Settlor of the MJF Charitable Foundation, Merrill J Fernando conceived in the 1950s, the idea of a business that would help restore the fortunes of his county’s ailing tea industry, and its million or more direct dependents, whilst sharing the benefits of that business with the community. As a young man aged 20, and being what his peers considered to be naive and idealistic, Merrill believed that no business was possible without the combined efforts, involvement and commitment of workers, staff, clients and consumers. In the case of his tea business, that list of stakeholders includes the environment.
He determined therefore that his business should also benefit those other participants. Clearly his vision and passion were the main drivers of his achievement, but he understood that vision and passion alone could yield little without the combined efforts and participation of so many others. He determined that his business should be a matter of human service.
It took Merrill just under 40 years to bring his family tea, Dilmah, to consumers. The concept of a young, middle class Sri Lankan seeking to establish an ethical, producer owned tea business was at the time both controversial and fiercely opposed. Then as now, big transnational businesses controlled the tea industry. During the four decades he fought to achieve his dream, he continued to fulfill the commitment of caring for his staff and workers as comes naturally to any family business.
As Merrill’s Dilmah Tea became a relatively small but internationally available brand, the scale of the much larger social obligation required the establishment of the MJF Charitable Foundation. This marked the evolution of Merrill’s philosophy, from caring and sharing with his initially tiny staff, to a wider group of tea estate workers, and finally to a national level. More than half a century after he dreamed an impossible dream, it has become a reality.
The MJF Charitable Foundation represents an alternative economic model, and it is much more than a charity because it represents a genuinely sustainable and fair way of doing business. This ‘way’ acknowledges that social justice and the environment are integral elements in any business process. Not as options and not as part of a marketing led Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy but as a core feature of the business objectives.
The Dilmah tea companies are profitable for that is the reason for any business to exist and a fundamental responsibility of every business to its staff and workers. And at the same time the Dilmah tea companies maintain a clear understanding of the role of the wider community, the environment, workers and staff in making its business possible. Acknowledging this reality, the personal funds and assets of Founder, Merrill J Fernando and his family as well as a significant share of the revenue of the Dilmah tea companies fund the work of the MJF Charitable Foundation. As the companies develop, so does the work of the Foundation.
By 2015, the Foundation has directly or indirectly benefited the lives of over 100,000 underprivileged Sri Lankans. That benefit will expand as the business of the Dilmah tea company and necessarily, its social obligation, widen – synergistically and symbiotically.