It is not every day that one gets to talk about a man who has been an inspiration to the private sector of the land and it is not every day that one gets to tell others about the good works done by such a man. Here is a man who pursued his dream, despite [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Patrick Amarasinghe (1932-2015): The forgotten pioneer


It is not every day that one gets to talk about a man who has been an inspiration to the private sector of the land and it is not every day that one gets to tell others about the good works done by such a man.

Patrick Amarasinghe

Here is a man who pursued his dream, despite obstacles. In Sri Lanka, his is a name that conjures up a mixture of grudging admiration and heroic antics. Blessed with a never-say-die attitude, his vociferous and his often frank and forthright rhetoric has given him various labels- some positive and some negative. But to exporters, his has been a voice of a lone crusader, who took up the trials and tribulations of exporters and the business community in general, fighting for recognition in a culture that was strong with attitudes and divides, bridging gaps and making for a united front to make Sri Lankan industry a force to be reckoned with.

Early Years
Hailing from Tangalle, with his education at Ananda College, Colombo, an interest in community and social development held his attention from the days of his youth, a trait that continued in to his days with the Jaycees thereafter. However, the insurgency in the 1970s was the turning point in his life, when his patriotic instincts took over.

Leaving good career prospects while working as an Accountant at Lake House, he decided to become an entrepreneur utilising local raw materials, manufacturing for export and thereby, creating new employment opportunities. However, there was one drawback. He had no idea or knowledge of industry or exports and absolutely no capital, except for a princely sum of Rs. 65. With his hobbies of woodwork and carpentry taking centre stage, his was an industry that began in his backyard, manufacturing wooden educational toys under the brand name of Woodplex – giving birth to Furnifits Ltd. And for those of you young enough to remember the highly popular Woodplex Children’s Club in the Sunday Observer, Uncle Woodplex was none other than him.

Always a man to overcome challenges with novel concepts, the severe import restrictions prevalent in the 1970s did not deter him. His search for a break in to the export market bore fruit when he joined an organisation called Experiment in International Living, visiting the US as a member of a Special Interest group. During his visit, he gleaned enough information material about the requirements of foreign markets, making a thorough study of quality and products.

An advertisement placed in the newsletter of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce saw him befriended by a Japanese wooden product manufacturer and a few months later, through sheer hard work, openness and reliability, not to mention an improvised telephone, sister as his secretary, and borrowed annex room as his office, he had made inroads into exports, not deterred even when he couldn’t import machinery due to restrictions.

His rise from then on has been legendary. In 1974, the then Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike set up the Export Promotion Secretariat. He has the distinction of being a winner at the National Exports Awards organised by the Secretariat for four years – in 1975, 1976 and 1977 and again in 1985.

Crusader for Exports
He realised very early that the inherent talents of this nation were not being utilised and ours was a culture steeped in bureaucracy. There was never any help given to an exporter and each and every exporter fought his or her own battle, not very well however. Realising a dire need to have one voice for exporters, his farsightedness saw the emergence for the National Exporters Association (NEA) in 1986, of which he was the founder President and remained so until 2002. Even though the Export Development Board (EDB) deterred exporters from joining the NEA, sheer determination saw him on the Governing Committee of the Federation of Exporters set up by the EDB, the very organization that did not want to know him. He successfully filled a vacuum by becoming a voice for the exporters through the NEA and later the NCE which, through well-thought-out campaigns highlighting matters of export impact, saw the membership growing from small and medium exporters to large and extra-large sectors, presenting a plethora of industries in the agricultural, industrial, manufacturing and service areas.

