Social Enterprise Seminar
Merrill Fernando, Founder and chairperson, Dilmah
Chair: VG Narayanan, Thomas D. Casserly, Jr. Professor of Business Administration; Chair, MBA Elective Curriculum, Harvard Business School
Merrill Fernando is the founder and chairperson of Sri Lanka’s largest and most global tea brand, Dilmah.
Fernando joined the tea industry in Sri Lanka in the 1950s. Early in his journey, he observed that Sri Lankan tea, a finished product that was hand picked, produced according to a traditional and artistic process in Sri Lanka, was treated as a raw material and shipped at nominal value to Europe where value addition, branding and packing took place. As a result, producers of Sri Lankan tea received a tiny fraction of the profits from the sale of their tea, while large corporations benefited disproportionately.
Fernando has dedicated his career to addressing this inequity. His story is a remarkable one for it illustrates the exploitation that often characterizes products and commodities that are dominated by big corporations. It also demonstrates the power of fair and just trade in lifting less developed countries out of poverty.
Fernando’s love for tea led him to innovate in very important areas. He established the Dilmah brand in 1988 which became the first producer owned tea brand. Dilmah was not just another brand of tea; but it was a brand that was founded on a passionate commitment to quality and authenticity in tea. Dilmah was also part of a philosophy that went beyond commerce in seeing business as a matter of human service. Fernando also pioneered the concept of single origin tea and packaging tea garden fresh, at source. These initiatives pitched Fernando directly against corporations many times the size of his tiny and fledgling business, and it also brought him into conflict with his peers and the Sri Lankan government who did not share his belief that tea could be picked and shipped direct from origin by growers themselves.
In this talk, Merrill Fernando will share his journey in the tea industry and discuss how he built a global brand.