Appreciation: Upali Wijewardene
By Rajah Sinnathuray J.P
[Sri Lanka Turf Club]
A successful businessman should have a photographic memory, uncommon common sense, an ability to learn fast, make quick decisions and luck.
This was Phillip Upali Wijewardene, the founder of Upali Group of Companies.
After graduating in economics from the University of Cambridge, Wijewardene returned to Sri Lanka to join Unilever, where he worked for two years.
The first business venture he undertook was to takeover a bankrupt confectionery factory belonging to one of his friends. With modern machinery and planned management, Wijewardene was able to turn it around in a short period, and established ‘Delta’ as a leading brand in confectionery.
The second venture he took over was a chocolate company in financial difficulties. With rationalising of the product range and effective marketing, Wijewardene was able to make it a success. Kandos chocolate is now a household name in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand having its manufacturing plants in these countries.
Since its small beginnings in the early ’60s, Upali Group diversified into many fields such as Upali Aviation (a domestic airline), assembly of motorcars (UMC Mazda and Upali Fiat), assembly of consumer electronic products (Unic and Denshi) and later management of tea, rubber and cocoa estates under Adams Peak, Grand Central and Perak River plantations, both in Sri Lanka and overseas. The cocoa trading office of Upali Group in USA was then housed in the World Trade Centre, New York City, which handled all the industrial products made in the Upali factories.
In 1978, Wijewardene was appointed Director General of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission, now called the Board of Investment, set up to attract direct foreign investment to the country, which he handled with great success.
Because of Wijewardene’s business achievements, he was featured in the Fortune magazine of December 1980, captioned ‘Sri Lanka’s dashing deal maker.’ He was the only Sri Lankan to have had such a privilege.
Upali Wijewardene was a man of many parts. He was the Chief Basnayake Nilame of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya. This position was inherited from his father, the late Don Walter Wijewardene, son of Helena Wijewardene Lamathani, who renovated the present Kelaniya temple after its destruction by the Portuguese. His religious belief was such that whatever he produced, he first offered to the Kelaniya temple. Presently, his nephew, Dhammika Attygalle functions as the Chief Basnayake Nilame of the Kelaniya temple.
The name Upali Wijewardene was synonymous with horse racing — the sport of kings. He was the Chairman, Board of Stewards of the Sri Lanka Turf Club and was a keen turfite, who raced in Sri Lanka and England, where he won the ‘Royal Ascot’ with ‘Rasa Penang’ ridden by the world famous Jockey Lester Piggot. He also won the Singapore Derby and Perak Derby – 1980, with his horse, named Varron.
He raced General Atty too and won many races in England. He flew to all these countries, where his horses were racing, in his private aircraft. He made it a point to fly from New Market to Nuwara Eliya to watch his horses and ponies racing there. He would land in Katunayake Airport and make a quick tarmac change to his private helicopter to fly to Nuwara Eliya. Wijewardene was responsible in reviving pony racing and horse racing during a time when there was a lull in racing.
On February 13, 1983 while returning to Colombo from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wijewardene and five others disappeared in his private Lear Jet over the straits of Malacca leaving no trace of the wreckage or survivors.
He was a native son, whose vision embraced the world.