Walter Duncan, a Scotsman from Glasgow sailed from Southampton for Calcutta on November 20, 1858 to start business in India. The firm he set up on arrival, in partnership with Patrick Playfair, was named Messrs Playfair, Duncan and Company located at 64, Clive Street, now Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Road. The long story of Duncan Brothers began with Walter Duncan starting a cotton business in January, 1859.
The Start of the Tea Business
In the Clive Street office Walter made acquaintance with one Charles Stewart Leckie who had an office in the same building and ran a business which included the agency of two Cachar tea gardens called Doloo and Jalinga. In 1860-61 Charles Leckie left India on health grounds making arrangements with Playfair, Duncan and Company to conduct his business. In the process Walter Duncan bought some shares of Doloo on behalf of Playfair and himself and with it the long journey of Duncans in tea began. Walter Duncan left India in 1869 returning to Glasgow. In December 1874 the partnership with Playfair was disolved and the brothers, Walter and William Duncan decided to start business on their own account. The new firm was then established with effect from January, 1875 under the name of Walter Duncan and Co in Glasgow and Duncan Brothers & Company in Calcutta.
Tea Becoming the Major Business
From 1880 onwards it became evident that the cotton business was declining and the focus of the company shifted to tea. New gardens were acquired and in 1890 the number of gardens in the agency rose to twelve with a planted area of 2,350 hectares. At the end of 1910 a notable addition was made by the acquisition from the McMeekin family of a controlling interest in Allynugger Company and three tea estates known as the trio-estates, Madhabpur, Patrakhola and Kurma. At the end of 1923 the estates in the firm’s agency increased to about 60, the planted area to 20,000 hectares and the crop to 14.5 million kgs per year.
Between the Two World Wars
The 1st and 2nd World Wars and the years between the two wars saw the company gradually growing. The sharp short recession of 1919-21 was followed by the prosperity of the twenties. The slump in 1931-32 caused a severe shock to the tea industry as a whole, however, Duncan Brothers managed to navigate through the difficult period without much damage. The 2nd World War caused serious hardship when gardens had to be run with minimum staff and shortage of food was a constant worry.
Partition of India
1948 saw significant changes both in London as well as in the East. In Calcutta, the Company which, since its incorporation in December 1923, had been a private one, was converted into a public company on July 31, 1948. Almost simultaneously steps were put in place to take on the agency’s interest in Sylhet. A new Company, Duncan Brothers (Pakistan) Ltd. came into existence from January 20, 1949 with its head office in Chittagong. On January 19, 1951 another major development took place when C. A. Goodricke Ltd. merged with Duncans and a new Company called Walter Duncan and Goodricke Ltd. was incorporated in the U. K.
The partition of India and the years that followed saw the steady expansion of the Company, in terms of area planted to tea and production. Following the Indo-Pakistan war in 1965, Duncan Brothers and Octavius Steel and Co. came under the same ownership and the head office moved from Chittagong to Dhaka in January 1970.
Liberation War and Independence of Bangladesh
The turbulent year of 1971 left the tea industry in a shambles. The damage to the property, factories and the business and plantations was extensive and in some cases irreparable. After independence Duncan Brothers (Bangladesh) Ltd. came into being with the challenge of rebuilding the business. The British and the Pakistani planters had left, the assured market of Pakistan was lost and Bangladesh tea was virtually unknown in the world market. The challenge was too big for the Company working with a handful of young Bangladeshi planters. Food became scarce, finance unavailable as a result of tea remaining unsold in the factories.
Becoming a Part of Camellia
The Company ran into serious financial difficulties incurring heavy losses during the 1971-74 period, when Lawrie Group Plc (also with a long history of 150 years in the subcontinent) came forward and assumed the controlling interest in Longbourne Holdings, the holding company of Duncan’s estates in Bangladesh. Another chapter in the history of Duncan Brothers began with the comany, becoming, a part of Camellia Plc of the U. K through its interests in Lawrie. Bangladesh tea gradually entered into the world market and established a reputation for its qualities. Internal consumption for tea in Bangladesh picked up and the business fortunes for the tea industry as well as for the Group improved. The Group's business has subequently grown from strength to strength.
Since the Camellia takeover the Group in Bangladesh has grown significantly in size and diversity. The Group took a long term view of its commitment to Bangladesh and has enlarged its operations in tea, diversified into insurance, leasing and various other areas over the last three decades. It is a large group now employing thousands of people. ‘Camellia House’, the Group’s headquarters in Dhaka is an impressive building, built in line with the group philosophy, of simplicity mingling beautifully with aesthetics. Tea has grown and now accounts for one-fourth of the country’s production. The associate companies, United Insurance, United Leasing and Duncan Products that the group set up have all become leaders in their respective fields. All this has been possible because of a unique corporate objective and a very efficient, ethical and hardworking management team.
The philosophy of Camellia is about planting seeds and nurturing them for future. Gordon Fox (the founder of Camellia and its former Chairman, a student of Zen and the Japanese Tea Ceremony) aptly summarised this philosophy as follows: “I would like to inform our shareholders of Camellia’s philosophy regarding its responsibilities, its management and its raison d`etre. Let me say at the outset that nothing I have seen or experienced in 40 years of professional life has led me to alter my view that a business can be run with a “human face”, for the benefit not only of shareholders but equally for its employees, as well as the general benefit of the societies and environments in which it works. In our group we particularly concern ourselves with the welfare of our employees in the conviction that the loyalty of a secure and enthusiastic employee will in the long run prove to be an invaluable company asset. I stress the long term advisedly, because our entire emphasis is towards the development of a worldwide group of business which by their very nature require their managements to take a long view. Many companies in the group are in excess of 100 years old. These enterprises have acquired particular skills, traditions and ethos, and we see ourselves more in the nature of custodians or trustees than as owners. That is, we do not see these assets as objects or commodities or bits of paper that can be traded, but rather as living entities from which, if properly managed, we might earn an attractive return on our investment; but also, and indeed primarily, towards which as individual enterprises we have responsibility of ensuring continuity, development and progressive growth.”