Hemaka de Alwis is driven by the passion to transform cityscapes and foster the arts

Surrounded by art and a library of books, Hemaka de Alwis’ office is neither imposing nor designed to impress. It is a personal space reflective of a man comfortable with himself and surrounded by the things he loves the most.

He has little interest in being regarded as a man of wealth, or enjoying the trappings of one. His reputation rests on firmer terrain. He is, after all, the serial entrepreneur whose audacious vision built Fairway Holdings from the ground up to its present heights in just over a decade. He shrugs off any disclosure about his personal worth. He says giving away his money is currently his only hobby – “Sometimes I give away as much as I make, against the wishes of my financial advisors. I have been asked to cut down on my spending by my team. I am not excited by money. My projects are more about execution and not just profit-based. I put my money to good use. If I make millions, I give away just as much.”

Having built a conglomerate with an annual revenue of Rs8 billion in 2017-18, de Alwis has scaled the heights of business. In a city where the shifting winds of opportunity create entrepreneurs seeking a piece of the economic pie, he has already drawn his boundaries and claimed his stake.

The Fairway story began in 2005. That year, de Alwis decided to bring down his two year-old house in Rajagiriya and build in its place an apartment complex called The Fairway on the Waterfront. For him, it was about embracing progressive change through a new model.

His vision of vertical living came at a time when homeowners were protecting their land and refusing to embrace the concept. Condominium demand was virtually non-existent. But foresight, creativity and tenacity won the day, and the Fairway brand increased its apartment complexes along with geographic expansion to Galle, Kurunagala, Matara and Nuwara Eliya. The group’s core business in real estate investment remains active; In fact, it has seen increased volumes of commercial and residential transactions. Over 1,000 apartments have either been completed or are currently under construction. The ongoing apartment projects are spread across Elements, Fairway Galle, Urban Homes Koswatta and Latitude in Kirulapone.

Aqua Vista, designed by celebrated architect Murad Ismail, is Fairway Properties’ latest luxury apartment complex. It is positioned against the enchanting backdrop of the Indian Ocean in Galle. Projects currently on the drawing board include Elan by Fairway in Colombo 3, Fairway Kurunegala and Fairway Matara. They are scheduled for launch later this year.

Ironically, de Alwis’ penchant for vertical concrete structures of towering apartment blocks his group is dotting the cityscapes with doesn’t detract from his concern for the environment. In fact, his love of nature is even reflected in his office – from where he sits, he can look out onto a vertical garden, probably the only technically superior constructed green living wall in the country.

According to him, cities that expand vertically and developers who advocate that direction are the real drivers of sustainable development. As Colombo’s population expands, vertical living is becoming a necessity rather than a choice, a way to resolve pressing urban problems like congestion, pollution and sprawl. Working with four architects, de Alwis keeps the designs of his buildings simple, preferring a no-frills look. By adhering to a reductionist design philosophy, he creates buildings that blend seamlessly with the surroundings in urban areas. The Fairway Hotel in Fort is a good example. He dislikes the concept of boutique apartments, which he says will become an eyesore in the long term when individual homeowners who buy them find it costly to maintain even the exterior façade, leave alone other facilities. A large apartment complex, by contrast, has a budget to maintain itself.

The transition from house to apartment is still a complex process for many Sri Lankans. Only now are they settling into the idea of considering an apartment as their home, unlike in many South East Asian countries where you spend your entire life in one. Home dwellers often cite lack of privacy in an apartment complex as a reason for their reluctance to move from their houses. De Alwis brushes off such criticism – “Sri Lanka is a country of villages. The villages that foster traditional lifestyles in houses have never allowed for privacy. Everyone knows everything about each other. In contrast, in an apartment complex, if you want to, you can lead a discreet life within that expansive area.” As the shift from rural to urban living continues, Fairway expands across the island, constantly scoping strategic locations. De Alwis says that Colombo still has underdeveloped land that can be utilised. “There is sufficient opportunity to create a more modern city,” he asserts. He believes that we need to embrace smart, fundamental urban planning policies that can generate economic value. He says the new Port City offers an opportunity to retain Colombo’s old city character against the background of a modern city.

