The Au Naturale Home Of ROHAN FERNANDO

Not many people can say that they are passionate about timber. But Rohan Fernando’s green thumb extends far beyond his own garden.

By Avanti Samarasekera.

Published on March 13, 2015 with No Comments

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“My favourite wood is Kumbuk.” This is not what I expect to hear from Rohan Fernando, the head of HVA Foods PLC, known for their brand Heladiv. After all, he is famous for being the tea guy.

But stepping into his home on Lake Drive, I understand. For one, I am greeted by a 100% wooden oar once used by Rohan during his rowing days. The floors are Kumbuk (bought from the Timber Corporation), the furniture is made from wood in different hues and a dining table made from an old Jak tree (purchased from Raux Brothers) completes the look. But his love for timber has bigger application than just his house.

DSC_4998-bw“My theory is that if you cut one tree, you should plant at least 10 more!”This is the thinking behind Rohan Fernando’s latest venture – a farm in Puttalam along the border of the Wilpattu National Park, which he hopes to convert into a 200 acre organic resort. The landowner holds a deed stamped by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, which awarded him the land following a 10-year legal battle with some environmentalists who thought he would destroy the ecosystem in the area. Harvesting forest products, especially timber, is currently the biggest factor behind deforestation in Sri Lanka. As an active environmentalist himself, he is careful to clear the shrub, but preserve the forest and ensure wildlife protection. “We cultivate and put up our lodgers in a harmonious organic resort. We also have 10 buffaloes that produce natural urea, which is rich organic manure for the land.”

He talks passionately about 35 Kumbuk trees he planted in the farm and his plans to increase the number. “They are masterpieces. I also have Kaluwara, Burutha and much more,” he adds. Rohan also has plans for a nursery to propagate 100,000 forest tree species like Kaluwara, Kumbuk, Burutha, Mee and Milla. “Every two years, we want to regenerate forest species that people have not seen and create a business out of these.” “Even though we plant these trees, we’ll never see their majesty in our lifetime because they take over 50 years to grow,” he explains of the reason why most people are not passionate about tree plantation. He goes on to say that all we see today is what has been planted before us, so whatever we plant today is really for the next generation. “A mistake a lot of people make is that they plant trees only to harvest,” he says. This mindset needs to be changed. A tree is not there to be harvested. He feels that it can be used at a certain point, but trees enhance our lifestyles in the most natural way.

DSC_4990Rohan’s five-year plan for the farm ends with him retiring there. His love for timber extends to his house as well. The wooden oar hung at the entrance corridor serves as an excellent conversation starter and sets an apt tone for the rest of the house.

“I love wood and glass,” Rohan explains. “Wood is the most natural thing in the world, and glass lets the lights in.” French windows on one wall of his living room look out into his backyard. His patio is adorned with armchairs and other wooden furniture. The item that catches my eye is a large, picnic-like table on his patio, which looks like it could put King Arthur’s round table to shame. Made from a 2,000 year old kumbuk tree, the table was purchased from a carpenter in Moratuwa who had fished the tree out of the Balangoda riverbed. The wood, preserved by water, now lies on Rohan Fernando’s patio and acts as the perfect table to sit around at night with friends.

Another type of wood favoured by him is Nedun. The front door to Casa Fernando is made from Nedun, a chocolate brown wood with a striking grain. Its colour is known to deepen with age.

Rohan is also especially proud of the main staircase in his house. Made from Burmese teak, with intricate carvings along either side, it is part of the staircase from the Woodlands Bungalow, the home of Sri Lanka’s first prime minister D. S. Senanayake. “D. S. Senanayake and Dudley Senanayake would have once walked on these very stairs,” he says proudly. Perhaps making up for all the wood used around his house, Rohan has planted several kithul palm trees and pani waraka trees bordering his backyard. While these trees provide a natural border to his property, they do not obstruct the view of the Colombo Golf Club, which lies just behind the house.

