From Rs 500 to a billionaire
The Dhammika Perera story
Businessman Kulappuarachige Don Dhammika Perera’s story is somewhat similiar to the success stories of entrepreneurs of the calibre of Maliban Mudalali.
Venturing out into business at the tender age of 19 with no entrepreneurial background and not having the right connections nor the right social background as it were, and starting-out with only Rs 500 in his pocket, now, 15 years later, and in his prime of life at 34, his investments include banks, power projects, casinos, hotels and ships, worth several hundred millions, if not billions of rupees.
Perera’s achievements are many. He operates three successful casinos in the heart of Colombo, owns two cargo ships, is the single biggest shareholder of NDB with a 9% stake, has a 10% stake in PAB Bank (formerly Pan Asia Bank), a 29% stake in Royal Ceramics, a 20% stake in LB Finance, a 51% stake in Connaissance- in addition to serving in the main boards of those companies, owns two power projects, and the list goes on.
‘My investments in the stockmarket (his investments in NDB, Royal Ceramics, LB Finance and Connaissance were all made last year and this year) were possible in part, if not wholly, due to the support I received from Seylan Bank and Ceylinco consolidated chairman Lalith Kotelawala and Sampath Bank chairman Edgar Gunatunga and its managing director Anil Amarasuriya,’ says Perera.
‘When I wanted Rs 60 million from Seylan Bank to invest in NDB and Royal Ceramic shares last year, Kotelawala offered me Rs 240 million-a four fold increase,’ he said. And this year, when I wanted Rs 50 million from Sampath Bank, they offered me Rs 150 million instead, added Perera.
He invested in NDB by buying those shares at prices ranging from between Rs 20-60 a share. At present those shares command a price of Rs 90 a share. He further said that virtually all of his investments were providing him with a return higher than the interest charged by the banks on his loans. ‘I have no foreign partners. All of these monies required for my investments have been generated locally,’ he says. Perera attributes his success to hard work.
His life story is something like reading a story from one of those fairy tale books. ‘When I was 19, this was in 1987, my mother gave me Rs 500 to buy me a pair of shoes. At that time I had qualified to follow an NDT course on electrical and electronics at Moratuwa University.
But by then the JVP troubles had broken out and Campus was more closed than open. I’m from Paiyagala, Kalutara, having had my education at Taxila Vidyalaya, Horana. At that time I was living with my uncle who was running a cafe at Pettah.
There was a pavement hawker operating in front of my uncle’s restaurant. Instead of buying a pair of shoes, I lent him that Rs 500 on the understanding that he conducts his business on a profit sharing basis with me.
The life of a pavement hawker is a hard one. He starts his work early in the morning and continues till evening. He does not have time to relieve hinself nor does he have time to have his meals while hawking his goods. The only time he is free is when dusk sets in. Then he winds up his business for the day, said Perera.
So, this tie-up with this hawker brought me a return of Rs 200 on a daily basis, while my capital inveetment of Rs 500 remained in tact. This operation went on for three months, during which period I made a clear profit of Rs 74,000.
Then, I turned my hand to slot machines or jackpot machines as they are commonly known. I borrowed five such machines from Lal Wijeratne of Grayline Group.I had them installed at my uncle’s cafe in the Pettah-it was called Isurugiri Hotel.
My arrangement with Wijeratne was that I would keep 30% of the takings, while the balance 70% was for him. This was a successful business partnership. ‘But I was restless.’ I wanted to learn the technology of these slot machines.
Therefore I took wing to Taiwan to follow a six month technical course. This was in 1988 and I was 20 yearl at that time. By then I had dropped out from Moratuwa University.
But I returned from Taiwan in three months.Because it took me only that much of time to assmilate that technology. Then I started making my own slot machines and had them operable in his uncle’s cafe. As a result, all of the takings made from these machines were for me. There was no question of giving 70% of the share to the landlord, because I was now the landlord.
By then I had made enough money, enough to buy over my uncle’s cafe. And at 23, that was in 1991, I had millions and millions in my kitty, with 285 machines in operation.
