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Interesting interludes while on State business in Europe and Taiwan & attempting to enter S’pore

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(Excerpted from the Merrill Fernando autobiography)

Infrequently, my preoccupation with my personal business was disrupted by unexpected but welcome interruptions, in the form of foreign travel opportunities on behalf of the Government. Once, then Secretary of Trade Ivan Samarawickrema, asked me whether I would travel to Europe as a delegate from Sri Lanka, to a conference on the European Common Market, hosted by the Dutch Government. I immediately agreed as I felt that it would be a useful opportunity, both as an educational exercise and as a possible opening for the development of new business.

During the trip, six of us from Sri Lanka, along with the other delegates from about 50 countries, took part in a boat excursion along the Rhine, starting from Holland and travelling through France, Austria, and Germany, back to Holland. Learning about the proposed scope and objectives of the European Common Market was very useful from a business point of view.

On the final night of the cruise, after the celebratory dinner, conference rapporteur Dr. J. Rijpma of Leiden University, invited me to propose a vote of thanks on behalf of the visiting delegates. It eventually turned out to be a riotous night, with some of the highly-lubricated delegates getting together much later, placing me on a blanket, and holding me out of the ship over the fast-flowing water of the Rhine! The blanket held despite my size and weight and I was hauled back safely on board.

In 1965, the UN had written to the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, seeking the services of a tea specialist with knowledge of plantations, tea manufacture, and tea marketing, to advise the Taiwanese Government. Conrad Dias, then Secretary of the Chamber, contacted me and asked whether I could stay away from my business for a couple of months as, in his flattering view, there was no person better qualified for the assignment!

I agreed immediately as I looked upon the task as another invaluable learning experience for me personally, quite apart from the service I would render to both our Chamber and the Taiwanese Government. For the assignment I was paired with Alistair Williamson, a senior tea planter from the Uva District and, at that time, the Superintendent of Rookatenne Estate, Hali Ela, a large tea plantation in the Harrisons Agency.

The two of us traveled in Taiwan together, visiting tea plantations and factories, and were able to offer the industry there some useful and practical advice, some of which were implemented to their immediate benefit. Taiwan was best known then for the high quality ‘Oolong’ grades it used to manufacture. As for Black Tea, its general manufacturing policy was to make a largely-generic grade right across all plantations and then segregate it, depending on actual buyer requirements.

We showed them how to manufacture a Ceylon type Black Tea. I offered a sample to my customers in UK and they responded with a quote of 32 pence per pound, a very decent price then. However, the Taiwan Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR), a State organ with wide-ranging authority over agricultural and plantation development in Taiwan, which was also monitoring our assignment, preferred to handle it on their own and retained the sample for themselves.

I was paid USD 2,000 for the trip and on my return journey, stopping off in Hong Kong, I bought a second-hand Ford Zodiac with the money and shipped it across to Sri Lanka. It gave me two years of very good service till I sold it.

Singapore Trading Center

Over the decades of my trading activities all over the world, I had developed many useful contacts, associates, and trading partners. Many of them also became my friends. Bill Bennet, who originally trained as a tea taster and blender at Heath and Co, Colombo, was one such. Returning to Australia later, he worked with his father in his family company, H. A. Bennet & Sons. The others were Mike Robinson and Leon van Leur in South Africa, Alex Supit in Indonesia, and Richard Marc of India.

I discussed with this group an idea I had for a long time, to set up a tea trading and supply center in Singapore. We were all in agreement that it was a concept with great potInteresting interludes while on State business in Europe and Taiwan & attempting to enter S’poreential. Our company, incorporated in 1979, was called ‘TECOF’.

Unfortunately, Ganendra Balasingham, the man we chose as the Operational Head was, in actual fact, quite unsuitable for the job. He was unable to make a success of it and about four years later we had to terminate the operation, by which time he had lost quite a bit of our money, including USD 25,000 from the business that I asked him to bank on my behalf. Subsequently, since he was unemployed, I recommended him to Heath & Co, which was then owned by my friend Ronnie de Mel’s daughter and son-in-law. Unsurprisingly, he was compelled to soon move out of that company as well.

Together, Bill Bennet, Alex Supit and his partner Don Zakir in Indonesia, and Leon van Leur did an excellent job of selling tea to the major blenders and packers of the two brands Joko’ and ‘Five Roses’. Though we lost money from the Singapore operation, we remained very good friends.

Business in Singapore – a second attempt

About 20 years ago, on a visit to Australia, I met an interesting man at the Crowne Plaza, Melbourne; Nasir S. Bamadhaj was a man of Indonesian origin, according to himself a confidante of General Suharto, then Prime Minister of Indonesia. He was a businessman, clearly with wide-ranging contacts in all aspects of trade in Singapore and South East Asia. He gave me a proposal for a Joint Venture company, for the distribution of Dilmah tea in Singapore initially and, later, for him to be an importer/distributor with exclusive rights to Dilmah.

However, as time progressed, we realized that whilst Nasir had excellent contacts in Singapore and was able to get Dilmah listed with all the main retailers in Singapore, despite his persuasive rhetoric, he had no experience in managing a marketing operation.

To cut a long story short, I eventually decided to withdraw from our engagement with Bamadhaj, as I realized that he was running in to financial difficulties, although I had assisted him several times. At that point he filed action against us in Singapore. Fortunately, when the matter came up for trial, we were able to disprove his allegations, as all the communications between us had been carefully archived by my office and were submitted to Court during the trial.

There was indisputable documentary proof of our bona fides in the matter. The presiding judge, having gone through the evidence, took special pains to point out to Bamadhaj how helpful we had been to him and ruled in our favour. I did not claim damages from him though, as, having vindicated my position, I saw no purpose in hurting the man.

Potential Business in China

In 2015, following a visit to Sri Lanka by a senior Chinese official to purchase Ceylon Tea, I was invited to China to discuss the possibility of a Joint Venture with a Chinese corporation.The interested party was Hunan Tea Group Company Ltd. of Changsha, Hunan. Responding to the invitation, I visited Beijing where I met several senior Government officers. They submitted a plan for a Joint Venture in any tea-growing province in China.

Once the initial discussions in Beijing were concluded, they assigned to me an official who accompanied me to Canton, where I had discussions with the chairman of the corporation. However, I was not convinced of the accuracy of the industry information given to me about their operation in Hunan, especially worker wages and related statistics, which seemed to me to be highly exaggerated, I got the clear impression that those responsible for the operation in the province would not welcome an outsider in to their territory.

The official who accompanied me understood the situation and, on our return from Canton, he conveyed his views to his seniors in Beijing. Subsequently I was invited to revisit as they obviously wanted to pursue the matter but I declined courteously.

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