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Anniversary tribute

People’s Bank and W H Solomons

Witten by Padmasiri de Silva

Edited by Wendell W Solomons

The People’s Bank which was inaugurated in year 1961 will soon complete 50 years of service to the nation. It is the second largest state-owned bank in Sri Lanka. The People’s Bank is the brainchild of the late T B Illangaratne. The Bank which was formed to foster the co-operative movement and help the poor, has widened its scope and has become a vibrant commercial bank undertaking a large number of national and international banking transactions.

Illangaratne was on the lookout for a dynamic banker who could launch the bank which he visualised; a bank which could fulfill the aspirations of the poor hitherto not given much help by the existing commercial banks.

Wilmir Hurft Solomons was not the archetypal banker with a colonial mentality. Although trained by British-oriented traditional bankers at the Bank of Ceylon where he was the Chief Inspector of Branches, Solomons had the foresight and the courage to lead an intrepid team of dedicated bankers drawn from diverse disciplines to launch the People’s Bank on July 1, 1961.

Bank Chairman the late Vincent Subasinghe from Sandalankawa was from the co-operative sector and was a much-respected personality. He was given the responsibility of running the People’s Bank which was established by the Parliament Act No. 29 of 1961. In introducing the legislation in Parliament, Commerce, Trade Food and Shipping Minister late T B Illangaratne asserted that the People’s Bank was designed as an entity to transform the rural economy so that rural poverty will be ultimately eliminated.

The capital of the bank was made up with 50 percent of the subscriptions from co-operative societies with the balance 50 percent from government. Lending to the poor and to the co-operatives carried a fair amount of risk and the bank had to augment its resources by getting into the lucrative commercial banking sector which was the prerogative of the Bank of Ceylon and the foreign owned commercial banks at the time.

The People’s Bank advent into the commercial banking arena at the outset was viewed with concern by some as they felt that the bank did not have the expertise to venture into areas of International Banking including Forex trading. However, Solomons was equal to the task. His personal stature in the international banking community resulted in an almost instant welcome for the bank internationally and received the provision of numerous banking facilities abroad which would be the envy of long-established institutions. The late S de S Gunatilleka, former Additional General Manager of the bank, in an assessment of Solomons mentions “It is given to few people to have their memory perpetuated as a result of their day-to-day work. Fewer still have the good fortune of this being done by means of an institution they helped to build. Wilmir Herft Solomons undoubtedly belong to this select band of people and People’s Bank is the undying edifice to his memory”.

There were many traits which set W H Solomons apart from other bankers of his day. During the time he was working at the Bank of Ceylon he visited the Soviet Union while his colleagues went to UK and USA for training. At that time the establishment of the People’s Bank was not even thought of.

The success of the bank particularly in the formative years was due to Solomons’ competence and stature as a banker. Solomons was personally responsible for attracting some of the most valuable business which even today constitutes the base on which the Bank’s fortunes are built.

The People’s Bank from the inception carried out transactions in Sinhala. It was a gargantuan task to translate banking terms to Sinhala. This was undertaken by a dedicated team under the direct supervision of Chairman Vincent Subasinghe. Solomons though not too fluent in Sinhala gave all encouragement for implementing the work in Sinhala. He could read Sinhalese and I remember how he read Sinhala letters slowly asking the meaning of difficult words before signing them. He had implicit trust and faith in his carefully chosen staff and they in turn worked tirelessly working late into the night including on public holidays, to make People’s Bank a cogent entity. Solomons had a rough exterior and would shout at employees if they failed to keep up to his rigid standards. However at heart he was a caring and sympathetic person who would go out of his way to help any deserving employee or customer. Traditional bankers are considered to be heartless but like in many other fields Solomons tread a different path. It is unfortunate that there were many who took advantage of his kindness, placing him sometimes in embarrassing positions.

People’s Bank today is a well established, profit-making entity servicing the co-operatives and the rural sector with a large number of branches covering most of Sri Lanka including the North and the East. The bank which celebrated its 49th anniversary on July 1, 2010 will be a lasting monument to the memory of W H Solomons,  the First General Manager of the Bank.

Friday, 2 July 2010

(The writer is  a retired senior banker who worked at the People’s Bank in early 60s)

Source by Wendell