Written by – Ranuli at Omebiz
Philip Upali Wijewardene, better known as Upali Wijewardene was one of the most flamboyant and prominent businessman with an empire that not only dominated the Sri Lankan business landscape but also went global. He was Sri Lanka’s first homegrown tycoon and the founder and Chairman of Upali Group, Sri Lanka’s first multi-national business.
Upali Wijewardene kick-started his career as a management trainee at Lever Brothers (now known as Unilever) where he managed to lock down the job simply based on his basic dining etiquette. However, due to a disagreement with the Chairman of the company, Upali left his job at Lever Brothers. Following the death of his uncle, the Late Senator Sarath Chandradasa, Upali took over Kandos with the substantial shares that were allocated to him. The company struggled with the lack of sales, Upali modernized the production process boosting their sales off the charts. Kandos Chocolates became a booming success, gaining recognition in the Far East!
With the success of Kandos, he diversified his holdings and founded the Upali Group of Companies which he developed into a conglomerate. Upali didn’t make a fortune through acquisitions, property development, stock market deals or supply contracts. Instead, he opted for the production of day to day consumer products which formed the foundation of this business empire. Upali Group has businesses that are diversified from automobile manufacturing to electronics to confectionary, publishing, leisure, print media and aviation. He further developed these sectors to grow into their own brands such as Kandos, Delta, Tingle, Sikuru, Mazda, Unic, Upali Air and Upali Newspapers.
During the 1970’s, when Sri Lanka followed a closed economic model where price controls were imposed and quality was pushed down, Upali worked his connections and obtained a permit to assemble his products locally. This helped him avoid the price controls that were set in place which gave him a huge competitive advantage through which he was able to generate a lot of revenue that helped him grow his empire even further.
However, Upali’s road to success was not always steady. Upali’s Motor Company under UMC Mazda and Upali Fiat had to be boarded up as their products were no match to the quality driven cheap Japanese cars that began to dominate the automobile market.
Everything was extravagant about the billionaire, Upali Wijewardene. In 1981, he went on to launch his own national newspapers – Divaina and The Island which rejuvenated a complacent industry and empowered a new generation of writers and journalists.
Upali Group expanded its operations across the globe with cocoa plantations in Malaysia to Holdings in Singapore and an office at the World Trade Center, New York. Upali wasn’t just a business tycoon running a conglomerate but rather he was the face of the Upali Brand.
Here are few more interesting facts about the Kandos Man that will surprise you:
1- His family background was one that was not of poverty
Born into a wealthy family, Upali lived with his two sisters and parents in the Sedwatte Walawwa in Kelaniya. His father was Don Walter Tudugalle Wijewardene and mother, Anula Kalyanawathie Wijewardene.
Some of his relatives also include the late senator S.C Wijesinghe and late President J.R Jayawardene. Upali Wijewardene was an alumni of Royal College, Colombo and a graduate in Economics from Queen’s College at Cambridge University in England. In 1975, he married Kamini Ratwatte who was also the niece of Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
2- Delta was the start of it all!
Upali started up a small candy manufacturing business which initially started off with the production of boiled sweets, and then they moved on to make toffees, which is how Delta Toffee came about. This was all done with just Rs. 15,000 cash in hand and an old house to his name!
3- Owner of the first luxury S-Class Mercedes Benz 126 in Sri Lanka
Upali was also considered to be the richest man in the country between the years 1970’s – 1980’s! Wijewardena had a luxury S-Class Mercedes Benz 126 from Malaysia. This was the first car of this type in Sri Lanka.
4- The First Chairman of the BOI
In the late 1970’s Upali was appointed as the first Chairman of the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka by President J. R. Jayewardene. Upali used this opportunity to attract Foreign Direct Investments to support the local industries in the new open economy.
5- He made it all the way to Silicon Valley
Following that, Upali also travelled to Silicon Valley in 1980 and signed five contracts, including Motorola to begin chip manufacturing plants in Sri Lanka. The business then collapsed as the manufacturers left for Malaysia due to bombings that racked the country in the 1980’s.
6- Spinning the business landscape wasn’t all he was known for!
Flamboyant as he was, Upali was an avid turfite. He was the Chairman of the Board of Stewards of the Sri Lanka Turf Club that raced in both Sri Lanka and England. He has won numerous accolades including the “Royal Ascot” with the horse “Rasa Penang” ridden by Lester Piggott, the world famous jockey. Upali was often seen flying to and from England to watch his ponies and horses racing.
Wijewardene raced his mother’s Opel Kapitan at the Katukurunde Races in the early 1960s. He also bought a Mitsubishi Lancer to be raced at the Nuwara Eliya Road Races and Mahagastota Hill Climb in 1980.
7- The unsolved mystery surrounding his death
Upali was assumed dead on 13 February 1983, when his private Learjet vanished soon after leaving Malaysia en route to Colombo. The aircraft carrying six passengers disappeared over the Straits of Malacca fifteen minutes after take-off.
Extensive search operation by air and naval units of Sri Lanka, India, United States, Soviet Union, Australia, Indonesia, and Malaysia failed to locate any evidence of a crash. The former Malaysian High Commission later informed that the Sri Lankan government did not show any further interest in pursuing the investigation.