In the home of Nahil Wijesuriya

Nahil Wijesuriya has owned and lived in many homes. His instinct drives him to look at each home as an investment property

By Valli Thangarajah.

Published on February 13, 2015 with 2 Comments

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Nahil Wijesuriya stands at the window of his penthouse atop one of Colombo’s exclusive residential high-rise condominiums admiring the sweeping city skyline. His gaze focuses on the IBM building complex at Nawam Mawatha. It belonged to him 30 years ago when he was IBM’s first dealer. Turning around he points to a large faded photograph of the building placed near his sofa, and explains that there used to be coconut trees around the property when he pioneered the development. “Within months the land around us that belonged to George Stuarts was sold when we initiated construction.” The IBM office building changed hands but the photo remains, thus rekindling memorable moments of some of the entrepreneurial highlights in Nahil’s life.

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Nahil remains one of the few who can look at the Colombo skyline, point at high-value real estate dotting the skyline and claim some ownership past or present.

The penthouse on the 24th floor of the Crescat Condominium next to the Cinnamon Grand Hotel has been his home for the past eight years. One of his favourite places in the four-bed room penthouse is the enormous glass window that gives him a view of the changing city skyline.

Having renounced his Sri Lankan citizenship ten years ago for a Singaporean one, he has built a property portfolio in Singapore. He looks at the Beira Lake and talks in earnest about the way, 15 years ago, he turned the waters of the Beira Lake from Algae ridden green to blue through a complex irrigation system at his own expense. Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa spoke to him last week about restarting the cleaning process. To him it is just another technical problem that needs to be resolved and it won’t be long before the residents of Colombo have a blue lake.

His residence is the gravitational centre for the ideas in Nahils’s head. Taking a novel idea and getting it moving keeps him charged. He has a deceptively simple and modest lifestyle. But his mind is that of an aggressive and gifted businessman who has celebrated some of the most talked about commercial deals in Sri Lanka. His life, he maintains, has always been an open book with nothing to hide. His distaste for a lavish lifestyle shows in his living space which is more a functional and familiar personal space than an ostentatious billionaire’s showpiece. ‘’ I don’t have to make a statement with my home” he says “as I come from a great school and a close-knit family.” Nahil grew up in Kandy and was the only boy. His older and younger sisters live in London and both are doctors. London was also a base for Nahil for some time.

Also unique is the number of homes he has lived in over 70 years. “When my daughter was 12, she said ‘Dad, we have lived in 14 homes and three countries”. He says the only real estate that is not for sale is the house in which he grew up in Kandy, which has the family burial grounds. A caretaker looks after it and it is mostly used by his friends. “The property where the Emirates embassy on Flower Road now stands used to be my house.” he says with a twinge of nostalgia. He remembers replicating the arches at the front of the house from a hotel in Chiang Mai with great care and detail to the point of working with the workers to get it right. For Nahil everything has to be hands on. He recollects the house being a grand and beautiful home. The house did not have a garden and so he bought the property next door, which belonged to Mr Fernando, at the time the owner of Asiri Hospitals, and demolished it to create a garden.

“My sister called me from London and said you are the only man who will bring a house down to create a garden, when everyone else is building houses in their garden.”

Over a cup of tea brought by his housekeeper, Nahil looks around his present home where he now lives with one of his sons and gazes round like a man seeing it for the first time. He walks over to a wall in the dining room covered in old photographs of his children mostly taken on funfilled holidays. He looks back fondly on those trips and claims the secret of keeping children happy on holidays is to invite their friends along too. The pride in his children is obvious. All of them have graduated from top UK universities. The piano in the corner is stacked with more framed photographs. “Those were placed there by my motherin-law. She came in one day with a load of framed photographs and insisted on placing them, she wanted to bring in a more personal feel, I think.”

Married and divorced three times the current lack of feminine touches is glaringly evident. A beautiful picture of the Goddess Saraswathi catches the eye only for the reason that it seems out of place. “That could be 40 years old and was brought in to the house by my first wife – I have always placed it in the most prominent place in all the many houses that I have lived in.”

