Among the first things I had to do following my appointment as chairman of the Sri Lanka Tea Board was be briefed by tea-sector insiders on how to craft my dealings with the captains of the industry. Among those captains was Merrill J. Fernando, whom I had never met. And so, I had to rely [...]


God’s Teamaker


Among the first things I had to do following my appointment as chairman of the Sri Lanka Tea Board was be briefed by tea-sector insiders on how to craft my dealings with the captains of the industry. Among those captains was Merrill J. Fernando, whom I had never met. And so, I had to rely on the horror stories I was told about him. It was his elder son Malik who, as far as the Board was concerned, was the face of Dilmah. Brash and brimming with confidence bordering on hubris, Malik always seemed to know what he wanted. He was not shy to assert himself and get what he wanted. “A chip off the old block”, I thought to myself, conjuring up the menacing image of MJF that had been painted for me by the said insiders.

I came to meet the great man only on February 1, 2017, when he invited me to visit Dilmah’s head office in Peliyagoda. Here, rather than an ogre, I found a kindly, soft-spoken man with a beatific smile. His younger son Dilhan was there, too. It was soon evident that he and Malik were polar opposites: yin and yang. Self-effacing and modest, Dilhan joined his father in arguing gently if persistently against the proposal then being espoused by the Tea Exporters’ Association, to facilitate the free import of tea for value-addition. In short, to establish a Tea Hub. The TEA saw a future in which agriculture declined as the country industrialized, as it had in Japan. Young Sri Lankans, they averred, aspired to modern jobs in printing, packaging and marketing, not plucking tea. Besides, they argued, Ceylon Tea was too expensive and its quality too uneven.

MJF’s contention, however, was that it would be ridiculous to dilute the prestige of the Ceylon Tea by allowing cheap imports. Would France import cheap grape juice to make French wine more affordable? Of course, not. Instead, he advocated adding real value to Ceylon Tea by emphasizing its superior character, quality, diversity, heritage, purity and uniqueness. To him, “single-origin pure Ceylon tea” was everything. It was why Dilmah’s advertising sought to make MJF the face of the brand—a face more memorable than any corporate logo, a face that said, “Trust me, I know my tea.”

I picked up this autobiography with trepidation because the life stories of industrial titans are so often both tedious and dull. I know the genre well. “I sold a pound of tea. Then another pound and so on until I accumulated enough money to make your eyes water.” But Merrill’s story could not be more different.

He doesn’t overplay his humble beginnings (they weren’t, after all, all that humble) and he freely confesses to being a school dropout. As he tentatively felt his way through Colombo’s early-1950s job market with little by way of qualification save a cheerful demeanour and dashing good looks, however, he was blessed with one lucky strike after another. For his part, all he did was stay honest and work hard. Nowhere in this long journey does he paint himself as a hero. If anyone gets the credit it is God. He sees himself as blessed and attributing his success to the people who trusted him and helped him. If there is one word that pervades every page, it is Gratitude. And it is this, I suspect, that makes him a benefactor of so many good causes.

Unlike most successful businessmen, MJF claims little credit for himself. Instead, he acknowledges the generosity of the people who helped him on his journey. Fr. Nicholas Perera, who helped him become an apprentice tea taster under A.G. Mathewson, who considered him as being “the right type” and in turn, recommended him to A.F. Jones. There, a few years into the job, a chance accident led to his taking over leadership of the company. That in turn saw him promoted to the board at the age of just 28. It was he who nudged the company from its Anglocentric focus to develop—with considerable success—new postwar markets in Japan and the USSR. When the Joneses departed Ceylon in 1962, MJF gathered a consortium to buy over the company for the then princely sum of Rs 600,000.

Interspersed with accounts of strangers who gave him succour, such as the enigmatic managing director of Grindlays Bank, W.L. Gash, who loaned him large sums of money on trust, are tales of backstabbing and betrayal. Among the villains are the eminent lawyer S. Nadesan, who having befriended Merrill conspired successfully to evict him from A.F. Jones. In rare instances, MJF allows himself a smidgeon of schadenfreude, such as the detractor who having mulcted him for Rs 175 million bought a Ferrari which was wrecked “within a week of purchase.” But these are minor players in a cast replete with characters whose trust, kindness and generosity contributed to his success. It surprised me that many of them, such as S.I. Jafferjee, Noordeen & Shirin Esufally, and Michael & Mavis Booth, came from backgrounds completely different to his own.

But of course, MJF’s story is also the story of Ceylon Tea in the postwar era. “If you have a good product and refuse to compromise on quality at a commensurate price,” he maintains, “the buyer-consumer will eventually accept the proposition as a fair bargain.” Mere bravado, I hear you say, except it isn’t. In April this year Dilhan made world headlines (literally) when he publicly threatened to pull Dilmah from the shelves of the giant Australian supermarket chains Coles and Woolworths, who sought to squeeze Dilmah’s margins. Insisting that lower prices would serve only to slash the incomes of workers in tea plantations, Dilhan took the issue to the press. The media after all, are quick to point to poor working conditions on the plantations but rarely point a finger at the Western consumers who are loath to pay a reasonable price for their tea. The resulting outcry forced both chains to capitulate. I can think of few exporters who’d have the gumption to take such a risk.

Interestingly, MJF’s focus on value addition did not stem from some kind of visionary revelation. It was the culmination of a progression of tentative steps, starting with the purchase of two bagging machines in 1977 and then serving as an ‘OEM’ packer for overseas supermarket chains. That experience equipped him, in 1985, to launch Dilmah. Donning a white apron and smiling radiantly in the backdrop of a highland landscape, he would invite punters to try “My Dilmah tea”. It worked, making Dilmah Sri Lanka’s best-known brand worldwide.

Merrill’s story, elegantly narrated by Anura Gunasekera, is uniformly without malice and always with generosity. In his telling, there are no good people or bad people—only people who have done good things or bad things. Some of his views are distinctly anachronistic. His marriage failed when the boys were just four and two years old. Though chalk and cheese, if Malik and Dilhan are anything to go by, Merrill seems to have taken his duties as a single parent seriously, for they ended up not only as well-adjusted men but also devoted sons. The family’s values came home to me when one morning this year I visited a Dilmah tea lounge and found Dilhan’s son Amrit waiting tables there. These, I said to myself, are not common or garden Fernandos.

The story of Ceylon teamaker Merrill J. Fernando’ is told with remarkable fluency, candour and grace. If ever there was a life worth celebrating, this life is that life. I cannot recommend this book too strongly.

Book facts
‘The story of Ceylon teamaker Merrill J. Fernando’
Reviewed by Rohan Pethiyagoda

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