In many parts of the world, tea is not just a hot drink, it is a way of life. Nowhere is that more so than in Sri Lanka, the fourth largest tea producer in the world, where the industry employs more than 1 million people directly and indirectly, contributes 2% to national GDP, and is an important generator of foreign exchange.
Becoming the group CFO of Dilmah Tea, one of Sri Lanka’s leading tea producers, was therefore the perfect way for Darshana Gunasekera FCCA to fulfil his ambition of contributing to his country’s development in any way he could. That move came six years ago, and last year he was promoted to group FD of Dilmah Tea’s owner MJF Holdings (the parent company of several businesses that have grown around Dilmah Tea).
Gunasekara acquired a taste for finance after joining a management trainee programme with Reckitt & Colman (now Reckitt Benckiser) in Sri Lanka in the early 2000s. He then moved on to become chief accountant at Tuffline, a subsidiary of conglomerate Capital Maharaja Group. A subsequent move in 2005, to insurance multinational Aviva, saw him get into offshore services at a time when Sri Lanka was becoming an increasingly important hub for shared services. It also provided an opportunity to add an international dimension to his career with a transfer to the group’s finance operations arm at its UK headquarters.
‘If you wait until disaster strikes to take action, it is very difficult to be in control of your own destiny’
‘It is extremely important to get the basics right, with a good foundation and well-rounded professional qualification. Only that can help you climb to the top of the corporate ladder – and more importantly, stay there.’
‘Believe in yourself. If you make mistakes, learn from them and move on. If you are engaged in something you are a passionate about, you cannot go wrong.’
‘Qualifications will get you through the door and set you up for the future. Your attitude and values will then take over and get you to where you want to be.’
By 2009, however, he realised he wanted to be closer to home, so he joined Japanese company FRP Services, supervising its international finance functions from Dubai and Singapore. Five years later he finally made it back to Sri Lanka, first joining Brandix Mercury Asia, a subsidiary of one of the largest clothing exporters on the island. Then in 2015 he became CFO at MJF Group, owner of the Dilmah tea business as well as luxury resort group Resplendent Ceylon, and packaging, real estate, investment, commodity brokering and media businesses. Last year he was promoted to the board as group FD.
‘Even though I have lived and worked internationally, Sri Lanka has always been my home,’ he says. ‘I was born, brought up and educated in Sri Lanka. It has always been one of my key aspirations to contribute to Sri Lanka’s development in any way I could. Also, it was of utmost importance that the company I work with and work for have a similar set of values to my own. In MJF Group I got both – complete compatibility.’
Dilmah is, he says, the only wholly Sri Lankan-owned tea brand that is truly global – it is bought and sold in more than 100 countries. MJF’s tea business goes back to the 1950s, though the Dilmah brand was not established until 1988. Some 15% of all MJF’s pre-tax profit is donated to the group’s charitable foundation, which among many other things has ensured the group’s plantation workers have had the support they need during the pandemic.
It was the ‘giving back’ aspect of the business that Gunasekera found particularly attractive when he joined. ‘To date, the group has spent more than LKR5bn [US$26m] on philanthropic and environmental activities,’ he says. ‘MJF Group’s founder, Merrill J Fernando, believes the purpose of business is reflected in his philosophy that business is a matter of human service; when I got the opportunity to work here, I didn’t hesitate.’
The penny drops
Gunasekera, a keen traveller and badminton player, did not always want to be an accountant. At university he studied maths, physics and statistics, and was all set for a career in engineering. However, working part-time for Reckitt in his second year exposed him to the world of international commerce, and he soon realised that a good understanding of finance would allow him to play a key role in all aspects of any business.
He first qualified as a management accountant but was then attracted to the ACCA Qualification by the wide range of topics it covers – technical, leadership, ethics, and more. ‘Such a well-rounded qualification helps you to have a solid foundation, which is very important for today’s professional,’ he says.
Today, Gunasekera is responsible for the entire finance function of the group, plus IT, digital transformation and cybersecurity, among other things. His team of seven direct reports and more than 70 staff overall face a number of challenges. He explains: ‘The biggest challenge from a business continuity point of view is to secure cashflows and de-risk the balance sheets of group companies. From an accounting point of view, local and international accounting standards frequently undergo changes, so the whole accounting team needs to keep abreast of the latest changes, even when there have been huge challenges in the external environment, such as the pandemic.
‘In terms of IT, ensuring 100% protection of the group’s digital assets is without a doubt the biggest challenge. Cybersecurity has never been as important as it is today, given the existence of sophisticated AI-based malware, ransomware, phishing, denial of service attacks, viruses and other malicious activities that pose a direct threat to business continuity.’
That business continuity mindset has played a vital role in the group’s response to the pandemic. ‘If you wait until disaster strikes to take action, it is very difficult to be in control of your own destiny,’ he says. ‘The trick is to be proactive. You need to be ready for any eventuality.’
Group FD, Dilmah Tea/MJF Holdings
CFO, Dilmah Tea/MJF Holdings
Head of corporate planning and reporting, Brandix Mercury Asia
VP, finance and accounting (international operations), FRP Services
Assistant VP, financial operations, Aviva Global Services
Chief accountant, Tuffline
Commercial accountant, Reckitt Benckiser
Ready to leapfrog
Initially, Gunasekera focused on the group’s balance sheet, restructuring and gradually deleveraging where necessary. Revenue generation was diversified to reduce reliance on a single source of income, while key points in the supply chain were strengthened. Non-essential capital expenditure was curtailed, but the group also took a longer-term view by identifying strategic investment opportunities beyond the pandemic. ‘This will help the group to leapfrog to the next level as we come out of this pandemic,’ Gunasekera says.
He is cautious about the economic situation in Sri Lanka over the coming months. GDP growth predictions for 2021 were recently cut back from 4.5% to just over 3% by the World Bank, although that still makes it one of the few countries to have seen growth over the past two quarters.
Gunasekera looks to history as an indicator of how his country’s economy will bounce back, having survived previous shocks such as years of civil war. ‘It’s going to be a challenging few months. The good news is that the Sri Lankan economy has been and will be quite resilient based on its past track record,’ he says.
Equally good news is that a nice cuppa remains thoroughly welcome to people around the world. For the record, Gunasekera’s favourite is Ceylon Supreme – a strong tea, full-bodied with a robust character. Much like the Sri Lankan economy itself, if Gunasekera’s predictions are correct.
Revenue 2019/20 (Dilmah Ceylon Tea Company plc only)
Pre-tax profit 2019/20 (Dilmah Ceylon Tea Company plc only)
MJF Group asset base
Number of MJF Group staff
MJF Group founded
Cups of tea sold annually