- He dedicated the final phase of his life to God
- Worked closely with people affected by conflict
- He also enjoyed working with the youth of the church
- Took Sri Lanka Tea Sector to great heights
I first set eyes on the larger than life character of Michael J. De Zoysa, sporting an imposing “afro mop “ hair style as a 16-year-old school boy, when he picked me up from “homeleigh” my parents’ house on Castle Street to play cricket for the SSC in a Division III game. We hit it off from day one and thus the start of a 40-year long friendship - mentor, boss and spiritual guide in later years. Naturally I called him “Mike” as everyone at the SSC called him by that name, ironically before that day I had only heard him giving Royal-Thomian commentaries on SLBC along with his illustrious cricketing dad Lucien, both belting top draw eloquence into their respective “mics” or microphones as it was called it then.
The early eighties were very enjoyable and carefree days for us youngsters, being driven around by Mike for cricket matches whether it be Radella, Kandy, Kurunegala, Galle or Matara. He had a simple cricketing philosophy “put the best side available on the field and play with a winning mindset” the SSC trophy cupboard gives ample testimony to this fact. Surely this would have rubbed off his portly prodigy Arjuna who won the world cup in 1996 for Sri Lanka…..We are going to miss his booming and encouraging voice that would ever so frequently ring out “Come on SSC” ! The ground staff of the SSC revered Mike, and whatever Zoysa mahattaya said was always the last instruction they would take on pitch or ground preparation.
The sterner side though was his quick temper and boy did we know to keep away from the firing line! One such incident was when he verbally sacked Shamal De Silva, one of the young tea tasters over an out of office disagreement, of course Mike never meant to carry out his threat, but Shamal taking it seriously applied for a job in a Bank and landed a higher paying job fairly quickly with his multinational company experience. Mike went as far as going to his home and speaking to Shamal’s parents to convince him to stay on, stay he did and working together in the Tea Trade at the time of his untimely demise.
From December 2013 to April 2015, Mike was doing what he loved best, albeit this time he had the power of prayer firmly on his side, the Sri Lankan Cricket team did him proud winning the Asia Cup, World T20 and both away Tests and One-day encounters with England
Given the opportunity to concentrate on the value added side of the business gave me an opening to get away from tasting copious amounts of tea and aiming at a spittoon for half a day, which I gladly accepted, this was a short respite though, as Michael sat me down one day and said, “I have a job for you that you can’t refuse”, the brief was short and to the point – Got a problem with managing the Unions and Productivity at the Mabole factory I want you to go in, “make it or break it” – I accepted the challenge in reverence to the man, who had trained me never to take a step back, so much so that I created a two month strike after two days in the job, Michael and the Unilever Tea Division Board stood firmly by my side and with the help of the home-folk chasing the strikers back to work, all was well with an equitable production based incentive scheme introduced. The teabag production capacity of the factory grew from six machines to 50 in a space of two years – most of the machines purchased were without capex approval and this was unthinkable in a Unilever set up, but Michael found a way. The factory produced half of the Eastern European countries requirements when the markets opened up in 1996 – 1999 a whopping 4000 tons of teabags up from a mere 100 tons of total value added exports per annum. With these successes Michael’s vision was to produce the entire Lipton Yellow label teabag requirement for the Middle East of 8000 tons per annum.
Unfortunately one-way looking labour laws that justified the downing tools at the drop of a hat and inconsistent government policies on the import of teas for value addition and re export put paid to this project, Sri Lanka’s loss was Jebel Ali’s gain – this pained Michael who was a vehement critique of inward looking policies in a pseudo open economy – The “Tea Hub” concept and Tea Auction Automation linking all the stakeholders were two of his bucket list projects that got little support from the Trade/Industry. The years rolled on and Lipton’s lost its former glory, the “Unileverization” was surely a telling blow on Michael who naturally being a man who called a spade a spade was looked upon as an inconvenience by the many European Chairmen of Unilever Ceylon; on one occasion he warned me of their evil intent of drawing managers to their masonic lodges and to keep away from such invitations – I’m richer for his advice! For a brief period of time Michael and I tried hard to get six RPC’s to pool their might in funding a common export tea brand, but sadly this too fell by the way as most of the stakeholders seemed comfortable with their lot, JKH supported his quest for a time and Fresh Thoughts / Ran Kahata were two brands that made a few waves for a time until, in their wisdom pulled the plug on the project.
