It was indeed a moment of elation for all Sri Lankans present when Sri Lankan born Senator Ian Kiru Karan delivered an address at the last German National Day celebrations in Colombo, invited to speak as the Guest of Honour by the German Ambassador Dr. Juergen Morhard. It was after Senator Karan spoke that the [...]


The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

A gift from the heart for Hartley

Ian Karan, the boy from Point Pedro who made it big in Germany builds a hostel for his old school

It was indeed a moment of elation for all Sri Lankans present when Sri Lankan born Senator Ian Kiru Karan delivered an address at the last German National Day celebrations in Colombo, invited to speak as the Guest of Honour by the German Ambassador Dr. Juergen Morhard. It was after Senator Karan spoke that the Ambassador made his brief address.

My initial curiosity turned to awe as the story of Ian Kirupakaran – better known as Ian Karan, unfolded. It was the story of a young man from Point Pedro, orphaned, expelled from his school for mischief, going overseas and becoming an enormously successful, respected businessman.

Ian Karan being honoured with a shawl following Hindu customs by the President of the Colombo Branch of the PPA of Hartley College S. Yogenthranathen. Ian’s wife Barbara and Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran are also in the picture. Pic by Kugan Nagaratnam of Point Pedro

As to how he qualified to represent the economic giant – Germany, is the story of the proverbial determination of the northerner, driving himself progressively to set up the largest container-leasing company in the port city of Hamburg earning him the nickname “container-king”.

Ian Karan also made history when he became the first Asian in Germany to be made Senator for Economic and Labour Affairs by the Government of the City of Hamburg in 2010. It happened when the Conservative Party of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel – the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) which he supported, needed a new start.

Today, a big name in the container leasing and trading business the world over, his investments are valued at US$ 400 million. But talking to this highflying business tycoon during a flight he chartered to Point Pedro earlier this month, it was clear this burly septuagenarian, who has every reason to be proud, is completely unaffected by his wealth and fame.

Spurred by the German Embassy, Senator Karan became the first expatriate to replace a destroyed school building in the North of this country. He was in Sri Lanka along with his charming German wife – Barbara to ceremonially dedicate the three-storeyed modern hostel he built to the students of Hartley College, Point Pedro – the school which he says gave him the foundation for his success in life. Built at a cost of Rs. 55 million, the hostel will accommodate 160, mostly underprivileged students. The event, organised by the enthusiastic Colombo Branch of the Hartley College PPA with well represented participation, including the German Ambassador and the embassy staff, was, according to a resident of the area, the most celebrated event that took place in the North in recent times. A happy event especially since, the donor they said, “is one of us.”

From Kaddaively in Karaveddy in the Vadamaarachchi region, the young Karan, an orphan was boarded at Methodist Girls’ High School, Point Pedro in the 1950s. Later, he was admitted to Hartley College next door. He says that his two sisters at MHS and his elder brother were all young and each had to look after themselves.

According to his classmate S. Yogendranathan, he could not keep out of mischief. He used to jump over the wall to enjoy hot thosai from a nearby street vendor. He said, “We all got into scrapes but Ian, after several warnings, found himself sacked from school.” His Church helped to get him a scholarship to follow higher studies in London.

On completion, he started working as a trainee with a shipping and forwarding company in London which was part of a German conglomerate. If he was to progress in this company, he had to learn the German language, so in 1970, he came to Hamburg to learn German with just 3,000 DM in his pocket. He was a foreigner in Germany but he says, he had a suitcase full of dreams and a stern determination. His first job was in a restaurant- washing dishes, which he says gave him an easy entrance into the basics of the language.

Three months later, he got an opening in a shipping company as a clerk and after a year, was promoted to manage a department. Luck came his way when he met the owner of a US leasing company which led him to get involved in the container business. In 1975, he decided to go on his own and registered his first company, which initially served as an agent for his former employer. By 1977, with his company getting into building containers and leasing them, the name changed to CLOU – Container Leasing Company.

Business moved fast but in 1993 he sold his company to an Anglo-American competitor – a deal, whichhe says nearly ruined him.But he re-entered container leasing after observing a three year non-compete clause and in 1996, established Capital Lease GmbH in Hamburg with worldwide operations based out of Hong Kong. This became the fastest growing container leasing company in the world and in four years, Capital Lease turned out to be the largest leasing company in Europe.

A hardened businessman by then, he however, decided to sell his highly profit-making company, at the time, the 7th largest in the world with over 520,000 TEUs in its fleet.The timing he says was immaculate as he sold it to a consortium led by two banks just before the financial crash.

How did the Germans viewed a successful container-company being led by a non-German? And did he face problems due to his colour? The Germans, he said, appreciate those who work hard, who are honest and fair. Today, Senator Karan, even in his personal life, is well integrated in Germany. He is married for the second time to a German and has four children.

Sri Lanka has stood to benefit immensely both from his purse and his large heart. Before building the Hartley College Hostel he donated a bus worth Rs. 2.5 million to his first school, MHS and hopes to assist them with further building projects, as the war has left many children orphaned in Point Pedro and “as I too was an orphan.” Discussions are already on with the Kaddaively Methodist Church to set up an orphanage.

On a wider scale, Senator Karan, with the assistance of the German Embassy, is hoping to introduce to Sri Lanka, with the mediation of the Chambers of Commerce of Hamburg and Colombo, a dual vocational learning system as it is operated in Germany. Young students, he said, could follow courses of their choice whilst working. This is a cornerstone of German industrial success and allows young people to attend classes to learn the theory whilst gaining practical experience on the job.

Business was not the sole focus of Senator Karan. He established the Ian Karan Auditorium in the Bucerius Kunst Forum and an Auditorium for medical students at the Hamburg University. He served as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Hamburg Theatre Festival and is on the Supervisory Board of the Hamburg Football Club (HSV).

Senator Karan has been awarded the Federal Cross of Merit for his numerous social and cultural engagements as he continues to serve on the Advisory or Supervisory Board of many companies.

For over 40 years Senator Karan was a British citizen and took up German citizenship just four years ago, on the recommendation of an important German politician.Modesty prevents him from mentioning her name.But, he says: “This is only an administrative formality as I have long been a German patriot at heart.”

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