MALAYSIA'S CUP OF TEA
It is nothing short of amazing when you take a stroll at the Sungei Palas Tea Center in Cameron Highlands and gaze at the enchanting rolling hills covered with rows and rows of tea bushes.
The tea plantation that spreads over 243 hectares of land, sitting at 5,000 feet above sea level, has much to offer. With a 20-foot hanging balcony and a viewing deck, visitors can enjoy a hot cup of tea and a commanding view of the misty, lush hills.
“I love being here. It’s such a special place to visit. I think I’m very lucky to come from a family that grows tea, having some of the remotest spot to go with a wonderful energy and peace,” says Caroline Russell, the granddaughter of JA (John ‘Archie’ Archibald) Russell who founded the Boh Plantations back in 1929.
"Being in a place of such immense beauty always feel good. But these estates, don’t just happen. There is a tremendous amount of hard work that has to go into maintaining them."
The story of the Boh legacy dates back to when the first generation of the Russell family arrived in Malaya during the 1890s. Caroline says: “My great grandfather Jack Russell was appointed as the government’s printer at that time, and my grandfather, JA Russell was only six-year old.”
“He (JA Russel) later began his career in the mining industry, then started a few businesses in many areas including a rubber company and colliery before he decided to delve into the tea plantation business with his partner, A.B Milne who was from Sri Lanka.
“When he started Boh, the Great Depression was happening. The world was going into recession, but people were still looking for good quality tea. So he bought a land in Habu and transformed it into the first highlands tea garden in the country,” she says.
Today, Boh plantations owns four tea gardens; Sungei Palas, Habu, Fairlie and one lowland plantation in Bukit Cheeding, Selangor, covering a total area of 1,200 hectares which now produces over four million kilogrammes of tea, yearly.
“As a tea grower, of course I often go down to these estates. And being in a place of such immense beauty always feel good. But these estates, don’t just happen. There is a tremendous amount of hard work that has to go into maintaining them.
“We have about one thousand employees working with us including a strong management team. This is the team that works hard behind the scenes and one might not realise the scale and the sense of everybody’s contribution to what look so beautiful,” she says.
Among Boh’s employees, many have worked for 40 to 50 years. Some started by following their father and grandfather's footsteps to work as harvesters. Some were born in these tea estates.
“No matter whether you are a senior in management or a tea harvester, it is all of these people that collectively contribute to the organisation,”
For Caroline, she believes the secret to maintain loyal employees lies on the values of the company: “We are planters, so we take a very long-term view and perspective in our organisation. We don’t only look at tomorrow or next week. We take a long perspective on things.
“People who have been with us, we appreciate the value they bring to the organisation with their knowledge, through their loyalty, through their skills. And also within our value system is respecting people.
“No matter whether you are a senior in management or a tea harvester, it is all of these people that collectively contribute to the organisation,” she says.
Recently, Boh Plantations celebrated its 90th anniversary by expanding the tea center in Sungei Palas with a new wing, ‘Tristan’s Terrace’.
“This new wing is very special and meaningful for Boh and for me, personally. My father, Tristan Russell has achieved many major milestones during his 53-tenure as chairman. Naming this new facility in his honour is our small gesture to thank him for his passion for Boh.
“Aside from that, we also do actually receive about 800 thousand visitors per year. It was actually a problem because we couldn’t look after them all comfortable. It got too crowded, so the visitor experience wasn’t the best one.
“At this point the tourism sector is not a major business arm, but it is important to us when people come here to our home that we have the right hospitality. So it was crucial that we expand our facility,” she says.
Caroline recently stepped into the role as executive chairman of Boh Plantations, taking the helm of the family business.
“We are seeing directional changes among Malaysians in terms of how they consume tea. They used to be very big drinkers of tea leaf where you have to make it in a pot and shifting across into using teabags. Now we’re seeing more and more prefer instant teas, simply because of convenience. So products of three-in-one and two-in-one are high selling products.
“People are now more health conscious. We used to be known as major black tea producers. But now we are looking at green teas and it is seeing quite a big growth in that segment.
“There is also the herbal, flavoured and artisanal teas. These products we focus for the niche and international market. We are not major exporters, the proportion of teas we export is actually a very small percentage from our overall production. But there is a shift in the global market into the speciality and artisanal tea sector.
“At the moment, we are exporting to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany and Denmark.
Beyond producing teas for every segment of the community, Boh is also known for its efforts in empowering the arts industry through The Boh Cameronian Arts Awards, since 2002.
“The arts industry has seen a lot of growth and interest but it is underfunded and doesn’t get a lot of support. So through this arts awards, we are hoping to raise public awareness on the diversity and richness of performing arts in Malaysia.
“This is perhaps a personal passion of the people in the company. We feel that we can add value to those, partly by being such a household name.
In fact, Boh does not stop there, the organisation also commits to environmental conservation and sustainability. Caroline says:” We are close to the land, we are close to the environment. We have a sense of that.
“We now upgrade our products and use biodegradable products such as Boh’s pyramid teabag that made from corn starch.
“We ensure a portion of our lands will remain as forests. We also have partnered with the Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC) to save Malaysia’s rare, indigenous plant species. Boh will sponsor the planting of 200 trees to help restore key forest corridors within the Central Forest Spine,” she adds.
When Boh was established, the company only began by using a steam-roller and a few labourers plus mules. Then, when Tristan took over in August 1966, he expanded the tea plantations and modernised the art of manufacturing tea by investing in innovative techniques and infrastructure.
"We are looking at how we can use drones for monitoring purposes and fertilizers applications. It is still at a very early stage, but we have got to keep moving with the times."
Now, Caroline is looking at new technologies including drones and digitalisations, in line with industrialisation 4.0.
“There are certainly exciting things happening. We are looking at how we can use drones for monitoring purposes and fertilizers applications. It is still at a very early stage, but we have got to keep moving with the times. It’s a very fast changing world, which presents a lot of opportunities, too,” she says.
Boh Plantations is now a family legacy of 90 years in Malaysia and Caroline admits the pressure and responsibility to uphold the standards and expectations of what her grandfather and father has achieved.
“I have big shoes to fill. One looks back at what has happened over the years, so yes it is a big responsibility.
“It’s not really just about the family, but it is about other people. Boh provides livelihood for a thousand people, plus suppliers and partners. They contribute to us, hopefully we can also contribute to them.
“I believe this legacy will continue. My advice for the future generation is: work hard, keep a long-term perspective, have resilience and perseverance,” she ends, with a smile.