A look back: Dilmah celebrates 21 years

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 7th April 2009

Iconic Sri Lankan tea producer, Dilmah, has celebrated their 21st year with Founder, Merrill J. Fernando, and his son, Dilhan, recently returning to Australian shores – where the family company took their first steps toward competing on the cutthroat international stage.

The remarkable Dilmah success story began over half a century ago when Merrill, or ‘Mr Dilmah’ as he is often referred to in Australia, saw an opportunity for his country – a major tea producer – to secure a fairer share of the revenue from selling its tea. By packing and branding Ceylon Tea at source, there was the potential to offer something different to the multinationals who were steadily moving toward blended teas in a bid to reduce costs.

Motivated by the desire to offer quality Ceylon Tea to consumers and to offer hope to the ailing tea industry, its marginalised workers and an under-developed national economy, Merrill began to explore the possibilities of creating the first producer owned tea brand. He was concerned that the income received by producers of the tea was disproportionate to that of manufacturers and retailers further down the supply chain.

Merrill knew that integrity in respect of quality and ethics needed to be a focus and could provide a competitive advantage. And, with the category moving towards commoditisation, he attempted to create the Dilmah brand to represent quality and authenticity, with a brand promise that went beyond the rest in the category.

However, it was almost four decades until the Dilmah brand was launched. And, when it did, few could foresee in 1988 that their humble beginnings in Australia would lead to them becoming a major international tea brand operating in over 90 countries.

Now, the Dilmah name, coined from a combination of Merrill’s son – Dilhan – and his brother – Malik, is as synonymous with tea as The Beatles to pop music.

As a small player in an industry dominated by transnational giants, the journey has not always been smooth but it has been fruitful, with the company now holding a position amongst the top ten tea brands in the world.