My first meeting with Tuan Zaheer Mohamed was back in 1980.
A group of us, including the late Lakshman Jayawardena, a well-known figure in the tea trade, had decided to form a tea export company. At the time, I was working for an international management consultancy. Lakshman and I had an appointment to meet a prospective financier for the tea project. His name was Zaheer Mohamed. My role was to convince Zaheer of the project’s financial viability. I had done a fair amount of preparation, and I arrived early for the meeting.
Half an hour later a man turned up on a scooter. I assumed he was a messenger bearing a note from Zaheer. It came as a big surprise when Lakshman welcomed the man, saying, “Zaheer, you are late as usual!”
I was expecting the financier to arrive in a luxury car, in full suit. In fact, I was worried that I may not have been appropriately attired for the occasion. Zaheer was casually dressed, and he apologised for being late. He said his family was using the car, so he decided to take the delivery boy’s scooter from his travel office.
On my very first meeting with Zaheer, I was struck by his humility and lack of airs. Over the years, throughout our friendship, I would repeatedly observe this quality about Zaheer.
The meeting started. I explained the financial aspect of the project. Halfway, Zaheer stopped me and declared he was confident about my capability, and that he would like to know how much money was needed, and when. That demonstration of trust is something I will value for the rest of my life.
The company was finally formed in November 1980, and today it is one of Sri Lanka’s leading tea exporters.
Zaheer was more than just a business partner to me. He was a true friend. Unfortunately, my interaction with him was limited after I retired from the company, apart from the occasional courtesy call.
One day, as I was driving along Galle Road, I noticed that the car engine was heating up. I needed help. The first person who came to my mind was Zaheer. I called, and he said he would come over soon, as he happened to be in the neighbourhood.
He turned up in a three-wheeler and promptly got down to the job of checking the radiator. He soon identified the problem – the radiator tap was leaking. He took out the toolkit, removed the radiator and took it with him in the three-wheeler, asking me to wait by the car. He was back in an hour and put back the fixed radiator.
I wonder how many businessmen in the middle of a busy day would do what Zaheer did for me that day. Gestures like this are the mark of a true friend. Such friends live with us forever.
Yes, Zaheer will remain “a living friend” to me.