BBK Partnership, Jaffna’s accountants to the World

Jekhan Aruliah

I first heard of the BBK Partnership Sri Lanka in 2015. I first spoke with its co-founder Anandan Arnold in 2018, and finally met him in March 2020 at a hospital in Manipay Jaffna. He was dressed rather informally for a Partner of London’s BBK Partnership of Chartered Accountants. Anandan (pictured below on the right) greeted me wearing an aerodynamic lycra bicycling outfit, having put away his suit and tie for a couple of weeks. He was there with about 50 other cyclists including his brother Chris who had just finished their 435km four day Colombo-Jaffna bike ride. The trip was organized by Ride For Ceylon in aid of the Green Memorial Hospital in Manipay. Founded in 1848 by the American medical missionary Dr Samuel Fisk Green, the hospital was the first medical school in Ceylon. Now it is run as a charity, with patients paying what they can afford which is often nothing at all.

Anandan (right) and Chris Arnold

Left damaged and derelict during the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Arnold family decided to spearhead the renovation of the Green Memorial Hospital. Their association with the hospital went back to Anandan’s late father Mr. Joel Dharmarajah Arnold who was a Divisional Revenue Officer (DRO), equivalent to today’s Assistant Government Agent. Anandan told me he was “a legendary civil servant renowned for his philanthropic and stoic services to the community”. Joel and his wife Sugirtham, daughter of District Judge Mr R.R. Selvadurai, had four sons. Led by the second eldest, Dr Jayantha Arnold, the brothers along with their relatives, friends and colleagues, have and continue to raised tens of thousands of pounds in the years during and since the end of the war. This money has been used to rebuild and rehabilitate the hospital so it can once again provide excellent medical services to the local community. On the 435km bike ride they were joined by Dr. Jayantha Arnold with his children Ramya and Rohan who ran the support vehicle, carrying essentials including water, spare tyres, and bandages. The Arnold’s commitment has passed to the next generation.

Missing from the group of riders I met at the Green Memorial Hospital was Ariaratnam Kandeepan (Kandee). Also a partner at The BBK Partnership in London, Kandee had crashed his bicycle somewhere near Mannar. He later told me he was picked up by an ambulance donated the previous year by Ride For Ceylon, and taken in great pain to hospital to be treated for a broken collar bone. The donated ambulance rescuing Kandee proved the Biblical saying ‘you shall reap what you sow’ can happen in a good way!

Anandan Arnold was brought up in Manipay, Jaffna with his three brothers. He was born In the Green Memorial Hospital, and educated at St John’s College Jaffna. His father died when Anandan was 9 months old, and the family was brought up by his mother. Anandan was a good student at St John’s. While he had excellent O’Levels, his A’Level studies were disrupted by the unrest preceding the outbreak of war in 1983. As the war started Anandan’s family decided he should leave Jaffna. His brother Jayantha, who was working as a doctor in a London hospital, took him there. Anandan was 18 years old, thinking of doing medicine himself. However, seeing from his brother how horrendous the working hours were, Anandan changed direction. He already had 4 science A’Levels from St John’s College Jaffna. Now in London within 8 months he took 3 more: Accounting, Economics, and Law.

Still a teenager Anandan was introduced to Mr. Alan Kaye, a young Jewish accountant in London. Alan, then a sole practitioner, decided to double the size of his firm by recruiting Anandan. The firm became A D Kaye & Company, with Anandan being the “& Company”. Over the years A D Kaye & Company continued to grow and merged with the firms of David Beckwith and Paul Blake, to become Beckwith, Blake and Kaye: The BBK Partnership. Anandan became a partner, and now following the semi-retirement of Blake and Beckwith, runs The BBK Partnership with Alan.

Within a year of arriving in London in 1983, Anandan “spread his wings” and moved to his own place. He spent 10 years having the fun and freedom of a single young man in London. Then he met and married a Sri Lankan girl on holiday in the UK from the USA. Meera, also from Manipay, had fled the Sri Lankan war in 1983 at the age of eleven going to Florida.

Anandan and Meera set themselves a mission: to create economic opportunities for the Northern youth. In 2004 they started visiting Jaffna to see how they could help the local economy as well as rejuvenate the hospital. At the time the hospital was in a derelict condition, only opening for 2 hours a day. Anandan and Dr Jayantha were instrumental in setting up the UK Charity “Friends of Manipay Hospital” which has been fundraising for the hospital since 2005. I saw evidence of their success visiting the cool clean calm hospital, as its rehabilitation continues even now.

BBK Partnership’s first office was opened in Colombo in 2009. This was under the directorship of his eldest brother Rohan, with the help of some of Anandan’s friends in Sri Lanka who were high flying corporate professionals. This office included employees from the North who had fled the war zone. In 2010, a year after the war ended, Anandan opened an office for BBK in Vavuniya. The initial group of Vavuniya staff were Northerners from the Colombo office who were very happy to return to their homes. Though they were graduates, the lack of opportunity in the North meant in spite of their degrees they would have worked as shopkeepers, or made a living farming and sewing. BBK provided a professional career for them.

