I had the great pleasure and honour of having high tea with the founder of Dilmah, Merrill and his son Dilhan Fernando last week.
As I’m writing this blog post, I thought it’s only fitting that I have a mug of Dilmah’s green tea with jasmine pearls a tea I’ve enjoyed long before meeting Merrill and Dilhan but knowing the inspiring story behind Dilmah, I’m enjoying it even more.
Over high tea at the Parmelia Hilton, Merrill tells my friend Mushie and I his journey from an aspiring tea taster to his realisation of his dream at 24 years of age to create the finest Ceylon tea on earth (Ceylon is now known as Sri Lanka).
Merrill explained during this time, tea, a finished product was handpicked, processed and imported to London as a raw material cheaply. London was known as the World Tea Centre and it was here that multinational companies added value to the tea through the branding and packaging before selling it onto consumers with a healthy mark-up. This meant that tea producers in Sri Lanka received a tiny fraction of the profits from the sale of Ceylon Tea, which was not distributed in its 100% pure form (as it’s not as profitable), whilst middlemen – mainly a handful of large corporations – benefited disproportionately. Addressing that inequity along with creating a truly pure Ceylon Tea was what inspired Merrill to launch Dilmah, which was named after his sons Dilhan and Malik.
Dilmah, didn’t become one of the world’s top tea brands overnight. Merrill worked hard and stayed true to his vision of bringing a tea, which was 100% Ceylon and not a mix of tea blends from other parts of the world. He approached Coles in Australia 24 years ago and Dilmah’s range was rejected on the basis that the larger corporations knew what tea Australian consumers wanted. Merrill was however persistent and worked hard to convince the supermarket giant his fresh 100% Ceylon tea was different and Australian consumers were having blends marketed as ‘Ceylon tea’ because that’s all that was on offer. After a year, Merrill finally got through to Coles who agreed to stock some of his tea range.
Being a family business, Dilmah didn’t have the marketing budgets of his multi-national competitors but it was delivery of quality product that created the loyalty and support of tea drinkers across Australia. To this day, despite higher costs, Dilmah still packs their tea bags in aluminum foil and vacuum seal their loose tea to preserve the freshness. Merrill speaks fondly of customers he has met and those who have written to him. I was inspired to hear Merrill reads and responds to each letter himself – unheard of normally from a founder of a company as successful as Dilmah. So if you’re a Dilmah fan, write Merrill a letter you will receive a response
As I enjoyed my Moroccan mint green tea, I was curious to know how much tea Merrill and Dilhan actually drink a day.
I was expecting a lot but gee Dilhan surprised me – he has 10 – 15 mugs a day, which works out to 10 gallons (almost 38 litres!). Merrill’s favourite tea is the Ceylon Supreme and he has half the daily intake of his son these days but it’s still plenty! Seeing as the Fernando’s had so much tea, I had to ask what the benefits of drinking tea were. Merrill answered, “good health…it’s full of anti-oxidants and look at me, I don’t have the same problems my friends of the same age have”. Merrill explained that although tea is not considered an herb, it really is nature’s best herb and is best to have black with no sugar or milk.
Hearing Merrill’s story and how he built a business around his passion for quality tea was inspiring alone but when Dilhan told us that 10% of Dilmah’s revenue goes towards projects to help the Sri Lankan community I was truly inspired. Merrill and Dilhan believe strongly in helping those in need not just by donating money but by helping them gain back their dignity and confidence to become a part of society. One of the projects Dilmah supported through their MJF Foundation is the Small Entrepreneur Program which started in 2006 when the Tsunami hit Asia. Dilhan told me a heartbreaking story of when they approached a mother who had lost 6 of her children to the Tsunami, at the time as any mother would be, she was consumed in her grief and just wanted money to survive. Dilhan told her this, “I am sorry for your lost, life has dealt you a terrible hand of cards but we can help you get on with your life when you are ready”. Two weeks past and this grieving mother contacted the foundation and agreed for them to help her establish a sustainable small business. As part of helping those in need, the foundation only asks that recipients sign a contract saying that they will agree to help someone else in need which I think is really amazing as that initial donation/support becomes ten fold. If one person we each help helps another – our support would go a long way.
Merrill told us he strongly believes that you only get what you give. His philosophy is that he came into the world with nothing and he will leave with nothing and that there’s only so much wealth your children can spend.
Merrill and Dilhan were in Australia for the Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge which kicked off in Perth last Monday. Hosted by Dilhan and the Flying Fish head chef Peter Kuruvita, the Real High Tea Challenge is a global event created to bring a focus of High Teas back to tea rather than just the food. Foodies in the hospitality profession were challenged to craft their own original tea-based cocktail or mocktail, create a tea-infused dish or present a harmonious tea and food pairing. Perth’s Real High Tea professional winners were Chad Tolbury & Cameron Wetton from the West Coast Institute of Training and consumer winner Cheryl Rossi.
As we thanked Merrill and Dilhan for their hospitality, I said I would write to Merrill and look forward to a personal response. He genuinely said he would but in 3 months when he was back home the Fernando’s had such warm personalities and their values were inspiring – if burger boy and I decide to start up a business from scratch, I’ll be taking a leaf out of Dilmah’s book – excuse the pun 😉