So my education on tea was about to begin, and what better place than the Dilmah 'School of Tea' to start the ball rolling? For my tea documentary I was very fortunate that Dilmah Tea, a powerhouse in Sri Lankan tea, were receptive to my idea and had arranged a spot for me at their ‘School of Tea.’ I was very excited to be a part of this Dilmah experience as the Fernando family, the owners of Dilmah, have a very interesting story.
It's a story I first stumbled upon back in Canada some four years ago when I bought a packet of Dilmah tea. Inside it there was a small pamphlet giving a bit of background on Merrill J. Fernando, the founder of Dilmah, and his approach to the tea industry. I remember reading it and how it got me to thinking that one day I would love to go to Sri Lanka for a closer look, and here I was.
I checked into my room at the Colombo Hilton which had been arranged by Dilmah and found my Dilmah course bag, t-shirt and name tag waiting for me on my bed. I’ve found in life that first impressions are very telling and my first impression upon arrival was very positive and for the next week with Dilmah that impression would gather in strength. That evening all the participants of the ‘School of Tea,’ some seventy professionals from the hospitality industry around the world, were treated to a welcome dinner and traditional dance. It was a great way to meet the other participants and gather yet another impression of the Sri Lankan people. The word colourful comes to mind, as does friendly and hospitable.
Day one of the School of Tea started off with a visit to the Dilmah head office where we were greeted by more traditional dancing followed by a trip upstairs where Mr. Dilhan Fernando, son of Merrill J. Fernando, gave us a very warm welcome and introduced us to the world of tea through Dilmah’s eyes. It was a fascinating introduction and I could tell from his words and the way the reception unrolled that tea wasn’t just a business, it was life in the family, and had been since the very beginning. His father had founded Dilmah, the name comes from the first letters in each sons name, Dilhan and Malik, around the principal of growing and packaging Sri Lankan tea at the source. We were gathered at the head office to see just how far that vision had played out.
After our introduction we went down to the factory floor where we saw first hand how the tea was packaged in preparation for shipping overseas. Normally photography and filming is not permitted on the floor but I was allowed for the sake of the documentary. Our guide, Malith, led us through two buildings where we saw different stages of packaging. He was very thorough in his explanations and talked with an authority born from 23 years with Dilmah. I made many observations on the floor, but perhaps the greatest was the number of employees present. It was evident that Dilmah kept up with the times where technology was concerned, but what surprised me was that it didn't appear to be at the employees expense through layoffs, as everywhere I looked workers were on the floor. They were extremely important to Dilmah and this is where I first started to witness their ‘Business is a Matter of Human Service’ principal in action.
I don’t travel in the circles of the affluent or philanthropists but through news I have followed some and seen how their donations to different causes have helped many around the world. Kindness and generosity can be generated from many sources, where Dilmah differs is their hands on approach. The ‘Business is a Matter of Human Service’ comprises a six pillar approach, integrity, quality, ethics, the customer, tradition and sustainability. Where many give money to others to aid the less fortunate, Dilmah incorporates these six pillars in their hands on dealings throughout their different businesses. They don't just give money away, they look at a problem, seek solutions to overcome the problem, and provide assistance during the process. This is a side of Dilmah I had no idea existed, until recently I believed they were ‘just’ a tea manufacturer, in the following week I would find out how naive I was for aside from tea they had created the MJF Charitable Foundation, (Merrill J. Fernando Foundation) and the Dilmah Conservation, both organizations aimed at giving back, the first to Sri Lankans, the second to the environment.
With the conclusion of the factory tour we started to make our way back to the Hilton for lunch, before we arrived however we made a scheduled stop at a Dilmah t-Lounge, a very funky departure for any traditional tea lover. Just as many entrepreneurs around the world have taken coffee and added their own twist to the popular drink, Dilmah are taking tea into the 21st century in a colourful and playful way with the t- Lounge. Sure you can have a regular ‘cuppa,’ but you can also let the barman play and get served up a lively t-cocktail that will break any conception of what tea is supposed to be. Sometimes traditions are meant to be broken, or at the very least played with.
With lunch under our belts we headed off to the MJF Centre Moratatuwa, a ‘Centre for Dignified Empowerment.’ The centre’s core concept is to educate those without the financial means to attain a higher degree of education, all at Dilmah’s expense. We arrived by coach and were split into different groups to pursue different activities. Our group got to work in the bright new kitchen to prepare some pasta while other groups partook in other activities. The whole complex, which was substantial and included housing, was geared at bringing children to the centre and taking them to the next educational level so they could integrate into society afterwards. The buildings were new, the staff were incredible and there was an air of optimism about the place that illustrated the impact the program was having on the beneficiaries.
We spent three hours at the centre which gave me enough time to begin to understand the depth of the Dilmah organization. As I was beginning to learn tea had given Dilmah the power to branch out and make a real difference in many aspects of Sri Lankan society, and they were wielding that power very effectively. There was quite the story unfolding and during the next week I would see first hand some of the results from initiatives put into motion by the MJF Foundation and Dilmah Conservation.