From all-round sportsman to zenith in tea industry

*Born two years before independence and with firm roots in Galle



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Initially, he was puzzled by his surname. However, it was the wave of nationalism and the quest for dropping Portuguese names that prevailed in the pre-independence era in 1946, the year that he was born, that former Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and Colombo Tea Traders Association Mahen Dayananda, the only child, was so named, much to his chagrin and consternation. His mother is a Miss Amarasuriya and his father is a De Silva, both first cousins!


He hails from a rich lineage. Business Leader Mahendra Amarasuriya’s father, the legendary Thomas Amarasuriya and his mother are first cousins. Therefore, that makes Mahendra and Mahen second cousins. Mahen’s maternal great grandfather was Mudaliyar and business magnate BP De Silva- the Singapore business magnate. Among his string of his cousins is the Chief Editor of our sister paper- the Sunday Island- Manik De Silva. He holds him in reverential respect and yet sagely addresses him as " Aiya"


One of BP De Silva’s daughters, who is Mahen’s maternal grandmother had married Tantulus Amarasuriya which makes Mahen’s mother Miss Deemathie Amarasuriya who married her first cousin- MD De Silva. " They were a close family but did not meet anyone outside it other than meeting for the holidays. " Just to cut a whole story short, my father’s mother is an Amarasuriya and my mother’s father is also an Amarasuriya", he chuckled.


Educated at S. Thomas’ College Mt. Lavinia from 1955 to 1964, and having played cricket at only Under 16 and second XI levels, he left college prematurely at the age of 17 to join Mackwoods as a Trainee in the Tea Export Department. On the other hand, he believes that he may not have secured a place in that college First XI of 1964, his last year, though he had two more years, as the team was so good, having won the Royal Thomian encounter after a lapse of many years under the late Premalal Gunasekera in 1964 (and later Chartered Accountant at KPMG Ford Rhodes Thornton & Co. and Group Finance Director at Chemical Industries Colombo PLC)


His classmates were a variety of sportsmen and scholars. Strident among them, was External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris. However, What Mahen did not mention was that Prof. Peiris was a prolific prize winner, Captain of the College Debating Team, Winner of the coveted Victoria Gold Medal for the best all round student, Double Law PhD at 26, and above all, the only human east of the Greenwich Line and in this half of the world today to be visiting Fellows of the triumvirate of the apex British Universities- Oxford, Cambridge and London!


Of his classmates and close friends were- cricket, rugby and athletics triple coloursman Nimal Welgama ( now Chairman Sri Lanka Telecom and Group Managing Director of Upali Group, Hockeyrite and retired Hayleys Group Chairman Rajan Yatawara, Retired Majors General Udena Gunawardena and Asoka Jayawardena , Cricketers turned Planters- Kumar Boralessa and Ana Medonza, Zoology Doctorate Ravi Perera, Hockey player, subsequent People’s Bank and BOI Chairman and ICASL President Lakshman. R. Watawala and incumbent Chairman of Ceylon Tobacco Co PLC and former Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and Board of Investment Jayampathy Divale Bandaranayake, who had what any schoolboy could dream of- Triple Captain and Cricket, Hockey and Fives, Head Prefect and winner of the Victoria Gold Medal for the best all round student in 1967. Also in those Hockey teams was subsequent S. Thomas’ College and Sri Lanka Cricket Captain, Administrator and Manager Anura Punchi Banda Tennakoon! Three leading personalities from the Colombo tea trade, also Thomians, were also his close friends – Nihal (N.A.) Gooneratne, R.L. (Dicky) Juriansz and Michael De Zoysa.


Mahen, recalcitrantly, decided against what was a sitter job in the companies of his maternal great grandfather- BP De Silva. "It was on a matter of principle that I wanted to get on with my own career and move on rather than get employment in the family business and I was passionate about the tea industry," he said.


It was tea tasting and tea exports that I was going into as I did not have the ability or temperament to manage large numbers of estate workers in the tea estates. I was not cut out for that, he remarked.


