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DateLine Sunday, 27 January 2008

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'He is unique, that's why I love him'

'Sri Lanka Cricket', 'Telecom', 'Mobitel', Sumathi Group of Companies, Remand Prison and now in Politics ....oops...what a web, all woven around one man...? Exciting, as people like him, of course quite rare and unique. "He is unique.

That's why I love him. Marrying Thilanga is the best thing that happened to me," claims Samadara Samamala Wimalaratne Sumathipala, wife of Thilanga Sumathipala, one of the most dynamic men in the business field, the cricket board and politics.

Helping myself to a delicious piece of butter cake made by her, I began my interview at their residence at Punchi Borella. Samadara began to recollect the past. "It was a proposal. And I was just 18 years. He was eight years senior.

Well, when I saw him, I thought he was the right man though my parents didn't insist on it," she smiles. "It was the first proposal brought for both of us," she claims. "I wanted to get to know him. So we did for about two years and then got married on June 11 in 1992," says Samadara.

Samadara is the youngest of two brothers and the daughter of Victor and Chandra Wimalaratne, a third generation of famous 'ice cream businessmen' - Alerics. "Aleric Wimalaratne was my paternal grand father. My brothers are abroad since their early twenties, and now the business is run by my father's younger brother," she says.

"My father died three years ago of a stroke. Thatha held on until Thilanga came home from the Remand prison. He loved his son-in-law that much. Everybody was shocked and Thatha couldn't bear Thilanga's situation which occurred as a result of internal politics.

When Thilanga was in the Remand prison we used to hide the newspapers in order to keep Thatha away from gathering news about Thilanga. He died two weeks after Thilanga came home. Thilanga returned after a five and half month term in the Remand Prison. During this time he was admitted to the National Hospital twice for treatment for a back pain ailment," she recollects.

Samadara studied at the Overseas Children's School up to Grade 6, as her parents were planning to settle down abroad. But, they changed their mind and decided to stay back. Along with that Samadara had to change schools too. Her conservative parents wanted her to grow up in a more orthodox background. "I was sent to Visakha Vidyalaya.


Pix : Chinthaka Kumarasinghe

Changing the medium of studies put me in trouble, but I managed somehow as I was a quick learner. However, I was not allowed to do any extra circular activities at school as most of it was held after school. It was a great set back for me as Visakha had many extra curricular activities. Though I protested about this to my mother at that time, today looking back I think it was 'o.k.' Parents do things in the best interest of their children," she says.

After O/Ls Samadara did a one year Diploma Course in Home Science. The delicious pieces of cakes she served me was evidence of her expertise in the field. And then it was a case of getting married. Her new life with Thilanga has been full of excitement as she is married to a dynamic man.

Uduwatuwage Janapriya Thilanga Sumathipala was born on May 3, 1964 to U.W.Sumathipala and Milina Sumathipala whose family business was first in jewellery and secondly in sporting race.

His closely knitted family consists of five sisters and two brothers including himself. "His family has been a blessing to us in good times and in bad. His brother has been like a father especially during the crisis we went through," says Samadara.

Thilanga was the most boisterous of the Sumathipala children. His mother didn't know that her 14-year-old son had been pushing the car (parked in the garage) out into the corner of the lane in order to avoid her hearing him start it. And then he would drive off which he later mischievously confessed after many years. "That was Thilanga," laughs Samadara.

Cricket, chess and swimming were Thilanga's forte. Out of them cricket gave him the highest scores. He was the Vice Captain of the Nalanda Cricket team from 1981 to 1983. The team was selected as the Best School's Cricket team in 1983.

Though Thilanga fared well at school cricket he had little intention of pursuing it. Instead, he stepped into family business. Roshan Mahanama, Asanka Gurusinghe and Gamini Wickramasinghe were his school team mates who later represented national cricket.

Thilanga was the President of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka from 1997-1998, 2000-2001 and 2003-2004; Director of the International Cricket Council in 1998-2000; President of the Asian Cricket Council in 1997-1998 and Chairman of the Asian Cricket Committee in 2000-2001.

Thilanga headed the launch of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka's new logo and name change as 'Sri Lanka Cricket' in 2004. Leading the development of the Rangiri Dambulla International Cricket Stadium and completing the stadium in 167 days were some of the targets he achieved.

"Cricket was his life. He put his heart and soul to it. But....," pauses Samadara. "I feel peaceful now as the phase he went through due to his passion for cricket was too much. He even ended up in Remand for an alleged racket over sending somebody abroad through the Cricket Board.

