J A Leembruggen
A long innings came to an end very recently. A lonely and sad end, bereft of friends and relations as was seen at his private funeral on January 4. A sprinkling of old faithfuls from Mackwoods were amongst the very few mourners. His wife had pre-deceased him and his limited circle of friends from his heyday had long since gone to seek communion with their Maker.
Johan, in his mid nineties, had reasonably good health but for a few afflictions which are customary with old age decay. His razor sharp mind had not lost any of its sharpness and neither had his inimitable humour left him. He was in full possession of his faculties, but physical movements were impaired towards the end.
During the late 1960s – 1990 he was at the height of his fame. In December 1990, he relinquished duties as Chairman of Mackwoods and was succeeded by the graceful lady, the late Sriyani Nonis.
The legendary N. S. O. Mendis spotted talent in Leembruggen in 1956 when the latter was the Controller of Exchange. He invited him to Mackwoods as a Senior Executive to manage the Export Department when the Managing Director was R P L Ross. Though he was new to Export Trading, his superb agile mind picked up the rudiments of trading in a very short time. His instructions on the administration of the Department were spelt out on paper and meticulously worded, covering all known trading and administrative situations. His colleagues at the Exchange Control Department spoke appreciatively of his Administrative Circulars considered the “Bible” for many years after his departure. In commodities such as fibre, dessicated coconut, cinnamon, cocoa, coconut oil etc., – he achieved a quick grasp of the different qualities and trading features. His exceptional abilities coupled with performance won quick recognition with his elevation to the Board.
As a Junior Executive, the writer was witness to the whiplash of his tongue, whilst yet a Senior Executive, when he upbraided a Senior Storekeeper at Marandahn Mills for permitting the visiting son of the British Managing Director to take serious liberties with production processes. He was courageous and expected discipline, come hell or high water. Young Executives being trained at the time such as Mahinda Dunuwilla, Harold Speldewinde and self had a torrid time, but it was the best training that one could ever have. Dunuwilla was eventually Chairman, Tea Board and Harold Speldewinde ended up as Managing Director , Delmege & Forsyth. He was extremely fair in decision making and abhorred favouritism.
If you trace his life, there were different facets to it. Quite early, his university career was aborted, reportedly impelled by romantic compulsions! He sought employment in government service and with his phenomenal skills the rise in career was meteoric and was recognised with his promotion to CCS ranks. He left the service as Exchange Controller. During late ’69 and early ‘70s, Mackwoods Group had a galaxy of civil servants. However, notwithstanding his array of talent, Leembruggen as MD was outstanding in administering Mackwoods.
The writer recalls a meeting. A visiting head of another institution (a civil servant and a brilliant Mathematician) came to take up and issue with Mackwoods on the preparation of a very complicated account and had numerous questions to resolve. Leembruggen did not need the Company Accountant to answer the queries, but explained and analysed the figures in lucid fashion that the problem just melted into thin air, notwithstanding that the visiting head came in high dudgeon! Such was Leembruggen’s exceptional grasp of figures.
Apart from his official duties as Managing Director and later Chairman of Mackwoods, he was the President of the National Chamber of Commerce, Chairman of the Coir Fibre Exporters’ Association and Executive Council Member of the Employers’ Federation. Other positions would have been his for the asking, but he did not hanker after them. On the non-official front, he was the President of the 80 Club, considered a very prestigious position. In the field of Drama, he was an accomplished thespian and on numerous occasions, kept the audience in stitches of laughter. He spent his leisure, particularly in retirement on the golf course and though not a championship golfer, he marked his name in the veterans’ category. He was an avid reader particularly classical literature and was a classical music enthusiast. He never flaunted his knowledge and was modest to a fault. Other activities were never allowed to intrude on his official time. Neither did he tap his “social” contacts for favours benefitting the Company and had a pathological distaste for seeking favours from others. Similarly, he did not lend his name easily to causes/persons he had no personal knowledge of. A principle well exemplified by this anecdote: The son of a highly respected teacher of his old school Trinity College, called on him and sought permission to cite him as a referee. He had never set eyes on the young man before. He politely declined and said “the only thing I know about you is, that I don’t know you”. Some may consider this cruel, but that was Johan Leembruggen! It went against the grain to show pride in his Dutch Burgher ancestry, but his deeds provided evidence of it. His father was a well respected Minister of the Dutch Reformed Church.
If I am permitted to strike a personal note – he telephoned me in December ’77 and said, “Sam, I have proposed your name as MD”. No doubt, it would have been cleared with N. S. O. Mendis, the principal shareholder. I was literally over the moon. I was elated no end as it was an implied “commendation” from a man who was considered a perfectionist and some say, he was a martinet. A person who led by example, set the rules and procedures which he would abide by rigidly. He would never compromise his integrity and lived by principles, which in today’s context would be completely out of fashion! He would be much happier with God in Heaven and not have to contend with vile men who are in great abundance now.