DSC_5068Remodeled by architect Murad Ismail, the house’s defining feature is its minimalistic approach – “easy to the eye and easy to maintain”. Rohan and his wife Varuni were keen that the house be functional, as opposed to ornamental. “Every item in the house is there on purpose and has some significance,” he claims. Two cannon shells that were gifted to him by two people who fought in Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war lie on either side of his living room. Most other items around the house are artifacts brought back by the duo from their annual trips overseas. Among these are Venetian masks, a carving of Lord Buddha from the Fujian province in China, masks from an ethnic market in Paris, and sculptures from Thailand and Burma.Intentionally or not, every item adorning the house – from paintings to ornaments – also features some element of wood. Perhaps a more unique piece is an original painting by George Keyt on a wooden window pane, which has been carefully preserved. Although he isn’t an ardent art lover, he says anyone can get inspired by looking at a painting, as it is a window to the artist’s mind.

Rohan and Varuni also inspire those around them. While Rohan heads HVA Foods, Varuni is a joint managing director of Triad Advertising. With his main focus now on the organic resort, he is loosening his reins on Heladiv, allowing his son to play a leading role. “I’m not letting go of the company, but at some point you have to take a back seat. And I’m ready for it.” He also gives an interesting viewpoint of family-run businesses, saying that companies need not be run by the family for its entire life, but rather by professionals in the field. He cites companies like Forbes and IBM that were once family-run companies, and understands that it is only for so long that one can provide new thinking and ideas. He feels that, at some point in time, you have to let go and trust that new blood coming into management will take the company forward. Despite taking this view, Rohan is still very much involved with the company and has spearheaded many plans. Heladiv and HVA’s premium brand Infinity are now available in 55 shops around China. Infinity is the company’s internationally registered brand of 100% Ceylon tea that is sold at these tea cafes. The cafes boast of a premium offering, in addition to other products such as Cuban cigars, French wines and champagne. The Chinese staff at the cafes is also clad in saree to promote Sri Lanka. “I have exported over 3,000 sarees to China. It’s a whole new export market,” Rohan jokes. The tea café concept was one he adopted in Sri Lanka after it proved lucrative in China. Heladiv Tea Club at the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct in Colombo is a relatively newer concept that has gained popularity in Sri Lanka. “Generally there are coffee lounges, where they also sell tea. We tweaked it to have a tea lounge where they can have coffee.” In addition to the Chinese market, Heladiv is also on the verge of launching a brand new product in the US market. Although he is unable to disclose the type of product, Rohan reveals that it is a multi-million dollar market.

Dealing with a hectic work schedule and saving the environment one tree at a time, Rohan says he owes a lot to his parents, his school (S. Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia) and the sport he loves – rowing. “In times of stress and difficulty, these are the three strong pillars that have always helped me deal with life. I can reminisce, and that gives me strength.”

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Most interesting artifact
My passion is rowing. It was actually an accidental introduction to rowing in college. I was in the boarding school, and rowing was one way to get out of the boarding for a few hours, so I immediately volunteered. But I eventually took a liking to the sport and I am still involved with it. I went on to captain the college team, row for Sri Lanka and become president of the rowing club. Now I’m the president of the National Rowing Federation. So it really became part and parcel of the shaping of my character. I think rowing needs a lot of discipline and you have to have a lot of passion to be involved in the sport. The oar at the entrance is one of the oars that I used. It’s a 100% wooden oar, which you don’t find anymore. I got it because it was a damaged oar, but I hold it very close to my heart.

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One of my favourite things in the house is the table on the patio. It was made from a 2,000 year old Kumbuk tree, or so I have been told. A carpenter in Moratuwa fished the 2,000 year old tree from the Balangoda riverbed. Discovering a Japanese secret that water preserves wood, he sliced the tree to export. But the government didn’t let him. I got to know about this, so I went and bought one piece. Aside from polishing it, I haven’t done anything else to it. And it still looks amazing.

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