Subsequent to this, he was appointed to the Directorate of the EDB in 1989, which gave him the opportunity of influencing various activities of the export sector and was on the board of several government and private institutions: National Development Council, training institutions, etc such as:
n Founder President/President Emeritus, National Chamber of Exporters Sri Lanka (NCE) :1986-2002
n President, Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry Sri Lanka (FCCISL): 1992-1998
n Chairman, Ceylon National Chamber of Industries (CNCI): 1995-1997
n President, Furniture Manufacturers Association (FMA)
n Chairman, People’s Rural Development Association
n Director, Sri Lanka Export Development Board (EDB): 1989-1994
n Director, Board of Investment (BOI): 1994-1996
n Director, Human Resources Development Council
n Director, NAITA National Apprentice Industrial Training Authority
n Director, TVEC Tertiary Vocational Educational Commission
n Director, Japan Lanka Industrial Development Association (PRADA)
n Founder President, Dehiwala Mt. Lavinia Jaycees
n Member, Staff Development Committee – University Grants Commission
He pioneered the Annual Exporters Award of the NEA in 1993 which became a trend setter for other chambers to introduce their specialised award. However, his unanimous election as President of the Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industries of Sri Lanka (FCCISL), a post he held for six years, steered his path even further into helping his fellow exporters and industrialists. The Entrepreneur Awards, another brainchild of his, which grew from strength to strength, permeating even the smallest of provinces in the island, is today a showcase for entrepreneurs big and small to be recognized for their skills and contribution to the national economy.

Patrick Amarasinghe reveled in using his high profile offices of President of the FCCISL and the NCE to lobby with successive governments, successfully I might add, to give the country’s industrialists a better lot.
Never one to be afraid to call a spade a spade, he was one of those who mooted periodic dialogue with the President of Sri Lanka and regular meetings with relevant officials including the Treasury and Policy Planning Ministry, campaigning for the setting up of an International Exhibition Centre, publishing the Sri Lanka Exporter Magazine which is now in its 22nd year, got the Government to declare the Year of Exports (1992) and the Decade of Export (from 1992 to 2002), setting up an Information Trade Centre and initiated the first export Fair — Sri Lanka Expo. Needless to say, the NCE Export Awards is one of the bigger feathers in his cap-with the award becoming a benchmark for exporters both here and abroad.

But it is his vision in always thinking of the macro picture that has been the most admirable phenomenon. He was the President and the strength behind Young Entrepreneur Sri Lanka, a Member Nation of Junior Achievement International which teaches school children Business and Economic Education, which is a way of investing in the future of our children, encouraging them to prepare themselves for a highly challenging future environment and be workforce ready.

His undying commitment to the socioeconomic development of the country, was best exampled when he spearheaded the Human Resources Training Division of the FCCISL, training over 18,000 school leavers and employed youth of the country, to upgrade and develop skills to more suit the emerging trends of employability. His initiative in publishing the first-ever Career Guidance Directory has been a boon to Young People searching for careers at all levels in the private sector.

His vision has always been that exporters should be given due recognition by the leaders of this country, because it is they who generate employment, earn valuable foreign exchange and help to bring investment in to the country. It was Patrick who took President J.R. Jayewardene’s famous slogan “export or perish” forward at the ground level with the support of the chambers. He was equally concerned about import substitution industries and often fought to prevent manufacturing firms gradually turning into trading companies. It was he who gave a more forceful meaning to the slogan: “Private sector as the engine of growth”.
He made a personal sacrifice of his woodworking business, which gave birth to the struggle in the first place. But while the business quietly existed, his mission stayed focused on the macro picture, formulating plans and strategies to give the exporters and entrepreneurs of Sri Lanka a better future.

“Mahanayaka” of the Private Sector
My words have been extensive, but without being extensive it would have been very difficult for me to talk about the multi-faceted personality of a man who carved a strong road for industry and the private sector in Sri Lanka.
The Daily News editorial once called him the “Mahanayake of the Private Sector”. In recognition of his service to the private sector, chamber movement, and contribution to socio-economic development in the country he was awarded “Deshabandu” in 2005 by the former President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Many have forgotten Patrick’s enduring service to the nation in recent years. Patrick was a pioneer in building entrepreneurship, strengthening chambers, and building up a dialogue with key policy makers. He was a great inspiration to young entrepreneurs of Sri Lanka. His demise is a great loss to the nation. May he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana.

(This is an updated version of a
Citation delivered by the author at a Felicitation Ceremony at
Taj Samudra Hotel on 14th March 2003 for Patrick Amarasinghe when he relinquished his duties as the President of the National Chamber of Exporters of
Sri Lanka)

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