He stunned the business world

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Lt Col Kenneth Abeywickrama

Kenneth Abeywickrama was born in Kandy to a well known and philanthropic Baddegama family in the South. He schooled at Royal College in Colombo, was a reserve Lieutenant Colonel in the SL Army Service Corps (Volunteers) from 1962 -1982, retiring after being the 21st Commanding Officer from 1977 to 1982. He was a senior manager at Unilevers, Chairman phenomenal State Timber Corporation, and business consultant to many organizations in SL, Asia and Africa and the UN. He finally settled down in Washington, USA in 1992, visiting SL often. He was here in January. His last visit was at the beginning of April 2015 to celebrate his 80th birthday with relatives and friends at the Royal Colombo Golf Club.

On April 7, 2015 while climbing the steps of a temple in Trincomalie with his wife and relations he died, despite the frantic efforts of his son Shanaka who gave him CPR.

Neither he nor his family and friends would ever have thought his last journey would take place on that very day instead. He had come home to die. Had he made that choice himself it could not be better ordained.

His funeral took place at Kanatte Borella with military honours, fittingly provided by troops of his own SL Army Service Corps on the day of his 80th birthday - April 10, 2015.

Kenneth’s greatest achievements to me, however, were not in SL where he had stunned the business world but in Washington on behalf of SL during the time of its greatest need - in the fight against terrorism. It was mostly unheard and unsung. While the LTTE terrorism, supported at the beginning by India, virtually engulfed SL, he and his friends and colleagues in the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe campaigned relentlessly for over 20 years to turn the tide of public opinion and the minds of the powerful in those countries to favour SL.

Jivinda de Silva of the World Alliance for Peace in SL (WAPS) remembers going from New York to join Kenneth to haunt if not walk the corridors of power in Washington. They lobbied congressmen and Senators and promoted SL’s position. Foremost in that struggle was Jayantha Danapala, SL’s Ambassador in the UN who was also the UN under secretary for Nuclear Disarmament. His leadership was pivotal. Their contribution helped to frame the very anti-terrorist laws and counter measures in the USA that were used to SL’s advantage.

Eventually it turned the tide in the USA and the West from sympathy for the terrorists who had posed as freedom fighters to greater understanding and appreciation of SL actions. Eventually, moral turned into material support from almost all countries including India and contributed immensely to the tide that brought battlefield victory on May 19, 2009.

Kenneth was an expert in marketing management. His career began at the Ports Authority with tough stevedores where he learned some crafty lessons in man management and later at MacKinnon’s. He then made his mark indubitably as an exceptional senior manager at Unilevers from 1966 to 1978.

In January 2007, a book authored by him titled ‘Adventures in Management’ was published by Sage Publications of New Delhi. It was not only the a number one best-seller in the business books class in India then but also succinctly covers, yes his adventures, which had at times turned out to be quite dangerous, especially in places like Afghanistan and Yemen. Kenneth writes admiringly of the people there. As a colleague Wilfred Jayasuriya wrote “writing about Kenneth is writing about his famous book too”. Kenneth sent me a copy which I read in one go. I recommend this riveting book to the Forces as a must read on management and leadership.

Probably his greatest achievement in business was when he was seconded at much financial loss to himself by the government to be Chairman of the State Timber Corporation (STC) from 1978 to 1982. He took over the almost bankrupt, failing organization with its labor and management relations under strain. He made it profitable in six months. When his tenure finished after three years it had made a profit of Rs.125 million which in the next five years became 850 million. The dollar then was worth Rs.10. The Harvard Business Review and the Asian Wall Street journal ran two page articles on the success of STC. Was he the first and last of the Mohicans in successful state enterprises?

He stepped out to say that the state services had as good if not better managers than the private sector but what made them fail was that they lacked good operating systems.

At the funeral I met two of his friends who too had been seconded for Government work, including Mahaveli project, in 1978. They, like Kenneth, left after the initial enthusiasm when political pressure to influence management decisions was brought to bear in ways well known.

He was later an International Consultant in management and business development in developing countries for over 20 years, working in Asia, Africa and the transition economies, working for the World Bank, USAID, UNIDO and ITC of UNCTAD/WTO, often as Team Leader of multi-disciplinary teams of international experts.

Major General Kenneth Edema USP, the present Colonel Commandant of the Service Corps recalled Kenneth, then Commanding Officer joining subalterns like him at their then Colombo Race Course Officers’ Mess in the early 1980s. The highlights of ‘volunteering’ were the annual training camps in Diyatalawa including sweating it out on Fox Hill and doing defence exercises at Gurutalawa. There was also a liberal mixing of ‘soft drinks’ not only in the mess but on night patrols too!

In 1971, when the JVP insurgency broke out, the fighting was over in just over a month as the Support troops in which Kenneth served as a captain, not only backed up the troops in the field effectively but shared in the dangers too, there being no ‘front lines’.

I knew Kenneth well when we were both in a peace time and small little happy army. The Army was very proud of his successes in the Timber Corporation especially as it reflected well on his leadership qualities. He, despite his own renown, often said that it was General Denis Perera, Army Commander (when Kenneth was commanding the Service Corps Volunteers) and later Chairman of Ceylon Tobacco, who inspired him most as a leader.

Kenneth and I exchanged emails almost daily. They enriched my understanding of current affairs, history and global power struggles. Over the last year he was revolted by the corruption and graft of the last government. He must have been a happy man to see the change on January 8.

Upon reading some of my articles on the conflict, he wanted me to write a book on my memoires and volunteered to edit it. His son Sidath when told this spontaneously told me he would like to do as now as his father is no more. Kenneth had an abiding interest and love for many things military especially its leaders and history. He has written incisive reviews of Operation Barbarossa and the Korean War and sent me the most acclaimed books on them.

When I was in USA last year (but about 1,000 miles away in South Carolina) he generously made arrangements for me to visit and tour all the historically important places and also to meet a Congressman in Washington. Due to unavoidable circumstances I was unable to accept. I much regret I missed a splendid opportunity to have a first class guided tour of Washington.Kenneth leaves behind his wife Bernadette, sons Sidath and Shanaka and daughter Dushanthi as well as many relatives, friends and colleagues. He will be sorely missed by all.
Lalin Fernando

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