Blue sky dreaming in Sri Lanka

Shiromal Cooray, chairman of Sri Lanka's Jetwing Hotels, tells Carolynne Dear how she helped drive the family business from a single villa to becoming one of the country’s most successful hospitality groups.

Family business - Jetwing Hotels chairman Shiromal Cooray with son Gehan.


In the early 1970s, Herbert Cooray stood on a stretch of Negombo beach just north of Colombo and decided to build a holiday villa. Blue Oceanic was a cosy six-room affair but as the saying goes, from little seeds grow mighty trees, and it signalled the beginnings of what is now one of Sri Lanka’s most successful hospitality organisations.


Cooray’s daughter, Shiromal Cooray, today heads up the hotel group, as well as running travel management company, Jetwing Travel. However, a role in the family business wasn’t always on the cards.


“I grew up knowing I had to have a career,” she says. “I always dreamt of being a grown up and being in charge but I also wanted to be independent and to explore.”


Her father initially hoped she might go into medicine.


“He was fascinated by the free medical services Fidel Castro had introduced in Cuba when he was a young university student,” she says.


One of Cuba’s success stories is its health system which was prioritised by Castro, along with education, from the mid-twentieth century onwards. From the late 1950s, Cuba’s infant mortality rate has dropped from nearly to 40% to just four per cent, a rate that is lower than that of the United States. And from 1970 to 2016, life expectancy increased by eight years to 78.7 years.

The five-star Jetwing Beach hotel, Negombo.


“He knew he couldn’t do it but I think he wanted to do his bit by persuading me to become a doctor and providing free medication in Sri Lanka’s poverty stricken areas,” says Cooray.


However, Cooray had other ideas and took a position as an accountant, which eventually led to a move to Hong Kong as finance director for J Walter Thompson.


“I loved my experience in Hong Kong,” she says. “It’s a very transient city, people come and go. I was a nobody in Hong Kong and loved the anonymity it provided. In Sri Lanka I was always so-and-so’s daughter, which accorded me certain privileges which I grew to appreciate very much.”


When Cooray left the job, her father suggested she join the family business.


She has described Jetwing as being in a “critical situation” due to Sri Lanka’s internal political situation when she joined. Despite the country’s civil war, which raged for 25 years from 1983 to 2009, and subsequent dive in tourism, her father continued to invest in and improve his properties during this time.


Herbert Cooray died in 2008 and Cooray and her brother Hiran split duties and restructured the company, with Cooray becoming chairman of Jetwing Hotels and Jetwing Travel, responsible for inbound and outbound travel, the airline representation division and the different niche travel divisions.


However, it seems the demands of driving a successful career as a woman are the same the world over.


She describes the biggest challenges faced by Sri Lankan women as “the perceptions about women, social bias and the general acceptance in society that business is a male domain, while taking care of the household and family is female.”

Sundown at Jetwing Vil Uyana, Sigiriya.


However, this hasn’t stopped her. Along with rising to director level at J Walter Thompson and developing Jetwing with her brother, career highlights have included being invited to join the board of Commercial Bank, Sri Lanka’s premier private bank, as well as joining the boards at Allianz Insurance, Capital Alliance investment bank and Ceylon Tea Brokers. “These positions have broadened by knowledge and I’ve appreciated and enjoyed the opportunities,” she says.


Having ridden out civil war and natural disasters including the 2004 tsunami, the business has received another jolt from the pandemic.


“It’s been a very challenging time,” Cooray admits. “As our revenues were almost zero, we had to reduce our expenses, taking salary cuts and reluctantly letting go of contract associates and engaging with the domestic travel market.”


However, the situation is beginning to look up and Sri Lanka recently reopened its borders to international tourists.


“Sri Lanka has so much to offer as a destination,” she says. “We have the beaches of course, and adventures with the sea such as surfing, diving, snorkelling, whale and dolphin watching… And then there’s the wildlife parks with elephants, bears, leopards and birds. There’s the rainforest and the beautiful hill country with a cooler climate and the tea plantations and waterfalls. Then there’s our 2,500 year history and culture with yoga, meditation and wellness heritage."


So where will Cooray be heading now restrictions are lifted?


“Sri Lanka is now out of lockdown and there are no internal travel restrictions so I’ve been able to begin heading to different parts of the country, such as Yala Wildlife Park, Galle, hill country… Jetwing has properties in all of these locations but I did take the opportunity to experience some of the other wonderful accommodation options Sri Lanka has to offer the world. And of course our amazing, hospitable people.”


Which is perhaps just what Herbert Cooray was hoping to channel as he stood dreaming on Negombo beach.