I was saddened to learn of the passing of my friend Merrill J. Fernando, founder of Dilmah Tea and the MJF Foundation. I’ve written an obit over at Lucire, since he was very much a friend of the magazine, too, and his values of social responsibility aligned with us—indeed, even exceeded ours.
I consider meeting Merrill one of the privileges of having started Lucire, without which our paths would never have crossed.
I was intent on making my tribute one of the most detailed, using some of Merrill’s own words, as his life, and his strong Christian faith, inspire and energize. Merrill’s Christianity was the one that Jesus Christ would have recognized, and not the form bandied about by people who have hijacked the name of the faith. This isn’t the obit of a tea merchant, it is the obit of a man who followed his Christian faith and principles and felt guided by God to give back to his community.
‘I am not leaving my sons a legacy,’ he told me in our first meeting in 2005. He believed that for his children to value the jobs they have, they needed to earn them: he had witnessed, in his youth, how those who inherited wound up in poor circumstances, and wanted his sons to avoid the same fate. They applied for their roles along with everyone else, and stuck with the family firm. There is a legacy, but one of an amazing example of how to live life honourably and with firm principles. Come the end of the year I had nominated Dilmah Tea for a Brands with a Conscience Award at Medinge Group, which the company eventually (and I must say easily) won.
Our last email exchange in 2020 was about COVID-19 and how Merrill saw it as a God-given opportunity to do even more good in this world. So many of us were hopeful that the world would change course on some of humanity’s less savoury behaviours for the greater good. Whatever the case, Merrill continued on his righteous path.
Over the years I had the pleasure of speaking with Merrill, as well as his sons Dilhan and Malik. Merrill’s presence was one of warmth and friendship. It was always inspirational to hear his wisdom, gained from experiences over a very long life.
The last time I saw Merrill, Dilhan joked at when Merrill turned 80, he and his brother expected their father to retire. As 90 approached, there was still no sign of that happening, and he and his brother resolved that they would not ask him or expect it. As it turned out, Merrill remained overseeing the business and the foundation he built. He left his world in a far better state than in which he found it, not just for the millions worldwide who have enjoyed his products, but for the many lives in Sri Lanka that his efforts personally touched and bettered.