David Colin-Thomé (2023)

In 1979, straight out of school and heading for my first job interview, I walked up a narrow stairway of a dingy building in the heart of Colombo. Entering the office, I vividly recall the claustrophobic conditions as a cluttering of assorted furniture and about thirty people crammed into an area no more than 3,000 square feet. Memories of the interview itself are hazy but I did get the job as a management trainee. I was interviewed by the Chairman of this small company…his name was Merrill J. Fernando.

The company was MJF Exports Ltd., and the tiny office was in Alston Place, in Colombo 3. It was also my first introduction to modern technology – a Casio calculator – for which Rs 25 (from my wage of Rs 125) was deducted. To be fair, it was not really a wage but more of an allowance for a trainee, and it was an early learning for me that the only thing Mr. Fernando freely gave away to trainees, were tough, life-lessons. Three months later, I must have passed the initial test – that of staying power – and the calculator fee was withdrawn, and my wage raised to Rs 500.

It was about a year later that we moved to the new office in Maligawatte on the outskirts of Colombo. Whilst not as conveniently located as Alston Place, in terms of ‘digs’, it was like moving from a Mini Minor to a Bentley. Mr Fernando had sourced all the furniture and fittings from overseas himself, and we were all awestruck by the modernity and spaciousness of the office.

It was here that I truly got to know more about the character of Mr. Fernando as I progressed to being a tea taster myself. In fact, during this career progression, so to speak, one incident stands out like a beacon. Certainly, it remains by far, the most distinct memory of my six-year association with MJF Exports and Mr. Fernando, from 1979 to 1985.

It stemmed from a morning of harmless fun and frivolity…or at least, that’s what it seemed like at the time. My colleague Hemantha and I were both junior Tea Managers (Tea Tasters) and our desks were situated in the main office area directly in front of about ten or so cubicles, most of which were occupied by senior managers. One Saturday morning, neither the Tea Manager nor the Assistant Tea Manager were present, and nor were there any other senior company executives around. Cutting a long story short, Hemantha and I were the most senior people in the office that morning; a perfect setting to run amok!

Using our slick Singapore-imported chairs with coasters, we persuaded a couple of young female staff to sit on them. Hemantha and I then proceeded to push them, racing around the spacious office amidst shrieks of laughter and cheering from the rest of the staff. There was much merriment! One of the phones then rang and the room became hushed as someone dashed to answer it. It was the Tea Manager, Mahen Rasaratnam, and he wanted to speak to Hemantha or me. Any thoughts of telling Mahen that I was about to start grading the Bartleet’s Low Grown Catalogue were dashed, as Mahen thundered down the line as to “what the hell was going on there”. It got worse. Mahen bellowed that the Tea Clerk had rung up Mr. Fernando and apprised him of our antics, and that a furious MJF had called him and told him to have us meet him first thing tomorrow morning (despite it being a Sunday).

Feeling sick to our stomachs with worry, and after a sleepless night, we sheepishly trudged into MJF’s office the next day where a very stern looking Mr. Fernando was present with Mahen. Given our levels of anxiety I recall what transpired next like it happened yesterday.

Mr. Fernando made no mention whatsoever of our larrikinism, other than to say, we need to be given more responsibility, and that he was doubling our wages and moving us each into our very own cubicle! We could not believe what we were hearing. It was like being dragged to the gallows and then being handed a business class ticket to Paris! Taking up position in the cubicle the following morning was a momentous occasion as I waved a cheery greeting to the confused Tea Clerk.

At the time, just like everyone else in the trade, we were suppliers of bulk tea to clients around the world. That’s how it had been for the preceding 100 years where Ceylon/Sri Lanka was a supplier of the raw material only. When Mr. Fernando imported a couple of tea-bagging machines and created a separate section to deal with labels, tags and so on, I had little or no comprehension on the magnitude of what Mr. Fernando was trying to achieve by developing his own brand. To us in the tea room, where bulk tea was king, this was nothing but a mere sideshow.

Sideshow apart, I also knew that Mr. Fernando’s endeavours into value-addition were highly controversial and were being criticised by industry heads and seniors who were employed by multinational and companies with colonial roots, many whom were still powerhouses with immense influence and clout at the Colombo Tea Auctions. As juniors, that animosity often trickled down to us too, and we would frequently have heated discussions with those of our same standing from competitor companies. Dare I say it, one such occasion even ending up in a physical altercation.

This recollection drives home to me the magnitude of what MJF eventually achieved in terms of conquering enormous odds. Today, he is rightfully feted as a visionary, and the Dilmah model of value-addition is hailed as the yardstick for Ceylon Tea exports.

From the earliest days, what stands out for me is his pursuit of excellence at seemingly every level, be it professional or in his private capacity. He was always impeccably dressed and groomed and carried himself with an air of authority and self-confidence, albeit, without a hint of arrogance. He was not someone to be messed with, and nor did he suffer fools easily, but his humanity always shone through. As I learned from many an occasion, getting a shellacking from Mr. Fernando related only to that specific moment or incident – he never ever held grudges and the past was always the past.

I recall Mr. Fernando telling me in a recent interview that one of the keys to his success is that he understood finance. I think time-management would also feature very highly. For someone with such an extensive business schedule that includes exhausting levels of international travel, it is amazing as to how accessible he has always been even for matters of seemingly far less importance.

I have also seen the spontaneous generosity of Mr. Fernando and been a beneficiary of it myself. Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs) had just become the rage in the early 1980s and I was itching to get my hands on one. Unfortunately, it cost around three times my monthly wage and I didn’t have the funds to buy it. So, I plucked up the courage and asked Mr. Fernando if I could get a company loan to be able to make the purchase. He asked me how much it was, and I told him. He then responded by saying, “I’ll buy it for you”, and arranged for me to collect the cash the very next day. Mr. Fernando has no idea how close he came to receiving a great, big hug that day!

On another occasion, he called me into his office and asked me if I played cricket or tennis! Surprised at the question, I responded that I was a bit of legend in backyard cricket. He then asked me if I’d like to travel to Calcutta, India as a representative of the Ceylon Tea Traders Cricket Team, and of course I gleefully grabbed the opportunity. Sadly, it remains the only instance to date in which I enjoyed a fully-paid overseas trip!

As everyone knows, Mr. Fernando enjoys celebrity status in Australia and is popularly known as Mr. Dilmah. However, I think I can lay claim to acquiring that title even before he did, at least within a small circle in Australia! By the time I migrated to Australia in 1985, his first attempts at marketing Dilmah in that part of the world had just commenced. The early ads featured Malaysian-born singer Kamahl, so Mr. Fernando was still unknown. I had just started my first job in Sydney and during a lunch break, I noticed a Dilmah ad on TV. I quietly mentioned to one of my workmates sitting next to me, that that was the company I worked for in Sri Lanka. Of course, being new to Australia, I had still not worked out that, as a rule, Aussies hate the name given to you by your parents, and that they require very little material to have you re-Christened in the blink of an eye. Thus, by the time the ad had played out, the name David ceased to exist. It had been replaced by ‘Mr Dilmah’, a tag which stayed with me (and which I ended up responding to), till I switched jobs a couple of years later!

Mr. Fernando, as you celebrate your 90th birthday, you have my sincerest wishes for the happiest celebration of them all. There are no words to adequately describe my good fortune for having been associated with you, especially in my formative years as a young adult. For the moment, words like honour, admiration and gratitude will have to do. So too, will a simple thank you.

(Originally written and published in a book to commemorate the 90th birthday of Mr. Merrill J. Fernando in 2020)


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