PRO­FILE

For Mer­rill J Fer­nando, founder of tea com­pany Dilmah, age is just a num­ber. This 86-year-old is still grow­ing, in­no­vat­ing and fight­ing pes­simism, he tells Mri­nal Shekar

Friday - - Contents -

It’s not just all tea talk – read Dilmah’s founder Mer­rill Fer­nando’s in­ter­view for some life lessons.

Mer­rill J Fer­nando is tall – tow­er­ing in fact. I had ex­pected the 86-year-old to be stoop­ing, frail even, but when I walked into Dilmah’s re­cently launched tea lounge in Ibn Bat­tuta Mall and saw Mer­rill un­fold his 1.8m (5ft 11in) frame out of the sofa, com­ing to stand ab­so­lutely up­right in front of me, I sud­denly felt short, and all the more small for my as­sump­tion.

The hand­shake was firm, the gait sharp and there was no vis­i­ble slouch – a stal­wart who looks the part. He even has a full head of hair, I note as Mer­rill takes his seat after en­sur­ing I was com­fort­able.

‘It’s Ceylon Supreme, a black tea from Craig­head Es­tate. One of my favourites,’ he says as he catches me star­ing at the steam­ing cup in front of him.

Is that the se­cret to his youth­ful ap­pear­ance, I ask, be­fore as­sump­tion raises its ugly head again.

‘That and the fact that my mother raised me well. She taught me to care for the com­mu­nity and share with the poor. I firmly be­lieve there is a cer­tain joy in giv­ing and that pure joy, I think, is the se­cret to my health,’ ex­plains Mer­rill.

But you can­not ig­nore the fact that this phi­lan­thropist helms a tea com­pany that has an an­nual turnover of $800 mil­lion (Dh2.9 bil­lion), which proves that he is a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man too.

As founder and chair­man of Dilmah, the sixth-largest branded tea com­pany in the world, Mer­rill’s suc­cess has been six decades in the mak­ing. And none of it has been easy.

‘There were sev­eral oc­ca­sions when I wanted to quit,’ says Mer­rill as we talk about work, life and ev­ery­thing in be­tween. ‘But that is one thing I am not – a quit­ter,’ he em­pha­sises. In the cor­po­rate orches­tra of the tea in­dus­try that plays to the tunes of multi­na­tion­als, Mer­rill was that jar­ring note, the one who never fit­ted in.

‘I have al­ways been the odd one,’ he says. When Mer­rill started out in the tea in­dus­try back in the day, he was one of the first Sri Lankans se­lected to train as a tea taster at UK’s Dar­ley But­ler & Co, a field that was tra­di­tion­ally a Euro­pean strong­hold. ‘Un­til then, Sri Lankans were em­ployed as tea pick­ers only and were kept away from mar­ket­ing and pack­ag­ing of tea – as­pects of the busi­ness that had the po­ten­tial to make profit. But after much protest the Bri­tish colo­nial­ists agreed to open the doors to Sri Lankans in these fields and that is how I, and five oth­ers, got se­lected,’ he re­calls.

Mer­rill then wit­nessed some dis­turb­ing prac­tices in the tea busi­ness. His­tor­i­cally, ma­jor tea com­pa­nies based in Europe would im­port su­pe­rior qual­ity tea in whole­sale from their tea-pro­duc­ing colonies as an in­ex­pen­sive raw ma­te­rial, mix it with cheap va­ri­eties, then pack­age and mar­ket it to con­sumers at a much higher price, mak­ing huge prof­its. Un­for­tu­nately, nei­ther the tea planters nor the pick­ers got any of that profit. Plus the qual­ity of the tea was in­fe­rior due to the blend as the per­cent­age of the cheap va­ri­ety used was much higher.

It was this trend that both­ered young Mer­rill. ‘My con­cern was that in­ter­na­tional tea com­pa­nies would even­tu­ally re­duce the per­cent­age of Ceylon tea in their blend, even drop it al­to­gether, and it could prove fa­tal to Sri Lanka’s fledg­ling tea in­dus­try, which was known for pro­duc­ing some of the world’s best – there­fore most ex­pen­sive – va­ri­ety of tea,’ he re­calls.

