ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 07, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 32
Financial Times  

Passing away of a great Lankan entrepreneur

A.Y.S. Gnanam: End of an era

Sunil Karunanayake

A.Y.S. Gnanam, Sri Lanka’s leading entrepreneur and business man passed away this week leaving behind a massive business empire which has now become an icon in the local business scene.


The late Gnanam’s life story offers many a lesson to today’s young entrepreneurs. Coming over from India as a kid and settling down in an alien country he worked tirelessly under most difficult circumstances to build up his business wealth. At the beginning he may well have faced much more problems than today in building up his business.

Gnanam was no Henry Ford; he took to business from small beginnings as a small trader in steel and by the time of his death his local brands Cyntex and St Anthony’s have become major players in Sri Lanka.

His journey also made him link with such global brands like “Mitsui”, “Sanyo”, etc. When Sri Lanka is making an effort to build up the local entrepreneur class and uplift the SME sector the Gnanam rags-to-riches story should act as a model. Sheer hard work, drive and entrepreneurial skills made him a business tycoon from a mere trader. He had neither affluent family background nor a powerful school tie to boast about, but he seized opportunities at the correct time and created economic wealth. He gave employment to many and was also above any social conflicts.

Sri Lanka’s SME sector plays a key and vibrant role in the economy but it has been found that due to inadequate management skills they get into difficulty and the list of such cases could be very long. This sector has to move forward with innovative ideas create business growth. Today government has given due recognition to the private sector and the businessmen should accept these challenges and grow their business.

The Gnanam story is also a model for organic growth sans acquisitions. While the service sector grows fast we also need a good industrial sector to move forward as in the case of our Asian counterparts, it is the industries that provide employment in large numbers. The Gnanam story is also a good example of taking industries to difficult areas where employment opportunities are scarce. We have had Malibans and Dasas who also grew from small beginnings to build successful empires. Today with globalization at its peak and many Free Trade Agreements in the offing Sri Lankan entrepreneurs should follow the examples of these great visionaries who added value to our economy.

Bouquets for Gnanam

It is very rarely that a loss of a person is felt as greatly as the loss felt by the passing of A. Y. S. Gnanam. Described as a true Sri Lankan and a role model for all entrepreneurs by Sri Lankan entrepreneurs and business leaders alike, his passing has left a void that will be almost impossible to fill. Here are comments from industry leaders over his death:

Ari Wickramanayake, a local industrialist and Chairman of Master Divers described the late entrepreneur as a role model for the young entrepreneurs of the country. “He is a person who made use of the opportunities that were given in the country to serve the country and not merely to make money for themselves. He gave employment to local people,” said Wickramanayake explaining that he could have made more money importing and exporting goods but he served the greater good of the country.

“He brought up all his industries by himself and built an empire in around 30 years,” he added, saying: “He worked in harmony with all the people even though he was not a Sinhalese. He was a very friendly, very nice person and there’s a lot we can learn from him.”

Sri Lankan ad veteran and Chairman of Phoenix Ogilvy Irwin Weerakkody hailed Gnanam as a non–controversial businessman. “His story is a story of rags to riches. He achieved all that through dedication and commitment. Mr. Gnanam didn’t look for shortcuts and loopholes. He built his business legitimately” he said.

Chairman of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka (FCCISL) Navaz Rajabdeen, who is himself a local industrialist, said “I recall him as one of the true entrepreneurs of the country even though he has his roots in India. He is a true citizen.” The FCCISL chief said that ‘we must salute Mr. Gnanam for the contribution he has made to the country.’ “The rest of the people should take a lesson from him.” He was also a philanthropist and helped people without consideration of their cast, creed or religion - truly remarkable characteristic, Rajabdeen said.

Deva Rodrigo, a former Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC), said Gnanam built up a business empire during an era in which the economy was looking inwards when many businesses contracted and some closed down.

“This is what stands out in my mind about Mr Gnanam,” he said. Describing him as a “captain of industry,” Rodrigo said: “He was a man of great humility in spite of the wealth he amassed” adding that it is an admirable quality in a man so great.

Patrick Amarasinghe, a former Chairman of the FCCISL and a veteran industrialist, who has worked with Gnanam, described him as a model entrepreneur who has proved himself beyond any reasonable doubt. “His story is a story of rags to riches. He built his empire without high professional qualifications,” Amarasinghe said. He went on to describe Gnanam as a very down to earth person who “fitted in beautifully with the Sri Lankans and was wise enough to see the opportunities Sri Lanka offered.” His dedication and commitment to his work is a lesson that people here can all take from Gnanam’s life story, he added.

Gnanam’s contemporaries and industrialists who progressed after him all spoke highly of his business skills and hailed his humility and his down to earth nature which has endeared him to many.

The family, probably in keeping with the late entrepreneur’s simple life style, declined requests by photographers to take pictures at his home. Even the road side leading to his home at Wellawatte was not decorated as is the general practice in Sri Lanka.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.