Our Dilmah Ceylon Tea Company plc., annual report for the financial year ended March ’23 includes a tribute to my father, founder of our family business. I am sharing that tribute here as it is certainly homage by a grieving family to an extraordinary father and grandfather, but it is also much more. The way of doing business that Merrill J. Fernando passionately demonstrated and advocated – influenced by the way of life in his humble village home and a bygone era – is more relevant to life and business in the 21st Century than the teachings of the world’s premier business schools.
Merrill J. Fernando’s passing on 20th July, 2023 is as great a loss to Sri Lanka as to his family and the Dilmah and MJF group businesses he founded. Born to a humble, rural family in the tiny village of Pallansena, the simplicity of his origins defined Merrill J. Fernando as his dream of making the world a better tea grew beyond his imagination.
He was an unique businessman in wishing to always and uncompromisingly do what is right, rather than what might be expedient or profitable. Even as he protested against the discount culture that challenged his desire for quality and sustainability in tea and imposed a heavy burden on his quality aligned business, he insisted that each of his businesses contribute at least 10% of their pretax profits towards the alleviation of poverty, education, nutrition and to support the least fortunate in our community. So sincere was his desire to ensure that his family business served humanity that he increased that pledge to 15%, generating over Rs 7 billion in direct humanitarian aid in the last two decades of his life.
The young man who ventured so far from his village, did so armed only with a Senior School Certificate – the equivalent of an Advanced Level qualification today – and Rs. 10,000 borrowed from his father. His strength was neither education nor money but in his invincible faith and a determination to align his love for tea with a better future for the industry and its workers.
Merrill J. Fernando devoted his life to tea. His faith drove him to believe possible what lesser men & women might have considered impossible in then recently independent Sri Lanka. He relentlessly pursued his wish to offer tea with the promise of quality and integrity, winning the hearts of customers and workers with his determination and sincerity. He met with resistance at every step, and on his knees before God, sought divine intervention which he was blessed with in abundance.
The man known as the world’s Teamaker knew that success was a blessing that came with a request that it be shared. He built kindness at the heart of his business, starting with his personal and spontaneous generosity towards his staff as he started his own business> That grew into a substantial and multi-sectoral humanitarian effort through the Merrill J. Fernando Charitable Foundation that he formed around his wish to be kind, and made binding on future generations of his family. The MJF Foundation formed itself around its Settlor’s wish to minimise posturing, and shunned conventional notions of Corporate Social Resposibility to adopt its own methodology linked to impact and the dignity of its beneficiaries.
Merrill J. Fernando did considerably more than build a pioneering business against all odds; his philosophy of kindness demonstrated decades before it became prudent, the necessity for businesses to deliver social and natural value even as they deliver economic value for owners and shareholders. He rejected as abhorrent the widely accepted notion that businesses should focus solely on profit and shareholder value. He was vociferous in stating his case, as he was always uncompromising where integrity was concerned, and everything he espoused, he practiced.
His insistence that Sri Lanka protect the integrity of Ceylon Tea was vigorously contested by the entire tea trade. He dismissed the ire and criticism his defense of quality attracted, as being motivate by his industry peers not understanding him well. Embracing that direction could have been vastly profitable for his business yet he opposed any dilution of the integrity of Ceylon Tea as it was not the right direction for tea producers in Sri Lanka.
As Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda writes in a review of his life story, “If Merrill J Fernando did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him: so consequential has been his contribution. If there ever was a life worth celebrating, this life is that life.”
The legacy that Merrill J. Fernando leaves is formidable; it will continue because of its foundation in a sincere and simple wish to offer the world tea that is made with love, and with great kindness. In his lifetime he demonstrated in his tea, spice, leisure, woodcraft and other businesses, the relevance of that principle by example, and in this way embedded it into the hearts and minds of his generations.
As he rests in the arms of his beloved Lord, he will undoubtedly delight in seeing his family and staff nourish and build on his achievements without compromise on the values that form their core. May the soul of Merrill Joseph Fernando, Teamaker, Disrupter, Servant, Rest in Peace.
My father passed away on 20th July, 2023. Thousands of people from around the world joined us in our grief. A Memorial website which could be accessed via this link Dilmah (dilmahtea.com) celebrates his life and records the sentiments of so many who sent condolences. A Memorial Service will be held for him on Friday, 27th October at 4pm at the Founder’s Auditorium.