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The humble man whose dynamism was a great inspiration

Dr. Victor Hettigoda
( Article by T de S  )

On April 2, we received the sad news of the passing away of Deshabandu Dr. Victor Hettigoda, a legendary Sri Lankan entrepreneur. He was nearing his 85th birthday.

When the history of Sri Lankan indigenous entrepreneurship is recorded, Hettigoda, better known by the flagship product “Siddhalepa” would no doubt figure prominently.

Having inherited from his father the recipe for a potentially miraculous product in the 1970’s, Dr. Victor Hettigoda’s inborn marketing acumen and skills came into full play. Starting with a modest capital, this “barefoot marketer” who would have never read Kotler or Michel Porter on marketing nor passed through the hallowed halls of learning in studying marketing, made a revolution in the balm market in Sri Lanka. With his vernacular tag line “sama gedarakama sitiyayuthu vedamahatmaya” he made massive inroads into the local market.

In the late 1970’s he used the annual Sri Pada pilgrim season as the springboard to propagate this  remedy among the masses with tremendous success. Subsequently, diversifying into various related fields in Ayurveda (Ayurveda Products Manufacture, Ayurveda Hospitals, Ayurveda Resorts, Ayurveda Spas etc.) he provided gainful employment to thousands, earning valuable foreign exchange for the country.

In the1990’s, he foresaw the need to cater to a specific market segment and introduced a 2.5 mg miniature Siddhalepa Balm pack to the market. Today over 30 years later, flexible packaging and miniaturising of pack sizes of FMCG’s (Fast Moving Consumable Goods) has become the norm.

My association with Dr. Hettigoda started in mid 1995 when I called him with regard to an application to join the company. When Dr. Hettigoda asked me to come for an interview I suggested 8 the following morning with much trepidation since I knew that it is hard to find CEOs coming this early to office. To my surprise he readily agreed. When I walked in to his office at Ratmalana sharp at 8, he was at his desk clad in white sarong and bush shirt and just finishing his favourite breakfast of kurakkan roti and lunu miris on a metal plate.

Dr. Hettigoda was friendly but a stern taskmaster who never took no for an answer. True to the spirit of entrepreneurship in him he would create and innovate an idea and push the people around him to make it work. He would not be satisfied until it was accomplished. This was the time we dared not bump into him unless we had some tangible answers for his invariable question “what is the status of that project?”

However, he was humble to a fault when the occasion demanded. He had the habit of walking around the corridors of the factory or the offices in the mornings, barefooted, meeting people, exchanging pleasantries or asking a sharp question or two. This was his way of getting the feel of the workplace and engaging with the shop floor level. MBWA (Management By Walking Around) in modern parlance. Though he was a strict disciplinarian the empathy he had with the staff and with everybody who came into contact with him was phenomenal. I believe this was one of the secrets of his success.

Soon after my joining the company, in 1996 when the company had some issues with a project in Anuradhapura we had to get a report ready by the following day. I was in office with Dr. Hettigoda late into the evening and when we were just about to take the printout the power cable to the printer did not work. Dr. Hettigoda did not allow me to handle the situation but crawled under the table on his fours and adjusted the power socket. He had this knack of freely adapting to any occasion and was at ease with the highest in the land or the humblest worker of the company.

Perhaps due to the hardships he endured during early life Dr. Hettigoda possessed a seemingly inexhaustible amount of stamina and was always bubbling with energy. Climbing the summit of Sri Pada and descending in one stretch was no big deal for him. While on a company outing when he would have been touching 70 years, he effortlessly climbed the steep incline to the top of “Vedihiti Kanda” in Kataragama while some of us, much younger, were panting and trudging along.

In whatever he did, when he set his sights on a certain target he left no stone unturned to attain his objective. His zeal, determination, indefatigable willpower and dynamism ran like a beacon of light worthy of emulation. This was evident even when it came to his adventurous but abortive forays into the realms of the unfamiliar such as politics and journalism.

In later life he was a much mellowed person and as a Buddhist paid more attention to the spiritual side of life.

Dr. Hettigoda is survived by his wife Rupa, a gracious lady of immense charm and kindness, only son Asoka (well known in business circles) and the two daughters Vidyani and Lankani.

Dr. Hettigoda’s life is an inspiration. May his sojourn in sansara be short and may he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana.