Everyone longs for a satisfying and hearty cup of tea. Sri Lanka being known globally for its great tea cultivation has portrayed a standard of ultimate brilliance in tea manufacturing. Contributing to this great expedition are Jayantha Karunaratne, Jalinda Karunaratne, and Jeewaka Karunaratne from Imperial Tea (Pvt) Ltd, three experts in the tea industry, who continue to carry their legacy for generations ahead.
Jayantha Karunaratne, originally from Galle, made his first emergence into the tea industry joining the Tea Export Trade as a trainee Tea Taster while following his studies in Accounting and Law. By 3 years of experience, he received his permanency as a tea taster in an official tea export company, associating entirely to receive an inclusive knowledge on the tea export trade.
Laying a solid foundation of 17 years, Jayantha alongside his wife and three friends, established Imperial Teas (Pvt) Ltd. in 1994. Starting small-scale at their very own household, they managed to move into a small warehouse and then a factory, building workforce and reputation. Within 5 years of devotion, Imperial Tea was ranked under the top 10 largest exporters of tea from Sri Lanka. Breaking barriers and manifesting success ever since, Imperial Tea stands firm, winning awards and recognition along their journey. He stated, “During the last 27 years, our company has received many awards including the Most Outstanding Exporter, thrice, from the NCE and 11 times-Best Sri Lankan Brand Exporter award.”
Over the years Jayantha held positions as the President of the Sri Lanka Russia Business Council, Chairman of the Tea Exporters Association of Sri Lanka, and is currently the Chairman of the CTTA and Vice President of the National Chamber of Exporters. Being an expert in the tea industry following a skyrocketing journey, Jayantha believes that it’s vital to concentrate on the set targets and commitments. “For me, I had a long-term vision and I set short-term targets/goals to achieve it. I worked very hard, day and night, and looked for strategies and innovative methods to achieve these goals,” he claims when describing the vitality of setting goals.
On the other hand, Jalinda Karunaratne, son of Jayantha Karunaratne, is a former Anandian who possesses a Bachelor of Business and Commerce Degree majoring in Marketing and Management at Monash University. Following his father’s footsteps, Jalinda started as a tea taster under the guidance of Master Tea Sommelier, Niraj De Mel, while completing an Executive Tea Training Programme at The Mel’s Tea Academy.
Although being a passionate musician at heart, Jalinda chose to follow his legacy, redeeming his reign alongside his father’s support and leadership. Since its initiation in 1994, Jalinda has been closely connected to tea his entire life. “It brings back a lot of nostalgia,” he says, “like my father, I also found a love for tea, because tea in essence is an art and art is my passion. Add to that my enthusiasm for business, and it’s the perfect mix.” After his time in Australia, Jalinda progressed from a tea taster to an International Marketing Executive and finally a the Director of the Imperial group of companies, by 2020.
Jeewaka Karunaratne, the first son of Jayantha is another Anandian who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Business with a major in Accounting and a minor in Statistics and Risk Management from the Monash University of Australia. He is also a holder of an MSc in Finance.
After commencing his career as a management trainee at a Tea Broker Company, he joined his father in assisting them with the family business, getting acquainted with tea, marketing, shipping, and finance. Being an individual with a vibrant academic profile, Jeewaka was able to bridge gaps opening a Strategic Planning Unit as a Strategic Planning Executive in 2010. “I was engaged in looking for potential avenues for business growth and sustainability, this included the setup of our own branch office and tea shop in Australia with an e-commerce site. I was also involved in exploring the potential for tea-based RTDs and led some projects such as Iced Tea, Tea Wine, Tea-based energy drinks.”, he stated.
Jeewaka also details the introduction of their CSR brand J&U which entails a focus on supplementing Sri Lanka’s cottage businesses, manufacturing packaging resources like handmade clay pots and palmyra boxes. This initiative has been governed by Jeewaka which he considers very closely, to provide the right attention to Sri Lanka’s fortes.
