RETAILING CEYLON TEA – BEYOND BORDERS – Minodh De Sylva, Group Director & Chief Business Officer of Island Tea Co.

The Group Director and Chief Business Officer of Island Tea Co.; Minodh De Sylva, is a well-known Sri Lankan entrepreneur, business professional, award-winning marketer, and doctoral candidate with over 15 years in leadership roles across varied industries like FMCG, Insurance, Healthcare, Banking, Finance, Modern Trade & Retail. Minodh was featured on ‘People Asia’ & CIM (UK) amongst a host of other business talk shows and magazines throughout a career spanning over 19 years.

Minodh oversees the brand, international franchise development, and retail expansions of Island Tea Co. the only chain of ‘Pure Ceylon’ value-added tea cafes. The brand has extended to numerous locations in the Philippines, including Metro Manila, Batangas, Pampanga, Tarlac, Tagaytay, Pangasinan, Baguio, Cebu, Bohol, Iloilo, Butuan, Tacloban, Leyte, Zamboanga, Abra, and Ilocos amongst many more other locations adding to an ever-growing network of over 50 branches. The presence of Island Tea Co. in Australia, Dubai, Qatar as well as other countries in the Asia Pacific and the Middle East regions, is growing. The brand’s branch network is steadily expanding across the major shopping malls and commercial centers. He continues to extend the presence and strategically develop the distinctive model of the Island Tea Co. brand across key worldwide markets.

When asked what he believes are the essential factors for becoming a successful entrepreneur, he opinionizes that having a solid foundation of information and a wealth of knowledge is essential before starting a business. He goes on to say how, having worked in various industries ranging from FMCG, financial services, healthcare to retail, he was able to absorb knowledge from the exposure he received in all of these sectors. Minodh was able to draw on these lessons as he embarked on his entrepreneurial journey, it greatly aided him and continues to do so to date. According to him, perseverance and courage to take calculated risks are both important aspects of an entrepreneur’s success. Given that everyone now wants to embark on an entrepreneurial journey, he emphasizes that it is critical to have a clear-cut mindset in terms of pursuing a goal or vision one hopes to achieve. However, a goal or idea alone will not be enough to make it a success, without a clear strategy for its execution, which should be very clearly laid out, he stresses.

Regarding how he made the transition from a high-potential corporate career to a high-risk entrepreneurial venture, Minodh says that the corporate world and the entrepreneurial world are on two different extremes. Such a shift necessitates a lot of courage, especially to fight the fear of uncertainty on the verge of ending a long corporate journey, which is traditionally considered a safer path. “Whilst fear is inevitable, to overcome this, you’ll need a strong will and mindset,” that would allow you to triumph amidst the many challenges one would face along the way, he said. When asked how he handles the challenge of starting a business in a foreign country, Minodh answers that working with people from different parts of the world, with diverse viewpoints and attitudes, is a hard environment. He goes on to state that the most difficult part was adjusting to the cultural differences from his home country. Regardless of his working style or routine, it was important to adapt to different situations on the ground, especially when building an effective team, which is detrimental in growing a tea brand in a coffee dominant market.

During the initial 18 months, it was vital to scale the business model for growth and sustainability, which is easier said and done in a country made of 7,100 islands. “I was immediately forced to study the local geography and economic hot spots to understand the key regions, which we had to focus our energies on for retail expansions”, he says. Making critical local connections and penetrating large commercial mall chains was essential in expanding an organized “Pure Ceylon” tea concept, along with developing internal capabilities in handling retail projects and supply chain logistics simultaneously across varied parts of the Philippines, he adds.

Speaking on what he finds fascinating about the franchising model and Ceylon Tea, he is quick to add that it was his vision from the inception of his marketing career to build a brand of his own and take it global. “Most have visions of ending up at the top of a corporate, mine was different and yet simple” …he explains. With this vision in mind, he was always open to opportunities to communicate and discuss with different individuals and along the way he stumbles upon the idea that a retail “Ceylon Tea” concept was the idea he would eventually build on creating the brand “Island Tea Co.” In 2017.  He then decided to incubate the concept in the Philippines, which was a high consumption-driven market with a 100MN plus population. “I always believed that the Philippines as a market would provide greater opportunity to grow and develop the brand”, he adds. He always wanted to create a brand that was rooted in Sri Lanka and what better product than Ceylon Tea, with a rich history and tradition for over 150 years.