De Alwis focuses on staying ahead of the game by encouraging his 10 handpicked, high-flying project managers to work smarter and harder than anyone else. His management style is similar to that of Steve Jobs, who once declared, “We hire smart people so that they can tell us what to do.” He provides the vision and brings in the investment for his trusted team to deliver the results. Group Chief Executive Imal Fonseka, who has worked across the board in Sri Lanka, South East Asia and the sub-continent, and is focusing on delivering the group’s expansion strategy, greatly admires de Alwis. In a recent interview, he described his chairman as “a visionary who has successfully turned pioneering ideas into sustainable businesses. His appetite to explore and charter new territories is limitless.” With the rapid transformation of Colombo’s marketplace, the Fairway Group is realigning aspects of its business to reflect changing trends. These include headhunting top CEOs and executives, diversifying and following global management practices, and investing heavily in technology. Fairway holds investments in selected companies that complement its core business. Its emerging companies take on a standalone brand identity. De Alwis ensures that each business can hold its own as a sustainable entity. His aim is to facilitate the growth of the subsidiaries to become industry leaders in their own right.

The Fairway group has earned an enviable reputation in the corporate sector through its many ventures into areas such as renewable energy, green living, manufacturing and trading, financial services, pharmaceuticals, aviation and leisure. The group holds a 100% stake in its property sector projects, and no less than 85% in many of its subsidiaries.

Aiming to create a more resilient portfolio that can withstand economic cycles and achieve sustainable growth over the long term, the group launched its first hotel in 2016. Located on Hospital Street behind the heritage Dutch Hospital in Fort, the 200-room Fairway Colombo was built at a cost of Rs2 billion. Another 150 rooms are being added through an extension under construction.

Fairway Colombo has a paperless environment and uses advanced technology, including energy management systems and motion sensors, to promote green initiatives. The hotel’s occupancy is the highest reported in Colombo. This is probably because, as de Alwis says, it offers four-star comfort at three-star prices. Fairway Holdings is certainly bullish about the leisure sector. Its hotel inventory is increasing within the dynamic Colombo Fort and Pettah areas. Focusing on the tourism hub of the central business district, it is building another 220 rooms in Pettah as part of a commercial, mixed-use development project that will include 140,000 square feet of office and retail space.

The group also plans to develop sustainable estates revolving around smart usage. In line with this strategy, it is constructing hostel facilities using climate-resilient structures for the Sri Lanka Telecommunication Campus in Padukka. The construction technique will be innovative and cost-effective. Four hostel buildings to accommodate 1,600 students will be built using 3D or three-layer panels. The lightweight, energy-efficient building envelopes will cut construction costs by a third, halve the time, and provide better thermal insulation and soundproofing.

Fairway is venturing into single business grouping in their portfolio. The aim is to capture growing opportunities amid technological shifts and evolving industry dynamics. Its emerging projects reportedly stand at Rs21 billion. It is investing in new business initiatives in power, infrastructure, industrial technologies and finance to add value and strengthen its competitive advantage.

The group forges ahead by making smart moves. For example, it turned its sustainability culture into a competitive advantage by developing metrics that measure the advantages of integrating sustainability strategies to core business strategies. Astute as ever, de Alwis is steering Fairway’s diversification into sectors undergoing significant social and economic transformation. His interest in futuristic technology will see participation in the fintech wave that is taking over the region. Fairway plans to accelerate its own digital transformation to offer various service delivery modalities through Lakderana Investments, which operates 22 branches. The group acquired Multifinance in 2016. Rising demand for expanded financial access across traditional and electronic channels will see a fintech pilot project at Lakderana operational later this year. As companies change the way they do business, de Alwis wants to be at the forefront by laying the groundwork for it. “I have been interested in this for some years now,” he says.

Sustainability is becoming a critical issue in expanding urban communities. In this area, de Alwis has a lot to offer – he brings a broad set of scientific and social disciplines to the real estate development table. Anticipating the numerous problems associated with Colombo’s urban management and development, and the environmental impact, he has ventured into projects that significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the city through innovative renewable energy solutions. De Alwis has pioneered renewable energy modalities in Sri Lanka. He and his partners were the first to develop a commercial scale wind power plant in Puttalam, adding a total of 30MW to the grid. Earlier, they had helped develop the country’s mini-hydro industry, providing mini-hydro generated electricity to the grid when the industry was in its infancy.

