Manik Jayakumar: A Life-long Student of Tea

CERRITOS, Calif.

Standing on the steps of his state-of-the-art tea blending facility – with dignitaries, clients and well-wishers, his son and wife at his side – Manickarajah Manik Jayakumar embodies the American Dream.

Since establishing QTrade Tea & Herbs as an in-home trader in 1994, Jayakumar has elevated the company to the largest supplier of organic teas in North America. His new 70,000 sq. ft. factory warehouses three million pounds of tea and is capable of blending 25,000 pounds a day.

The company has experienced 30 to 50% growth per year since 2006.

This is the story of a triumphant dream-come-true that emerged from a nightmare that tested Jayakumar’s attitude and aptitude amid deadly adversity.

Tough Training

Jayakumar is a Tamil, the largest minority in Sri Lanka a country populated by 16 million Sinhalese. His father, a physician, and his mother who bore six sons, arranged for him to attend a fine public school that afforded men of color a better footing in a society about to be viciously torn.

Fit and scrappy, positive and persuasive, Jayakumar stood out from the boys at play.

Looking back, Jayakumar credits the rugby field where he played tough enough to earn the respect of team mates and the role of captain. He graduated in 1963 and went on to play Club Rugby & Internationals for a decade after leaving school including matches with the world famous All Blacks (New Zealand) and London Welsh rugby teams.

“Rugby is a rowdy game played by gentlemen” he says, conveying his pride in the rough and tumble sport. To play you must be able to withstand its rigors, he explains, “It’s like American football without the pads.”
Jayakumar, 69, is energetic, observant and quick to smile. Small in stature, he retains his athletic stance despite advancing years.

He also retains a CEO’s sense of order and discipline.

In 1966, as a young executive, Jayakumar signed up for the reserves and officer training. At Royal College high school he was named Sargent of the Senior Cadet Platoon and earned the best officer cadet baton. He would serve 23 years and as a Lt. Colonel eventually command the Regiment’s 3rd (v) Simha Regiment, an infantry battalion that saw action during the uprisings. He was appointed coordinating officer in charge of the plantation district of Nuwraeliya by the President of Sri Lanka and held this position until he migrated in 1989.

Manik JayakumarA Student of Tea

Sri Lanka struggled after independence and since much of the economy was based on exporting tea, the gardens became critical to the country’s success. Looking back, he views his decision to work in tea as chance. “I was not born on a tea plantation,” he said. “I feel I got into it accidentally.”

It was a good career choice. In the 1960s Lipton, the world’s largest tea exporter, was showcasing Ceylon tea. His mother was disappointed to learn of his new job as a tea plantation manger but he found it challenging to learn techniques for growing and manufacturing tea and managing the large work force who lived in the estates.

“It was a job that required continuous training, producing teas to suit world market conditions” he said.
It was his younger brother Devakumar who became the doctor.

Jayakumar was a quick leaner. Plantation manager David Perkins at Brunswick Tea Estate was among the elite in the high-grown gardens in the Uva, Nuwaraeliya and Dimbula districts which produced the finest Ceylon loose leaf. Brunswick Estate has an excellent reputation for producing superb, brightly-colored liquor with pleasing aroma. It is nestled in the “Champagne region” of the Maskeliya district about 4,000 feet above sea level.

Perkins selected young Jayakumar as his creeper…

“A creeper is expected to latch onto the boss. I was required to live in the manager’s house, set dinner, carve the turkey and do anything else that was needed,” he said. Some might view the work as exploitive, “but I saw myself as really lucky. I began to see how managers looked after people & the soil in which tea was grown while endeavoring to make maximum profits for the company. There were 2,000 employed at the estate and Perkins was a second generation British tea planter excellent in his job. He knew the language of the tea workers. There were no short cuts in his garden but no exploitation. He was not a mean man. He felt for the workers and their condition, but demanded excellence.”

Jayakumar, as in all his tasks, sought to be the best creeper Perkins had ever employed. He was soon named a junior assistant manager and in four years acting manager. Manik is still in touch with Perkins who lives in Dorset UK. “I am very grateful for his being my Guru in Tea and showing care for fellow humans,” said Jayakumar.

Initially he supervised 500 acres of tea land and 750 workers for Whittal Boustead, a plantation management company. From 1971 he worked as superintendent and chief executive at several of the high-grown gardens and by 1989 was in charge of Poonagala State Plantation, the largest in the country with 3,000 acres under tea and 2,500 workers. He was later named cluster director of six tea plantations and five factories employing 6,000 workers, at the time he left the country.

Organic Awakening

Sri Lanka today produces the cleanest tea in the world.  That was not always the case.

During his tenure as a garden superintendent Jayakumar was also a member of the working committee of the Tea Research Institute of Sri Lanka and worked as a consultant on the first organic tea project in the world. It was managed by Stassen Tea in partnership with GEPA – a German NGO.

Prior to the conversion, soils were eroded and acidic, there were no earthworms. Growers were using 150 pounds of fertilizer to get 100 pounds of crops, due to more than 100 years of mono-cultivation of tea.
He observed that a few years after the introduction of organic cultivation the birds and butterflies and predators and wildlife had returned to the gardens and surrounding forests. “Springs that had dried up breathed fresh life and started flowing again,” said Jayakumar. He remains a staunch advocate of organic agriculture.  “Not only the gardens benefitted, the quality of life improved among workers as infant and maternal mortality and malnutrition indexes were reduced and life expectancy rose,” he said.

