The first shop opened by Vaswani family in the name of Tolaram in Indonesia
How A Sindhi Family Shop Turned Into Billionaire Multinational Tolaram Group Of Companies
During last seven decades Tolaram Group has ventured into about 100 businesses across 75 countries. It owns a bank also and building a Port in Nigeria
Sindh Courier Monitoring & Research Desk
Mohan Vaswani’s father, who started selling garments in 1948 from a shop the size of a shipping container in a small town in Indonesia, once told him “One day you will operate across the world.”
Eighty-year-old Mohan Vaswani now oversees Tolaram Group, a Singapore-headquartered company with an estimated value of over $1.8 billion. Tolaram Group is building a port in Nigeria, producing paper in Estonia, running a bank in Indonesia and supplying power in India. It has food production and distribution operations across Africa and sells to more than 75 countries. Now, the company has expanded into digital services and plans to add a hedge fund to its wealth operations.
How the company got here is based on those 70-year-old roots, forging a group that still feels more like a collection of startups and separate businesses than a multinational conglomerate. One of its latest ventures, an online loan business called Tunaiku, operates almost as a distinct venture within the group’s PT Bank Amar Indonesia.
Mohan Vaswani – The Chairman of Tolaram Group of Companies
And while the family controls the firm, day-to-day operations at all 18 business units are run by professional outside managers, who are encouraged to try new ideas.
“We are not afraid,” Mohan Vaswani said. “When we see opportunities, we are ready to take the risk.”
During its seven decades, Tolaram Group has ventured into about 100 businesses, according to Mohan Vaswani’s nephew Sajen Aswani, who is chief executive officer of the group.
Mohan Vaswani ascribes the group’s culture to the fact that the family are originally from Sindh, a province in today’s Pakistan that has long had a reputation for producing entrepreneurs at home and overseas.
“The Sindhi are a business community,” Mohan Vaswani says. “They are entrepreneurs. Even if they only have a small amount of money, they start their own business because they don’t like to work for anyone else.”
As early as the end of the 18th century, family members had come to Indonesia, a popular destination at the time for Sindhi expats. Having worked in Indonesia before, Mohan Vaswani’s father, joined them after the partition of India in 1947 to escape the religious violence that had engulfed the region, setting up his shop in Malang on the island of Java.
Mohan Vaswani joined his father’s business when he was 10, and took over the firm at the age of 19. He expanded from distribution to manufacturing and established plants abroad — the U.S., the U.K., Germany, South Africa and the Baltic states.
As an example of how he pushed the group into new businesses, he tells how he set up the first major overseas operation in the 1970s.
“I told a friend of mine who has business in Africa that I wanted to diversify out of Indonesia. And he said ‘Why don’t you come to Africa?'”
“Well, I don’t know anything about Africa,” Mohan Vaswani replied.
His friend told him to come for a two-week holiday to see. Mohan Vaswani traveled to Nigeria, then Ghana and Ivory Coast. A month later, he started a business in Lagos in Nigeria, which had the highest per-capita income of the three and where people were prepared to pay upfront, lowering the risk.
In his office in a high-rise industrial block on the outskirts of Singapore, Mohan Vaswani looks at pictures of his family — from one decorated with a Hindu flower chain of Grandfather Seth Tolaram, after whom the company is named, down to his nine grandchildren.
Mohan Vaswani didn’t follow the typical Asian family business model, where operations, wealth and family members are interwoven and all controlled by a patriarch.
“We decided that family members stay at the shareholder level,” says Vaswani. “If a professional hired from the outside makes a mistake, you can sanction the person. With family members, it’s more sensitive.”
That may be one reason the company has avoided the fate of many family businesses that fail once the enterprise is handed over to the second or third generation.
Overall control remains in family hands. Tolaram’s business unit, comprising all commercial operations, is headed by Aswani, the CEO, who studied economics at the University of London. The Ishk Tolaram Foundation, a philanthropy unit established in 2016, is headed by his daughter Sumitra Aswani, a trained doctor. The family office, however, is managed by a team run by Manish Tibrewal, who joined in 2004 as a finance controller in Tolaram’s noodles production unit in Nigeria.