A couple of paintings, most of them painted by friends, adorn the wall. Nahil’s home would be a dream project for an interior designer or a wife, both of which are far from his mind. A man of simple taste his distaste for an extravagant, lavish lifestyle is evident in the preference for functional use of space rather than over the top luxury.

Friends are important and his social life revolves around a group, some of who go back to his days at Trinity College. “I hardly entertain, I get invited out a lot. To entertain at home you need a wife and my daughter does not live with me anymore, having recently moved to her own place. She arranges dinners with my close relatives and the occasional birthday celebration. I have lots of friends who drop in when I am home and I travel around with friends and everyone has their place in my life.”

“We like to live modestly and low-key” he says. We means sharing space with younger son Vijitha. His older son Vajira who is married now resides in the United Kingdom and daughter Anika recently moved out of the house saying she needed her own space. He drives a Toyota Land cruiser that he has had for 26 years. “I have had my share of Porsches and BMWs in the UK. I also never fly business class if I can help it.”

“I recollect the time when I got on a flight from London one summer in a pair of Bata slippers. I had forgotten to wear shoes in the rush to catch the flight and Sarath Amunugama was on the same flight and on the seat next to me, and he said, ‘I say Nahil, you have forgotten your shoes.” “I had met many of my wealthy associates at the rear end of the plane,” he laughs. He also owned a Cargo Carrier aircraft that he named Air Lanka International making sure it did not clash with the identity of the national carrier.

“We did over 100 round trips carrying Cargo from Colombo to Male, Sharjah and Chennai. It was a test run with the idea of starting a passenger airline. It was closed down when the UNP was not able to cancel the monopoly held by Emirates. Buying sports cars, splurging on expensive things are not for me”, he says. However, he recently purchased two new vehicles with air bags more for safety reasons because he frequently travels on the highways. For a man who owned a Television Station once, his own TV screen is a modest sized one.

Getting a novel idea to work gets his adrenaline going. His simple lifestyle and engaging and unpretentious personality hides the astute mind of an aggressive and successful businessman who has celebrated some of the biggest commercial deals. Avuncular and talkative, he is constantly thinking about the next good idea that he can explore.

Nahil’s latest venture is a computer numerical controlled three axis router which he has set up with his son Vijitha in his warehouse in Peliyagoda to produce lattice panels for his guestrooms at the Weligama Bay Marriott. “Producing it myself is saving me $ 1000 a room. The machine cost me only $ 7000. For 200 rooms, that is a lot of money saved and it brings new technology to the country.”

“I am a hands on guy. I like to get my hands dirty. Each time I have delegated something to someone I have lost money. Having roamed the seas and the world as a marine engineer, I have learnt not to delegate. On a ship you are not able to phone someone and say can you fix this problem for me. You have to do it yourself and that has stayed with me even after my foray into the business world.”

In his thirty years of business his son feels he could have scaled to greater heights if not for his reluctance to delegate. “Of course they like my aggressive approach to work,” Nahil adds.

Charming and gracious he is known to have been extremely generous to all his ex-wives. “The joke is that I am a better ex-husband than a husband.” In the line of work he does not suffer fools gladly. He has a reputation for being forthright and blunt,” I don’t have time or patience to be nice. My children are far more civilized. They tell me sometimes, if you have anything nasty to say please email it to us and we will soften it and send it on.”

Yet on occasions he has finalized deals with just a handshake with friends and colleagues. “In business I am not avaricious. Money has to be made on good ideas. All my past businesses were based on unique ideas from shipping and bunkering, salvage & towage with my own tugs. Our first business was the shipping agency. That led to the first off port container freight station and the transport of 40 foot containers”.

700_0261ETV – Extra Terrestrial Vision, the broadcast station he started, became the first twenty-four hour TV Station in the country. There was also the IBM dealership and the first hotel he bought, the Ceylon Intercontinental.

