Ceylinco to sell Seylan shares to pay Golden Key depositors

By Bandula Sirimanna

As the Golden Key Credit Card crisis grew, Ceylinco Consolidated Chairman Lalith Kotelawala -- in an unexpected move -- yesterday announced he was divesting the stake of his Ceylinco Group in Seylan Bank, saying he needed the money to settle depositors at the crisis-hit credit card company.

The move came amidst concerns from the Central Bank where officials were worried about the impact on deposits at the Seylan Bank, founded two decades ago by Mr. Kotelawala, a powerful and politically-influential businessman.

Lalith Kotelawala

Seylan Bank CEO Ajitha Pasqual confirmed the Ceylinco Group was exiting and selling off all its interests in Seylan. "It may be 23-24 percent or even more. Mr. Kotelawala wants to raise funds to settle Golden Key depositors," he said, adding that there were two interested parties in buying this stock, one from abroad.

Mr. Pasqual said there was no cause for alarm as Seylan had met all the statutory requirements, and was "safe and sound." The CB in a statement said certain depositors of some of the regulated companies in the Ceylinco Group had shown "signs of stress" over the recent events at Golden Key.

"This emerging situation naturally causes concerns within the financial system, since there are two licensed banks and several registered financial institutions popularly associated with the Ceylinco Group of Companies," the regulator said adding that the CB had enough regulations to protect depositors in regulated institutions.

Thus, it said the public should continue with normal financial transactions with licensed and registered financial institutions and were assured that the Monetary Board would act in case there was any imminent risk to such institutions.

Mr. Kotelawala, under pressure from depositors to return their money, said in a newspaper advertisement yesterday that he was divesting the investment of Seylan Bank, which triggered speculation that Seylan was being sold. This prompted the bank to issue a clarification later in the day admitting it had received inquiries from the public, and saying that it was the Ceylinco Group's stake in Seylan Bank that was being sold to settle depositors at Golden Key.

There are an estimated 10,000 depositors at the credit card company. They include doctors, engineers, business professionals, housewives, parliamentarians, past and present test cricketers, pensioners, retired bank executives and heads of state bodies – depositors drawn by the high interest rates.

The crash of the company came when an increasing number of anxious depositors -- starting from the Sakvithi scandal and 'word of mouth' information that Golden Key was also in trouble -- triggered a large-scale fund withdrawal which the company could not meet. Golden Key is not a finance company but collects deposits and issues credit cards.

Following a run on funds, it was discovered that while the company showed a deposit base of Rs. 5.9 billion on the books, the deposits should have shown an actual figure close to Rs. 26 billion, sources say. The company was unable to meet the withdrawals of some of the bigger investors.

The Sunday Times learns that at an internal inquiry after the issue came to light, Mr. Perera had denied any financial misappropriation, or personal profit, or that he maintained two sets of books, but admitted to mismanagement. He is a director of nearly 40 companies of the Ceylinco Group, and according to company sources had been transferring monies from the credit card company to persons involved with the other companies. One of the persons close to him in the company had been found to have over Rs. 150 million in her credit card account.

An internal audit into the goings-on at Golden Key has been launched by Seylan Bank. One of the findings has been that no proper audited accounts have been maintained by the credit card company. The probe is set to question the auditors responsible for the account, Messrs. Laurie Muthukrishna & Company, Chartered Accountants.

Earlier this week, the Criminal Investigation Dept (CID) began a probe into the crisis. Detectives said that the company's CEO Khavan Perera had given a voluntary statement to them.

They said Mr. Perera had admitted to some mismanagement of the funds. He had not been detained, however.

Other sources said the company had invested in several ventures, some of which were not viable in the current economic climate. Real estate, a primary investment vehicle for the entire Ceylinco Group, had also suffered heavily in recent years. Mr. Perera was unavailable for comment throughout the week.The company said it would remain open for depositors to collect forms to provide details of their investment as there were problems with the current date base.

Scores of depositors flocked to the BMICH on Tuesday where Mr. Kotelawala briefly said the company would fulfill all its obligations, before being whisked away from the premises.

Mr. Kotelawala said there had been mismanagement at the company, but it was not fully explained, He added CEO Khavan Perera had admitted to mismanagement and had been suspended. (See The Sunday Times FT for more on the crisis).

Bankers, who declined to be named, said Ceylinco -- despite assurances by Mr. Kotelawala to meet all the liabilities – would not find it easy to raise the billions of rupees that need to be returned.

"It's most profitable company in the group is Ceylinco Insurance and since this is a listed stock in the Colombo Stock Exchange, they can't pull out money without shareholders’ approval. Seylan Bank and The Finance Co are also listed," one banker said.

While Mr. Kotelawala has just over 1 percent shares in Seylan, his companies through direct, indirect and cross-holdings own a sizable, majority stake in the Bank.

The official clarification from Seylan yesterday stressed that the assets of the bank are not intended for sale, nor are investments made by the bank or any shares owned by the bank.

Ripples spread to Kishani concert

The crisis at the Golden Key Credit Card Company is spreading to other sectors of society, affecting even a world-class concert organized by the Sunera Foundation headed by Sunethra Bandaranaike.
Dushyanthi Perera, wife of Khavan Perera, suspended CEO of Golden Key Credit Card Company, was due to play the cello at the high-profile charity concert titled ‘An evening with Kishani’ on January 9, but will not be doing so.


“Many people are angry over the trouble at the Golden Key Credit Card Company. We don’t know who is responsible. That is left to the authorities to find out. I was afraid that someone from the audience would heckle Dushy, who is a friend of mine, as her husband is the CEO of this company. If that happened I would have had to cancel the concert midway. After all Dushy had agreed to play at my invitation for a charitable purpose,” Ms. Bandaranaike told The Sunday Times.

She said she discussed the prospect of Dushy being embarrassed in public which might have led to the disruption of the charity event.

The scenes at the subsequent meeting for Golden Key depositors addressed by Ceylinco chairman Lalith Kotelawala “solidified” her fears, she said.

“At the BMICH meeting, they were throwing bottles. These were not thugs but middle-class people. Dushy is a good person but people could have rubbed off their anger on her,” she said.

The Sunday Times understands that Soundari David, earlier scheduled to be the pianist, is also not taking part due to Ms. Perera’s absence.

The concert with soprano Kishani Jayasinghe, accompanied on piano by Christopher Glynn, will be held on January 9 at the Lionel Wendt as scheduled.

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