Perspectives from ISB

Dilhan Fernando is a man of faith on many levels. The youngest son of the founder of Dilmah Tea has faith in the quality of the genuine Ceylon tea they produce, faith in the philanthropic Christian tenets his father raised in him and he instils in his children, and faith in family business as a model for global success that works, if managed well.

“I would encourage family businesses to stay true to their values and to consider how they might re-engineer themselves to adapt to the challenges of the 21st century rather than sell out,” Fernando says.

Fernando embodies the infusion of new ideas and enthusiasm that savvy second-generation family members must bring to the family firm if it is to survive and thrive beyond one generation. However, the 49-year-old director of MJF Holdings Ltd, knows it is a fine balance between respecting the pioneering heritage of his 82-year-old father’s legacy and appealing to a global market of billions of consumers with ever-changing tastes.

Fernando was aged 19 in 1989 when his father brought him into the company as a professional. He was content to work in different departments at his own pace and grew into the business as it grew over the next decade. His father’s commitment to integrity, tradition, and personalised customer service became his own.

“Over the years it has evolved, but we have a very clear structure within our business where my father overlooks all our businesses [in MFJ Group],” Fernando says.

The family is working this year on a charter to ensure the legacy of the business continues, he says. Certain principles have already been incorporated and protected, such as giving 10% of their pre-tax profits to charity, “but beyond that there are so many aspects that are hard to define, such as the principle of dignity and our humanitarian activities. The principle of direct delivery of assistance, and the performance measure of changing lives, rather than the convention of corporate social responsibility parameters.”

Fernando studied at the London School of Economics and worked at tea packaging factories owned by friends of his father’s to learn their best practices. He returned to the Dilmah Tea operation and worked his way up. Staff were asked not to consider either Dilhan or Malik the sons of the boss, Fernando says.

Dilhan’s three children, his eldest son is aged 16, will have to earn their positions in the family business, just as he did. His older brother Malik has two teenaged daughters ­– one studies medicine at the University of Bristol in the UK and the other studies business at University College London.

Dilhan says the group is large enough for the third generation of Fernandos to find their niche within it, should they choose. “What I teach my children is that we do not have a right to all of this,” Dilhan says. “When you understand that your success is not generated by yourself, but by blessings from God, then I think you automatically acquire humility. At the heart of it all is humility. And if you lose that humility, that is the day that your business begins to go south.”

Source: Beech, James, September 6, 2017,