In addition to tea his firm imports organic herbs and spices from 20 countries and is the leading supplier of organic ingredients to the specialty tea trade – many of these lines are also Fair Trade Certified.

He later advised growers in 13 plantations throughout Sri Lanka and continued his work even after coming to the US as a USDA  tea adviser he was assigned to  work in Bolivia  &  Russia ( around Sochi  – near the Black sea  where tea is grown)

In 2004 he published a research paper: “Pesticide Issues in Tea” and presented at the World Green Tea Forum (OCHA) Science Conference in Shizuoka, Japan.

Manik describes himself as a lifelong student  of tea. He frequently visits origins for specialty teas. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Plantation Management of Sri Lanka (F.I.P.M) and a member of the British Institute of Management (M.B.I.M).

World Traveler

In 2004 Jayakumar was awarded a certificate of national appreciation by the Prime Minister of Nepal for his introduction of Nepali teas in North America. His work there began in 1983 as a part of a study of clean water supply financed by UNICEF. He managed Craig Tea Estate at that time which was cited as a model for improvements in social development projects for the staff and workers.

In 1985 in Japan he traveled to Koyoto to study green tea manufacture with the Hayshiya Tea Company. In Australia he developed sources of Lemon Myrtle and in Taiwan he studied sub-tropical agriculture and green tea manufacturing.

He participated in a research project funded by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to study CTC manufacturing in South India, North India and Indonesia.

In Bolivia in 2002 he worked with USAID and ACDI/VOCA on strategies to revitalize the collapsed tea industry of Eco Caranvi. He twice visited Russia’s Black Sea tea growing region and has been to most of the countries from which QTrade imports ingredients.

Violence Mounts

Sri Lanka is an island of 25,000 square miles with a population the size of New York. It peacefully became the Dominion of Ceylon in 1948 and in 1972 became a Democratic Socialist Republic dominated by the Sinhalese and representing Tamils, Muslim Moors, Burghers, Malays and Vedda. Uprisings followed and the inter-ethnic conflict lasted 26 years, leading to the deaths of between 80,000 and 100,000 civilians and military.

At the peak of his career Jayakumar became concerned for his life.

“The leftist element had been trying to take over the country for years,” he explained.

Having failed once in 1971 the left-wing a nationalist Sinhala organization called the JVP in 1987 attempted to overthrow the government. The uprising was crushed, their leader killed in 1989. The JVP was absorbed into the government has since been absorbed into the government.

During this period violence escalated and 20 plantation managers and tea executives were killed in 1989 including two of his plantation managers along with a major in the reserve force he was commanding.
His family home was burned during rioting against the Tamils. One brother traveled to California and the others to Canada and the United Kingdom, he said.

“Eventually they all left but as a military officer I felt we had additional security,” he recalls.
It was his wife Queenie who said “get out of this place.”

QTrade R & D Laboratory
QTrade R&D Lab in new blending facility

American Dream

Jayakumar moved to Southern California with his family in 1994
He worked briefly in hospital administration and established Q(ueenie) Trade Teas & Herbs in the garage of his brother’s home where he lived  before moving to his own home. He continued to work from home for a few years storing his products in outside ware houses. Initially he sent California walnuts to Brazil and began exploring the import of Ceylon tea. He used his connections with Stassens to secure organic tea from his homeland also started importing teas from many countries he had visited and formed excellent relationships.

He opened his first warehouse in 2005 and now employs more than 50 workers.

During the past few years his blends have received top awards in the North American Tea Championships where QTrade has won more awards (nearly 60) than any other tea company in North America in practically all categories. The venture has proven quite profitable with sales offices in the East Coast and an expanding private label clientele in North America and around the globe.

“America has become the specialty tea capital of the world,” he said.

“The Germans, who are market leaders in specialty teas and herbals, are opening offices here to capture the North American market,” he said.

“The specialty category continues to grow in the U.S. so well that we are now exporting back to these countries exceptional teas.  This is the only country with regular classes promoting specialty tea (both the Specialty Tea Institute and World Tea Expo),” said Jayakumar.

Jayakumar was born at the time of Sri Lankan independence and would have remained had circumstances not intervened. “I was always positive. I have the drive and understand leadership and can face adversity,” he said.

In the photo above, standing to his left at the ribbon cutting is his son Manjiv. He too has received a fine education at Georgetown, the London School of Economics and worked for two years at Goldman Sacks in the UK and New York before attending Harvard for his Masters. On graduation he had many options for work. Like his father, Manjiv chose tea. He was promoted president of the company in 2012.

Specialty tea is still in its infancy in the U.S. according to Jayakumar.  “I see a great future for tea in North America and I am proud to play a small part in its growth,” he said.

“QTrade now feeds more than 50 families at a time of economic recession. Our staff has combined140 years of tea experience. I am so grateful for their help in growing QTrade,” he said.

“I am also extremely grateful to the U.S. for giving us a permanent home and to all our clients and tea colleagues for gladly welcoming us to the greatest country in the world,” he said.

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Dan Bolton

About Dan Bolton

Dan Bolton edits STiR Tea & Coffee Industry International. He was formerly editor and publisher of World Tea News and former editor and publisher of Tea Magazine and former editor-in-chief of Specialty Coffee Retailer. He is a beverage retail consultant and frequent speaker at industry seminars and conferences. His work has appeared in many beverage publications. He was a newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years prior to his career in magazines. Dan is the founding editor of Natural Food magazine and has led six publishing ventures since 1995. He lives in Winnipeg, Canada.

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