RY (Rajan Yatawara) – The extraordinary human being

2017-11-30 00:00:53


He was RY to me. My little daughter (whom he was very fond of) used to call him ‘YR’. The corporate world knew him as Rajan and at Hayleys, everybody called him Mr. Yatawara. 

A business giant and a true innovator, the late Rajan Yatawara was the pioneering leader in coconut shell activated carbon and coco bricks in Sri Lanka. He was a former Hayleys PLC Chairman (2004-2007), who cannot be described easily by words. He was a great inspiration to my life and to what I am and what I have achieved today. He called me ‘MAS’.

To those who knew him, Yatawara was a visionary leader, whom I was fortunate to have worked for nearly 14 years and as my immediate boss for 10 years, at the Hayleys Export Shipping Department (ESD) and Haycarb group. 

He had a mathematical brain that was faster than a calculator and common sense that would beat the computer of this age. 

Steam activated coconut shell carbon and coco bricks became major export products of Sri Lanka and that uplifted Hayleys as the number one market capitalized listed company for many years. RY was always a firm believer on value-added exports, just as our late Chairman at Hayleys, Dr. D.S. Jayasundara (DSJ) and Sunil Mandis, whom I was also fortunate to work with. 

Everybody who knew RY knew his passion for Haycarb, Hayleys and exports in addition to his Old Reserve Arrack. But many would not know Yatawara as a person. He was just simply an extraordinary human being. He looks and acts tough and gets fired up very fast, if things are not done properly (kind of a perfectionist). He always believed in doing the right thing and being ethical to the core. 

I have yet to come across a man who has such lofty standards, sincerity, straightforwardness and integrity. I would like to share some qualities of Yatawara, which may help younger industry leaders to understand values as we live in a less ethical society today than the time I got to know RY.

Straightforwardness, trust and delegation
RY was appointed Deputy Chairman of Hayleys Ltd after the demise of Dr. DSJ in 1993 and assigned the responsibility of the most important service division of the group – the export shipping department handed over by Sunil Mendis, the then Chairman. Ask anyone who has worked with RY, he never hides his sentiments; it’s to the face. When I was promoted as one of the youngest shipping mangers of the largest export company of the country in 1997, I had to report to him.

I can recall the first day I took over. He called me to his room and said, “Masakorala, I will call you ‘MAS’ since I don’t know you and you are so young and I don’t know any shipping. I am not sure if you can take such a responsibility for the whole group.” 

Then came the next set of words: “However, your predecessor has strongly recommended you and I trust you to deliver. My doors are open for you “son” but if you have a problem, don’t come to my room without a few solutions but if you make a mistake, I am there and will sort it out for you.” 

Five years passed and I never went to his room with any problems but he used to come down to my room whenever he had a problem related to shipping and logistics. For many, he was not an easily approachable person but for me, he was so easy and understating to work with as he gave freedom and delegated authority and mostly he appreciated the straightforwardness and ethics, which built a special bond with me until his death this November.

Do public service without being a burden to public
RY pushed me to take responsibilities at business associations and chambers; I served on the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Exporters’ Association of Sri Lanka, Australia-Sri Lanka Business Council and Sri Lanka Shippers’ Council (SLSC), to which he was the nominated representative but he opened the doors for others as he never had any personal ego but full of simplicity and wanted to help others in life. 

This exposure made me the youngest Shippers’ Council Chairman and without a doubt, he was the strength behind what I delivered and achieved to the trade to this date. 

When I was asked to take over the chairmanship of the SLSC, I told him, “RY, in this responsibility, I have to sometimes strongly confront shipping companies and Hayleys having many of such companies, should I go ahead?” RY’s words were, “You take the job, do what is right for the country and not what is right for Hayleys.”

Later, former Finance Minister Ronnie De Mel invited me to join the Sri Lanka Ports Authority board and once again I went to RY for advice for should I or shouldn’t I accept? The reply was, “Take it son, do public service but don’t mess around with public funds and be a burden to the public.”

In another memorable incident, during the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attack on the airport in 2001, RY took me as SLSC Chairman to a public meeting with the then President Chandrika Kumaranatunga. Here too I got the urge to intervene and tell her that we were on an industry mission and not a political mission and hence sort permission of him fearing my statement would affect the company. The advice was, “Tell what she got to know; don’t worry about where you work.”
My statement was headlines on newspapers the next day; one should have seen my boss’ smile of happiness; all went well with Kumaranatunga. 

Next morning, RY called and informed me: “I heard that the president wants you to go to London for war-risk surcharge negotiation. I am proud of you son, always do the right thing; it pays off.” 
These were a few of his golden moments I can recall, which is probably a best for a corporate leader lesson.

Pay taxes and duties
One thing he checked with me when I assumed duties under him was, “Do you have a tax file? If not, go and open one and always learn to pay taxes.” It was his advice. Luckily, I had opened one just as I joined Hayleys.

On another occasion, one of the companies importing raw material had a major mismatch of stock for duty free-bonded items for export processing. There was a suggestion by a person to pay a nominal figure to sort out the books at a government department. RY hit the ceiling turned red, exploded and said if you have messed up “go and pay the B…… duty and penalty. That is how we work at Hayleys, not with bribes.”

And the most interesting one was that when he was eligible to get a new car and could have got one duty free under a Board of Investment company, he did the most astonishing thing I have ever seen.
He purchased a black Volvo, which was the most popular car among the minters at that time. I walked with him to see the new car and believe it or not, at the back of the car, there was a small sticker that said – “All duties and taxes paid”. He smiled and said, “I don’t want the public to pay for my vehicle.”

Trusted in technology, processes and skill development
Whenever he had free time to chat with me, he told me, “MAS, as you know I am from old school, you tell me what you want to run your office more efficiently.”

As a result, at ESD, we were the first to get a laptop, intranet, Internet, the ‘brick mobile’, outsourced non-core business activity, which was later known as BPO. Systems and processes were putdown. RY wanted an efficient organisational structure, which later became ‘lean’ management. RY was a strong believer in skill development and always encouraged me to send staff for training and development and he selected me as the first candidate to be sent to the Cranefield University, UK to get trained in supply chain management.

The late Yatawara probably is a rare and a limited edition of humanity. I decided to publish this article not only as an appreciation of an extraordinary man but also as a message to those who have a responsibility toward building a better country, which RY always had in his heart and mind, through qualities that every leader must work towards.

RY was the first patron of the Shippers’ Academy Colombo when it was formed in 2011. 
(Rohan Masakorala is CEO of the Shippers’ Academy Colombo, an economics graduate from the Connecticut State University USA and Immediate Past Secretary General of the Asian Shippers’ Council)

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