How do you define yourself?
Well. There is a big gap between tea growers, producers and tea marketers. That understanding encouraged me to make the lives of our tea growers better thereby offering our country a better income from tea. That was what drove me to become an entrepreneur. So I would like to say to others who dream of becoming entrepreneurs, if your dream is going to do good for your community and environment while delivering whatever you have set your heart on, don’t hesitate.
Your goal was to become a lawyer. But you became a tea taster. What changed your mind?
I was thinking of becoming a lawyer from school. At that time, Tea tasting and Tea trading were under British hands. Tea tasting was not open to local people for many years. However, in the year I passed my senior school certificate, there were six boys recruited to tea tasting and I happened to be one. It was a very coveted job that many people tried. When that offer came to me, I was surprised. It was too good to turn it down. So I gave up my thoughts of becoming a lawyer and became a tea taster.
How was your journey up to where you are today? What influenced you to start your own business?
Well. I come from humble beginnings. I come from a little village in Negombo, called Pallansena. From there I have come a long way through sheer hard work, dedication and commitment. The success I achieved in my business is through the cooperation of people who work with me, my customers and several of my friends who wish me well. Many people did not understand my mission of trying to market Ceylon tea. There was so much opposition from my own country and from all other members of the tea trade. But trials, tribulations and displeasure of others were the strength behind me to come to this position where I am today.
What led you to invent your own brand?
When I started learning about tea, I visited plantations and there I realized how hard people worked, how much they earned and about their living conditions. I felt that they could do better. After my training in the plantations I went to Mincing Lane, London which is the center of the world for tea. In London I found that most of the time they mixed tea from other countries with a little bit of Ceylon tea and marketed it as Ceylon tea. So I realized that Ceylon tea will not survive for long. Ceylon tea is the finest in the world and therefore it is expensive. So I realized that the future of Ceylon tea industry was big. So I dreamed like a young man to build my own brand. I thought if I had my own brand, I will market the best in the world with the finest quality. And also I would share my earnings with the poor and the disabled. So, in 1988 I launched my brand. That was to get some of the profits back that drained out of this country to foreign traders. All the value addition and branding was held out in Sri Lanka. That is the most challenging part of the team business. Prior to my brand launching, I had to think of a brand name. So I named it Dilmah coining from the names of my two sons Dilhan and Malik. When I took my first packet of tea I felt proud. It was tea grown in Sri Lanka and fully packaged in Sri Lanka. Dilmah was the first brand of tea packaging in Ceylon and this is the first company to introduce tea bags as well. It was a Sri Lankan brand name produced with love and care.
Today Dilmah is a global brand and it is the only brand that stages on each pack what is inside the tea. It is a single origin tea of a well-respected brand. Almost nearly 99% of airlines in Asia Pacific region carry Dilmah tea on board. About 60% of hotels in this region carry Dilmah tea. That is a great compliment to Ceylon tea. All the success of Dilmah is due to the power, quality and image of Ceylon tea. I was merely the postman carrying the message.
Do you regret for being deviated from the goal of becoming a lawyer to become an entrepreneur?
No, as a lawyer I would have been working in an atmosphere of constant strife and dispute. Tea tasting is a noble profession and I am very happy that I did it. I am not selling raw material to blenders and packers and make them rich, but I am doing right for our country by packing Ceylon tea on the spot and distributing to the world. And I am really happy about what I am doing.
I’m sure you must have faced number of challenges to bring Dilmah to the international level? What were the competitive advantages you had to beat down the competition?
In Sri Lanka, everybody is trading and what they did was opposed to what I was trying to do. They did not understand the power of Ceylon tea. They were used to supplying tea to foreign traders making them multi-millionaires while our producers remain poor. So I had to face numerous problems when developing the brand. I went to Australia with my product. Consumers there loved Ceylon tea, liked me and supported me because I was a small brand in the big world of tea. To remain competitive, big brands reduced their prices, making it difficult for Dilmah to survive. I suffered in the hands of my competitors in foreign countries. I suffered every insult, every humiliation and every attack that a person could suffer. But I had determination, commitment, dedication and devotion to help the poor.
Anywhere in the world you go and ask ten people where the best tea is coming from, eight people will say Ceylon tea and you ask where Ceylon is, some will say England because that is their association with tea. So Ceylon Tea was the strongest weapon I had.
You surely had a great support from your workforce to bring Dilmah to this level. How do you manage your workforce?
When I had 18 workers, I was kind to them. When I had about three hundred workers then also I was kind to them. I frequently go to the factory and talk to my workers. When I see somebody with bandage, I ask what is wrong with them and send them to the hospital in my private vehicle. Coming from humble beginnings, I treat all my employees alike, despite of their level. I look after them in the best way that I can.
Apart from being an entrepreneur, you are widely considered as the Sri Lanka’s Ambassador for tea and the flag bearer of pure (unblended) Ceylon tea for more than three decades. What is your opinion on the future of Sri Lanka’s tea industry?
