The grand old man of tea – Merrill J Fernando

The grand old man of tea – Merrill J Fernando

With two celebrations falling this month, turning 90 and marking 70 years in the tea trade, ‘Mr. Dilmah’, Merrill J. Fernando talks to Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Ninety years old……..while those of his vintage have long left the boardroom, maybe 30 years before, the ‘brand’ of Dilmah Tea who is Merrill J. Fernando is in his office in the Peliyagoda complex before 8.30 in the morning.

Merrill J Fernando

Source: Sunday Times

The new coronavirus which has brought about a strict lockdown and curfew in Colombo has put paid to his daily work schedule. Nonetheless, he is on the job at home, looking closely at a new deal with a well-known company in Australia which usually promotes only its own brand but recently has been in negotiations with Dilmah to take up this brand as well.

Conference calls are the order of the day with son Dilhan who is Chief Executive Officer (CEO) handling most of the routine matters and Merrill giving vision to Dilmah’s overall position, for he is Mr. Dilmah.

Merrill’s serene face with a gentle smile adorning his lips is inexorably linked to Ceylon tea, which he has lifted from the blended and mixed dregs to which it had sunk to the purity it should enjoy as one of the finest in the world.

Usually, his work day pre-corona began around 8.30 where he engaged in business as usual, stopping work at 12.30 p.m. to have lunch with sons Malik (who handles the leisure sector) and Dilhan. Then he headed home for an afternoon nap before sitting once again at his computer and resuming work.

Meeting Merrill on Tuesday at his beautiful Rajagiriya home, set by a sprawling garden, with its elegant paintings and sculptures of horses aplenty, he murmurs that the enforced holiday has given him a small pot-belly.

We have arrived early and been treated to large slices of cake and steaming cups of Dilmah green tea.

“In the last four days, I have been reading all those e-mails and WhatsApp messages sent by dear friends from abroad and locally, colleagues and also staff,” says Merrill with much emotion.

It is a double celebration – turning 90 on May 6 and completing 70 years in tea.

While the greetings and warmest of wishes flowed in, all plans secretly made for his birthday by his sons had to be shelved due to the corona crisis and it was only when people sent their regrets that they would not be able to be with him that day that he became aware of the major celebrations on the cards.

Not to be outsmarted by a tiny virus, his sons had built a microsite for partners, colleagues and consumers from around the world to share their greetings, with an overwhelming response, while hosting a virtual Global Tea Party on Zoom with colleagues from over 30 countries raising a cup of tea to Merrill.

The morning of this momentous day had been spent tucking into a delicious spread of kavum and kokis prepared with much love by the MJF Centre and watching videos sent by his loyal staff, many of whom have accompanied him on his journey.

Dilhan, Serena and their children who live next door had ordered a sumptuous dinner from a hotel, with Serena herself preparing the dessert but sadly Malik, Kimarli and their children had not been able to join them due to the curfew.

“I didn’t want any special concessions made for my family to come join me during curfew,” smiles Merrill who got a pleasant surprise when the hotel’s Managing Director himself laid before him a spectacular cake topped by different kinds of icing.

When Merrill thanked him profusely, he had insisted that he yearned to do something for Merrill because he had helped him long ago.

“I don’t remember what it was,” says Merrill.

This has been the golden weave in the tapestry of Merrill’s life – not just doling out money as charity once he got established but “being there” for each and every one who joined the Dilmah family and others living on the fringes of society who needed a helping hand.

It was something ingrained in his very DNA from the time he was a little boy, growing up in the village of Pallansena in Negombo. Whenever he got a cake or sweets, to his consternation, his mother would give half of it to the neighbourhood children.

“Those days, people did not live in poverty. But my mother shared everything we got,” says Merrill who would be left in tears. When he started working and took packets of tea to his mother, he would see her packing smaller packets and once again giving them away, because sharing was her way of life.

When Merrill started his own business in 1962 and became a successful entrepreneur making profits, much more than he needed, he asked himself what he wished to do.

Live a lavish life……or share whatever he earned, for his mother’s example was always on his mind. He recalls how at that time he had just 18 employees on whose children he showered clothes, shoes and educational stuff and also scholarships for the bright ones.

The same principles of sharing still apply even though his company has grown to embrace a staff of 1,400 and several more on the estates owned by wDilmah. He elaborates how “my” children (he’s not referring to his two sons) in Colombo and the estates and also those living in poverty are provided opportunities through the Merrill J. Fernando Charitable Foundation ranked as one of the largest private charitable foundations in Asia.

There is the MJF Centre for Dignified & Sustainable Empowerment, Moratuwa; the National Centre for Children with Cerebral Palsy & Developmental Disorders, Ambagahawatte; the Sithijaya Centre, Ambalantota; and the MJF Centre in Vembu, Kalkudah.

Families which have been tea-pluckers for generations on his estates now have doctors, lawyers and more and it came as no surprise that at Dilmah’s service rewards ceremony held in November 2018, seated right in front was a magistrate whose parents are from the Kahawatte plantation.

Merrill’s life, even though with some ups and downs in the early years, seems to have taken a certain course. The defining moment had come on a visit to London to study tea blending, branding and marketing. There he found that Ceylon Tea, the best in the world bringing the highest prices, was being blended with cheaper sources and sold to consumers. While the tea-pluckers who lived in congested line-rooms toiled from dawn to dusk on the hillsides, the tea companies were exploiting them as well as the tea-drinkers.

Then was born Merrill’s third son, Dilmah Tea, registered in 1974 which he nurtured and fostered, initially starting with a few machines and selling tea in bulk to Australia and New Zealand.

Even though there was much scepticism, Merrill decided to take “full ownership” for his ethically-produced tea brand by putting his face on his product, unlike others who paid exorbitant sums to celebrities to spew out lies about a product that they knew little about.

His tea branding began with the purchase of the 328-acre Melton Estate in Lindula which he re-planted, seeing the yields increasing and the highest price in the Dimbulla valley being offered for its tea.

Heartbreak came with the nationalization of estates in the 1970s but as a son of the soil he soldiered on, eventually investing in several other plantations – Kahawatte which Dilmah owns and Talawakelle and Elpitiya which it co-owns – taking under their mantle Forbes & Walker which was the broker so that he could ensure not “fair trade” but “ethical trade”.

“Just an exporter is a trader whether multinational or not, who buys as cheap as possible and sells at the highest price. I am not a trader, I am a strong supporter of the tea industry,” says Merrill.

The rest is history. Through it all there has been one ‘constant’ and whether at private or public gatherings, Merrill has not the slightest hesitation in attributing all his successes to one and only one source – Jesus Christ.

A skink in his name and from Russia with love 

Birthday gifts came in different and exotic forms for Dilmah Founder Merrill J. Fernando.

From the scientific community it was the naming of a new species of skink as Lankascincus merrill (with the suggested vernacular names being Merrillgé lak-hikanala in Sinhala; Merrillavin arené in Tamil; and Merrill’s Lanka-skink in English).

Discovered by renowned herpetologist and taxonomist L.J. Mendis Wickramasinghe in Rakwana, the tiny skink (about 32.8-34.9 mm snout to tail) has been named as a tribute to Merrill for his commitment to the preservation of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity. Sporting a prominent dark-brown band from snout to mid-tail, it has a unique scale pattern specifically around the eye region.

Meanwhile, along with messages from around the world, too numerous to print, has come a simple email stating: “….I have known Dilmah tea for more than 20 years. Thanks to the Founder for the fact that in distant Russia you can taste wonderful tea! Happy anniversary, Mr. Dilmah.”

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