Retailing an organized tea concept with Ceylon Tea was a unique idea, yet scaling this concept and growing it was a challenge, which he managed to successfully counter whilst embracing the concept of franchising. The franchising concept directed him to elevate the brand to international standards. “Franchising in Sri Lanka is not a popular concept, therefore we had to work with a lot of international expertise in structuring the “Island Tea Co.” brand to strategically leverage growth through franchising.

Being the only brand to use natural “Ceylon Tea” leaves in an international tea market dominated by Taiwanese and Korean brands using artificial powders and syrups, definitely created a unique edge in helping ITC grow from 1 branch in 2018 to over 50 plus branches across the Philippines, Dubai, Qatar and Australia by 2021. Despite the pandemic, the company opened 14 new branches in the Philippines, Dubai, and Australia during the last 6 months. “We are on course to achieving the goal of reaching 100 branches by 2022 along with more expansions planned in the Asia Pacific and Middle East” adds Minodh. The ongoing pandemic has affected the growth of ITC as it has affected most of the other industries. Yet the positive attitudes and commitment of the teams across our operational bases in the Philippines, Middle East, and Australia have proved invaluable in maintaining the growth momentum despite setbacks and delays.

Questioning the significant behavioral changes in the new normal, he says it was vital to understand consumer insights and changes quickly in integrated technology into their business strategy, Minodh adds that due to the pandemic, he had to, temporarily close down all operations. However, some markets, thankfully, allowed deliveries and limited dine-in facilities to take place. Taking this trend into account, Minodh formed a ‘pandemic response team’ to evaluate how rapidly the brand could adapt and develop in the new normal. More emphasis was placed on generating revenue and connecting with their customers through delivery rider channels such as FoodPanda, Grab, or Talabat.

He goes on to note that by working with third-party courier providers, who were looking to diversify during the pandemic, the brand went above and beyond the typical delivery methods, in creating their direct delivery channel. “We ensured that clear health protocols were put in place to ensure the safety of our frontline workers and customers alike during the commencement of dine-in operations, inculcating greater confidence amongst our consumers at a time everyone is worried about the risks of the COVID 19.” He stresses.

Minodh became one of the youngest Chartered Marketers in Sri Lanka at the age of 26, after receiving the Chartered accreditation from the Chartered Institute of Marketing (UK) in 2007. In 2013, the Sri Lanka Institute of Marketing bestowed upon him the professional title of “Practicing Marketer.” He was awarded many marketing honorees as well as being listed amongst the “100 Most Influential Marketing Leaders” in South Asia for 2015 at the World Marketing Congress in Mumbai, India.

Viewing this, the advice he would bestow upon a young adult pursuing a career in marketing would be that “Marketing is a profession and it’s a practice”. It all boils down to how one integrates this knowledge into the corporate world and begins to perform during their career. Marketing is not a typical 9-5 career, thus anyone interested in becoming a marketer must be passionate about the field. Marketing is one of those professions that helps us to pick up on new market trends, hence being well informed and up to date helps in getting ahead of the pack. He goes on to stress the significance of sticking to deadlines and being a problem solver would be detrimental in pursuing a successful career in marketing. A career in marketing necessitates constant learning and adaptation. “It doesn’t matter how many years you’ve worked in a company, it’s the weight of exposure you’ve obtained that matters through active involvement in as many projects as possible” … he stated.

Minodh consults and speaks on themes such as retail growth strategy, overseas market development, and brand marketing. He also advises small businesses and marketing students when he has the chance. To summarize, Island Tea Co. continues to develop as the sole specialty tea business, and Minodh inspires people to overcome their fear of uncertainty by demonstrating that the only certainty is their hard effort and desire to succeed.

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