I had the pleasure of meeting one of the favourite sons of St Benedict’s College, an iconic figure and an expert in the tourist industry in Sri Lanka. He not only championed the blue chip company Aitken Spence Group to achieve great success but, as the president of the Tourist Hotels’ Association of Sri Lanka, he also was instrumental in promoting Sri Lanka as a tourist destination across the world even during troubled times. His untiring efforts were richly rewarded with the highest honour by Sri Lanka Tourism – Legend in Tourism, in 2011. He loves sports and music more than anything else. He is none other than Prema Cooray,
former Aitken Spence Group Chairman. Here, Prema talks about his life, passion and dreams.
“I began my schooling at Holy Cross College, Gampaha, in the early ‘50s as my father was the principal of Gampaha Central. I entered St Benedict’s College in 1955 at second standard and was staying with my grandparents in Mattakkuliya. I had an uncle, Ernest De Mel, an old Ben, who lived with us in the same house. So I used to travel with him in his Volkswagen or in my grandfather’s Skoda to school those days.
“I was the third in the family of five, the eldest brother is Nihal, second is Christopher, the fourth was Lakshman who passed away some time ago, and the fifth is the only sister, Nilanthi. My eldest brother studied at St Benedict’s College and Royal College, Colombo, and the others too also studied at St Benedict’s while my sister studied at Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya.
“My eldest brother Nihal was brilliant in his studies. During this time, the educational system in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was undergoing changes as the government was taking over schools. My father was concerned about his (Nihal’s) studies, so he took him out from St Benedict’s and admitted him to Royal College from where he entered the Engineering Faculty of Peradeniya University. Nihal’s leaving school didn’t go down well with the La Sallian Brothers who were managing St Benedict’s at that time.”
We formed the ‘Young Lavinians Sports Club and had some talented cricketers joining us.
Prema’s father, a disciplinarian and avid promoter of sports, had joined the Education service in the 1940s as a teacher and later had been the principal of several schools in Galahitiyawa, Narammala, Gampaha, Madampe and Piliyandala. Prema reminisces: “I remember those days when Duncan White used to come to our place. My father got him to train R.A.C. Hubert from Piliyandala Central. With Duncan’s training, Hubert managed to beat the famous Darrel Lieversz of Royal College at the Senior Public Meet in the 200m event. Darrel was a friend of my eldest brother Nihal. I remember Gordon Dissanayake, an old Ben, who clocked 10.5sec in the 110-yard dash at the Public Schools Meet.” In 1959, Prema’s family had moved to Ratmalana, with his father becoming the principal at Piliyandala Central where he served for 13 years. Under his stewardship the school managed to set some records, both in studies and sports. For Prema, life in Ratmalana made a big impact. They lived down St Rita’s Road and had had a great set of friends, who are still his close buddies and according Prema they had a memorable time. Prema shares his experiences: “Many of us used to travel together to St Benedict’s from Ratmalana either in the bus or by train. I loved sports, especially cricket. Since we were travelling from a distance, I couldn’t stay after school for sports. It was never easy to get into a sports team. So much of class, high standards and high competition existed not only in cricket but in all other sports too. I used to closely follow St Benedict’s sports teams those days. My father used to take us to watch cricket and football matches and athletics meets. It became a habit and to date I follow sports news of St Benedict’s.
“I missed playing cricket for St Benedict’s but I managed to play for my house “Luke”. Since I couldn’t play cricket for school, my brothers and I together with our neighbourhood friends started playing some really competitive softball cricket in Ratmalana. We formed the ‘Young Lavinians Sports Club and had some talented cricketers joining us. I remember Kumar Ramanathan and Tony Appadurai used to come and play in the same cricket league. In our team we had Lal Silva, an outstanding sportsman from St Benedict’s and a colourful character who also came from the same neighbourhood. We became good friends. He excelled in both rugger and cricket and later continued with rugger at club level for Havelocks SC.
“We also had in our team Freddy Silva, Nandana Meemeduma and Ravi Goonarathne now a Professor in Veterinary Science in New Zealand. When my brother Nihal and his friend Royalist Nihal Kodituwakku entered the Peradeniya University, we used to bring them down by paying their train fares to play softball cricket matches in Colombo. It was a serious affair and a professionally conducted tournament.”
At college, Prema recollects with great respect Rev. Bro. Athanasius, Bro. Alban and Bro. Flavian a flamboyant brother who came down from the United States and taught them.
“In our class, in the second standard, I, Upali Mallawaarachchi and Desmond De Silva, who later went on to become a doctor, were competing for the first three places. Upali later went on to top his batch in Engineering at Peradeniya University. Merrill Samarasinghe, Srilal Fernando, Lakshman Soysa and Shirley Wijesiri too were in my class, and passed out as doctors later on.