But disaster struck in 1991. Ranasinghe Premadasa who was the president at that time imposed a ban on jackpot machines.Then What did you do? ‘I opened a car sales centre at my home in Paiyagala,’ said Perera. I called it Anuradha Traders. Currently we have four showrooms-at Kirullapane, Negombo, Kandy and Peliyagoda. I also ventured out into property development.
In 1993 I started my own casino business at Isurugiri. I called it Capricorn.
You see there are four major games played in a casino. Three of them are card games-Black Jack, Baccarat and Porker, and the other Roullete. Then in 1995 I opened up the MGM casino in Colombo-Iwas 27 at that time and followed it up by opening Ballys in 1996 and Bellagio in 1998.
The reason I have restricted entry into my casinos to only foreigners is because it is messy when the doors are also open to locals. ‘You know that shooting incident at the Carlton in 1998 which resulted in the death of Fijian ruggerite Joel Pera? So I feel that it is better to be safe than sorry. Therefore I have imposed these restrictions.
Most of the foreigners who patronise my casinos are Chinese, either from the mainland or Hong Kong or Singapore, says Perera. Meanwhile, with the government’s plan to create a Casino City at Bentota under the ‘2002 Tourism Masterplan,’ and ‘clear’ Colombo of all Casinos, I asked Perera whether he was ready to meet this change.
‘We are ready for it’? he said. I shall be startng a casino at Bentota. It will be called Ballys. It will be equipped with all the modern technology, he said. Referring to his other business ventures, Perera said that in 1998 he started his shipping business, investing $ 1.8 million in two cargo ships.
‘One does the Colombo-Tuticorin run and the other the Dubai-Indonesian run,’ he said. And the two power project? a 10 mega Watt (mW) hydro electric power project (HEPP) costing Rs 600 million at We Ganga in the Kahawatte Plantations. This project is expected to be commissioned in another 11 months time.
For this purpose, Perera has floated a company called Didu, of which Vallibel Holdings, a company wholly owned by Perera, has a 90% stake.’I got this name Vallibel from a friend in Singapore,’ says Perera.
‘My aim is make Vallibel, a public quoted company,’ he says. And I’m working towards achieving this goal in a couple of years time. The two power companies, Didu and the other Erathana Hydro Power Company will be floated by the end of next year, added Perera.
The Erathana project is located at Erathna Kuru Ganga in the Kuruwita area. Erathna too is a 10 mW HEPP and is 100% owned by Vallibel. It is being funded by a consortium of banks comprising DFCC Bank, Private Sector Infrastructure Development Corporation, Sampath Bank and Commercial Bank.
In addition, Perera also runs a retail clothing store called Beverly Street at Duplication Road, Colombo, which is open 24 hours of the day. With regard to his investment in Connaissance, which owns the La Kandyan and the Culture Club hotels, Perera feels a restructuring is necessary to make them viable concerns.
‘We also have plans to open up hotels down South and at Trincomalee (capitalising on the peace dividend). But our scouting around down South to find a property for our hotel project has so far been disappointing. A main reason for this is the shanties that litter the beach. ‘One cannot expect a tourist to pay $ 100 for a room, if, when, he looks out from his window he sees a row of shanties with people relieving themselves on the beach,’ said Perera.
On his investments in the stock market? I don’t believe in holding onto my investments. if they don’t provide me with an adequate return I shall exit from such investments, he says. ‘Like I said earlier, my investment cost in investing in shares in NDB were in the region of Rs 30-Rs 60 a share. And now those shares command a price of Rs 90. As an example, not that I’m saying that I will do it. But if I do wish to, I can always exit from such a company at a profit if I feel that I’m not getting an adequate return,’ said Perera.
Royal Ceramics? It is a profitable venture, yielding a monthly turnover of Rs 100 million. Failures? Having to close an electronics company in 1995 and the poor performance of another company located at Mutwal which manufactures computer forms.
Regrets? Of not studying enough. Plans? Period of consolidation. On the current economic situation? The government is on track and the economy will kick-off with the peace process seemingly working. Drawbacks? Too many holidays. People don’t work hard.
What is needed is for people to think positively. Government can’t go on giving hand-outs. We have to work. ‘I don’t think most of those employed in the public sector in particular work eight hours a day, he says. And from the government’s side? Greater transparency is required.