Dilith Jayaweera is a corporate leader with interests in many areas of the Sri Lankan corporate and business world and is therefore never too far from the news. Joint Managing Director of Triad (Pvt) Ltd, Chairman of George Steuart Group and Managing Director of Derana TV are just three of the many high level positions he holds.
In an exclusive interview with Ceylon FT Jayaweera spoke about success, nationalism and public perceptions of him.
Here are extracts of the interview:
You have business interests in advertising, leisure, media, finance, health and so many other diverse fields. Which one do you enjoy the most?
A: I still enjoy advertising because I believe in creativity and innovation. I approach my new ventures also from that creative angle and try to add value. So I am an advertising guy.
As far as leadership is concerned, what are the differences of being in charge of your own companies and companies you have acquired along the way?
A: The second one is more challenging because you have to work within a given structure and the room for innovation is limited. The first obstacle in any merger or acquisition is developing mutual trust and respect between you and the people of that company. I have been successful at this and as a result we have built a good relationship. The systems and procedures are for you to change according to your vision for the company. Do you want to do the same thing that has been done before or something different? In the latter case you can use your creativity and make changes.
Do you consider yourself a tough boss?
A: In a conventional sense, no. But organizations cannot move forward if there is no proper leadership. I am quite friendly on a day-to-day basis and almost all my colleagues call me by my first name. I like being their friend and them being mine. It is about give-and-take and equitable growth and I believe they should grow along with the organization. I do not believe in controlling people to achieve organizational objectives. These objectives should be achieved by discussion and consensus. A tough boss is someone who tries to drive a point without seeking consensus. I do not want anybody to see me as a boss, but as a friend. I am very much part of a team that is trying to achieve common objectives. The concept of boss is archaic and modern day entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg do not believe in that.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has grown in popularity and a majority of the companies are doing it now. What are your thoughts on this?
A: Conventional CSR is designed to deal with your guilt. A company knows that it is doing something wrong and do not want people to know about it. I believe that charity begins at home and I do not believe in conventional CSR. If your colleague is not happy, put all your resources towards making him or his family happy instead of doing big projects for publicity and media attention.
As a public figure, do you enjoy the limelight?
A: Personally, I do not want to be highlighted as an individual. I want to be highlighted as a part of a team. But unfortunately we have to face reality. I am not one of those people to put the rest of the team in front and stay in the background. I like to lead from the front. It is not for personal glory but to win the confidence of the people. My name comes up in the media if I have led from the front. You would not have seen my picture when Triad kept winning the best agency award three years in a row. It was a hat-trick that no other agency achieved. Similarly when the rest of the organizations send out a press release it is not my picture that you see. But my picture would appear if I have gone and led a team towards achieving a common objective. As a person I do not want to be highlighted and I do not enjoy that kind of limelight.
Are you happy with the way that the media has portrayed you, especially in the past few years?
A: I am definitely not happy. But this media you refer to is one Sunday newspaper in the mainstream media and even in that newspaper it is only the financial section. It is a personal vendetta. I am not ruffled by whatever is said about me in the media and it is hard to create an impact in my mind. I am a strong person and I do not believe in god, religions or auspicious times. I believe in Buddhism as a philosophy and a way of life but apart from that I only believe in myself.
Why do you think this newspaper has a personal vendetta against you?
A: It is because I brought out the fact that it was the financial section of that newspaper that contributed to the downfall of the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE) at the time. It purposely carried negative articles about the stock market and I proved this with facts to the stakeholders of CSE in front of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The newspaper did not like this but all I did was present a collection of paper cuttings in a Powerpoint presentation. So it was that newspaper that started writing these things about me. Of course, afterwards those articles were taken up by the virtual media where anybody can write anything anonymously.
Why do you think this newspaper picked the stock market to attack you?