Prema said 1964 was a memorable year at college. “We had a fine cricket season under Sunil Fernando and our 1st XI became the unofficial Schools Cricket Champions. The matches against S. Thomas’, St Joseph’s and Royal still linger in my memory. I even remember the 1957 1st XI cricket season under L.P. Rayen where St Benedict’s emerged champs. The opening bowlers Cecil Waidyaratne and Neville Wickremasinghe combined to form a devastating fast bowling attack. LP was a fine skipper and Neville Casie Chetty was a stylish batsman,” Prema fondly remembers.
While he enjoyed following sports, he built a passion for music during his school days. When questioned about his love for music, Prema said: “My father had a lovely voice and I was in the college choir. I remember, in the seventh standard, I wore a national costume and sang a verse from Guththila Kaavya on the stage during the Sinhala Sahithya Day (Sinhala Literary Day). I was not into Sinhala music but Bro. Leander (later Fr Christopher Kurera) trained me. I managed to win the “Kavi Tharangaya” two years in a row, 1959 and 1960. Robin Fernando and Ravindra Randeniya who were our seniors were wonderful actors to watch and they used to dominate the stage during school days.
“Bro. Leander unearthed my talent for music. I liked singing English songs and my favourites were Pat Boone, Elvis Presley, and Jim Reeves. Our family friends, Valerie and Chrishanthi de Mel, two sisters spotted my talent when I sang at a family gathering. They encouraged me and were a big influence in my singing. During the early ‘60s, Bro. Edward commenced the ‘Our Own Show’. He used to play records (on gramophone) of Jim Reeves and few more artistes when we gathered under the banyan tree during lunch time. At the same time, Good Shepherd Convent and St Benedict’s College got together in putting up a joint concert. I used to follow these concerts. But I never used to sing in public as I tended to be on the shy side; instead I used to sing over the Radio Ceylon.
“During those days there was a programme named Maliban Talent Quest. Leon Belleth and Mil Sansoni used to conduct the programme with Jerry Crake on piano. One of my friends coaxed me to apply for this where I was called up for an audition at Radio Ceylon. I sang Deep Within Me in front of an audience in Studio 06. I think there were about 150 people and it was a live show. You’ll get two biscuit packs as a gift and if you answer the question, you’ll stand to get four packs. It was fun to take part – I used to take part every year.
“I preferred staying away from public performances. Radio Ceylon had Young Ones and Chris Greet conducted this programme live every Tuesday. I was the debating secretary. Taking part on live radio programmes helped me to steer away my shyness.”
Soon after Ordinary Level, Prema had said goodbye to St Benedict’s College and joined Turquand Young (later Ernst & Young) in 1966. He wanted to pursue a career in accounting as a Chartered Accountant. Prema joined along with Hemaka Amarasuriya (Chairman Singer Sri Lanka), Baba Page (Chairman Ceylon Theatres Group) and “Chubi” Jayasinghe as Article Clerks on the same day. Prema had gained valuable exposure of the corporate world and the training and learning at Turquand Young helped him greatly later in his career.
He remembers with great respect Mr James Mather and Mr M.T.L. Fernando, who he regards as a fine gentlemen. Many of his colleagues at Turquand Young went on to excel in their careers by reaching top positions. Prema completed his intermediate in Chartered and CIMA by the time he left the firm in 1972. He recalled: “You could find the cream of the boys’ and girls’ schools at Ernst & Young. We had Lalith Wijeratne (Josephian and former schoolboy cricketer), Ranjith Goonesekere (former Royal College cricket captain), Gowri Shankaran (Royalist), Mahinda Wijesinghe (former Royal College cricketer), and R. M Fernando (former S. Thomas’ College cricket captain), and Mithra Wettimuny (Ananda College captain). Mahinda Wijesinghe was the captain of the cricket team which competed in the Mercantile Tournament. I remember borrowing a pair of cricket boots from my friend Lal Silva and playing in the Inter Auditor’s match. I managed to score 42 runs.”
In 1972, Prema had joined the Fertilizer Corporation as an Accountant after serving at Turquand Young for six years. He was recognised for his performance at the corporation and had promotions in positions every year during his four-year tenure. “During those days, the Government was the main engine of the economy so I felt it was the best move. In 1975 we formed a cricket team at the corporation and R. M Fernando was the captain. I played in that team and we won the ‘C’ Division in the Nationalised Services Tournament.”