Jayantha elaborates his pride to have his sons working with him. “Initially when they joined the company, they started as would any other graduate, a regular employee. I wanted them to experience the business first hand before they could succeed me or take on the role and responsibility of a director,” he adds when sharing his intentions in involving young blood in the company. Alongside a youthful team, Jayantha endures continuing Imperial tea to the next tier of excellence.
Jalinda considers it to be an absolute honour to be partnered with his father. “I’d like to believe my father and I are like-minded, but quite often it’s not the case and it’s most probably because we come from different eras and different levels of experience,” he stated when discussing his experience working with his father. He shares his father’s mindful decision-making traits while handling business diplomatically and giving the utmost importance to other opinions before finalizing his decision.
Referring back to his nostalgic emotions, Jalinda flashbacks on how tremendous his father is with people. “His leadership style is not one based on hierarchy; it encompasses just the right amount of meritocracy and empathy”, he adds, describing his father’s simplicity in communicating with people of any level. According to Jalinda, Jayantha is considerate, humble and a respectful individual who carries values to build this fine establishment over the years.
Jeewaka seconds Jalinda’s opinion on his fathers’ great compatibility with people. “Because of the respect and good relationships he has built over the years, when my brother and I joined the business, our people were very welcoming and supportive to us”, he further particularised his father’s keen interest to be directly and actively involved whilst expanding his willingness to learn from anyone regardless of rank. He also values his father’s ability to distinguish between personal and professional, setting a lucid barrier between both. His transition from “being a firm and assertive boss to a very humble and friendly team player”, assisted Jeewaka in understanding the mastery of leadership.
Jalinda further unfolds on the subsidiaries associated with Imperial; both locally and internationally. Focusing on the vertical integration via their subsidiaries in Russia, Kenya, and Australia, the Imperial directors manage to continue operations remotely. “In order to strengthen the parent company, all these subsidiaries must thrive”, he adds. Furthermore, although working with foreign associates sounds appealing, it has its challenges attached; understanding the difference in cultures, different laws, and accounting methods, the rise of conflicts of interest, changing perspectives, continuous competition are some to name. The Imperial team however thrives to gain insight at different levels of perplexities to run advantageous by their side.
According to Jeewaka, working with the subsidiaries was a bumpy ride with lots of lessons grasped at every juncture. “Our subsidiaries’ nature of business is diverse”, he adds, agreeing with his brother’s statement on the prominence of the subsidiary performance for their main company. He further talks about the miscellany of the factors to consider like culture, business approaches, work environments, etc. when cooperating with their subsidiaries.
Imperial Tea remains to be a prominent infusion brand in Sri Lanka. Jalinda, “directly engaged in Tea and Marketing of tea and spices subsidiary companies”, contemplates expanding the business for more years to come, stating, “Our company has been in business for over 25 years. I want to keep the people during my dad’s reign and go forward with them too”.
Apart from the tea, Imperial indicates signs to expand into other diverse areas like the hotel industry. “I also have the vision to set up our own manufacturing plants in different tea sourcing countries and make Imperial, a tea hub for supply to tea drinkers”, Jalinda states when further emphasizing his vision to develop internationally. Similarly, Jeewaka hopes to expand Imperial’s footprints across Australia in addition to Sri Lanka, recognized under the world’s finest tea firms; “Recognized for its business ethics, quality and professionalism”, he claims proudly!
As strong-willed and optimistic individuals following goals to fortitude, the brothers share a glimpse of their motivation to succeed in this meteoric journey. Jalinda ends his account with a remarkable statement, “Everything in life should revolve around the best combinations. If the combination of food is good, the food tastes good. If the right musical elements are combined, the music is good. If the combination of tea leaves is good, the teas are good and if you surround yourself with the right combination of people, life will always be good”. Meanwhile, Jeewaka shares his go-to-daily inspiration by the famous American actor Sylvester Stallone, “You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it isn’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”