This fear and the ma­nip­u­la­tive na­ture of the tea in­dus­try, fu­elled Mer­rill’s dream of start­ing out on his own. And in 1962, he did by selling bulk tea. Lit­tle did Mer­rill know at the time, that the David and Go­liath bat­tle had just be­gun.

In his case, his fight was on two fronts, the cor­po­ra­tions on one side and the gov­ern­ment on the other. While the multi­na­tion­als that still mo­nop­o­lised the tea trade ef­fec­tively slaugh­tered the small busi­nesses with their cheap blends, the gov­ern­ment’s so­cial­ist poli­cies took away land and re­sources, leav­ing small busi­nesses with noth­ing but un­ful­filled dreams, he re­calls.

‘At the time I was ex­port­ing bulk tea in a big way, espe­cially in Rus­sia, Aus­tralia and New Zealand. It was the suc­cess in these mar­kets that gave me the con­fi­dence and the money to launch my own brand.’ Plus the fear that he, too, might get can­ni­balised by big cor­po­ra­tions in the near fu­ture, com­pelled Mer­rill to think big.

And that was how Dilmah was born in 1988. A port­man­teau of his sons’ names – Dil­han and Ma­lik.

U

nlike the nu­mer­ous multi­na­tion­als, Mer­rill de­cided to own every as­pect of the tea busi­ness, just so that he could con­trol its qual­ity. He also de­cided that every pack­age of Dilmah tea should men­tion its ori­gin to pro­mote an hon­est re­la­tion­ship with the grow­ing num­ber of cus­tomers. ‘When I started Dilmah, I was told by re­tail­ers that “peo­ple know what they want and they def­i­nitely do not want tea that is not just more ex­pen­sive but also does not taste any­thing like what they’ve been drink­ing”. My re­ply used to be “Peo­ple don’t know what they’re miss­ing”,’ he re­calls.

It was this modus operandi – to be con­scious of qual­ity, not price – that proved to be the game changer for Dilmah. ‘By do­ing so, we broke the age-old

MER­RILL de­cided to own every as­pect of the tea busi­ness, just so that he could con­trol its QUAL­ITY. He also de­cided every PACK­AGE should men­tion its ORI­GIN to pro­mote an hon­est re­la­tion­ship with cus­tomers

monopoly the West­ern world had on the tea trade,’ Mer­rill adds. A sweet vic­tory, but one that had se­vere reper­cus­sions. Soon after Dilmah found it­self in the midst of a price war as ma­jor tea com­pa­nies be­gan slash­ing their re­tail prices to lev­els that Dilmah could not match. Afraid that his dream run was about to have a tragic end, Mer­rill was sur­prised when he was told by re­tail­ers that the sin­gle ori­gin tea that he was selling had many fans and their num­ber was grow­ing.

‘The big­gest rev­e­la­tion for me was the fact that in spite of be­ing more ex­pen­sive than the cheap com­mer­cial blends that ruled the mar­ket, Dilmah’s mar­ket share con­tin­ued to grow as peo­ple were con­vinced of its bet­ter qual­ity,’ says Mer­rill.

So, I ask, is it this hard-fought suc­cess that makes him happy, or is it be­ing recog­nised through awards? This is espe­cially per­ti­nent as he was be­stowed with the Busi­ness for Peace Award in 2015 – an award that has No­bel laureates in Peace and Eco­nomics on its se­lec­tion panel and is given ‘to sup­port, in­spire, and recog­nise the global busi­ness lead­ers who are pos­i­tively chang­ing the face of busi­ness’. Past win­ners in­clude Sir Richard Bran­son and Ratan Tata.

‘What I am most proud of is the work we have done for our em­ploy­ees,’ he an­swers. Through its MJF Foun­da­tion, the com­pany

Mer­rill wants to be known as a PHI­LAN­THROPIST, rather than a busi­ness­man. But his busi­ness acu­men is STRONG, con­sid­er­ing he is al­ways in search of IN­NO­VA­TIVE ideas to fur­ther a pas­sion for tea

pro­vides med­i­cal and ed­u­ca­tional sup­port to all its 30,000-plus em­ploy­ees and their fam­i­lies. ‘Some of the kids have schol­ar­ships for higher ed­u­ca­tion and two of them have just be­come doc­tors,’ says Mer­rill with im­mense pride.