By 1976, Prema became the Deputy Finance Manager and in January 1976 he married Kanthi Rodrigo who he knew for some time as a close family friend. “My career took a turn that year. Ranjan Cassie Chetty, a colleague at Turquand Young, said there was a vacancy at Aitken Spence and wanted me to apply. So I did and soon was called for an interview where Mr. Ratna Sivaratnam, Director Aitken Spence Hotels interviewed me. He quickly offered me a job; in fact I was the first employee in Aitken Spence Travels.
“This was in October, 1976. I was also the first employee at Aitken Spence Hotel Management. I didn’t know much about tourism but felt it would be exciting. The leisure sector was at its infancy but with the change of governments in 1977 the market opened up; it exposed us to a world of opportunities. I enjoyed Hotel Management & Tourism as it was something new to me. We started off as a very small company but grew fast. By 1980 Aitken Spence Travels became a leading company in Sri Lanka in Tourism and Hotel Management.”
During this period, Aitken Spence Travels and Hotel Managements rose to great heights. The company also managed to sign an agreement with the largest tour agency in Europe, TUI. A turning point in Prema’s career was when he was referred in one paper in the final part of CIMA and was destined not to pursue his studies again.
Prema Cooray while having great strides in tourism did not lose his touch with his first-found love, music. He even started performing with his friends in the travel trade. Then when he was gaining recognition with his employer, Prema made a bold decision in 1980 to switch his career against the advice of many he received. When he was asked, Prema had this to say: “I used to go out and sing with Mithra Wettimuny who is a close family friend of ours during weekends at beachside hotels. Mithra got married to Kanthie de Zoysa and he then took over the reins of Stafford Motor Company. He invited me to join him and also said we can start up a hotel. Something which I’ve been talking a lot. During those days, I had a Honda scooter to travel and was getting three thousand rupees as a salary. I couldn’t resist Mithra’s offer of a car, a driver and a salary of Rs. 6000 and the title of general manager. I took it up and Mr. Sivaratnam, my superior at Aitken Spence was not a happy man.”
It was yet another challenge for Prema, from hotel and tourism industry to settle in with motor vehicles, especially the motorbikes. The company was doing well with liberal market conditions and this gave Stafford Motor Company the leverage to invest in other businesses which Prema and his best friend Mithra ventured into. They bought a property in Waikkal off Negombo in order to put up a hotel. Soon the area was populated with other developers moving in and acquiring properties. Under the Stafford Group, Prema started the project to build the Dolphin Hotel in Waikkal.
Halfway through the project, in 1983 the LTTE began its war against the Sri Lankan government and with the July riots the leisure and tourism industry took a massive hit. As a result all developers barring Stafford backed down and they vacated their properties in the Waikkal and Negombo stretch. This did not deter Prema and his ambition to open a luxury club hotel. Prema recalls: “We did not give up and we somehow opened the hotel with South Asia’s biggest swimming pool. Later Mithra managed to sign up ITC Sheraton India to manage the hotel. This gave us a huge boost as two of the world’s best tour operators were partnering with Club Hotel Dolphin.”
Still, Prema was not a satisfied man. Just after opening Hotel Dolphin, in 1984, he was approached by his former boss and mentor Mr Ratna Sivaratnam. He offered Prema a lucrative post as General Manager of Aitken Spence Hotels. During that time, Aitken Spence owned star class Hotels; Hill Top (Kandy), Neptune (Beruwela), Triton (Ahungalla), Palm Village (Uswetakeiyawa) and Pearl Beach Hotel (Beruwala). Prema accepted the offer and rejoined with his former employer Aitken Spence Hotels. Soon he found himself making a name for himself in the tourist Industry and he was promoted as a Director at Aitken Spence Hotels in 1986.
Prema shared his thoughts on the progress made during this difficult time. “The situation in Sri Lanka was getting worse day by day. Hoteliers were struggling and some were giving up. However, we managed to promote the country and our hotels among tour operators. Through the contacts I built and the networks, we managed to keep a steady flow of business. Not only that, we acquired loss-making hotels and turned them around while expanding our businesses at Aitken Spence.
“By 1988/89, the situation got worse. Tourist arrivals went down from 400,000 (in the early ‘80s) to just 190,000 (annual arrivals). JVP insurgency and LTTE terrorist acts were making it difficult for all who were in the tourism sector, both in local and international markets. We’d been lobbying the government to step in and help the industry. However, there were no lasting solutions. It was a very difficult period.
“In 1991, I was appointed to the Management Board of Aitken Spence Group. I felt it was high time that we invested in overseas properties and by November, 1991 we managed to sign an agreement with a Maldivian hotel management company to operate a 38-room Resort Bathala Island. By then so many Sri Lankan hotel operators were desperately trying to tap into Maldivian market but none succeeded. With some perseverance and luck, we became one of the first Sri Lankan companies to enter Maldives. Later, this helped the group immensely as the properties in Maldives soon became highly profitable ventures and helped the group during its difficult times.”
