Memories of Dusty
Miller of The Colombo Commercial Company

The Business (Acquisition) Act No. 35 of 1971 enabled the then government to take over any business undertaking. One of the intended purposes was to have complete control over their commercial activities and thereby ensure that rightful dues to the country earned from exports and other trading activities internationally were brought in. That was an urgent need then as the country was in dire need of every Dollar and Pound (for short called FOREX) as other sources such as foreign aid and loans were woefully short or had dried up. That was the beneficial side of the exercise but what was detrimental was that scores of men with long and valuable commercial experience in the organizations taken over were at times replaced by incompetent political stooges.

In 1976 The Colombo Commercial Company (CCC) with its office in Acland House, 25, Lillie Street, Colombo 2 and branches in Badulla, Hatton, Kandapola, Kandy and Ratnapura was taken over Its Principal’s office was in Mincing Lane, London and according to the Ferguson’s Directory of 1965 the Company dealt in Estate Management, Fertilizers, Tea, Insurance, Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, Building Construction and were Agents and Distributors of products of about fifty foreign Companies.

Google reveals that the Company was founded in London with John Burn an engineer who was born in Aberdeen setting up its branch in Colombo. "Burn had gained considerable experience since 1848 in coffee planting and in 1876 opened up his business in Colombo on premises purchased, namely Acland House and grounds covering 13 acres at Slave Island, which was formerly the mess of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment. During the early years the Company’s progress, the Slave Island Mills handled coffee, tea and artificial manures."

The company’s stature then was such that it even had, "A very neat and well struck copper token." On its obverse was "The Colombo Commercial Co. Limited 1876" with an embossed tea plant and on the reverse "Slave Island Mills" with two sprigs of orange leaves. Each of the 500 tokens struck were brass, round in shape, 29.9 mm in diameter each weighing 8.05 grams.

Acland House (now Visumpaya) when first taken over by Government was refurbished and used by it as a Guest House for high visiting official dignitaries. The stately two storied building was large by any standard, no wonder having been an Army Mess, with the ground floor used as CCC’s office. Memories go back to early 1960 when the writer was interviewed by A.W. Halstead, Head of the Estates Department, who was later replaced by Kenneth Ratwatte as a Director. The writer was first appointed as Junior Assistant Superintendent of Mooloya Estate, two years later Senior Assistant Superintendent and another two years later Acting Superintendent of Mayfield Estate – the first Ceylonese in that position. Soon after, progression lead to manage Braemore and thereafter Mayfield Estate.

Visits by Superintendents to the offices of their Agents were then mostly on ‘summons’ and those often resulted in a dressing down; these were rare and for very serious offences only. The writer, to the somewhat surprise of the Directors, Managers and Assistants often made unexpected visits to Acland House to consult Kumar Paul, Nimala Ranasinghe, Brian Tranchel and Peter Dardart, Manager of the Tea Department to pick their brains and improve the quality of teas he produced. Information on market trends was also sought - all efforts being made to improve the profitability of the property in his charge - cost cutting exercises having been exhausted. Profitability then was the only way to keep at times even offensive correspondence from Principals and Agents to the barest minimum and ensure advancement in the Company. The ultimate beneficiary, of course, was the country itself selling its produce at optimum prices and bringing in scarce foreign exchange to import essentials such as rice, sugar, petroleum products etc..

These visits to Colombo and reciprocal visits by the Tea Department’s Executives to the Estates paid handsomely as the quotes below show:

"The Tea Department offer congratulations on you producing a tea as good as this ……."

"The prices realised for the BOPs of these two Invoices are the highest obtained by Braemore during the past few years and we are writing this letter to convey our appreciation to you and your staff on this achievement."

"This is one of the best invoices we have ever seen from Mayfield Estate and it is the unanimous opinion of the members of the Tea Department that this Invoice is better than Bogawantalawa Inv. 25"

The work ethic then was different from now in many spheres of employment, positive results only were the criteria recognized. Hence, these laudatory messages were read, reread as the joy and satisfaction was greater than most anything else. The achievements were solely due to planning and execution over long days in the tea fields ensuring good agricultural practices and leaf standards followed by equally long nights in the factories monitoring each and every stage of manufacture from evening to next morning. Within the company, between companies and even at the bars at Radella, Talawakelle and Agras Clubs excellence in results were recognised by fellow planters with a few jokes and jibes thrown in.

Two months ago about thirty of Colombo Commercial Co’s Old Crocks, many accompanied by their wives got together for their annual dinner organized by Asoka Gopallawa and Shanthi Wijesundera. Many of the reminiscences were of the time - roughly in the mid years of the nineteen hundreds when CCC was accepted as one of the best private sector organizations in the country. Practically everyone had something to relate about his experiences with Mr. EW Miller, the money minded and shrewd Englishman who took over the Company in London in 1961 by some clever maneuvering and came to Colombo as if carried by a whirlwind. He was unconventional in talk, dress and manners to a point that many an old fashioned brow was raised or a jaw dropped and some of the owners of those parts of the body feared they would next find themselves on the beach or cart road - jobless. Many of them were the highly paid Europeans with palatial accommodation, overseas leave, children’s education allowances etc, who were eventually replaced by Miller with equally competent Ceylonese with significant financial advantage to himself. He (Dusty in conversations other than in his presence), virtually turned the Company upside down from its conservative and staid business etiquette and practices to such unconventional methods which shocked many within and outside the Company. For instance he would himself drive to a Branch Office or Department or an estate in the Agency unannounced when at that time even Auditors gave two weeks notice and enquired whether the dates were convenient to the Superintendent! Dusty talked straight and he appreciated unvarnished replies. If one got on with him skies were the limit because he could be generous and friendly. The opposite situation was also very well known!

The writer’s first meeting with Miller is still fresh in his mind when as an Assistant Superintendent he was appointed Acting Superintendent of Mayfield (the first Ceylonese in that position) as an urgent stop gap arrangement. On ‘taking over’ the property from the Superintendent, who was induced by Miller to retire, the writer within the first few days found the estate in a king sized mess. However, the five bedroom bungalow with wall to wall carpeting and tastefully furnished looked like something out of the ‘Home and Garden’ magazine. Obviously the wife was a better manager of property than the Superintendent! In these circumstances grappling with the many, many problems who arrives? Miller, his wife and a business buddy giving one day’s notice.

The evening of their arrival was nothing but a hot tin roof the writer was walking on as the visitors (except the lady) were obviously gauging their host in a mildly patronizing way at times - they drank numerous whiskeys and the host a pint of beer. The main topics of discussion were local politics, a general election being due, and the state of the property. Questions were fended off somewhat firmly by declaring that the only politics that concerned their host was his welfare and if the visitors were good enough to call over in a month’s time an educated opinion on the state of the property and some solutions to its problems would be given as he had hardly time to take proper stock of the situation.

On reflection later on in the night, left to his own thoughts, he thought it was ‘caputs’ for him and it would have been prudent to have indulged the visitors. Next morning, while waiting for the men for breakfast, the writer and the lady making small talk the writer said he thought he had mishandled the previous evening. To his great surprise and even greater relief she said Dusty thought their host was straight, cautious and would deliver the goods. That he did in due course, and it was kosher with Dusty making an unexpected ex gratia payment for a successful Act and a handsome wedding gift two years later.

There’s good and bad even among the sharpest businessmen – Dusty Miller was one of them, the former characteristic being a bit more pronounced.

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