Coming up with the perfect brew of tea is no easy task but Merrill J Fernando, founder of the Dilmah Tea company, is all about values and that compels him to give back to his home country.
Tell us more about how the Dilmah tea company started back in 1988.
Ceylon tea has always been known as the ﬁnest tea in the world and when I ﬁrst realized the future of the Ceylon tea industry was huge, I had a dream to build my own brand and business. Hence, in 1988 I launched Dilmah Tea. All of the brand building and branding initiatives were held in Sri Lanka itself. Kickstarting a brand from scratch was one of the most challenging parts of growing the business. When thinking of a brand name for my tea, I wanted to name it Dilmah after my two sons Dilhan and Malik; it is a family owned business after all.
Why did you choose to start a business in tea, and how was the process like building your company into a household name as it is now?
Growing up, I would spend time in my friends’ tea estates. I would enjoy the cool air and the view of acres of absolutely green tea ﬁelds. I had witnessed myself how estate workers were very diligent, hardworking and committed. Although it was nearly six decades ago, the contribution of the estate workers to the tea industry was and still is enormous.
After completing high school, I spent some time in London’s Mincing Lane for a tea tasting training, which was also their World Tea Centre – 10,000 miles away from the nearest tea plantation. That particular visit to London was what brought me to this position in life.
I started my tea business with a very minimal capital equivalent to about $2500 in the 1950s. To ensure that what I was embarking on became a success, I worked very hard, travelled extensively, took risks and faced challenges which made me stronger and gave me the courage to keep moving and never to yield. At the start, I remained helpless in fear of the big traders. Fortunately for us, consumers who were deprived of Ceylon tea for many years welcomed Dilmah and that immediately threw some weight behind the brand. Several consumers expressed their appreciation of Dilmah’s 100% pure Ceylon tea appearing on supermarket shelves and they even thanked the retailers for bringing Ceylon tea back. Dilmah Tea has grown to be the world’s only international brand of tea owned by tea farmers.
When I took my ﬁrst sip from the ﬁrst packet of the Dilmah tea, I felt immensely proud. It was not only fully grown in Sri Lanka but also packaged in the same country I call home. Dilmah was the ﬁrst brand that introduced tea packaging in Ceylon and was the ﬁrst company to introduce tea bags as well. Dilmah Tea is not only a household name and item on every grocery shelf, but it is also a Sri Lankan brand that’s produced with love and care.
“Business is a matter of human service” – the deﬁning motto for Dilmah. Tell us more about what this means in the context of Dilmah and your personal business practices.
When I ﬁrst launched Dilmah 31 years ago, I introduced the world’s ﬁrst ethically produced tea. Ethical trade and fair trade were unknown then, but today they are buzzwords. The strength of Dilmah Tea is quality and integrity, which is declared on very pack with the family philosophy behind the brand. In a world of large traders, Dilmah Tea is perceived a farmers’ tea brand, which goes directly to supermarkets around the world. You have a philosophy which goes beyond commerce, and that’s seeing business as a matter of human service.
I am not marketing my tea or brand, however, I am promoting a marketing philosophy, of caring and sharing, towards giving everyone a very fair deal. How I do it is by offering my customers the freshest and ﬁnest tea on earth, providing my workers with a very fair deal, sharing with the wider community, and reinvesting in the industry to make tea sustainable.
Why is it important for you to focus on upholding ethical standards when it comes to people and product?
I saw the importance of my focus when I realised that the world of tea was dominated by multinational traders. There was little to no hope for a new brand to survive in that environment. Not unless it was something very special—a unique tea that would be different, that would stand out against those mass-market commodity blends. I decided to commit myself to offer the ﬁnest quality tea and share proﬁts with workers, the wider community, the under-privileged, and to reinvest in making tea a sustainable industry.
I strongly feel that the decision to uphold the ethics we do today at Dilmah is a way of showing that it has been my duty to return some of these earnings to the communities that have been supporting us along the way. We believe that everyone behind the brand including our consumers are our family and that everyone deserves a fair share of our proﬁt.
In your opinion, what are the other strengths that Dilmah has which have led to its success?
Success in communicating our values was key. I remember my ﬁrst advertisement was a very simple one. All that I said was, “I bring you fresh, ﬁne quality Ceylon tea, a brand named after my two children Dilhan and Malik. Do try it.” That was it. There wasn’t any hard selling or having to force customers to enjoy my tea. All I said was ‘do try it’ and it changed my life and brought Dilmah Tea to a whole new level of excellence in the industry.
We are also the world’s ﬁrst vertically integrated family tea tribulations company. We grow tea, we package tea in house and market tea under our own international brand name. There are no middlemen in our family business. We care for Dilmah from the tea estates to your cup. Tea is our life. Our workers depend on it. We share our earnings with them and the community. We guarantee Dilmah to be the ﬁnest tea on earth – a claim endorsed by Dilmah users around the world.
There are many strengths but there was surely struggle and my journey has been full of trials and tribulations. I decided to leave all my problems to God who also provided an almost instant solution which had led to Dilmah’s success and every day, I give it all to Him.
As an extension of your commitment to your people, you’ve started up the MJF Charitable Foundation, which gives back to the tea plantation community not just in your company, but on a national scale. How did the idea grow for you to turn one of your core business beliefs into something that beneﬁts Sri Lanka?
The way Dilmah does it is by channelling a signiﬁcant share of the company proﬁts into the MJF Charitable Foundation, where the primary charter is that of alleviating poverty. A minimum of 10% pre-tax proﬁts from Dilmah and related MJF Group Companies are used by the Foundation to implement direct humanitarian assistance around Sri Lanka. The Foundation operates in the most marginalized territories and annually spends in excess of 3 million USD on projects aimed at enhancing the quality of life for differently-abled children, youth and women, on top of providing health care, nutritional support, supporting entrepreneurs in replicating the Dilmah story through value addition in their own sectors.
The decision to grow the business into a charitable one was inspired by my conviction that people, our employees and customers worldwide, have all assisted in the growth of our family business. Everyone is a part of the Dilmah journey and I feel that everyone deserves to enjoy the success of it too. I have made it my duty to extend a helping hand to my employees and to the community. It’s my way of doing my bit for social change within the community.
After having worked with tea for such a long time, at the end of the day what does tea mean to you?
Having spent 70 years of my life exclusively in the tea industry, it has naturally been a part of every aspect of my life. I have been able to fulﬁl my philosophy of caring and sharing and enriching the lives of hundreds of thousands of my fellow countrymen, women and children just through this humble herb. To me, the simple act of pouring a cup of tea is, in itself, an ice-breaker, providing pleasurable anticipation of the goodness that is to follow. I have dedicated my life towards providing that cup to add sunshine, to our day, with every sip of Dilmah