Tea and care

Publicity-shy Dilmah Tea giant Merrill Fernando discusses sharing and caring, values learnt in childhood, that flavour his business

By Feizal Samath, Pic by J. Weerasekera

During an occasional visit to his family home at Pallansena, a village six miles off Negombo, Merrill J. Fernando found his aged mother quietly wrapping the tea - he had sent earlier from his company - into smaller packs. “Why are you doing this?” he asked. “I want to give the villagers,” she said.

Fast-forward several years to two months ago (in 2008) and Merrill, founder of Dilmah, the country’s biggest tea brand in international markets, finds himself at the opening of a child-care centre at a tea estate co-owned by the company. A young man walks up and says with tears welling up in his eyes, “Sir, I am going to Medical College,” adding, “that’s all because of the MJF Charitable Foundation.” Merrill’s officials say that this is the first time the child of a tea plucker is on the way to becoming a doctor.

Merrill J. Fernando

This kind of profound thanks is nothing new to Merrill who has seen many people over the years, thanking the Dilmah founder for his generosity, conscience and responsibility to the communities the company works closely with. However, this recent incident is etched in the veteran tea man’s mind as he recalls how the company has helped hundreds of children, through scholarships, to further their basic and high school education.

“The sharing and caring came from my mother,” recalls Merrill, in a rare newspaper interview last Saturday at his spacious bungalow down Buthgamuwa Road in Rajagiriya. “I don’t like to talk about the social work we do but anyway …,” he smiles. Merrill and his younger son, Dilhan, sit in the verandah reminiscing about the “good old” days, the life of Sri Lanka’s best known tea entrepreneur and the deterioration of values, standards and discipline in society today.

At 78 years, the man is a legend – a colossus in the tea industry – with a wealth of knowledge garnered through a career of 58 years that no one can match, probably in any part of the world. Another first would be the regular overseas visits the sprightly Merrill still makes to meet buyers across Dilmah’s top selling markets. “I agree – it must be probably rare for any proprietor to be meeting buyers at this age, but I still make an effort to meet them,” he says with a smile and fondness that one detects while talking about nostalgic moments of his life, laced with interesting anecdotes. Merrill has reduced his overseas travel to around four months of the year now, compared to eight earlier. “Age is catching up and my two sons – Dilhan and Malik – run the business and handle most of the marketing and public relations work.”

In the twilight of his career, Merrill is now penning down notes or talking into a tape recorder, capturing the milestones in the industry, saying, “I can tell you everything about the industry.” Dilhan says they hope to turn the writings into a kind of memoir of Merrill J. Fernando including the history of the industry and the struggle against “our colonial masters who reaped the benefits of an industry that thrived because of the blood, sweat and tears of the poor tea plucker and estate labourer”.

But coming all this way and turning a family business into one of the world’s largest and most successful tea brands, is all because of the “sharing and caring ingrained in me by my dear mother”, observes Merrill.

A successful brew

Merrill J. Fernando’s father was a local trader of very modest means. Merrill began a life devoted to tea in 1950 being among the first group of Sri Lankans sent to Mincing Lane, London, to be trained as a Tea Taster.

At the time the trade was monopolised by the British who were Sri Lanka’s former colonial rulers. Merrill returned to Sri Lanka and joined AF Jones & Co., a British-owned tea business. Within four years, he rose to be its managing director, and subsequently bought the company over, along with another partner.

Still in his twenties, he went on to establish his own venture, Merrill J. Fernando & Co. Ltd. In 1988, he realized a dream of over three decades when he launched his own brand, the first producer-owned tea brand, offering consumers tea that was picked, perfected and packed in Sri Lanka and shipped direct.

The drive towards perfecting a finished product in Sri Lanka was aimed at retaining the benefit of branding and value addition in the country. These are the most lucrative aspects of tea marketing and are usually lost to the producing country.

On the MJF Foundation website, Merrill says, “I strongly believe that we come to this world with nothing, we leave with nothing, and the wealth that we acquire is with the cooperation and commitment of many others,” -- words that are backed by deeds in the range of aid projects that the foundation is involved in.
Merrill relates how his parents treated the domestics as members of the family. “Isabel, our middle-aged domestic, looked after us and scolded me if I did wrong. My mother would side with Isabel if I argued,” he says adding that his mother taught the five children discipline, values and respect for all. “That was the culture in many villages at that time where there was no distinction between master and servant. Today I see in some homes servants being pushed around, sacked for no reason, abused and treated without any respect.”

As Merrill grew up, these customs and habits grew on him. He watched his mother talk to the villagers going to market and give them sweets, pudding, vegetables or something on their way back home. “This was the spirit that prevailed in villages at that time. There was no jealously, no enmity. If one family was more successful than the others, people admired that family,” he recalls. Dilhan adds that much of that system of values has rubbed off on his brother and himself, their own families and has been built into the company’s way of doing business.

Like any schoolboy, Merrill – who went to the village school and then Maris Stella College in Negombo ending his school career at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo – had a naughty streak in him, cutting school, playing truant. His teacher would come home to complain to his parents and “I got a shelling with Isabel joining in the ‘slaughter’,” he laughs, enjoying talking of a bygone era where values, honesty and discipline were far more important than money, power and politics.

The tea industry veteran, single-handedly responsible for adding value to tea, is amused at the way companies practice social responsibility under the guise of high sounding ‘CSR and governance’. “Everyone has a responsibility to help the poor. I have deliberately kept the social work we do low profile because in this country if we start talking about this, the message goes that this man is doing this for ‘show and tell’. The publicity we get for it now is against the grain and I was unhappy about it until some business friends I respect said there’s no harm in some publicity because this could inspire others to work with communities.”

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