A: I came in to the stock market after 18 years of successful business ventures. I am not a guy who would enter the stock market and manipulate it and earn money. Again, I did not deal in the stock market personally but through Divasa Finance. ‘Pumping and dumping’ is when you buy shares at a low price, push the price up and sell it to a government institution like EPF, ETF or NSB. Divasa never sold a single share to any government institution. Whatever selling that took place was in the open market where there was a willing buyer and a willing seller, which is the most transparent practice in the world. We formed Divasa after the end of the war and we are still holding on to most of the shares.
It is just that they saw me as the mouthpiece for the so called manipulators and so called Mafia and it became a popular thing to attack me. But even with these controversies in the stock market the mainstream media, apart from that Sunday newspaper, analysed it in a broad context.
As a student you engaged in university politics but you have no intention of entering national politics. Why is that?
A: I was not aligned to any political party in university. We were mostly looking at the protection of students’ rights and I was not doing it to enter national politics. People like Dayasiri Jayasekera and Kanchana Ratwatte on the other hand entered politics after engaging in university politics. I am a vociferous guy and have been since my O/Level days. I was once taken to the cop shed for organizing a strike against Ranil Wickramasinghe’s White Paper to reform education. However, I stopped getting involved in politics after university and to date I have not gotten involved in national politics and do not intend to.
What are your views on students engaging in politics in universities at present?
A: I do not endorse the politics that some student factions are engaging in because that is aligned to a national political party. Then the students become puppets of that party and end up fighting for that party’s cause instead of their own. Of course, university students should have an opinion and a view about politics, the economy, corruption and other national issues. Universities are there to discuss ideologies and gain knowledge but alignment to a political party kills the independence of the students and free thinking. University politics should also not be disruptive to academic activities. In my time, we would paste posters on university walls and once the purpose was achieved we would remove the posters and clean up the walls.
You recently campaigned against the import of milk powder which brought about further controversy. Why did you get involved in this issue?
A: I have been opposed to the consumption of milk powder for the past 18 years as it is an unhealthy practice. Because of this Triad has not handled a milk powder brand for 20 years, along with tobacco, alcohol and fairness creams. So, I had a press conference one day at Independence Square to educate people about this issue along with my friends W. K.H. Wegapitiya, Samantha Kumarasinghe and Ravi Liyanage.
More than one month after this took place, an electronic media network came out with a vindictive campaign against me revolving around this issue. But that campaign is a personal vendetta and has nothing to do with the milk powder issue. But apart from this particular media outlet, the mainstream media has been supportive towards our ideologies. I have always promoted Sri Lankan entrepreneurship and Sri Lankan brands and the mainstream media has never looked at it in an unfairly negative way.
You have had a nationalistic streak to you over the years. Where does that come from?
A: I learnt it by reading books about the history of the United States. It is the most patriotic nation in the world and with a short history of 250 odd years they have established themselves as the world’s biggest power. This is because the concept of being American was treated with utmost importance. When they lacked manpower they imported manpower, and made them feel and want to be American. There are plenty of people who migrated to America and later joined the US Army and fought for America in places like Vietnam and Iraq. Most people over there have a US Flag in their living rooms or in their vehicles, and not just on Independence Day. USA is a case study that we can all learn from in terms of branding Sri Lanka and bringing people together. Most corporates in Sri Lanka do not believe in this concept, and instead believe in the American flag. Triad has never tied up with a foreign multinational company because we believe in the concept of being Sri Lankan.
Doesn’t excessive nationalism breed racial or religious extremism?
A: No, religion and race has nothing to do with it. America has so many religions and races, but it has united under one flag. We must promote and consume Sri Lankan brands, not Sinhala Buddhist brands or Muslim brands. When you promote the country and the national flag all other petty differences will die.
: Have you ever thought about what your life would have been if you were just another face in the crowd?
A: All what I do today is to change something in that given minute for the betterment of mankind. I do something to create an impact for the better. If I were to become average like everybody else it is unfair because I know that I can make a change. I have that confidence in myself and it is those people that lack confidence who join the average bandwagon. If all of us are like that society and the world would never change. The Wright Brothers and Alexander Graham Bell wanted to make a change and they helped move society forward.
If you did not go down this path of entrepreneurship and business, what would you have done as a career? Law?
