The boy who went to France is now CEO Nikon Optical Canada

To have a dream alone won’t do, one must work towards making it a reality, says Mahinda Pathmasiri, whose phenomenal achievement is a typical rags to riches story. Here he tells Kumudini Hettiarachchi his amazing tale

With eight dollars in his pocket, secured with difficulty after surrendering his rice ration book, for those were the days when national identity cards were unheard of, and providing proof of passage out of the country, he boarded a flight to Paris.

It was October 1968 and as he took wing to France, he did not know what the future held. Flash forward to December 2010. The boy who went to France with a small suitcase and one suit to call his own, even that the material given as a gift and the tailoring charges paid by his brother, is back home on holiday in Sri Lanka with his wife Marielle.

Mahinda in Sri Lanka last week. Pic by M.A.
Pushpa Kumara

That boy, Mahinda Pathmasiri, now 63, is President and Chief Executive Officer (appointed in February this year) of Nikon Optical Canada Inc., a part of the giant Japanese Nikon Corporation. His beginnings were humble but embedded in solid values. His parents were living at Kalubowila, his mother’s hometown, when he was born although his father was from Kalagedihena.

“We were from a Sinhala middle-class family,” says Mahinda talking at length about his father and mother. Little wisps of memory come back, still very much a part of him, how his soft-spoken father, a foreman at Dinamina, had just three sets of clothing, the set he was wearing, the set which was being washed and the extra set just in case.

These are the cherished memories for him, the living example of being content with what they had and responsible consumerism so much in need today. The pictures are vivid: he and his father walking through paddyfields at Kalagedihena after a well-bath and his father picking gotukola for their next meal while singing kavi and his mother borrowing money to help him buy his first bicycle, because they just didn’t have that kind of cash, after he had persistently regaled her about its “special nuts and bolts”. He had been eyeing the cycle longingly through the window-panes of the Hunters shop on Front Street in Colombo.

Yes, he was passionate about cycling, a passion which led him to devour every little detail about the Tour de France and attempt to read catalogues of French cycle companies, which in turn propelled him not only to learn French, but learn it well, which ultimately became his pathway, through a scholarship, to the heights he has climbed.

Paris 1972 – adventure and discovery for Mahinda

The other influences in his life were the Dhamma lessons which he followed every Sunday at the Balapokuna temple and later at the Kalubowila temple on his way to which he would quickly memorize the lesson he should have done before. Not only did he learn the basics of the philosophy of Buddhism but also acquired the courage to engage in public speaking at this grass root level forum of Sunday schools.

Fleeting glimpses of his carefree childhood when he was “crazy over cycling” bring a smile…..biking to Frazer Avenue, taking sea baths at Mount Lavinia, cycling to Kandy when he was about 13 years old and coming back all alone. “These days I think there are safety issues for parents,” he says, but not in his time.

Cycling and the hunger for information on such tours led him to the Alliance Francaise to learn French, while schooling at Isipathana (former Greenlands College) and also scrumming a bit in rugby.
With the Advanced Level behind him, Mahinda was certain about one thing – he didn’t want to go to university and it was by chance that he joined the Ceylon School of Optometry started by Albert Edirisinghe at Kollupitiya. At the interview to gain admission to the school, when Mahinda put forward his condition – “I will not cut my French classes during the optometry course”, Mr. Edirisinghe acquiesced with, “It’s okay”.

Diploma over and done with, he was apprenticing at Albert Edirisinghe Opticians, all the while reading up on optics and optometry when on spec he sent in an application to study in France. “The application took an unusual routing,” he recalls, explaining that he was so keen to see France that he would check the Daily News for the arrivals and departures of ships from France.

It just so happened that around that time the Alliance Director Robert Vigneau (living in Paris with whom I’m still in touch with”) was acting Cultural Affairs Attache at the French Embassy.

The senior Attache Monsieur Rouche whom he had met at the Alliance once was wearing one of the first progressive lenses, he says, his interest in optometry making him notice what most others would not have.

On a Thursday, the call came. He was to be ready to go to France on Monday. There was some hesitation because the scholarship had been granted but no mention made of the transport costs. Having clarified that the French government would bear the costs, he was all set to leave.

