May 6, 2021

A life devoted to tea and kindness : Merrill J. Fernando

The unmistakable face of the Dilmah brand is Merrill J. Fernando, with his signature catchphrase, “do try it!”. He is the first tea grower to offer his tea to the world, picked, perfected, packed at source, and kindness was his cup of tea. The family tea business he formed around an uncompromising commitment to “taste, goodness and ethical purpose” serves as a playbook for business in a post-pandemic era. These values alongside a genuine pride in sharing our country with interested visitors from abroad led to the creation of Resplendent Ceylon, a collection of small, luxury resorts that offer the discerning traveller a remarkable circuit across Sri Lanka, together with his sons, Malik and Dilhan. As he turns 91 and marks 71 years in tea, we celebrate his faith, determination and, dedication.

Milestones are important. They chart one’s progress, whether success or failure. Merrill J. Fernando, the founder of Dilmah, entered the tea trade in 1950, as one of a batch of five Sri Lankan youth to be trained in the esoteric art of tea tasting, then the preserve of the British. Despite the unshakeable self-belief that has taken him to his present eminence in the industry, even he would not have imagined the varied successes that he would eventually garner.

Dilmah is, undeniably, the global face of Ceylon tea. The brand, with the image of its founder, has carried the message of the purity and authenticity of Ceylon tea to over a hundred countries in the world. However, it is not only in the promotion of the product that Fernando has made his contribution. Over the years, he has lent his weight to many initiatives that have benefited the industry and Ceylon tea in its totality.

In the early years, he championed several initiatives which created facilitations and remedied inequalities that hampered the local exporter of value-added tea. The tea industry then represented a long value chain, stretching from the local plantation to the retail market overseas, designed for the benefit of the British, allied multinationals and their local associates. He was successful in interposing his authority on this tightly closed system, with a mixture of guile, confrontation and leverage of influence, for the benefit of the local entrepreneur.

The conversion of many traditional orthodox tea factories to the more industrial CTC manufacture, in an uncritical emulation of the Kenyan model, would have become a reality decades ago, if not for his reasoned but unrelenting opposition. Had that proposal been implemented, the diversity of Ceylon tea, its uniqueness, would have been obliterated by the depressing sameness of a mass-market product without individuality.

Similarly, the more recent effort to import cheap tea for blending and re-export, the “Tea Hub” concept, proposed by exporters who were prepared to sacrifice the singularity of Pure Ceylon Tea, in favour of short-term profit and denial of long-term damage, would have been launched if not for Merrill Fernando’s fierce opposition. His was the lone voice raised against this scheme which, had it been implemented, would have temporarily enriched a few but impoverished the hundreds of thousands of producers.

Merrill embodies the philosophy he has always advocated, focusing on the significance that lies beyond success. His desire to share his profits has made an unquantifiable and lasting contribution to his community and beyond. In less fortunate communities in his own country and overseas, thousands of lives have been touched by the initiatives of the Merrill J Fernando Charitable Foundation – all funded by the profits of Dilmah tea. The Foundations’ guiding principle of empowerment with dignity underlines its Settlor’s wish to genuinely & positively impact people. Then there is the multitude of biodiversity conservation, restoration, environmental education & research initiatives of Dilmah Conservation, again endowed by the profits from tea.

As the passionate Teaman celebrates his 91st birthday, his commitment is undimmed. In a corruptible and acquisitive society, it is rare that a successful businessman also becomes a force for the common good. Merrill J Fernando is clearly one of the very few exceptions.