Nahil purchased the Intercontinental from then owner Kumar Sharma on an impulse after a conversation. “Our sons were classmates at school.” He asked Sharma only two questions “Any debt?” Sharma said “no, we have a surplus.” Nahil asked him “How much do you want?” and that was that. There was no legal and financial due diligence done. With 97% of Ceylon Continental Hotel shares under his belt he ran it for two years. Nahil recalls his thinking at that time – for the value of six of his apartments in Singapore he can buy a 250 key hotel on 4.5 acres of prime Colombo real estate. “It must be a deal,” he concluded.

Having made the acquisition during the war, he eventually sold the hotel at a valuation of $250,000 per key and capital gains of over 100% after running it for two years.“I made some good money on this.”

“Interestingly, one day I met President Mahinda Rajapaksa who had come to the hotel for a wedding or conference and was coming out of the lift. He said “I heard you are trying to sell the hotel, don’t do it, in another three months the price will go through the roof.” “I took his advice – the war was over – and I made a packet. Best Investment advice I have ever received! Puts my Stock and Bank advisers in the shade!”

When his children showed interest in continuing the hotel business, the family began looking for a site out of Colombo. The battle to remove the minimum room rates for Colombo hotels was disillusioning and the decision to go away from the city was made. Having since sold off most other businesses, his latest venture is to replicate his love for real estate and put his wealth into hotels. Nahil’s current project is a 200 room upscale five star hotel to be managed by the international hotel chain Marriott. It is to be opened in Weligama Bay by mid-2015. Targeting the Indian, Chinese and European markets, he hopes to attract tourism to the Weligama Bay area and no expense is being spared to build a true international standard five star resort.

His two sons Vajira and Vijitha and daughter Anika are all involved, working hands on in the current hotel project.

“The knowledge and education my children are acquiring from their involvement in the hotel will be invaluable to them. We are one of the few companies building a hotel from scratch and we are doing almost everything in-house. I also have a policy on my children’s monthly remuneration; they are the lowest paid in the company as they do not seem to need much to live on. They too have a simple lifestyle.”

Once completed, plans are underway to source more sites to build another five hotels for management by Marriott International.Having dared to venture where most failed Nahil’s sixth sense in business has seen him get involved in many varied enterprises. By building, acquiring and selling businesses that have sometimes been started from scratch, going against the system and beating it, finding loopholes to work around a problem or outsmarting a business competitor is his mantra for living.

His first millions were made from the shipping agency that he as Chief Engineer on Ships and his partner Captain Lester Weinman formed. “In three years we became the largest agency. When working on the ship we used to sit and complain about the inadequate agents we had to keep dealing with everywhere and decided to make that our own business. There was a change of government in 1977. Being young, foolish and driven we took on all the challenges that the others refused. We transported some of the toughest cargos, hauling heavy equipment and of course got paid for it handsomely.”

In 1993, he started Extra Terrestrial Vision (ETV), transmitting programmes taken off satellites. The first TV licenses were issued to MTV, ETV and TNL. “I had a license but didn’t have permission to pick up the satellite signals. When we began transmitting the satellite signals, the lines over international boundary rights were still blurred. My question when they protested about us transmitting their programmes here was; just because their antenna went 30,000 miles in the air where our regulators can’t reach them did not give them the right to transmit over Sri Lankan airspace.” Lakshman Kadirgamar defended Nahil over the supposed infringement of intellectual property rights. A statue of the former minister commissioned by Nahil stands at the Liberty Plaza round-about today.

700_0251His friendship with schoolmate Gamini Dissanayake came at a price when President Premadasa shut down ETV. “The background to that, I was told, was because my business competitor had asked him. ‘Do you want Nahil who is a friend of Gamini Dissanayake, who had tried to have you the President impeached, to run a TV station?’ ETV was sealed for nearly a year. After President Premadasa died, Nahil went to his successor President D B Wijetunge who said “I know, I know”. He took the phone and asked the minister in charge to remove the ban. “This was even before I could utter two words. What a man!” I had fun for two years but got bored with it and sold it off, making a 400% gain on the sale but not before fighting a short legal battle with Star TV over transmission rights for rebroadcasting their channels. In order not to create a precedent in the region they eventually settled and I had to pay a token $1 a year for the right to rebroadcast their channels to drop the case.”

