Tribute: My Close Association with Merrill J. Fernando

Merrill J. Fernando and New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key at LBO's Horton Debate Society event in Colombo.

July 20, 2023 (LBO) -

By: Ranjit Hulugalle

Below are some anecdotes from my close association with Merrill Fernando, especially in the UK between 2000 and 2004.

As one gets older, life becomes rather blurred, especially when one has worked for 45 years in three continents and in half a dozen vocations. Sadly I don’t have the benefit of social media to remind me of events, dates, and photos of amazing experiences of a lifetime, in particular with MJF and Dilmah in the 2000 to 2004 period that I was with them in London.

Here is my story as it pertains to my period with Merrill J. Fernando and Dilmah in the UK and Europe.

Close family friends of ours and relatives by marriage, Moritz Fernando and family, who lived in London introduced me to Merrill Fernando when I lived there. Moritz and Merrill were childhood friends in Negombo, so arguably the two of them were what one might call “bosom buddies who never agreed on anything but one could not do without the other.”

Through this connection, MJF wanted me to help with his activities in the UK, and look after some private interests. I stayed at his home on Addison Road, and apart from building the Dilmah brand helped with: remodeling, builders and sundry duties, such as keeping him company, making his breakfast, shopping, and generally accompanying him to parties with friends, events, the theatre, and special top of the range dinners at some incredible places in London and elsewhere.

I am sure his two sons, who are now very close friends of mine, will not mind me relating some anecdotes that have helped me too along in life, for which I am truly grateful.

MJF was a very disciplined man with a phenomenal work ethic and determination. So each morning at breakfast with his laptop by his side, he meticulously goes through his emails, and writes a to do list of everything he wants to achieve that day.

Once we are ready, we are out the door with a view to accomplishing as much as possible on that list. The list is not in an order of priority, but a general list that he creates from memory, starting from the left overs from the previous day’s list.

So when we get back after a long day of rounds that could be both Dilmah related or other pressing matters, he sits down and checks the list off. Now comes the crux - "Ranjit today I can’t give myself a pass mark as we underachieved so let’s stay in."

That meant I knocked up some soup and toast and possibly heated some left overs, after which he goes to sleep, pretty early. He has the knack of falling asleep easily, even when I was driving him to an appointment with a supermarket buyer for example.

On the occasion he is happy with the day’s outcome, he says: “Ranjit let’s get to this restaurant in Knightsbridge or Chelsea and let’s have a slap up meal.” This we had with a grand bottle of wine and after dinner liqueur and a cigar. That was a way of rewarding himself for a productive day. This is an example of how overachievers perform so productively, by rewarding themselves and with an incentive thrown in for good measure.

He was a generous boss who shared everything. I went with MJF all over the world. Once we arrived at Vancouver airport, and I rented the vehicle and we promptly drove up to the Fairmont Chateau Whistler for a little bit of R&R in winter with the snow around the mountain. We ordered tea to drink and he told me, though the tea is not that great, the quality of the pure spring water up in the mountains was so good, that even ordinary black tea tastes fine.

I have flown up to the North of Scotland on a business cum pleasure trip and stayed in some grand castle like hotel, drinking some Malt Whiskies from the area with just a touch of water to reduce the strength. These were at cold evenings by the fireplace in the bar. We were taken on some Speyside whiskey distillery tours for good measure, showing how they were made with tasting afterwards.

I have had the enviable insight into negotiations with the tea buyers in the main supermarkets in the UK like Tesco and Waitrose, and driving MJF to their out of town offices in my white left hand drive Jaguar XJ6, which I had brought over the pond (Atlantic) when I moved back from the USA to the UK to work with MJF.

I have also had the privilege of being in the Dilmah team at the alternating food fairs of CIAL in Paris and ANUGA in Koln and so have met with the various Dilmah distributors all over the world. I believe the count is now 125 countries that the brand is available.

Finally, I gave MJF a years notice in November 2003 that I would be leaving in November 2004 to go to farm as a peasant farmer in Polonnaruwa. Well, he said you must be out of your mind, but if that’s what you want I will give you my blessing. So it was that I returned to Sri Lanka a few weeks before the Tsunami to begin a new chapter of my life story.

In the following 20 years, MFJ would continue to build, brand and sell Ceylon Tea. For this he will be remembered throughout Sri Lanka as Tea's most formidable personality.

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Enoka Corea
Enoka Corea
10 months ago

Evocative personal insight into a remarkable personality

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