O

ver the years, the Foun­da­tion has set up hos­pi­tals giv­ing ac­cess to those who are un­able to af­ford de­cent med­i­cal care, has built fa­cil­i­ties for kids with dis­abil­i­ties, has launched em­pow­er­ment pro­grammes for dis­en­fran­chised women, and has contributed to­wards the re­con­struc­tion of ar­eas in north Sri Lanka that suf­fered from civil war and the 2004 tsunami that de­stroyed ev­ery­thing that came in its way. ‘It gives me great joy and sat­is­fac­tion to know that I have been able to bring about pos­i­tive change in the lives of all those who lacked op­por­tu­ni­ties ear­lier,’ he says.

Clearly Mer­rill wants to be known as a phi­lan­thropist, rather than a busi­ness­man. But his busi­ness acu­men is still strong, con­sid­er­ing he’s con­stantly in search of in­no­va­tive ideas to fur­ther a pas­sion for tea. ‘Once the civil war was over, we saw an op­por­tu­nity to show­case our plan­ta­tions to tea afi­ciona­dos from across the world and to tourists in gen­eral,’ re­mem­bers Mer­rill. And as this in­ter­est con­tin­ued to grow, Mer­rill and his sons de­cided to di­ver­sify into hospi­tal­ity by launch­ing Re­splen­dent Ceylon in 2011. The com­pany now has two lux­ury bou­tique ho­tels – one in Sri Lanka’s Cape Weligama and an­other in Bo­gawan­ta­lawa Val­ley, and is plan­ning on open­ing two more by next year, all of them set right in the midst of tea plan­ta­tions ed­u­cat­ing guests about tea and its ben­e­fits.

The steam­ing cup of black tea that is in front of him has gone tepid, but not Mer­rill’s en­thu­si­asm to build and ex­pand his busi­ness. The tea lounge, for in­stance, Dilmah’s first in the UAE, is an­other ven­ture that Mer­rill hopes will spread the word about tea’s ben­e­fits. ‘Apart from cre­at­ing an ex­ten­sive menu of­fer­ing the wide va­ri­ety of tea that we pro­duce, our food menu is equally ex­cit­ing as we’ve tried to show­case tea’s gourmet ver­sa­til­ity by in­fus­ing our dishes with a hint of the brew,’ adds Mer­rill.

Hav­ing fought con­stricted mind­sets all his life, Mer­rill is all the more ap­pre­cia­tive of the fact that his kids are on his side and like him they, too, be­lieve that ethics and eco­nomics can co­ex­ist. ‘I am for­tu­nate that they have the same values as me when it comes to do­ing busi­ness,’ he says as he leans back re­flect­ing on what he con­sid­ers is his true wealth, his fam­ily. Talk­ing of his hopes, he says, ‘Oh, I have dreams. For ex­am­ple, I wish the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment would get in­volved in in­creas­ing the pro­duc­tiv­ity of the tea plan­ta­tions so that it be­comes prof­itable.’

And when I prod­ded him to im­part some ad­vice, he says ‘I wish the youth of to­day un­der­stood that the gad­gets they hold are not their achieve­ments, but mere dis­trac­tions. There is no sub­sti­tute to pas­sion, hard work and sin­gle-minded fo­cus.’ Strong in per­son­al­ity, ro­bust in out­look and clear in thought, Mer­rill is a metaphor for the pure brew he pro­duces.

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PHOTO BY AIZA CASTILLO-DOMINGO

Dilmah’s sin­gle-ori­gin tea is a show­case for Sri Lanka’s es­tates 31

From help­ing women to be in­de­pen­dent to look­ing after the needs of the em­ploy­ees’ kids, Dilmah’s MJF Foun­da­tion has made a dif­fer­ence to the com­mu­nity

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