Thilak Piyadigama – CEO of SDB Bank

An old boy of St. Anthony’s College, Kandy, Thilak Piyadigama’s journey began with the simple dream of becoming an Engineer. Today, decades later, he is one of the leading luminaries of the Business industry, having made significant contributions to the digital infrastructure of the Sri Lankan banking system. 

Having completed his primary and secondary education in Kandy, Thilak went on to study Electronics & Telecommunication Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, before completing his MBA at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. 

“My ultimate career goal was to be an Engineer. Even today, after so many years in the banking sector, I still consider myself an Engineer by profession.” 

Describing his career journey, Thilak said, “My very first job was at John Keells, where I worked for the IT arm of the organization. While at John Keells, I received an unexpected offer from Standard Chartered Bank, which was one of my customers at that time, to be in charge of the technology department. After some hesitation, I accepted their offer in 1996. My career at Standard Chartered Bank took me all over the world. At first, I was based in Colombo. Then I was assigned a regional post based in Dubai, overseeing the Middle East and South Asia.  Following this I moved to London. Despite being based in London, I served the Standard Chartered Bank in Africa. My last Standard Chartered Bank base was in Singapore. Over the course of my 18 years at Standard Chartered Bank, I took on many responsibilities associated with digital technology, strategy, operations, service etc… During the latter half of 2015, my journey with Standard Chartered Bank ended and I joined Nations Trust Bank as its Chief Operating Officer until March 2019, which is when I took up my post as CEO of the Sanasa Development Bank.”

Speaking of the current status of technological development in Sri Lanka, Thilak expressed his views – “I think we’re living in an amazing time. This is due, not only to digital technology, but a number of technologies coming together. For an example, a smartphone is made up of a combination of digital and telecommunication technologies in order to provide its user with a large number of various services. Thus, this is an era of converging technologies, bringing us service, convenience and security in ways we never would have thought were possible. I think we have reached a point of technological maturity, which is how any service we desire can be simply accomplished via our mobile phones.”

Discussing the most significant milestones in his career, the Engineer explained,

“The first milestone in my career was becoming an Engineer, while the second was becoming a Manager within a very short period of time, this was followed by becoming a member of the corporate management of Standard Chartered Bank at just 30 years of age. Taking on a regional post where I had responsibilities in about 10 different countries was another milestone, as was setting up Standard Chartered Bank branch in Afghanistan, which happened just after the conclusion of the war. Finally, playing a role in the creation of Frimi, the country’s first digital bank, was an especially significant milestone.”

“In total, I believe I have been to about 40 countries. I think all of these countries have their own unique merits, but I would say my favorite was Singapore. It’s a very well-organized place. I feel that Singapore is much like a well-oiled machine, especially in the state sector. Plus, it’s kind of a gateway to Asia, as you can visit countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia without having to get on a plane”, replied Thilak, when asked, which of the many countries he’s visited over the course of his long career was his favorite. 

On the topic of the creation of Frimi, Thilak stated, “As I said before, playing a key role in the creation of Frimi, which is Sri Lanka’s first digital bank, was a significant milestone in my career. We started from scratch and ended up with an app that is used by thousands of people across the island. I am called the ‘Godfather of Frimi’, and it’s a title I’m very proud of, even though I no longer work for the bank, which launched it.”

Voicing his opinion on what sets the Sanasa Development Bank apart from others, Thilak said, “The Sanasa Development Bank is, as its title states, a development focused bank, particularly for the masses. It is dedicated to building wealth at the grass root level and I think it has done a tremendous job over the past 22 years following its inception. The level of poverty in the country has lowered over the years by about 20% to 30%, resulting in the country’s steady development as well. Even though I was not part of the bank throughout its 22-year-long journey, I believe that the Sanasa Development Bank has played a vital role in the nation’s development, and to this very day that still remains our goal.”

Of his contributions to the Sanasa Development Bank, the CEO listed – the positioning of UPay and its digital aspirations, the launch of a new mobile banking app and internet banking system, which enables the bank’s customers to conduct their financial activities with more ease and without needing to visit one of the bank’s branches as the top 3. 

“When I joined the Sanasa Development Bank its technological offerings were very limited. So, my overall main contribution lies in bringing digital technology to the Sanasa Development Bank. We have connected ourselves to the entire ATM network and POS system in Sri Lanka, as a result of which there are now about 5000 ATM points and 67000 POS systems that our customers can access throughout the island. We’ve also modernized our branch network, bringing customer-centricity to the forefront. My aim is to encourage better digital and physical service in order to make our customers happy.”

Questioned about his most significant contribution to the digital infrastructure of the Sri Lankan banking system, Thilak responded,

“The launch of Frimi took banking in Sri Lanka to a new level. Now after just 2 years the majority of people have access to the Frimi app. So, I think we’ve provided a significant influence for the entire Banking industry of Sri Lanka to think differently and contribute towards building modern infrastructure.”