ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 08, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 54
Financial Times  

Norman Gunawardene – immense contribution to telecom reforms


Norman Gunawardene was one of the three part-time members appointed to the reconstituted Telecom Regulatory Commission in 1997. He was the only appointee to serve out the full three-year term in the history of the TRC. The quality, commitment and independence of that first group of members set the standard for all who followed. I was privileged to work with Mr Gunawardene, Deva Rodrigo, R.K.W. Goonesekera and K.C. Logeswaran (Chairman) who constituted that first group.

One consequence of a utility monopo ly is that all expertise in that subject (e.g., electricity, telecom) in the country is also monopolized by current and former employees of the former monopoly. Allowing persons whose worldview has been formed by a lifetime in a monopoly to regulate a reformed sector, especially at the outset, is counter-productive; it is likely that their monopoly mindsets will stifle the budding competition. The decision makers at that time, including the then Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, and the founding chairman, Mr Logeswaran, sought to avoid this outcome by inviting me, an outsider to the Sri Lankan industry - then teaching the subject in the United States -, to serve as the CEO of the TRC and by appointing three persons who had achieved high eminence in their own fields as the part-time members.

Mr Gunawardene served as CEO of Aitken Spence. He was a member of a distinguished group of senior managers who transformed that company into one of the country’s leading service-oriented conglomerates after the 1978 liberalization and gave Sri Lanka’s hotel industry its unique character in the process. Without people like Mr Gunawardene and his predecessors and successors, we would not have Kandalama and Tea Factory as signature hotels. He could have rested on his laurels after being elevated to, as he said, to the “House of Lords” at Aitken Spence upon retirement. He could have stayed away from the messy realities of engaging with governance processes in Sri Lanka. He did not.

He studied the telecom industry with a kind of enthusiasm that was a rarity, even among university students. Every few days he would talk to me about a regulatory development in Europe or about a news report on a technical development in telecom. He studied the Commission papers in great detail. He told me that his time, other than the golf slot, was at the disposal of the TRC. At Commission meetings, which built up to a frequency of two a month, he made some of the most valuable contributions.

The members of the Commission came from varied backgrounds and necessarily had different worldviews. They were all leaders in their own fields. Yet the beauty was how we made decisions without division through discussion and compromise. Mr Gunawardene, a natural leader, greatly contributed to the creation of that productive environment under the leadership of the then Chairman.

He did not limit his contributions to the meetings; most significantly, he volunteered to share his immense experience in assessing future managers. This was not my strong suite, having come from the university. I was immensely helped by having a person as experienced in management as Mr Gunawardene on the interview panels that selected the first set of officials we recruited to the Commission. Had he been involved in all the hiring decisions, we surely would have had built a better organization. He never took a cent from the Commission, routinely returning the token payments made for attending meetings and paying his own way when we attended a high-level training event in the UK.

It is widely recognized that the Sri Lankan telecom sector reforms, though not perfect, were among the most successful. Telecommunications is perhaps the most dynamic of the service sectors that drive the Sri Lankan economy. The public is better served and the companies have developed new business models that serve the bottom of the pyramid at a profit. Mr Gunawardene and his colleagues on that first Commission made an immense contribution to the success of the telecom reforms. The nation and the industry owe him a debt of gratitude.

--Rohan Samarajiva, Director General of Telecommunications, 1998-99.


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