That’s a difficult question. Today there are people who are trying to persuade the government to allow the import of tea, mix with our tea and sell cheap. But I am a sole opponent of that idea. We produce 325 million kilos of tea per year. We sell all of it at the highest prices in the world. Our cost of production is about 450 rupees and we sell it for about 500 rupees or less. Every other brand outside Sri Lanka is competing with Ceylon tea. In other countries, the highest price would be about 350. So what they are trying to do is to import that low quality tea to this country, mix with Ceylon tea and say Ceylon blend. Demand for the cheap tea will go up and when it hits 400 rupees every kilo will be below our cost of production. So within a year Ceylon tea industry will not be what it used to be. Politicians live for the day not for the long time and our traders also live for today, not for the future. The future of the industry is now in the hands of the government to make a decision on what they want to do about making Ceylon tea a hub.
Do you remember any remarkable incident of your life which you would consider that it is because of this reason that I am standing here today? Was this the turning point of your life?
The crucial change in my life was poverty in this country. I went to a neighboring country once and went near the market place. There were so many beggars, some holding children, one in left hand and the other in the right hand without money even to eat and drink. I realized that our country is not that bad, we don’t have that much of poverty. But there are people who don’t have a roof over their head. When I was in the village my mother used to show me how she shares small things with the neighbors. She taught me why it is important to share with your neighbors and care for the poor in a very small way. I realized that when I could, I must do the same. So that urge to help the poor changed my life.
There are many ups and downs of your life. What are the failures that affected you mostly? How did you overcome these failures?
I have had several setbacks, but they didn’t harm me as I get divine guidance and divine inspirations. In 1950s I won the sole supplier of tea to Russia. And in later years there were two or three other companies as well. In 1980s I got the exclusive right to export Dilmah to Russia and I was exporting a huge quantity. At that time Russia mafias were very strong. They attacked our distributor once and threatened us for 12 million dollars. Then they took all our tea and about 6 million dollars in cash. We had another similar incident about 3 years later. So I made a big mistake of saying I won’t sell tea to Russia again. Then people used to come to me and say please sell your tea. One year later I went back, developed a business for nothing like the earlier business because the market was invaded by other brands. So that was a major mistake I made, instead of facing the situation. Another mistake that I have done in my life was trusting a friend in business and giving him so many shares and so many things. We were doing well. But later he started giving me trouble. He blamed me at a board meeting. So I had to walk out without knowing what to do next. But that was the greatest opportunity in my life as this incident led me to start my own business. Those are the two major disappointments I had.
You are quite the philanthropist. What led you to launch the MJF Charitable Foundation and what work is being done that you are most proud of?
Well, as I said earlier I came from humble beginnings in a little village. When I became a tea taster and got into the tea trade, I saw things very different. As I started making profits and the profits improved, I began to share that with the poor. I realized that I cannot take this money with me when my call comes. I don’t want to leave that money in the banks. Having provided to my family and to my poor relatives, I thought I will share the rest through a foundation with everyone else. MJF Charitable Foundation situated in Moratuwa, a 10 acres of land building receives 10% of the profits of MJF group. So all that money is spent in changing over 10 000 lives. We do lots of work for the poor children, down-syndrome children and disabled children. Apart from that we have MJF centers supporting the poor throughout the country. We helped them in many ways. So my dream of having my own brand and sharing my earnings with the poor has come true.
I am very proud of what the Foundation is doing. It gives a lot of comfort and satisfaction. In fact, my business achievements and any other achievement do not give me that much of satisfaction which I get from helping the poor, disabled and underprivileged. After the Tsunami, we went to visit those affected areas and helped 55 people who had lost everything, under the Small Entrepreneur Program (SEP). We gave them all the tools necessary to start their businesses again. After a year we went back to those people and we were glad to see that everyone has achieved hundred percent success.
We have a separate section in the Foundation to look after children of workers in plantations. I have provided them all the necessities and scholarships. There were two children of tea pickers who passed out in 2014 as doctors. Several lawyers, engineers, other professionals have also been benefited from the MJF Charitable Foundation. Philanthropy is part of wealth, unfortunately wealth remains without Philanthropy. So I practiced what is needed, I tried to help others.
A lot of people have business ideas every day. But most of them are not successful in implementing the ideas. What do you think a person need to do to bring their ideas to reality?
First of all, the ideas must be realistic. If I say I want to build an airplane I am a fool, if I say I want to grow something like mango we can do it. Real entrepreneurs are people who have knowledge of what they do. Without knowledge and experience you will fail. If you got the concept, know how to make and lead people to do that, then you can say you are thinking of a realistic business. Then even you can go to people and say I have this much money and I want this much more to get this resource fully. I have funded five or six people who are now billionaires. Even they didn’t have Rs.5000 to start the business but they have now grown in to huge businesses. First thing I asked them was how you got this idea and do you have the commitment to work hard.
Having full knowledge of the project you want to do and starting within your reach will lead you to success. When you grow, you can think about expanding. After 5 years you will be well established. Most people fail by not properly identifying their limitations and trying to copy what others do. That is a human weakness.
If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
Have deep knowledge of the product, total commitment and persistence. Importantly do all that you do with integrity. You may fail a few times, but success is assured if your vision is clear, and you pursue a vision that has strong purpose, for the community, the environment and yourself.