside congratulated me and handed over my appointment letter as the Competent Authority of Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation. I realized that my first and final interview was over. I had been selected for a state job that I never applied for.
The secretary advised me to go to SLIC the following day and take over the responsibilities. “You know the place and the people. So I don’t have to come and introduce you” he said adding; “ Just keep in mind that there are some nasty employees creating havoc. They are trying to beat the management and chase them out”.
"Oh!, thats very encouraging Sir, and thanks for the kind tip" I thought to my self. But I was appreciative that he had given me a free hand to operate!!!
How I used the free hand given and handled the SLIC challenge is a separate story. The bottom-line is that I ran the company of over 3000 direct and indirect employees all alone for one month, without any trouble to the Government. I had enough trouble to counter within the company which of course I managed my self. On 29th June 2009 the Supreme Court approval was given to a new Board of Directors and I found my self-appointed as the Managing Director of SLIC. I was returning to my previous job as CEO with much more powers. The Treasury, which owned SLIC, had appreciated good work. But the administrative leadership at the Treasury was to change soon. Mr Sumith Abeysighe lasted as Treasury boss only for a few months. He was appointed as cabinet secretary and Dr P B Jayasundara was reappointed as the secretary to the Ministry of Finance and Treasury.
I explained the sequence of events up to now because it is through the SLIC assignment that I got to know Mr Basil Rajapaksha who was the senior advisor to president then. He was only an MP and not a Minister yet. This was before the general election of 2010.
Mr Basil Rajapaksha had a say in all Government appointments those days. He was a practical no nonsanse man. I later got to know that it was he who told the president that the Government should locate the former CEO to handle the crisis at SLIC. Some one had made a recommendation about my self to him. I still don’t know who did it though I have a few guesses. There are a few good people in this world who do not seek credit.
A few days after I assumed duties as competent authority of SLIC, I was advised by Mr Sumith Abeysinghe to pay a visit to Mr Basil Rajapaksha and brief him of the progress. Accordingly I met him at the presidential secretariat with prior appointment. I briefly explained to him about the issues at SLIC and what I was doing there. He sounded pleased that I was on top of the situation. That too was a very short meeting. I never visited him again during my tenure at SLIC as competent authority or as Managing Director. But on two three occations I sent brief reports about the progress we were making at SLIC to which I never got a reply. But I am sure he read each and every one of them.
Government never interfered with SLIC during the next 11 months while I was at SLIC as Managing Director. But they had done one serious blunder which I know president him self regretted latter. They appointed Pradeep Kariyawasam, the husband of former chief justice Mrs Sriyani Bandaranayake as chairman of the board of directors of SLIC. That was obviously aimed at pleasing the CJ. The Insurance Act no 43 of 2000 amended in 2011 specifies that a director of an insurance company should possess accdemic/ professional qualifications in insurance, finance or business management or effective management experience. The supreme court later specified effective experience as more than 10 years of senior management experience in the fields of insurance accountancy, law, commerce, economics and business management. Everybody else on the board fullfilled this criteria easily except Kariyawasam whose suitability raised some doubts. The new chairman soon began interfering with operations and creating havoc within the company which made the entire board go against him. At one point he was adviced in writing by the secretary to the treasury not to overstep his boundaries. These correspondences should still be with treasury and SLIC.
It was Minister Basil Rajapaksha who appointed me to Sri Lanka Tourism as Chairman after the 2010 election. He was the Minister of Economic Development then and tourism came directly under his purview. But this time I had a strong supporter within the Government. That was the defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapksha who had become quite fond of me through our interactions at the Board of Lanka Hospitals. He was appointed the chairman of the Hospital in August 2009. I was the representative of the main shareholder SLIC on the board. When we were appointed to the board the hospital was still called Apollo. The hospital had made a loss of Rs 240 Mn in 2008 and the occupancy was pretty low. We rebranded the hospital, restructured, re-staffed and repositioned. We put a clear business strategy in place. Chairman Gotabaya was fully supportive of my thinking and gave the necessary leadership for driving the changes. We had a good CEO in Lakith Peries who was passionate about the Hospital. Together we turned around the hospital and within years the hospital was making Rs 50Mn plus annual profits. So I believe the Defense Secretary would have felt that I could be better utilized after the elections and spoken to Minister Basil Rajapaksha about finding me a good slot in the new administration.
I was walking into a totally different set up this time.
In PART III of walking with the dinosaurs, I hope to discuss my experience working with Minister Basil Rajapaksha and Dr P B Jayasundara at the Ministry of Economic Development.