Interview With Merrill J. Fernando, The Man Behind Dilmah Tea

Merril J Fernando In the Adelaide Hilton’s casual eatery, the environs are transformed by touches of class: white linen, china cups and assorted pastries, cakes, biscuits and other afternoon tea fare.

Holding centre stage is the tea table – an assortment of classic and flavoured loose leaf offering, presented in stylish dispensers.

It’s Adelaide’s turn for the Dilmah Real High Tea Challenge, now in its third year. Participants vie to create afternoon tea delicacies, all paired with a Dilmah tea of their choice.

On the face of it, it’s a simple competition, but look under the surface and there’s more going on.

I’m sitting in the lobby bar around the end of the business day with Merrill J. Fernando. The beaming face that has been gently exhorting us to embrace Dilmah tea (“Do Try It”) is to my right, and his son Dilhan (that’s part of the name Dilmah, his brother Malik provides the second syllable) is on my left.

Unusually for an interview, there is a constant stream of interruptions. From Adelaide’s better known chefs to elderly ladies who enjoy a cuppa, it seems there is no end of people who respectfully approach and lavish praise upon the most recognisable face in world tea.

I doubt anyone could identify the CEO of Twinings or the head honcho of Unilever (Liptons) but everyone knows this gentleman.

No-one is surprised that he is exactly the person he appears to be in TV – kindly but determined, generous but exacting.

When he first started his TV commercials, he had taken a dream that most people in Sri Lanka though impossible and grown it a very respectable few percent of the tea market in Australia and New Zealand. Within a few months of the first TV commercial showing him uttering his now-famous catchcry (in NZ) that market share tripled, and it’s continued upwards ever since.

Now the sixth largest tea company in the world, Dilmah is an important player – just look at how the competitors have released TV advertising that looks suspiciously similar to Dilmah’s in the last few years.

They’ve been to Adelaide many times, but this time, it’s all about the Real High Tea Challenge.

In response to the simple question “Why a high tea competition? How does that help your brand?” , Mr Fernando asks Dilhan to take over and explain.

“When people sign up and get to this stage, we provide a lot of educational material. They learn about pairing, mixology, tea gastronomy”

“It’s not a direct benefit, it’s about bringing people to quality, loose leaf tea long term.”

In other words, whilst the participants see that there will be one winner who gets a trip to Dilmah’s sprawling estates in Sri Lanka, Dilmah see it as an opportunity to educate several hundred foodie types in each location.

And given the number of professional chefs and pastry cooks are now embracing Dilmah’s tea gastronomy push, it’s a sound strategy. Once these people taste the quality on offer with loose leaf selections and what it can do for their cooking repertoire, they won’t go back.

It’s a lot like the strategy of horse racing around the globe to highlight fashion to boost attendance and coverage; except that unlike racing, Dilmah carefully control this to make sure the event doesn’t overshadow the main attraction.

This is a company that owns plantations to grow the tea, employs all the pluckers directly, owns the processing plants, owns the packing plants, owns the printing operation, even owns the transport to take the teas to port, so it’s no surprise that this event is organised down to the last.

Now in his eighties, Mr Fernando has not wavered in his business and personal beliefs since he started, and his contribution to the economic and social development of Sri Lanka is unmatched. He is s long term thinker – Dilmah took over twenty years to eventuate from concept to launch  – and so the idea of a competition that slowly returns a benefit to Dilmah over many years is perfectly in keeping with that thinking.

Mixing some cliches,  the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach and we eat with our eyes. The chance to stand next to you version of your Nanna’s prize cream horn, paired with a Rose and Vanilla tea, alongside a sea of incredible edibles is, to amateur and professional cooks alike an amazing event.

You may have missed your chance this time around, but you’ve got a year to do the groundwork. Read the latest cookbooks. Visit elderly relatives and persuade them to part with secrets. Do a short course on pastry. Plan to win and make South Australia proud!

And if you’re unsure as to if you really want to have your wares tasted and judged whilst you enjoy a great event and good tea, then I urge you on with these words.

“Do Try It”


Robert Godden


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