‘I needed something different to sell my tea’

Wickramasuriya began his career working in the Sri Lankan tea industry for the Dilmah brand, one of the world’s largest tea companies.

He then started his own company, the Atlanta-based Ceylon Royal Tea, which is sold in a number of stores including Costco, Bed Bath & Beyond and Target.

He spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about tea, his ambassadorial duties and why his family became American citizens.

Q: What is Sri Lanka tea?

A: It is the best in the world and I will tell you why. We pick only the top two tea leaves and the bud by hand. In other countries, they have machines do the picking and other leaves besides the top two are picked. The top two leaves bring the best flavor. We also have the perfect climate for tea. It’s grown in the high mountains and our weather patterns are favorable.

Our tea is called Ceylonese tea and it is the most expensive tea. [Sri Lanka’s] name used to be Ceylon, but in 1972 it was changed to Sri Lanka. We produce 300 million kilos [6 million pounds] of tea and export 90 percent of it, which makes us the world’s largest exporter of tea. India, for instance, produces more tea, but they consume much more tea.

Q: How did you get in the tea business?

A: I worked for a tea company in Sri Lanka as a management trainee. We started selling Ceylonese tea around the world in a loose form. My boss, who is my mentor, decided we needed to brand it and he started doing this branding through packaging and putting them in tea bags. It taught me a valuable lesson. If you have a good quality product you can learn to add even more value to it by thinking differently. I worked there 18 years and learned the entire business. I left when I was 36.

Q: Why did you leave?

A: I wanted my own company and, even though the government is socialist, it is very easy to form your own company. I came to the U.S. on a USA Aid program and went to a trade show with my tea, which is called Chami. I made my first sale at that show. I thought back to my mentor and decided I needed to do something different to sell my tea. I worked with a gift-basket company and we put them in different gift baskets with different themes.

Q: How is the company doing?

A: We do about $2 million in sales. Because of the packaging we are in very high-end stores and lower-end stores. The tea is the same, just the quality of the packaging changes depending on the store. I saw a mall here in Atlanta with Target, Costco, Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond, and I said to my wife that we have sold our teas in all of those stores. I am here, but the operations people are in Sri Lanka.

Q: Why are you headquartered in Atlanta?

A: I was becoming successful and after taking the 20-hour flights several times between the U.S. and home, I decided I needed to relocate. I moved to Minnesota. After one winter there I needed to move and couldn’t decide between California or Atlanta. Atlanta is cheaper to live, and my wife likes it here. It is very green in Atlanta with beautiful landscape, similar to Sri Lanka. It took six months but we built a house in Henry County. We are used to big houses and gardens and we get that in Atlanta.

Q: Is there a large Sri Lankan population in metro Atlanta?

A: There are about 150 families. Most go to Jun Dung Sa, which is Buddhist temple in Lithonia. We have people from all over the Southeast coming to the temple.

Q: How does your family like living here?

A: They love it. My family just became American citizens. I had applied for citizenship and had a green card but had to withdraw it when I became an ambassador. I also have to say that not only our neighbors but others have been wonderful.

Meet Jaliya Wickramasuriya:

Title: Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States

Age: 50

Birthplace: Matara, Sri Lanka, on the island’s southern coast

Currently lives In: Washington, D.C., and McDonough.

Family: Wife, Priyanga; daughter Sarindee, 18 and son Janith, 15.

Hobbies: International news, coin collecting, traveling

Favorite city: Atlanta

Favorite restaurant: Sun Dial, atop the Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel

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