Nahil looks bemused at the mention of hobbies; time for leisure and lifestyle options are open only to the wealthy and elite, he thinks. He remembers his children telling him they wanted to take a gap year after school, “I told them that sounds more like a nap year.” He confesses to enjoying a good Indian curry and a beer. Indulging in food is limited because of age. “I am knocking 70 and may have another 10 years at the most if I eat properly – the doctors say.” “I travel only for business. You will not catch me jetting off on a holiday and sitting under a coconut tree having a pink gin.” His heart is where his friends are and unfortunately they have all left, with only a few still around. He is passionately involved with his old school, Trinity College. Old school photos and diplomas are displayed on the living room wall by a teak cabinet.

Despite living in Singapore, Nahil emphasizes that Sri Lanka is not just a base for business. Having a name like Wijesuriya, “I can’t say I am a dyed in the wool Singaporean.” He likes his curries, the lifestyle and friends here. He has no intention of living anywhere else. “The world is a global village today and one would need to move camp only for tax purposes.”

“I travel for business, for picking up ideas and knowledge.” The financial aspects of business and tools for leverage in business interests him. He also reads about business and Bloomberg is his default TV Channel. “As a businessman you must have a burning desire for knowledge.” With a disarming chuckle over the stories of his famous acquisitions, deals and legal battles, Nahil settles back in a comfortable large cream coloured sofa, happy to talk about some of the better known battles in the business world. Some of his more famous ones were with Asian Hotels and Properties Limited (AHPL), developers of ‘Crescat Residencies’ and ‘The Monarch’. When he bought his first apartment at Crescat, the developers were still building Monarch next door. A hoarding carried an advertisement that said the Monarch was being built higher than the Crescat Residencies.“Going through my deed I noticed that one of the conditions was that all three buildings once built would have the same number of floors once they were completed. The three projects were planned as one. When I mentioned that to the executives of the company they retorted that point was not relevant. Of course I insisted it was.” “Not that I cared so much about it being so much higher. It gave me an opportunity to use it as a matter of leveraging my position for the benefit of this condominium because we were having another battle with them on another issue so I used this as leverage to settle that.”

“They too quite rightly didn’t give a damn about it as these property cases can go on for over 15 years but since I had lodged a caveat in the land registry highlighting there is a case pending on this particular complex, they found it a little difficult to sell the apartments above the 24th floor. Any potential buyer that did a land register check came up against this unresolved item. That was only to put pressure on these guys.” Nahil eventually won for the Condominium Association Rs 50 million and an additional Crescat apartment and walked away with another victory – this time as charity.

“Be sure you do these unusual things only with nice people who will not come and shoot you,” he advises. He meets many of his adversaries. “We still have a laugh over a drink.” Work and more work is actually all play in Nahil’s approach to entrepreneurship.

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  1. HIS ACHIEVEMENTS ARE SO MANY.VERY DYNAMIC PERSONALITY.I HAD THE PLEASURE OF HOLDING THE POST OF EXTERNAL AUDITOR/TAX CONSULTANT IN THE LATE EIGHTIES FOR SRILANKA SHIPPING COMPANY AND ALSO AS THE CONSULTANT SPECIAL PROJECTS AT CEYLON CONTINENTAL HOTEL IN EARLY 2009,NAHIL DIVERSIFIED FROM THE SHIPPING BUSINESS INTO COMPUTERS,REAL ESTATE,
    LEISURE ,ETC.I WISH HIM ALL SUCCESS IN HIS NEW MARRIOT GROUP HOTELS IN SRILANKA.
    HE CAN REACH ME ON csassociatesnew@yahoo.com or on 0710143633.i am into hotel value addition for higher profits.

  2. Good to see Nahil…

    Brought back memories of eating buns and plantains (bananas) and ‘burning the midnight oil’ working on ETV and downlinking the first live cricket match… remember that? I missed my first ‘valentines day dinner’ after marriage and I am sure ‘Rosh’ also had a few words to say :)

    Happy you mentioned how the SLT (or was it TRC as that time) ‘marched’ in to our office and took away our multiplexer…

    I live in Canada now, hope to see you soon…. next time in CMB or SING.

    Take care!

    P.

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