Growing Authenticity in Tea

Merrill J. Fernando

Founder Dilmah Tea

With a lifetime in the tea business, Merrill J. Fernando’s passion for philanthropy and a love of his Sri Lankan homeland are as strong as ever. Now in its thirties, Dilmah Tea is one of the biggest international tea names with a footprint in 104 countries. Merrill spoke to Asia Dreams about how he built his organization from scratch and flourished by putting his people first.

Q: You’ve devoted your life to tea. Why do you think it is your calling?

A: During my school holidays I used to spend time at a friend’s family’s tea plantation. There, I watched the tea pickers at work and was amazed by their dedication and cheerfulness. At that time, tea tasting and tea trading were under British hands, and were not open to local people for many years. However, the year I graduated from senior school, six boys were recruited for tea tasting and I happened to be one. In London, I observed what was happening to our tea, which was being mixed with other cheaper varieties and marketed as Ceylon tea. I could not believe it. I found this unacceptable because back at home, Sri Lankans were being paid extremely low wages and could hardly make a living, while these people fooled the market by selling tea with the words Ceylon tea. The next morning, when I woke up, I said to myself I will have my own brand of tea one day. That was my calling.

Q: Dilmah is a very successful company, what do you think is the secret to its success?

A: My business objective is not to be the biggest, but to be the best. Dilmah is the only tea with a declared commitment to purity of origin. Each pack states Single Origin Tea. That is the integrity of my product and the 100 percent Ceylon tea in the pack guarantees the quality of my product. Grown, packaged and value added in Sri Lanka, we have a great story that nobody can match, then or now. This is our specialty compared to other tea companies.

Q: What has been the most challenging part of your life?

A: When Dilmah was first launched in Australia and New Zealand, tea brands from the UK had already flooded their markets. All the multinationals at that time did everything possible to destroy me. I explained that all these big companies were importing tea from Ceylon, blending in Australia and selling it as Ceylon tea. I was presenting the genuine product; grown, packaged, fresh, with all the health benefits and antioxidants intact. I priced my tea about 20 cents per packet above the market leader’s price, though the retailers didn’t agree. I explained to them that my tea was 200 times better than the other brands, yet I had to reduce the price.

After two weeks I met the buyer at Coles and he said they had received a large number of letters and phone calls from customers saying, “Thank you Coles for bringing back Ceylon tea“. It was the image and consumer perception of Ceylon tea as the world’s finest that won consumers’ hearts. Single Origin 100 percent pure Ceylon tea is behind the achievements of Dilmah. I took that message of fine quality to the world. That’s one the greatest challenges.

Q: You are a pioneer of corporate social philanthropy in your country; do you feel this has created a blueprint in Sri Lanka for other companies?

A: Of course. I was recently awarded the highest award in Sri Lanka thanks to my contribution to the country. It is truly an honour when what you do is appreciated by the government.

Q: In your opinion, what values should a great leader have?

A: Humility. The higher you go, the more and more humble you should be.

Q: What’s next for Dilmah?

A: I am proud to say Dilmah is the only tea company born from a family that loves tea with all our hearts. Going forward, my amazing son Dilhan will continue Dilmah’s performance with Dilmah School of Tea. He will maintain Dilmah in the best position by maintaining its quality. Dilmah is not a brand but a philosophy; the more successful you are, the more you must pay attention to people in need. That’s what my parents taught me; to care and share.

Asia Dreams November 2019 – January 2020