Business Times, Singapore: Over many cups of tea, he has built an empire that spans 101 countries. To that list, he now plans to add Singapore.
Merrill Joseph Fernando, who as a young man founded Dilmah tea, has already seen the Sri Lankan brand become one of the top eight in the world. Still, he’s thirsty for more.
Come October, he will enter Singapore with hopes of capturing 15 per cent of the top-end tea market in the Republic in three to five years.
‘Singapore is a potentially strong and important market for us. Singaporeans are well educated and know the health benefits of fresh tea that is rich in antioxidants,’ says Mr Fernando, who will begin with intensive promotions in hotels, clubs and restaurants.
By next year, the company will open boutique Dilmah t-Bars, where consumers can taste an eclectic collection of teas and enjoy the experience of learning to make, drink and appreciate tea. ‘I offer something very special and that is single origin pure Ceylon tea. The success of Dilmah is strictly due to that difference. We are not into blends like the multinationals,’ says Mr Fernando, 81, who grew up in the village of Pallansena in south-west Sri Lanka and spent his school holidays on the tea estates owned by his friends’ families.
He was just 18 years old when he entered the tea business and went on to train at the then mecca of tea, Mincing Lane in London.
There he saw how tea was being blended and mixed with other teas and often marked Ceylon tea, when the Ceylon tea component was only between 20 and 50 per cent. So at age 23, he dreamt of having his own tea brand which would be pure and would offer a fairer deal to the workers.
It took 34 years for his dream to be realised with the launch of Dilmah in 1988 in Australia, a market he had been supplying tea in bulk to since 1958.
‘I ensured Dilmah was the best and the first ethically produced tea. All the tea that I pack under the brand is grown, harvested, tasted, processed and packaged in Sri Lanka.
The complete process of value addition is carried out in the country of origin and it goes to the market direct under the family name Dilmah, an amalgam of my sons’ names, Dilhan and Malik, without any middlemen,’ says Mr Fernando.
The two sons oversee the day-to-day operations of the company, which employs 1,400 workers in its Colombo processing plant and 30,000 on its 42 tea estates. ‘We treat our customers and workers as our own family and for me, Dilmah is my third son,’ says Mr Fernando. ‘The whole process is vertically integrated in the family company and the best person to advertise that is the family.’ Dilmah has established a strong brand name and remains profitable even during decades of political strife and conflict in the country, and the global financial crisis, growing at an average of 6-8 per cent every year.
‘The GFC didn’t hit tea because I suppose people want to drink their cup of tea anyway. Interest in tea is growing, also among young people, because of its health benefits,’ says Mr Fernando.
The brand has just launched a selection of Exotic and Exceptional teas for young people. ‘Exceptional teas with flavours like the French Vanilla, Mediterranean Orange and Italian Almond are doing exceptionally well,’ says Mr Fernando.
In Sri Lanka, 95 per cent follow the traditional tea production process that has been perfected over centuries whereby the tea leaves are handpicked and undergo withering (evaporating moisture), rolling, oxidisation (fermentation) and firing (heating with a natural fire). Using the traditional method can yield up to 40 different tea grades, each with its own appearance, character, taste, flavour and aroma.
‘In Kenya, they use the newer Crush, Tear and Curl (CTC) production method, which typically reduces the total number of grades to just three. It is good for teabags, quick colour, but sacrifices the real character of traditional tea,’ adds Mr Fernando.
As for his own cuppa: Ceylon Supreme from Dilmah’s gourmet selection. ‘I always use loose leaf tea and store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Bring fresh water to the boil, add one teaspoon per cup in a clean dry teapot, pour the boiling water, after one minute stir it, after another four minutes pour the tea in a cup and let it cool. Sometimes, I add warm dairy milk and Bees honey.’
Soon, Singaporeans will be able to try this concoction and more. (Business Times, Singapore