By Pierre Lamuniere
Forty years ago, I bought a second-hand Volkswagen van and, with my wife, drove out of Switzerland. We crossed the unstable and at times dangerous lands of Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. Our destination was Nepal.
This relatively small country has always drawn the attention of the world, whether for the majesty of the Himalayas, the fascinating story of Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, the first men to reach the top of the world, or the legacy of the Gurkhas, those soldiers known as the bravest of the brave.
In the 1970s the Kathmandu Valley was a favourite destination for Western backpackers and an iconic place for the hippie movement. Ravi Shankar’s music, yoga and meditation along with fresh air and free marijuana were part of a magical cocktail.
Walking through Nepal’s capital by night, we could easily have encountered the fashionable, 20-year-old, long-haired man who had just opened Copper Floor, a nightclub frequented by tourists and locals alike. That young man was Binod Chaudhary and he would go on to form Nepal’s largest multinational company, becoming the first and only Nepalese on Forbes’ World’s Billionaires List.
Copper Floor was his first venture outside the family business. Although he came from a conservative background, his passion for pop music and his business acumen made the happening place a success ahead of its time. The place was popular with the hippie crowd, but also by many members of the royal family. Among them, Prince Dhirendra, the son of the then king of Nepal, became a close friend and was very helpful in a country where personal relations play such an important role.
I didn’t come across Chaudhary in those heady days in Nepal, but years later Binod Chaudhary invited me, with my son Michel, the publisher of the Asia Tatler titles, to spend three days with him in Nepal. I was really happy at the opportunity to return to the country after more than four decades and talk with this intriguing character.
Binod Chaudhary is 62 years old, but meditation and trekking have kept him looking younger. His steely-eyed gaze is softened by a bursting smile and he radiates charm, self-confidence and vitality. In one of the world’s poorest countries, Chaudhary has succeeded in building a business with a wide array of interests ranging from noodles to hospitality, home appliances, construction and banking. Together these make up the Chaudhary Group, the only multinational conglomerate headquartered in Nepal.
“I passionately love my country,” says Chaudhary, “but I am also proud of my family’s roots.” His grandfather was raised in the Indian state of Rajasthan but moved early to Nepal, invited by the ruling families to start doing business there. In those days, Kathmandu hardly had shops or markets, with most business conducted from people’s homes. Chaudhary’s grandfather would hire porters to carry clothes and fabrics around to find customers. He was also invited, with a small group of reliable merchants, into the palace courtyard to display the latest saris for the royal family.
“We are Marwadi,” says Chaudhary proudly. Marwadi people are one of the oldest trading communities from Rajasthan and have a strong entrepreneurial spirit. “We are hard-working, thrifty and reliable.
By tradition, the whole family is involved in the business and ready to take hardship. We have been blessed. Most of the successful business families in South Asia are Marwadi; the Birlas, the Mittals etc, all come from the same few square miles.”
Chaudhary’s father enlarged the family business. He opened Arun Emporium, the first department store in Nepal, and started to import a large range of products from India, Japan and Europe.
The young Chaudhary had wanted to become a chartered accountant, but when he was 18 his father became ill and all of a sudden he had to take the reins of the family business. “I would have liked to study further but I was required to do my duty,” says Chaudhary, “so I did.”
This worked for Chaudhary and entrenched in him a conviction: “Entrepreneurs can be made stronger by business schools, but most of their skills and talent are inborn; they can succeed with or without these schools.”
While Chaudhary respected his father’s legacy, as fresh blood in the business he had his own dreams and wanted to do things his own way. “My father was a simple and humble businessman. He would not indulge in power games and as a consequence he was left out of many business ventures by those who knew how to get the right connections.”
While the father and son had much in common, a quotation on the first page of Chaudhary’s autobiography, Making It Big, reflects one difference: “You have to sacrifice something to gain something else, my father told me. That is one piece of fatherly advice I could never accept. I want everything from life, not one thing at the cost of another.”
The young Chaudhary dreamed of travel, music and Bollywood movies, but he put all his energy into growing the business, developing new ideas and discovering new ventures. The turning point came during a conversation with a friend who worked for a travel agency. He had noticed on the luggage belts at Kathmandu airport the large quantities of instant noodles brought home by Nepalese families arriving from Bangkok.
Chaudhary flew to Thailand and convinced the owner of the famous Wai Wai noodle brand to build a collaboration with him outside the Land of Smiles. It was a masterful move. Today Wai Wai is Nepal’s most famous export, sold in 36 countries, and claiming a 28 per cent market share in India and 53 per cent in Nepal.
BONDS AND BUSINESS
On our first evening in Nepal, we are invited by our host to his home in Kathmandu for a private dinner. The large, modern, white house is big enough to accommodate the whole family when Binod and Sarika’s three sons, Nirvana, Rahul and Varun, visit their parents. Each of them is responsible for part of the Chaudhary Group’s 16 business divisions. A statue of the Hindu deity Ganesh reclines in the elegant living room, while the walls are peppered with a collection of paintings and photos of the family.
