Upali Wijewardene

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Upali Wijewardene
Upali Wijewardene (1938-1983).jpg
Native name උපාලි විජේවර්ධන
Born (1938-02-17)17 February 1938
Matara, Sri Lanka
Died 13 February 1983(1983-02-13) (aged 44)
Straits of Malacca
Cause of death Aircraft mishap
Nationality Sri Lankan
Other names Philip Upali Wijewardene
Education Royal College, Colombo
Alma mater Queens' College, Cambridge
Occupation Businessman
Known for Richest Person in Sri Lanka in the 1970s–1980s
Net worth 3.2 billion USD (late 70s-early 80s)
Spouse(s) Lakmini Ratwatte

Philip Upali Wijewardene (Sinhalese: උපාලි විජේවර්ධන; 17 February 1938 – 13 February 1983) was a Sri Lankan business magnate. Considered one of the best known entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka, he was the founder and Chairman of Upali Group, the first multi-national business in Sri Lanka.

The Upali Group which diversified from confectionery to electronics and automobile manufacturing, publishing, print media, leisure and aviation developed many of its own brands such as Kandos, Delta, Unic, Upali Air, Upali Mazda and Upali Newspapers which Insight Magazine UK said was achieved "largely through bravado and wit".

He was presumed dead on 13 February 1983 when his private Learjet disappeared soon after leaving Malaysia en route to Colombo over the Straits of Malacca.

Early life and education[edit]

Upali Wijewardana as a young child

Born to a wealthy family from Kelaniya, his father was Don Walter Tudugalle Wijewardene who died when he was 18 months old. Upali was brought up by his mother Anula Kalyanawathie Wijewardene at the family home Sedawatte Walawwe. He had two sisters, Anoja Wijesundera and Kalyani Attygalle.[1]

He attended Royal College, Colombo and later graduated from Queen's College at Cambridge University in England.[1]

Business ventures[edit]

Returning to Sri Lanka, Wijewardene became a management trainee at Lever Brothers where he was in charge of soap processing. He left Levers following a disagreement with its Chairman. He thereafter venture out on his own after his uncle Senator Sarath Chandradasa Wijesinghe gave him substantial shares of his Ceylon Chocolates Company.[1] Diversifying his holdings, he founded the Upali Group of Companies during the mid 1960s as he developed a conglomerate of companies.


Here he developed Kandos and Delta brands of chocolates and confectionery. Thereafter he developed Crystal, Tingle and Sikuru brands of soaps. Venturing into electronic manufacturing he developed the Unic brand of radios and air-conditioner.[2]


An amateur racing enthusiast, Wijewardene raced his mother's Opel Kapitan at the Katukurunde Races in the early 1960s. In the 1970s he established Upali Motor Company which under license assembled UMC Mazda and Upali Fiat were assembled at the Upali industrial complex in Homagama.[3]


He founded Upali Air, operating several aircraft for private domestic and international flights.


Wijewardene, made significant investments in Malaysia and Singapore. He was in the process of opening offices in New York.


Starting Upali Newspapers, Wijewardene started a series of news papers Divaina, The Island and Navaliya newspapers. Wijewardene also entered the comics business with Chithra Mithra in February 1981 because it offered a large market to begin a publication without advertising and allowed him to test his printing presses. Within a few months, the magazine reached a circulation of 200,000 eclipsing its competitors Sittara (100,000) and Sathuta (75,000). Media initially described the magazine as "romance, booze, money, travel, dreams, adventure, wild women" crammed into 16 pages. It quickly expanded into 32 pages with a different story on every page. Editor Janaka Ratnayake noted that the publication had "many topics–romance, detective, sci-fi, heroes, two pages built around movie stars, and almost a page of pen pal" (1993). All the stories were serialised and in black and white with a spot of one color.[4]

The comic magazine fell apart after Wijewardene's death and ceased publication in 1986 with a circulation of 15,000. Ratnayake cited the failure of the magazine to Wijewardene's early death, sub-standard printing quality of the paper due to unskilled mechanics and competition from other magazines.[4]

Horse Racing[edit]

Upali Wijewardene was influential in restarting horse racing at the Nuwara Eliya Race Course. He was the chairman Board of Stewards of the Sri Lanka Turf Club and was a keen turfite, who raced in Sri Lanka and England, where he won the "Royal Ascot" with "Rasa Penang" ridden by the world-famous jockey Lester Piggott.

In 1980 he also won the Singapore Derby at the Bukit Timah Race Course in Singapore and the Perak Derby at the Perak Turf Club in Malaysia with his horse, named "Vaaron". He raced "General Atty" too and won many races in England. He flew to all these countries where his horses were racing, in his private aircraft. He made it a point to fly from Newmarket Racecourse in England to Nuwara Eliya Racecourse in Sri Lanka to watch his horses and ponies racing there.

He would land in Katunayake Airport and make a quick tarmac change to his private helicopter to fly to Nuwara Eliya. Wijewardene was responsible for reviving pony racing and thereafter, horse racing.

A British journalist, Matt Miller, described him in Insight Magazine: ‘Largely through bravado and wit, Philip Upali Wijewardene parlayed a bankrupt confectionery plant into Sri Lanka’s only multi national business group and one of Asia’s leading cocoa based products conglomerates. Intriguingly he accomplished his overseas empire-building at a time when his country strictly prohibited the export of currency. And now the 43-year-old commodity wizard (this was 1981) has started what could be Upali's Third Plan... He would be willing, he says with uncharacteristic restraint, to become Sri Lanka's president someday’.


In 1978 Upali Wijewardene was appointed by President J. R. Jayewardene as the first chairman/Director General of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC) (now known as the Board of Investment) of Sri Lanka. In this position Wijewardene worked to attract foreign investment to develop local industries in the new open economy. He formed Free Trade Zones in Katunayake, Biyagama and Koggala.


Learjet 35A

On 13 February 1983, his private jet, a Learjet 35A, took off from Kuala Lumpur at 8:41 pm, bound for Colombo. On board with him were his Malaysian lawyer S.M. Ratnam, Upali Group Director Ananda Peli Muhandiram, pilot Capt. Noel Anandappa, co-pilot Sydney Soysa, and steward S. Senenakye. Fifteen minutes later, the aircraft disappeared while flying over the Straits of Malacca. 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.[5]


Upali Wijewardene was a cousin of President J. R. Jayewardene[1] and scientist Ray Wijewardene.[6] In 1975, he married Lakmini Ratwatte, daughter of Dr Seevali Ratwatte. She is the granddaughter of Barnes Ratwatte Dissawa and niece of Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

He was the Basnayake Nilame (Chief Lay Custodian) of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara which had been supported by his family.[1]

See also[edit]


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