One salient feature of Mahen’s career was that, then- Thomian Warden C.H. Davidson gave him special dispensation to play Daily News Trophy Cricket for the Nondescripts Cricket Club (NCC) while in school as the Thomian First XI team was so good and he believes that he could not have fitted in there. NCC had lots of Thomian cricketers in Michael Tissera, TCT Edwards and Michael Sproule, whose doctor father was the President of the NCC. However, Mahen had played a lot of Tennis in college where S. Thomas’ College won the Public Schools Tennis Championships that year and that team also included S. Thomas’ and subsequent Sri Lanka opening bowler HSM ( Mevan) Peiris and the skipper of the team- Dr Shanthi Soysa now in the UK.


"We were champions in every possible sport. The Royal Thomian cricket match, Public Schools Tennis Championships, Hockey Chamionships, Rugger was an outstanding side under Mohan Samarasinghe which was awesome and as good as a club team and at Boxing we won the Stubbs Shield as well with Nihal Gooneratne as the captain, he reminisced.


Mackwoods


Mahen was dispatched to a tea estate – Gallaboda in Lower Dickoya to learn about the procedures of tea manufacture. Mackwoods were estate agents for over 80 plantations which had both sterling and rupee companies during the times of the British. "That was indeed very interesting where for the first time in my life, I spent time on a plantation and being in Dickoya, Wednesday was club day. There was squash, tennis and rugby for those who played rugby, but for the rest of the week, it was very hard work, getting up at 5 am for Muster. The Manager was an expatriate and the SD on Gallaboda Estate was the legendary Royal College, CR and FC and Sri Lanka scrum half Tyrrel Muttiah ( father of 1982 Royal Rugby skipper Hiran Muttiah) Having returned to Colombo in six months he was trained in tea tasting and exports, where one complements each other.


He was also trained at Geo. White Sanderson in Mincing Lane in and in 1971, he was handpicked by Forbes and walker at a decisive time when all the British planters were leaving Sri Lanka after the JVP uprising. The British Plantation Raj was feeling isolated and insecure up in the hills with no advanced communication facilities at that time such as e mails and telefaxes and telephoning was also trunk calls which took hours to reach England ! That was the beginning of the exodus of the British plantation community. Some of the British tea personalities who remained were Somerville’s Tea Director John Burrows, Bartleet’s tea Director Tim Herold and John Keells Chairman Mark Bostock, together with tea planters , Peter Hooper and Bob Smith.


CCC wins wins first major Cricket Trophy under Mahen


It was at the same time that there were lots of tea industry personalities who encouraged Mahen to join the Maitland Crescent Club- the Gymkhana Club where there was a triumvirate of clubs in the same premises- the Colombo Cricket Club, the Ceylonese Hockey and Football Club and the Queens Club which was the tennis club. "If you join the Gymkhana Club, you can play all three games, was the clarion call to Mahen, who was motivated by Royal College and Cambridge University Cricket Blue Lorenz Pereira who prompted him to join the Gymkhana Club. Mahen , with the greatest reluctance, moved, where all he had to do was to cross the road!!


He was playing all three games- Cricket for CCC, Bacon Cup Hockey for the CH & FC and tennis for the Queens Club. Life went on, until it came to Mahen captaining the CCC Cricket team. That was not a time that the CCC was playing tournament cricket. Mahen was bestowed the onerous task of leading the CCC Cricket XI and to attempt to win the Daily News Trophy, the first ever Cricket Trophy for the Club which had already won the Bacon Cup for Hockey, and the Clifford Cup at Rugby.


" I was privileged to lead the CCC team that won the Daily News Trophy which enabled us to be eligible to play Sara ( P. Saravanamuttu) Trophy Cricket from then on having been promoted to play in Division I Cricket", he said with obvious pride.


There was also a group from the NCC with Michael Tissera and Vijaya Malalasekera crossing over to the CCC, which thereafter also won the Sara Trophy, he said.


It is also a matter of coincidence that Mahen won the Daily News Trophy and Michael the first Sara Trophy, both of them, Thomians, were in the tea trade and both are partners in the same firm today.


