The death occurred on Thursday of Mr. Merrill. J. Fernando, 93, among the country’s leading business personalities and a self-made billionaire who earned for himself the reputation of ‘Teamaker’ by building his Dilmah brand, among the best known nationally owned brands of Ceylon tea.
Fernando was uncompromising in his life-long battle to preserve the image and reputation of single origin pure Ceylon tea and led numerous efforts to resist cheaper teas from other producing countries being imported here for blending. He argued strenuously that such efforts to produce cheaper teas would cost Ceylon tea dearly.
In his autobiography published earlier this year and currently being serialized in this newspaper, Fernando said “Pure Ceylon Tea has been my life for over 70 years and made all my other achievements possible.”
MJF as he was popularly known coined the name of his Dilmah brand by combining the names of his two sons, Dilhan and Malik many years ago. His Ceylon Tea Services Ltd. was quoted on the Colombo Stock Exchange in 1982 and its name was later changed to Dilmah Ceylon Tea Company PLC more recently.
In annual reports of his company, Fernando was fond of detailing how early investors benefited from the company’s growth through capital appreciation, high rates of dividends and capitalization of reserves through bonus share issues.
Fernando was not the country’s biggest tea exporter but his Dilmah brand, projected as a product of a family-owned business, acquired a global reputation for quality. This vertically integrated business included production (Kahawatte Plantations), broking (Forbes and Walker). Packaging (Printcare) and many more.
In later years MJF broke into the leisure industry (Ceylon Tea Trails, Cape Weligama etc.) but his primary focus remained tea. He and his companies are large investors in well-known companies quoted on the Colombo Stock Exchange.
Fernando’s charitable trusts are generous funders of projects involving the plantation community and sustainable environment.The funeral was due to be held on Saturday at Pallansena (close to Negombo), the village where he was born where his parents are buried.