A unique distinction was his achievement as chairman of the Colombo Tea Traders Association, the apex body of the industry for 14 tenures during the period 1983 to 1999, a record that will stand unbroken at least in my life time. His leadership qualities were unquestionable, and the achievements under his stewardship were many including his resolve when serious challenges were posed by the JVP uprising and the LTTE conflict, the auctions continued to be conducted without a break, despite the threats and consequential dangers. Michael was bestowed the singular honour of Honorary Life Membership, conferred upon him by the Colombo Tea Traders’ Association, for his service and contribution to the Association and the Tea Industry. In August this year, as a tribute for the admiration in which the Colombo Tea Traders’ Association held Michael, he was invited as Guest of Honour at the iconic event of the 125th Annual General Meeting of the Association. It is ironic that, in his address at this event he said, in the context of the launch of the “Ceylon Tea Road Map 2030”, which had taken place earlier that day, “I do not know about any of you; but I shall certainly still be there 10 year from now”. Knowing Michael, I am certain he will be present in spirit, said Michael Tissera delivering a commemorative address in tribute to an illustrious 53 years with the industry.
The final phase of Mike’s life was probably his best, when he dedicated himself to the work of his Lord and Master, an almost unthinkable change that I was fortunate enough to witness. As it was with Mike he went head first into projects that uplifted the less fortunate in our community; what he hated was the propagation of racial and religious discord by self-seeking politicians and never afraid to voice his disdain. The church care and concern and reconciliation with those affected by the 30 year conflict, rebuilding houses, attending to medical needs, finding them jobs were Mike’s pet projects. He also enjoyed working with the youth of the church encouraging them to reach out to help those in camps and to teach in pre schools in the North and East. I learnt of places called Kaively, Puthukudiyiruppu when he talked about his travels to former war torn areas, with boyhood enthusiasm.
He had a simple cricketing philosophy “put the best side available on the field and play with a winning mindset” the SSC trophy cupboard gives ample testimony to this fact. Surely this would have rubbed off his portly prodigy Arjuna who won the world cup in 1996 for Sri Lanka
Pastor Coleton played a big part in giving direction to his life, but in his own admission the time the penny really dropped on him circa 1995 when Eran was preaching about Paul and Silas and how they praised God in a hopeless situation in prison, and it dawned on Michael how blessed he was, from that day he decided to follow Jesus and there was no turning back. One instance he related the story of how Druki Martenstyn and Prashanthi Goonatillake went along with him to Jaffna during the peace accord in 2002 to reconcile with the war widows there, with tears pouring down his once stern face, repeatedly saying, what a sad plight. In 2013, he dedicated two years of this life for church work, however, after a couple of months he got a call from the Board of Control for Cricket asking him whether he could take on the managers job. He had approached Pastor Dishan who, after two weeks of intercession said he could take on the role. From December 2013 to April 2015, Mike was doing what he loved best, albeit this time he had the power of prayer firmly on his side, the Sri Lankan Cricket team did him proud winning the Asia Cup, World T20 and both away Tests and One-day encounters with England.
The day before, he passed away, he hosted a few of us fortunate to be call his close friends for a pre-birthday dinner at the SSC; Cristo Dias one of his closest school mates related a few of Mike’s exploits on the Rugby field where he won 1st XV colours in 1964/65, STC apparently lost just one match and that due to the indiscipline of Michael who shouted “Adho buroos” just as the penalty kick was taken by Rodney Patternott, he missed the kick and the stern referee re-awarded same which for Michael’s bad luck was converted. He also goes on record for tackling the referee and later blaming it on poor eyesight and visibility. As we parted that evening, he shook my hand unusually and firmly before saying “God bless, take care”.
Always be best of friends, wish the good times had not ended so soon,
What happy times and precious memories,
Though our lives go in separate ways our thoughts are still the same,
One day soon we’ll meet again and until then always remain best of friends…..
Dr. Stephan L. Anthonisz