Prema thrives during challenging times. He had started following an MBA programme at Sri Jayawardenapura University in 1991 when he was struggling for time and shuttling between islands – Sri Lanka and Maldives. In 1992, he ventured into a landmark tourism project.
“We wanted to have some presence in the Cultural Triangle or in an ancient city in Sri Lanka. Most of our hotels were beachside resorts. By then, John Keels Hotels had a property in Habarana and there were a few hotels in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. One day I and a good friend, Josephian Manil De Mel who was the Managing Director of Aitken Spence Travels along with Geoffrey Bawa and my boss Ratna Sivaratnam hired a helicopter and went searching for ideal land. While we were flying above Dambulla, Bawa spotted land on the banks of Kandalama tank. It was beautiful from the sky but when we went on foot through the thick jungle to inspect the land, we were wondering what on earth we can do here. Can we even build a house on these rocky banks? However Bawa came up with a grand design and a concept and we persuaded the management.
“Bawa was truly a genius. We faced many obstacles, from nature with no proper road access and being a hard terrain, resistance from environmentalists, priests and political parties and ultimately it had become a national concern. We didn’t give up, Mr Ratna Sivaratnam gave strong leadership. We went through the right process, obtained proper approvals and commenced work on ‘Kandalama’ and carried out work without any violation (of laws) or damage (to environment). We completed the Kandalama Hotel by 1994 and opened the luxury Rs. 500 million hotel, which is an architectural wonder winning many international awards for its sustainability, including the PATA Green Globe award.
“I learnt my first lessons on Sustainable Development, during and after the development of Kandalama Hotel. This concept probably was something new to Sri Lanka. At the same time, I managed to complete my MBA.”
According to Prema, this was a period that happened to be the most challenging time for him, 1991- 1996, as an individual and as a director balancing his personal life, family life and business goals. He managed to successfully come through this phase with perseverance and passion. Kandalama Hotel and properties in Maldives are the major contributors to the turnover of the Aitken Spence Group even today.
Prema’s vision for tourism drove him into uncharted territories. In 1994, Aitken Spence started building their first hotel in the Maldives – Club Rannalhi. Prema steered this project personally and it was completed in 1996, thus Aitken Spence became the first Sri Lankan company to build and operate a hotel outside Sri Lanka.
Prema reminisces: “Mr. Sivaratnam gave me the independence to take decisions and he supported me. Aitken Spence Group was not financially strong at that time and with the help of HNB Bank and its managing director Mr. Rienzi Wijetilleke we managed to complete our projects, including the hotel in Maldives. We did not have a single foreign investment. In 1997 we also opened the hotel Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya. In 1998, after 16 years with the group, I was appointed to the Board of Aitken Spence Group and became the deputy chairman of the group a year later. In the same year I was appointed as the president of Tourists Hotels’ Association of Sri Lanka.”
On the invitation of Mr Kingsley Wickremaratne, the Minister of Trade in the year 2000 US Aid was requested to improve the competitiveness of certain industries in Sri Lanka, including tourism. This programme was titled “Competitiveness Initiative” and US Aid contributed with noteworthy input to take Sri Lanka’s tourism into the next level by diversifying the product Beach Destination and go beyond Nature, Culture and Adventure.
Prema led this tourism cluster for good eight years chartering a new strategy in Sri Lanka’s tourism history. Today this initiative has paid rich dividends and Sri Lanka is now identified as a country of great diversity. Prema revisits the early 2000s: “By year 2000 we managed to expand the group’s portfolio of businesses. We invested in generating power and setting up another hotel in Maldives. We went on a road show to generate funds and raised US $12 million through private placements as the group couldn’t generate funds for expansions.
“The Aitken Spence Group was going from strength to strength. In 2002, I was appointed as the chairman of the group and by 2003 I realised it was the time for me to step down and retire owing to a change of ownership. So I stepped down and joined the Chamber of Commerce in 2003 as the CEO.”
Prema became the secretary general of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and continued till 2013. Without stopping from there he commenced a pilot project with US aid, an eco-tourism project funded by major companies, Sinharaja Rain Forest Eco Lodge. Prema is currently on the Boards of Ramada Hotel Colombo, Fort Land Group, Lighthouse Hotel and also is chairman of Citrus Group.
Prema Cooray, a humble person, a risk taker with much faith in God above. He is a legend in Sri Lankan tourism and credits his success to his upbringing at St Benedict’s College and strict discipline of his father M.A.R. Cooray who he admires increasingly with the passage of time.
Prema’s words of wisdom for those aspiring to build a successful life: “Credibility is the key to success, preserve it at any cost. Stick to your strengths and you will not go wrong!”