I personally feel everything was set through jealousy to sabotage his success. It was not only he who suffered, but the whole family. He never let his mother, sisters, kids or me see him in jail. It was only his brother and brother-in-law who visited him. We only saw him when he was admitted to the National Hospital, Colombo," stresses Samadara.

After sitting for the A/Ls in the Commerce stream at Nalanda College, Colombo, Thilanga went to UK to follow a Diploma in printing. Later, he enhanced his horizons entering many institutions of higher studies in Sri Lanka, USA and Japan.

Thilanga has put all that with his inborn talent into business intuitions and thus became the Managing Director of the Sumathi Group of Companies, one of the largest private corporate groups in Sri Lanka - Sumathi Global Consolidated, Sumathi Book Printing, Sumathi Publishers, Sumathi Films, Great Wall Restaurant, ISP Lanka, Sumathi Trading, Sumathi Sports and Lifeserve.... Thilanga is the Chairman of Napco, a company specialising in large scale printing operations with an emphasis on telephone directories, BPO Services, a company specialising in medical transcription as well as a call centre.

He is one of the Directors of the Ingrin Institute of Printing and Graphics and Hotel Hilltop, Kandy. Thilanga chaired two telecommunication companies, Sri Lanka Telecom and Mobitel (Pvt) Ltd from 2002 to 2004.

Question: He has been handling many positions. The above stated were the most prominent jobs among many others. How did he find time and energy for all that?

Samadara: He is a very enthusiastic person. He loves to work. He has faith in his ability and is over confident by nature.

Question: What kind of support does he expect from you, and how is he as a husband?

Samadara: I mainly look after the home front. Our three boys keep me occupied through out the day. Udantha is 14 years, Dulantha and Sajantha are 10 and 8. They go to Royal College. Thilanga wants the boys to mingle with people of all walks of life. He is worried about our security. He is cautious. He doesn't like to see me even driving.

If I take the wheel in an emergency, he would remain silent. He knows I cannot be without talking all the time. That's how he shows his anger. He does get angry when things are not in order.

With the boys he is strict when required. Unlike with me, they just want the father to say whether something should be done or not. They are very obedient. Thilanga is very close to the children. Amidst his busy schedule he makes it a point to spend time with the family too. He stays in his office upstairs at home two days of the week.

The other two days he goes to the office at Sumathi Court, Bambalapitiya (Great Wall Restaurant). He spends another day at Sumathi Publishers at Grandpas. He is available at Napco during the weekend.

However, neither he nor any other family member misses the lunch at their mother's place on Sunday. I don't physically get involved in his business. But, I give him my fullest support as I believe, a wife should back her husband always.

Question: Your mother-in-law, Milina Sumathipala is a prominent figure in society who has been in business and social service work. If we talk about your family life she too plays a great role.

Samadara: Very true. She is a straight forward woman, and I like that quality a lot. Thilanga was 14 years when his father died. Since then, it was his mother who had raised the family and the business.

This is their ancestral home. Amma was with us quite for sometime, and there she built another place close by and decided to move. I didn't like the idea, but she insisted that she should have her own place. She has been instrumental in the children's success and the pillar of success of the family business.

She is quite an open minded person. A lot of people have asked me how I get on with her as she looks tough. I say 'I have never had so called 'problems' with her though we stayed under one roof for a long time'.

Question: Is there any other especial quality you would like to highlight? Samadara: Thilanga is really good in the spoken word, which I'm not (laughs). He can express himself very well. I have a strong belief that he won't do wrong. Even if he makes a mistake he takes others' advice. He handles things very well.

He is far sighted. A lot of people in many walks society seek his advice and opinion all the time. He is really good at it. He is target-oriented and works hard until he achieves his goals.

Even when Muralitharan was sidelined over his bowling technique while Arjuna was the Captain of the Sri Lanka team, it was Thilanga who fought back with the Australians and arranged medical tests and certificates for Murali and even got the lawyers to handle the case. He gets devoted to whatever he does. But I feel sad when he is pushed around.

Question: Him getting into politics?

Samadara: Hmmm.... that's the very thing I'm not that keen on him doing. But whatever he does he gets my blessings and support. I respects his views. Also I think he has good leadership qualities, so whatever he puts his hands to he will be successful especially politics. But, still it's a risk to be a politician nowadays.

lakmal@sundayobserver.lk

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