Tribute: Dinesh Schaffter (1971-2022)

December 20, 2022 (LBO) – There is a sadness that has permeated Sri Lanka’s business community and my circles of friends in the last few days, as we try and take stock of the untimely and horrific demise of Dinesh Schaffter. There is something missing in my soul these last few days as I remember Dinesh, and mourn the state of humanity that leads to these kind of tragedies.

Dinesh Schaffter was a close friend of my wife back in the day, where I am told he sported a pony tail, much before his ascent as one of Sri Lanka’s most notable business people. I got to know him over a decade ago, as our paths crossed in business.

Dinesh Schaffter had just bought a controlling shareholding in a struggling investment bank/primary dealer called First Capital Holdings from Singer Sri Lanka. I had also been studying the firm with some intention of being part of a bidding group for the company, but I just did not understand the business or have the conviction to make a move. Dinesh swooped in, took a huge risk, and took control of the firm. This bold move eventually led to a meteoric rise for Dinesh Schaffter in the business world.

First Capital Holdings, now controlled by Dinesh, was the largest shareholder in a stock brokering company which I had co-founded, and now I found myself in a tussle for control of our firm with Dinesh Schaffter, a person who I had never met, and knew nothing about. I was new to Sri Lanka at the time, having been born and living in the United States, and this stockbroking company was my first foray into Sri Lankan business and its many complicated relationships.

There was conflict, and Dinesh did drive a hard bargain, but we sorted it out in short order and came to an amicable settlement. Looking back on it, Dinesh probably got the better of it, but I was happy with the outcome and we later became friends. On reflection, I now very much appreciate how Dinesh sorted out this situation, as other situations I have had in Sri Lanka have resulted in much messier outcomes.

So this is how I got to know Dinesh Schaffter, from a clash and then a settlement. Since, as I mentioned previously, Dinesh was a longstanding friend of my wife, we got to know each other a bit better over the years. Dinesh was first and foremost my wife’s friend, and they were regularly in touch. Keeping in touch is one of my wife’s stronger suits, on the other hand not keeping in touch is one my my personal weaknesses. Every few months or so my wife would tell me she had spoken to Dinesh and share with me some of the conversation. I always listened carefully, as Dinesh was someone I was always interested in. More than interested, he was someone that I very much admired.

Of all the things I have seen written and spoken about Dinesh, I feel there is something missing that I want to add to the discourse. If I were to describe Dinesh Schaffter in one word, it would be ‘brilliant’. He was one of the most savvy investors that I have observed in Sri Lanka. He had developed an understanding of different businesses and asset classes, and he knew much about interest rates, stocks, bonds, property, leverage, risk and how all these were related to each other. To me his mind worked like a high-level global hedge fund manager, and there are only a handful of people I have observed in Sri Lanka who have this mental capacity.

He also had a strong intellectual curiosity, always inquiring and wanting to learn more. I believe later in life he ended up doing an MBA at Insead. This is unusual for someone who had already achieved the magnitude of success Dinesh had. Normally someone like Dinesh would be the teacher and not the student. I guess he would have had that passion and thirst to keep learning. I remember observing him often talking to senior members of Sri Lanka’s business community. It looked to me that he had an innate desire to keep learning from elders, and he was always very deferential and respectful towards them.

Then there was the person and personality. The tall and strong stature, the open-toe sandals, the firm squeeze of a handshake, and the ear to ear smile. He was most certainly a family man. I remember having a chance meeting where he invited me for lunch at his home, and then took me upstairs to see his newborn son. He had such pride and love in his eyes when he looked at the baby. This was before I had my kids, and only after did I understand the look on Dinesh’s face that day. Today I hold my boys a bit tighter when I think about Dinesh.

Dinesh cared about his friends, and empathy was always there. When I was having my many business and legal crises, he was regularly inquiring about my welfare, and offering what ever assistance he could. He felt terrible about some of the things I have had to go through. I remember once telling him that my troubling experiences may have made me stronger, and he just stopped me and made the point that in his view I should never, ever, under any circumstance, have had to go through the problems I experienced. At that time, I knew that Dinesh was deeply concerned about my situation, and would try to help me if an opening presented itself. He was a good man. When I think of what he had to go through in the end, and what his loved ones must be going through today, I feel lost.

Dinesh Schaffter and I both had an academic background in business and law. We both were passionately interested in investing. We had many common friends, and I always enjoyed my interactions with him. I should have spent more time with him, got to know him better. We were both also introverts, and he a teetotaller, so coming together was rare. However, when we spent time with each other, it was always memorable and stimulating.

Dinesh was killed at the peak of his capability. Had he lived a long life I would have loved to see what peaks he would have ascended. I would have learned so much more from his journey. Dinesh Schaffter and I were like-minded, but in our relationship I felt he was always a step ahead of me, more ambitious, more informed, a bit smarter, and a lot faster. Like I said before, the man was absolutely BRILLIANT.

God Bless you Dinesh. Rest in Peace.

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