News of BBK’s career opportunities and airconditioned offices in Vavuniya spread. A Tamil woman who had fled the war to go to Australia came on holiday and visited the Vavuniya office. She applied for a job and had a telephone interview with Anandan who was in London. Anandan, struck by her Aussie eloquence and confidence, immediately asked her to join. She returned from Australia, bringing her husband and child.

In 2011 Anandan opened the Jaffna office. Starting with just 4 people in a rundown building on Main Street. Growing the staff was difficult, particularly due to the lack of good premises. In 2016 Anandan moved to a newly refurbished building near the Jaffna Fort. Applications poured in. Between 2016 to 2019 the staff grew from 8 to 82. Anandan plans to have 100 staff by Christmas 2020.

BBK Partnership Sri Lanka, Jaffna Office

The BBK staff are all well educated, with most speaking good English. They are studying or have completed professional exams: AAT; CIMA; ACCA. Some are waiting to go to University, as in Sri Lanka there is a one year gap between completing A’levels and university entry. Anandan is keen to help the young people gain the best education they can, which leads to the greatest opportunities for them and enables them to make the greatest contribution to the economy.

I asked Anandan if The BBK Sri Lanka operation is profitable. He replied that it is part of the overall BBK Partnership, and its profitability is not calculated separately. However, it makes a powerful contribution to the overall service BBK gives to its clients worldwide. BBK’s most lucrative work is done by the partners in London, where they can charge hundreds of pounds per hour in fees. This work includes Tax Planning; Estate Planning; Business Development. To keep this lucrative work, BBK offers ancillary services at a much lower cost: Treasury Management; Bookkeeping; VAT returns; Payroll. UK clients can’t pay partner level fees for these services, but the fees charged out of Sri Lanka make the overall BBK Partnership offering very attractive.

As well as basic accountancy services, BBK Sri Lanka runs the warehousing operation for a UK client. Everything from stock control, to plotting the delivery vans’ route maps, to planning how vans should be packed so the first packages to be delivered are nearest the back of the van ready to be unloaded first.

BBK’s Sri Lankan staff get 2 pay rises and 32 days holiday a year. They are paid 1.5 times the rate for holidays they don’t take. They get one month’s bonus for the Tamil New Year. In addition, they work in good quality airconditioned offices. Anandan said BBK diligently pays its EPF/ETF contributions and maintains a Gratuity Fund for leaving staff.  Staff retention is extremely good, with only a handful leaving usually due to pressure from parents to take lower paying government jobs. BBK has no difficulty recruiting well qualified staff to its Sri Lankan teams in Jaffna, Vavuniya and Colombo.

Anandan is not shy to use his connections in London to create other opportunities beyond BBK’s accountancy practice. He is planning a Jaffna Arts Festival. He will bring judges from the UK, Italy and Spain to Jaffna to judge art produced in Sri Lanka. The prizes will not only be monetary: Rs100k; Rs50k; Rs25k; and 50 consolation prizes of Rs10k. Prize winners’ art will be auctioned online, with 50% going to the artist and 50% to a charitable foundation doing educational projects in deprived areas across Sri Lanka. In addition, the best works of art will be displayed at the gallery on one of BBK’s clients in London’s fashionable Chelsea district.

I asked Anandan what challenges he has faced running BBK in Sri Lanka. He replied that there are many myths about working in the North: laziness; dependency on foreign remittances; untrustworthiness; rowdiness. He says these myths are spread and believed by those in the Diaspora who are looking for an excuse to do nothing. He is scathing of “millionaires in prosperous towns in and around London, who complain about the Jaffna people stealing coconuts from their properties. While leaving those properties derelict, so their neighbours suffer from the snakes and rats living in the overgrown gardens”.

Many of the other challenges he faced when he first came to Jaffna, including power cuts and internet connectivity, have now been addressed. I myself can confirm the frequent power cuts I experienced when I first came to Jaffna in 2015 are now very rare, and are usually scheduled.

Anandan, and his clients, are very satisfied with The BBK staff in Sri Lanka. The BBK staff work long hours, if necessary late into the night to meet commitments made to clients in the UK time zone where British close of business at 6pm GMT is 11.30pm Sri Lanka time. When staff work so late, BBK arranges transport for them to get home.

Anandan said you earn the loyalty of staff by treating them with respect. Nobody stands up when he enters a room, nobody calls him “sir” instead calling him the respectful but not subservient “Arnold Anna (big brother)”. If the kitchen has unwashed mugs, Anandan will wash them to show this isn’t a demeaning task.

I complained to Anandan that I have been trying to publicise what he is doing for Jaffna and the North for ages, as an example to encourage others. He replied that until now he has liked to work ‘under the radar’ in Sri Lanka. Now he is ready to be seen. He encourages others to come and setup business here, even those who would directly compete with him, as nothing would make him happier than competitors creating new jobs in the North.

Anandan quoted a Tamil saying: “கீரை கடைக்கும் எதிர்க் கடை வேண்டும்” , which roughly speaking means to become excellent you need competition!

Anandan Arnold can be contacted on arnold@bbkca.com