Sarika exudes a quiet strength that balances the hyperactivity of her husband. “She has always played an important role in the family,” says Rahul. “There are so many sacrifices to being the wife of a tycoon, but she is the guardian of our traditions and our values come from her.”
After the couple met, Binod’s father was at first against a marriage because Sarika belonged to another caste. But he came to like the dependable young woman and in the end gave his blessing on the condition that the wedding take place in Delhi. He was concerned that the family would be ridiculed by the community had it taken place in Kathmandu. And so it went.
Also attending dinner at the Chaudhary home were a number of other guests, among them Kaan Terzioglu, the CEO of the telecom operator Turkcell. He had come to Nepal to finalise a joint venture with the Chaudhary Group—the launch of a new telecom company, CG LifeCell.
“I have been dreaming of this venture for almost 25 years but the conditions were not in place,” says Chaudhary. “When I have a vision I can be very obstinate, but patient. I never give up. I love to make dreams become reality.”
We had learned that our friend Caroline Scheufele, owner and creative director of luxury watch and jewellery brand Chopard, was also in Nepal. She was travelling with Petra Nemcova, her brand ambassador, and Chaudhary invited them to join the party. Nemcova, a well-known model, is the founder of the Happy Hearts Fund. The charity’s mission is to rebuild safe and resilient schools in areas affected by natural disasters.
She launched her initiative after a personal tragedy. She had been in Phuket with her fiancé, British photographer Simon Attlee, on December 26, 2004, when the tsunami struck. She spent hours stranded in a tree but survived the disaster, wounded but safe. Attlee wasn’t so lucky. His body was identified 10 days later.
Chaudhary’s entrepreneurial brain never stops. During the party he went from one guest to another proposing new ideas, whether it was discussing the final details of the telecom deal with his Turkish partner or investigating a possible partnership with Nemcova and her initiatives in Nepal.
Giving back to the community is a key concern of Chaudhary, who established the family’s philanthropic Chaudhary Foundation in 1995. After a terrible earthquake struck Nepal in 2015, killing almost 9,000 people and injuring 22,000, not only did the Chaudhary Group distribute thousands of Wai Wai noodle packages to the desperate population, but the Chaudhary Foundation also spent US$2.8 million responding to the disaster and joined hands with Alibaba’s Jack Ma and other major donors to build 10,000 homes and 100 schools.
The foundation is active in education, health and social projects. One project, for example, involves creating a fine arts and craft village to re-energise old, traditional crafts, engaging women in them, and thereby creating jobs and preserving the traditional artisanal skills of the country.
During the course of the evening, Chaudhary has a new idea for Scheufele. Perhaps Chopard could design and sell jewels internationally that are produced by local artisans, he suggests. The project box never closes.
TREADING FINE LINES
The Nepalese entrepreneur is a master of relationship-building and has an incredible talent for connecting with people who can help business initiatives or enhance his authority, from prime ministers, including Narendra Modi of India and Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia, to spiritual leaders such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Bollywood stars such as Salman Khan, business tycoons and journalists.
“Networking and relationship-building come naturally to me,” he says, adding that people come into his life for many different reasons. “Sincere relationships always work both ways, not only with powerful people but also with those who have faded away from power. It’s a question of personal connection and chemistry.”
The Himalayan country was traumatised in 2001 by a terrible event. The entire Nepalese royal family, including Prince Dhirendra, was murdered by the king’s eldest son, Dipendra, who then committed suicide. This was the official account of the tragedy but it is something that nobody in Nepal has been able to digest, including Chaudhary.
Following the massacre, the country fell into civil war between Maoist insurgents and the army. It was an extremely dangerous time for everyone. But thanks to his neutrality and his ability to make friends in the right places, Chaudhary was able to survive in this terrible environment.
Years later, both Prachanda, the rebellion’s chief, and General Katawal, the head of the army, said their troops had survived on Wai Wai noodles because in the middle of the insurrection only Wai Wai trucks were able to continue driving around the country.
NEPAL FROM ABOVE
The following day Chaudhary organises a helicopter trip over Mount Everest. The weather is beautiful, but the pilot tells us that danger is never far away. The winds can change quickly and fog banks are always moving around.
The first stop is Tenzing-Hillary Airport, reputedly the world’s most dangerous. It serves the town of Lukla, which marks the starting point of the trek to Everest Base Camp. The sloping runway is just 460 metres long and is limited on one side by a wall and on the other by a cliff, making any wrong move extremely dangerous. Chaudhary admires the professionalism of the pilots. “Like in business, to survive they have to take quick and sometimes risky decisions,” he says.
When he was 16, Chaudhary stood in front of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai, a very exclusive destination at the time. He was impressed by the grandeur of the place and wanted to go in. But the family friend escorting him was reluctant. “Don’t go,” he told him. “They will throw you out.”
