From parochial partnerships to public ownership

23 Apr

Reference: Aitken Spence Coffee Table Book, Published 2012

The beginnings of Aitken Spence merge into the history of British Colonial Ceylon. Many dates are given, but for the purpose of a starting point, we have set the date at 1830, which takes us back to a business entity called Wilson & Archer, the parent company of Clark Spence, established in Galle that year. It was on September 1, 1868 that Clark & Spence entered into a formal partnership as merchants and commission agents in Galle. As this Company progressed in it’s trading, it expanded its base. Some history pages tell us that in 1871 it made an agreement with another Company whose partners were E. C. Britton and Edward Aitken. Over the next two years, the ownership of
the Company changed gradually, and soon it came to be known as Aitken Spence & Company. The recorded date of this entity’s official beginning is New Year’s Day, 1873.

The Company’s primary business at this stage was the export of gems, plumbago, hides, sapanwood, ebony, coffee, arrack, coconuts, coconut oil, coir yarn, coir rope, bristle fibre, citronella oil and the import of rice from Burma and
coal for ship bunkers. Business consisted very largely of the chartering of ships to carry these commodities.

P.W.G. Spence is said to have been a man of immense energy and great business acumen. He was constantly seeking new opportunities for the Company. In the early months of 1871, he went on an extensive tour of the UK, seeking
business contacts that would help push this fledgling Company ahead. On April 5, 1876, he recorded his firm’s appointment as sole agent of the prestigious Lloyd’s of London.

But agencies were not all the Company was looking for; P. W. G. Spence and Edward Aitken believed that good partnerships were what made a sound base for their business.

Looking at the Company’s early history and its partners, there are many names attached to it, such as W. B. Patterson, G. W. Suhren, A. S. Berwick and A. P. Waldock, amongst others. It is clear that from its inception the Company was constantly seeking new partnerships and reinventing its business culture, making bold decisions that made it stand out from the crowd. It is this spirit that has carried on through time in every partnership Aitken Spence entered into.

Aitken Spence became a private Company in 1952 and at that time the ownership model was for the directors of the Company to hold shares. The understanding at that time was, a shareholder leaving the Company had to sell
his shares to the remaining directors. This understanding was backed by provisions made in the Articles of Association.

With a Socialist government ruling Sri Lanka in 1972, the Company in a further diversification of its ownership, began a new practice. Shares when they become available were offered on par to executives, leading to the gradual
broad basing of Aitken Spence. The Company’s share capital increased over the years through regular bonus issues.

What was important to note during this period was that board directors did not buy a single share. They were all sold on par to executives, which established a bond between the upper levels of the Company and the executive staff, creating a sense of ownership all around.

In 1983, another significant change in ownership took place with Aitken Spence becoming a quoted company on the Colombo Stock Exchange.




One Response to “From parochial partnerships to public ownership”

  1. Simpson David April 23, 2014 at 9:28 am #

    I learned my Bread and Butter of Carrier at Aitken Spence.. . ( 1979 – 1989 ) Regret i am not there now………..Was known by all as Computer David……………as i am the one started the Computer System at Lloyds Basement in 1983……….WANG VS 45

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