It was a “big event” in the family. His employer’s wife, Somawathie Edirisinghe offered the material to make a suit and his elder brother Michael Ranjith (later Governor of Lions 306 B) paid the tailoring charges. The gravity of the step he was taking struck home only when he was seated on his mother’s bed just before departure to the airport to board a UTA flight. Mahinda was leaving his family for three years in an era sans e-mails, mobile phones and overseas calls were only for the affluent. Contact would be by snail mail.

It was to the Institut et Centre d’optometrie that he went, finding it difficult at first to take down notes because all lectures were in fast French. Understanding his plight he was given time till the next year to brush up on his French at Tours in the castle-rich Loire Valley region, while living at the Cite Universite and being in touch with a French family.

Nagoya 1972 – Mahinda with Dr. Morrie

The Director Gerard-Charles Roosen, according to Mahinda, opened up the wide world of optometry for him, dispelling any ideas that it only meant providing glasses to people, by allowing him to translate some predictive research done in California, America. That stirred his enthusiasm for behavioural optometry.

“This research by the Optometric Extension Program moved away from conventional thinking that was based on the eye and refraction being a camera model,” explains Mahinda, stressing that vision is considered more complex and the “wiring” in the brain connected to vision is vital for the development of the holistic human being. “So giving a pair of glasses is a mere fraction of optometry.”

Living in the “enriching” Cite Internationale de l’Universite de Paris, it was not only hard study, but a time for adventure and discovery, saving what he could and seeing the sights as well as using his student and French Government Scholarship Holder pass to haunt the many museums filled with treasures, gaining a love of art and culture. It was also a time of sorrow, when the telegram reached him that his beloved father had died.

Once he completed his course in Paris, through Director Roosen’s intervention, he headed for Nagoya in 1972 to help an American-qualified Japanese optometrist, Dr. Fumio Morrie O.D. set up the first ophthalmic optics school, the only one to date in Japan. In Japan anyone could open a shop to retail ophthalmic wear. Later he went onto Montreal in Canada to pursue behavioural optometry, while working for Vilico-Superlite run by Victor Cohen.

Returning to Sri Lanka in 1980, he set up Vision Care Services in Nugegoda. However, the trouble in his home country, the black July of 1983, which he experienced first-hand while returning from Royal College, where he was teaching the primary students French and the 1988 JVP insurrection, made him turn westward once again.

On his way back from Silmo-1988, the optics and eyewear industry showcase in Paris, he went onto Montreal to say hello to his former boss, but destiny had other plans for him. While indicating that he was about to launch a distributor joint venture, Cohen had matter-of-factly asked his secretary to type out Mahinda’s CV and linked him up with the Japanese engineer who was to set up the Nikon ophthalmic lens coating factory in Canada, the first for ophthalmic lenses for Nikon outside Japan.

Events overtook Mahinda quickly thereafter, with him leaving Montreal the following Monday for Thunder Bay in Ontario to familiarize eye-care professionals in handling Nikon lenses just released to the Canadian market. Three years later though his boss sold his company to Nikon, Mahinda stayed with Nikon .

Pointing out that 76% of American consumers know the Nikon brand (as revealed in a 2009 survey), historically the brand was built not through any aggressive marketing strategies but because its products have been known for consistent quality, says Mahinda. The Nikon Corporation has revenues from Imaging (55%) which deals with cameras and their accessories, Steppers (33%) with machines which make microchips, Measuring Instruments and Microscopes (8%) and the remainder including Ophthalmics (4%).

Although Ophthalmics are the littlest, Mahinda says they produced eyeglass lenses before selling cameras. Everything Nikon makes has a lens in it and the products are backed by a huge research and development effort that contributes to all segments of their products. Since Apollo XI, NASA uses Nikon imaging equipment, according to him.

Mahinda who is a grandfather of three, soon to be four, attributes his success to the very generous elders and teachers he has met over the years and his passion for hard work.

He sees this passion and will to succeed stemming from being in a newly-set up school as a child of five and in the pioneering rugby team when they were still very much the underdogs.

“You must have a dream, but that is not enough. You must do everything possible to make that dream a reality,” is the simple edict that has governed Mahinda’s life.

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