The group is ultimately owned by Mohan Vaswani, his two sons, three nephews, a cousin and the foundation.
As chairman, Mohan Vaswani is no longer involved in day-to-day operations, but he comes to the office each day and is consulted on major decisions made in the family office and the business.
His passions are philanthropy and gardening — when he travels to Tolaram’s operations, he makes sure every factory has a well-kept garden.
He also oversees the expansion of the group, which now has more than 10,000 employees, compared with about 1,000 in the 1970s, when the company focused on Indonesia. He says he prefers the group to grow organically rather than through acquisitions, hiring young people and grooming them to the company culture.
The company is currently expanding in parts of Africa and Indonesia, says Aswani the CEO, with a focus on consumer-related and digital services. Tunaiku has clocked up more than 1 trillion rupiah ($65.5 million) in small loans to individuals, company data show.
Binding it all together is a strong family loyalty that has seen the generations move from one country to another and start businesses around the world.
“In our DNA, our allegiance is to the Tolaram family,” Aswani says.
Roots and Evolution
The Group is named after Seth Tolaram, who was a well-regarded physician in Sindh before the Partition. Seth Tolaram dedicated his life to the welfare of underserved communities, and Tolaram Group carries his philanthropic ideals to this day.
Seth Tolaram, who was a well-regarded physician and philanthropist in Sindh
The Partition drove Seth Tolaram’s youngest son, Khanchand Vaswani, to move to Indonesia, where his family had already established modest trading links several decades before. With the support of his wife, children, and nephews, Khanchand went on to set up a humble tailor shop called Toko Vaswani in Malang, East Java. With that, the beginning of the Tolaram business was born.
In 1957, Mr. Khanchand’s son, Mohan Vaswani (current chairman), joined the business. During this time, Mr. Khanchand imparted to his son values, knowledge, and business skills as the two worked on expanding business together.
In 1961, Vice Chairman, Vishamkar Adnani, joined the Group and helped grow the textiles shop into a larger retail, wholesale, and trading business in fabrics and garments. Over the next few years, Group expanded its reach in Indonesia and started operations in other cities. In 1968, Group set up an office in Singapore.
In the 1970s, Tolaram began manufacturing textile-related products and relocated its corporate headquarter to Singapore. During the same period, the business ventured into Africa for the first time and diversified from its core business to include real estate and consumer goods.
In the mid-80s, members of the third generation of the family along with high-caliber professionals joined the business. Around this time, the business expanded into new markets and continued to grow within Africa. In 1982, Tolaram Group ventured into the manufacturing of fibers in the US, and in the UK.
Tolaram Group went through period of expansion with manufacturing entities set up in Asia, America, Africa, and Europe. Along with this, the business diversified further, branching out into the distribution of Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) and manufacturing of paper products.
By this time, the company had established their presence in Africa, and entered into multiple joint ventures. The Group ventured into Estonia after the lifting of the Iron Curtain. It also entered a joint venture with the Salim Group, opening the first instant noodle factory in Nigeria.
In the new millennium, Tolaram Group began to consolidate its businesses into select industries and geographies. The company expanded beyond manufacturing to marketing and distribution of consumer products, with a focus to brand building. While it continued to grow businesses in consumer goods, it also ventured into infrastructure and energy projects.
Furthering it to become brand builders, the company developed and grew brands in the different industry sectors. These brands remain market leaders in their respective areas today. It also made name known in the Digital Services sector in Nigeria and Indonesia.
This decade also saw Tolaram signing joint ventures with two global Multinational companies – Arla and Kellogg, and the introduction of fourth generation family members into the business.
The Group has 70 years of successful international entrepreneurship in emerging markets. It is currently focused on growth in Consumer Goods and Digital Services. In 2015, Tolaram Group restructured as a Trust with the original shareholders now serving as seven of its trustees and Ishk Tolaram Foundation becoming a 25% beneficiary. Ishk Tolaram Foundation undertakes social services in various African countries.