A: I studied law because my parents wanted me to become a lawyer. But I did not want to practise law because I did not see any room or opportunity to create change. It is a set system where you are taught the principles and you cannot change a thing. Probably your argument could be more creative than your opponent’s, but other than that you work with age old Roman Dutch Law and English Law. I would have been very unhappy as a lawyer.
What does success mean to you?
A: Success is a state of mind and it is about how you feel. There are many people who have amassed material wealth. But I do not necessarily consider them successful. Successful people have brought about change. Success is not about me beating you in a sprint. But if I can get a person who cannot run at all to run then that is success.
Can a person be financially successful without making enemies?
A: No, very difficult. When somebody becomes financially successful everybody else will have to justify why they are not financially successful. So they tend to justify their failure by defining the success of that other person the way they want to. They say that that person became successful because he did X, Y and Z things which they would not do. Otherwise how does a person explain to his wife why a colleague is more successful than him?
On your road to success, have you lost some friends along the way because you could not make time for them or they perceived you to have changed?
A: No, never. In my personal life I am very close to my old friends. Some are security guards and some are private bus conductors and I try to maintain those friendships. I am actually closer to some of my personal friends than my corporate friends.
How much of a part does luck play in being successful?
A: If success means a huge bank balance, massive houses and a fleet of brand new cars, luck plays a huge part. If success is a state of mind luck has nothing to do with it. You can be lucky and win a lottery, do well in the stock market or strike a lucrative business deal. I have no faith in luck. I have faith in commitment and doing something different.
What was the first time you felt that you had ‘made it’ and that you were part of the big league?
A: The day we started Triad. I knew we were in the big league because we had the courage to say that we would not do the same thing that the big multinational agencies were doing. We wanted to promote local brands with our local agency. We felt big and I do not think I have felt bigger in my life.
Speaking of Triad, how much of a part has your long friendship and partnership with Varuni Fernando played in the development of your career?
A: I would not have achieved anything on my own. It is a friendship that has put the foundation stone to our philosophy. She was there right at the beginning when we started Triad and today we have extended our business interests to 34 odd companies.
Do you always agree with each other?
A: Not necessarily. Sometimes we just agree to disagree.
Did you have any role models or people that inspired you?
A: Not famous role models. I read biographies but I do not believe in those because I think it is all literature. If at all my role model would be my father. I saw some sincerity, honesty and openness in him. He managed to engage my three brothers and I, to achieve his dream of having a doctor, lawyer, engineer and accountant in the family to the point that we felt guilty if we did not work towards achieving that dream. He never forced us and it taught me that engagement is the best way to get people to do something.
Is there a quote that you live by or you would paste on your wall?
A: No such quote, but Ata Lo Dahama is the key philosophy that drives me. Gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. That is the ultimate truth in life and I am fearless because I believe in that. So I do not expect to gain profits or for people to praise me all the time. There are thousands and thousands of pages written on Buddhism but for me Ata Lo Dahama is the essence of Buddhism.
How often do you take a gamble on something in life?
A: Everything is a gamble. Human beings are meant to take risks and bigger the risk bigger the reward. Not in terms of money, but success. The Wright Brothers decided to take a risk and attempt to fly and ended up changing the world forever.
What motivates you to get out of bed each morning?
A: The need to make a change for the better in a community or in a person’s life.
Being a busy person with so many ventures and business interests, have you ever wished you could lead a quiet life?
A: Quietness is a state of mind. It is not about going to a literally quiet place and being away from everything. It is within myself. I have not set any material goals that I have to achieve. I can be happy with anything I have. I do not set out to compete with wealthy businessmen and I am not jealous of anybody. I am above all that. I enjoy day to day things and at any given moment I am content. I enjoy what I call ‘a moment of happiness’.
Any regrets in your career?
A: I am a strong believer in Buddhist philosophy and living in the moment. The past is forgotten and the last second is gone. Each and every moment I try to do my best, like I am trying to do my best while talking to you now.
By Charindra Chandrasena