De Alwis is currently pioneering another green energy sector – waste-to-energy. This is a multifaceted project providing renewable energy, waste management, nutrient recovery and emission reduction. Once commissioned, it is certain to have a significant social impact. At present, an investment of $70 million is being channelled to produce renewable energy from municipal solid waste. A diverse team of experts in technology, financing and project development has been secured to develop unconventional renewable energy solutions and sustainability processes.

An ambitious initiative to expand the group’s portfolio in infrastructure and public-private partnerships was also undertaken. The project, called Fairway Waste Management, was launched last year to establish a 500 tons per day waste-to-energy plant in Karadiyana using German and Danish technology. It is a public-private partnership with the Waste Management Authority of the Western Province.

In a country where it is difficult to keep the lines from blurring between the public faces and the private lives of prominent business leaders, de Alwis has managed to do just that. Very little is known about his private life, and he goes to great lengths to keep it that way. Married, he and his wife Sundari have a 16-year-old son, Virath. The 48-year-old entrepreneur is careful to ensure that the focus is on Fairway and its future – “I do not wish to be the focus of attention, which is why I prefer to make Fairway the main focus, with emphasis on it being seen as an emerging contemporary lifestyle brand.

The Fairway group’s support of the arts has had a notable impact across several communities. De Alwis is proud of the role it has played in the facilitation and development of arts in this country. The group is the title sponsor of the Fairway Galle Literary Festival, now in its 9th year as a globally reputed event. De Alwis stepped in to revive the festival after its three-year hiatus. It features renowned authors, filmmakers, journalists and intellectuals from around the world. It is also an inclusive platform for visual artists, dramatists and musicians.Besides the State Literary Award, the Fairway National Literary Award is the only award in Sri Lanka that recognises the efforts of Sinhala, Tamil and English novelists. It thus encourages local writers and enriches the literary field.

The Chamber Music Society of Colombo is also generously supported by Fairway Holdings. The objective is to promote classical music among schoolchildren across the country. The society has undertaken to facilitate some of Sri Lanka’s best musicians conducting workshops and training programmes. It will also conduct concerts around the island under its celebrated founder and artistic director Lakshman Joseph de Saram. Fairway sponsored the globally-acclaimed violinist Midori and her violin studio project that performed in Colombo recently. Midori will work with the Chamber Music Society to conduct master classes, string workshops and concerts in Sri Lanka under the patronage of de Alwis. Fairway, along with DIMO, is also the main sponsor of Soul Sounds, Sri Lanka’s award-winning, all-women choir, directed by talented pianist and musician Soundarie David Rodrigo.

As a patron keen on fostering Sri Lanka’s arts and culture, de Alwis hopes to create lifestyle events around culture, art and food experiences in Colombo.He wants to see the city emerge as a hub for arts and culture. The image of Colombo – especially around Fort and Pettah – as just a business hub needs an identity overhaul. To this end, de Alwis has leveraged the space in and around Fairway Colombo to celebrate local culture, promote free cultural dance and musical events, and provides commercial space for local artists.

The Fairway Colombo Street Food Festival was launched early last year. Art Biennale 2016, an exhibition of art, architecture, music and performance featuring local and international artists, was also sponsored by Fairway.

De Alwis doesn’t see music and art as elitist. He says: “Music and culture reach across all divides to enrich society. We can all become rich culturally, even if we can’t all be financially wealthy. What inspires a country is its arts and culture. To remain relevant, I believe it is paramount that the business community develop a more encompassing and progressive partnership with all strata of society.”

He believes that the preservation of Sri Lanka’s rich cultural heritage is very much a part of our progressive future. The way forward, he says, is to revive our cultural heritage and art in a sustainable manner for people to appreciate.

De Alwis’ success in diverse fields is due to an inner will that moves obstacles out of the way. He has a strong sense of business acumen combined with concern for the greater good of humanity. A man of many accomplishments, he continues to inspire many. His touch has transformed cityscapes and the cultural domain, among other things. So how did he do it? “Passion,” he says.


[Photos by Chris Burgess]