THE bright green tea bushes in neat rows seem to go on forever, up and down the slopes of Cameron Highlands. The pleasant scenery is very much part of the hill resort’s charm, a must-see attraction for visitors.
The man whose family has been responsible for the lush greenery and one of the most recognisable and beloved Malaysian brands around, Boh Tea, is standing among the bushes, lord of all he surveys.
Tristan Beauchamp Russell, chairman of Boh Plantations Sdn Bhd, at 73 still cuts a dashing figure with a full head of silver hair and ruddy complexion in the brilliant morning sun.
He is plucking tender young leaves expertly with a satisfied look that says all is well with the quality of his plants.
His practised ease with tea comes from a life-time of experience; he says he first visited the family plantation before he was born – in his mother’s womb. He began working for the company at 22 and has been doing so ever since.
Russell is the only son of Kathleen and John Archibald Russell. The senior Russell, J.A., is the founder of Boh Plantations, which is the oldest and largest tea producer in South-East Asia.
Tristan Russell amidst his beloved tea bushes in the Sungai Palas estate in Cameron Highlands.
When the Wall Street crashed in 1927 and the world spun into a recession, J.A. – who had invested in rubber, coal, construction, plywood, and brick and tiles in Malaya – decided to go into tea planting. He obtained a grant for 4,000 acres (1,600ha) of land in Cameron Highlands for tea cultivation. His partner was A.B. Milne, an experienced tea planter from Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
“J.A. left a legacy of excellence when he embarked on one of his most enduring ventures. Armed with a single steamroller and a group of men and mules, he transformed a tract of land 5,000ft (1,524m) above sea level into the first highland tea plantation in the country,” so say Boh archives.
His son, Tristan, was born in Malaya in 1932 and J.A. died a year later at the age of 50. “So I never knew my father,” says Russell.
But he was clearly aware of his father’s legacy. After studying agriculture in Britain, Russell returned to Malaya in 1954 and worked as a junior assistant to the then Boh estate manager, Bill Fairlie, for a salary of 500 dollars.
After J.A.'s death, the company was run by others, including his stepfather, William Gemmill, who was chairman. When the latter died in 1969, Russell became chairman of J.A. Russell & Co which owns Boh Plantations. Under his leadership, Boh grew into a vertically-integrated marketer of its own brands of tea.
He also introduced innovations and technology to Boh, improving the production and processing of tea. It is now able to produce an estimated 4 million kilos of tea annually, which translates to about 5.5 million cups of tea per day. That’s 70% of all tea produced in Malaysia and meets about 50% of local consumption demand.
Russell explains the secret of Boh’s success. “It is the way we have managed to adapt to changing circumstances,” he says.
The estate, he explains, was originally established with the idea of exporting tea to be sold in the London market. But before World War II, somebody had the foresight to start packaging tea for the domestic market. There were two brands: Tiger Tea and Boh Tea.
Russell (left) attending a sales conference in the early 1970s.
“When I joined the company, the proportion of our tea being sold in the local market was quite small. Tiger Tea, which was a cheap brand, was more important than Boh,” he recalls.
“When the Emergency ended (in 1960), I remember the dismay coming especially from the Ipoh office of Harpers (the trading company that distributes Boh Tea). A large number of British troops who were stationed in Ipoh would be withdrawn and Harpers thought that it was the end of Boh – the main buyers, it was believed, were Europeans, whereas the local population bought Tiger tea. But it did not turn out that way.”
(Tiger tea, by the way, is still sold in Malaysia in select market centres.)
Boh, Russell relates, realised that the future lay in going downstream into the packet market. “The development of the packet trade came to a point where we really did not need to export at all. That was one of the great reasons for the success of the company,” he explains.
(Packet tea is loose tea leaves sold in packets of 50g, 100g, 250g and 500g and constitutes about 45% of Boh's business.)
The company also “put a great deal in marketing,” continues Russell.
Indeed, in keeping up with the times, Boh today has a variety of teas, including an exotic range called Seri Songket Flavoured Teas; the latest addition is called the Health Range.
“I used to go all over the country, visiting Harper’s branches and visiting dealers. I think I must have visited almost every small town and village in the country,” muses Russell.
He also attributes Boh’s success to the company’s handling of its labourers.
“From the earliest time (in Boh’s history), we found it difficult to get workers. I remember Bill (Fairlie) listening every night to the radio to find out the rubber price,” he recalls. “If the price went up, he knew our workers would be leaving to go work tapping rubber trees.
“So our policy was to make us more labour efficient and pay our workers a competitive rate. We also greatly reduced the number of people needed by using machines.”
What would perhaps be surprising to many people is that such an iconic Malaysian brand with the Asian sounding name (J.A. came up with the name “Boh” but his inspiration remains a mystery) is actually still owned by Mat Sallehs. How did the Russell family manage that, especially after independence?
Russell is frank enough to say that, like many Britons then, he did not think that Malaya’s independence from Britain in 1957 was a good idea.
“My stepfather was very pessimistic about it. My uncle, who had lost a business in China entirely to the communists, was not optimistic either. He was all for selling out everything,” reveals Russell.
Despite his own misgivings, Russell says that he was more hopeful. “I suppose when one is young, one is optimistic,” he explains with a laugh.
In the end, the Russell family did not sell Boh Plantations. “We did have faith in the country and I’m very pleased (that we have been proven right),” he says.
Russell adds that the Malaysian Government has been very fair to investors.
“They said they would like foreign investors to take in local partners and we have done that – PNB (Permodalan National Bhd) has a 26% stake in Boh,” he says.
J.A. Russell & Co Sdn Bhd has a 70% stake and the remaining 4% is held by existing and ex-employees.
“There was never undue pressure on us to get out or to give up majority control. There was a period when they were talking about Malayanisation and limiting foreign-held stakes to only 30% . But that was a global target and never for individual companies.
“And it did not take the Government long to realise that people wouldn’t invest money in new enterprises in Malaysia if they did not have a controlling stake.”
Russell can rest assured that he has done his father proud by helping build the company to what it is today but what of his own aspirations for the next generation?
“Well, I hope I leave a family that carries on the way I have. They have all been involved in the family business for a long time. (Of his two children, Caroline, as the CEO of the company and a Malaysian citizen, is actively involved while John, who was instrumental in setting up the company’s tea plantation in Australia, is now a software designer living in the United States.)
“I see Boh as providing a way of life as well as a livelihood. But I think with all of us, it is much of an affair of the heart than one of making money.
“Money is good for making something work and it is very convenient to have enough of it. But I don’t think anybody in the family is hugely ambitious in terms of making money,” he says thoughtfully.
As non-executive chairman, Russell’s role is that of an advisor. “I am by no means fully retired. Because I like it. Because this has been my life. I enjoy it very much and I feel that I can still contribute.
“Circumstances are changing all the time. We have met the challenges that came along and certainly there will be more in the future. The economy of the country is changing, people’s tastes are changing. Tea does not have the dominant position it used to have.
“I am trying to pass over as much to the younger generation as possible. And I’m not boasting if I say I think I know more about tea than anybody else in Malaysia.”
And that is something you cannot buy, not for all the tea in China.
The Boh Plantations website is at boh.com.my.
Tall tales from the highlands