Mahen- the public servant


Mahen was to forced to switch career gears again with the revolution in the tea plantation industry when it was nationalized. LSSP stalwart and Plantations Industries Minister Colvin R De Silva had wanted a senior private sector personality to be Assistant Director General (Technical) of the Sri Lanka Tea Board. Colvin, had sent for Forbes and Walker Director Ajit Chitty and Mahen was seconded to the post while Forbes and Walker continued paying his emoluments. After a couple of years, he was persuaded to join the Tea Board full time where he worked under three Plantation Industries Ministers- Colvin, and twice -Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake in the 1970-1977 Sirimavo Bandaranaike cabinet and MDH Jayawardena in the JR Jayewardene cabinet, post 1977. His Director General was the late former Trinitian Mahinda Dunuwille


However, what would have puzzled anyone would have been that he had the option of joining the family business which he rejected due to personal reasons.


" I was a happy shareholder and did not join the family business as the family was not in the business of tea. My great grandfather owned tea plantations but that was not my idea of the tea industry," he mused.


Lofty ideals and birth of Tea Tang


That was also a time that there was another tryst of destiny in Mahen’s career in 1981. One of his close kinsmen from his maternal side, Dr C.E. S. Weeratunga was in the habit of and persuading him to join the family business. Mahen responded negatively that he was unable to participate in the family business which was dealing with Omega and Tissot watches and pleaded to be allowed to continue in tea!


With the repeated persuasions, a compromise was made with Mahen to start a tea company within the BP De Silva Group. He was offered the post of Managing Director and that too at 32 years. However, Mahen, the man of principles, laid down five conditions which included: An external shareholder, the option of him handpicking his own Chairman, no relations in the company, the company not to be named as a subsidiary as BP De Silva ( Teas) Ltd as BP’s had nothing to do with tea! Oh alas! Mahen’s benchmarks and ideals were that lofty!


The decision for the Chairman was unanimous. That was his Tea Board and Mackwoods colleague- Mahinda Dunuwille. Chairman Mahinda and MD Mahen were playing around with names and they coined the name- Tea Tang. The name had to have tea and like Brooke Bonds, the alliteration came effortlessly.


The selection of the external shareholder was simple. It was George Steuarts which held 17.5% of Tea Tang. Subsequent Chairmen - Trevor Moy and Scot Direckze were both dear friends of both Mahinda and Mahen at Mackwoods with Mahen and Mahinda. Until many decades, there was not a single relation employed in the company. Only tea professionals.


Tea Tang was a thriving business. 1986 was a real bonus was when Michael Tissera was persuaded to as a Director. Business boomed with prestigious clients.


Earlier, Mahen became Chairman after Mahinda Dunuwille passed away and Michael also became Chairman later. At that time, Mahen was Chairman, he was also appointed as Chairman of BP De Silva Investments in Sri Lanka and thereafter he was appointed to the Boards of BP De Silva Ltd of Singapore and Malaysia. Finally, due to a request from Head Office, in 1991, he moved with his family to Singapore to be a Director of BP De Silva Holdings Singapore for five year permanently and thereafter, he returned to Tea Tang to further develop the business while visiting Singapore regular basis.


Destiny decided otherwise again and Michael, Mahen Tunku Iyan, another colleague and Nihal Gooneratne left Tea Tang together in 2009. There was a new cpmpamy formed named Total tea Concepts (Pvt) Ltd


Another former colleague- Managing Director of Liptons Indonesia and Brooke Bond Ceylon, and Thomian Boxing captain Nihal Guneratne along with former Forbes and Walker Chairman Chrisantha Perera also joined in to form a new venture named Indo Asia Teas ( Pvt) Ltd . Both offices are behind Royal Colombo Golf Club, Colombo 8. Five senior men from the tea industry are running the two tea companies.


He believed that the stint as CTTA Chairman was enjoyable and challenging, having to coordinate with the plantation industry, tea brokers and exporters. He also said that the stint as Ceylon Chamber Chairman was equally tough and challenging where the entire private sector was involved, but adds that the Chamber staff former Chairmen were very supportive.


He was also invited to be the Chairman of Lewis Browns, the holding company for Delmege Forsyth and now, is an independent Director since acquisition. Mahen has also been a Non-executive Director of Nestle Lanka PLC.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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