Ironically, 30 years later Chaudhary took over 50 per cent of the Taj Samudra in Colombo, part of the same Taj group, in order to bail the hotel out of serious financial difficulties. It was a highly risky move. He had no experience in the sector and Sri Lanka was torn by civil war. Nobody wanted to invest there. But his instinct was right and chance was on his side. The situation improved dramatically.
“It was one of the best deals I have ever signed,” says Chaudhary. Since then, the hospitality division of his group has become a pillar of the business and is the largest partner of the Taj Group, with properties in the Maldives, Nepal, Dubai and Thailand.
We continue our excursion and are now ascending in the chopper along steep valleys. “I love this country,” says Chaudhary. And it’s hard not to, given the spectacular view that the helicopter allows.
“Look at this beautiful landscape. Geography allowed us to live with the pride never to have been a colony. We only had a treaty with the British and we supplied them with our best fighters, the Gurkhas.” The Gurkhas continue to serve the British army today and have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Nepali soldiers are known for their loyalty and exceptional bravery.
At the foot of the Himalayas lies India, a country Binod Chaudhary knows very well. He has close ties with Prime Minister Modi, the largest part of his business is in India, he loves Bollywood and he chose Jaipur for his son Rahul’s wedding. Being an entrepreneur in Nepal is rarely an easy ride. So, will he ever move out of the country?
“Never,” he answers firmly. “I had the option to move to Singapore or London, but Nepal is my home and it will remain so till the end of my life. It’s a question of identity. We will, of course, continue to develop our presence in India, which is a critical market for us, but Nepal will always be the base. My office is walking distance from the maternity ward where I was born. I have covered only a few metres in all my life. I prefer to be the first and only billionaire in Nepal rather than one of 50 in India.”
Suddenly the clouds part and Mount Everest emerges in all its glory. The helicopter lands near a refuge for people trekking towards the top of the world. The oxygen is sparse, which makes us feel dizzy, and there is a slight sense of shame at having taken the easy way to this lofty, secluded spot.
Every year Chaudhary embarks on a one-week trek far from the madding crowd. This physical challenge is now part of his spiritual life. For years he was completely absorbed by his frenetic business activity and left little space for spirituality. But 13 years ago he met someone who would change his life: the respected Indian spiritual leader known as Guruji Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Through his Art of Living Foundation, the guru has millions of followers in 160 countries.
“In our first conversation we spoke about the Maoist insurgency in Nepal and I could see that his interest was born out of compassion. Soon after the meeting I felt myself drawn to him by some unknown attraction and thoughts of the guru kept coming into my mind,” says Chaudhary. Shankar became closer to him and soon became the master for the entire family.
“The more you achieve in the material world, the emptier you can feel inside,” says Chaudhary. “That’s why we all need a master to guide us. Guruji brought me a larger vision, not only in my personal life but also in my entrepreneurial life. Call it destiny, but Narendra Modi had also become very close to Sri Sri Shankar over time and he has become a strong cord that bound me and Modi together.”
We leave Mount Everest headed for Nawalparasi, 185 kilometres from Kathmandu, where the Chaudhary Group has built the only integrated industrial park in the country. Chaudhary has a large house there surrounded by a sprawling garden. He provides jobs for a large proportion of the local population. Here, there is no doubt that he is the boss. His instructions don’t meet with a reply but with execution; people listen to him with deference.
During Nepal’s civil war, Maoist guerillas occupied the industrial district in search of rest and food, but nobody was hurt. You feel that the place is a very emotional one for Chaudhary.
Near the factories, facing a statue of his father, an impressive Shiva temple known as Shashwat Dham has been built by the family. It is among the most visited monuments in the country outside Kathmandu. It’s striking to see how Chaudhary is able to approach every endeavour, whether spiritual, charitable or forging relationships, with the same degree of passion, commitment and business acumen.
SUCCESS AND SACRIFICE
Our final stopover is the Meghauli Serai hotel lodge in Chitwan National Park, which is owned by the Chaudhary Group and managed by Taj Hotels. The place radiates serenity. At dawn we begin a trek on the back of elephants. The rising sun pierces the fog, lighting up the lush fields of white gramineae. There is no sound. It’s like swimming in a sea of cotton.
“Look around at this beautiful nature. That’s true luxury,” says Chaudhary. “For some people money is not the issue; they can buy everything—beautiful houses, expensive jewels, cars and five-stars hotels. The best you can offer them is unique experiences. Bring them to the middle of the jungle or into the mountains, far from everything, with no electricity but comfortable tents with good beds and safe food. They must come to Nepal; there are so many beautiful and unknown places around.”
The peaceful environment allows the conversation to flow into more sensitive areas. The Chaudhary Group is a family business where all family members have a role to play. Each division reports to one of Chaudhary’s three sons, but overall control remains firmly in the hands of its chairman.
“You may be smart and sharp, having received a high-end education, but there is no substitute for experience and age. That’s the wisdom of grey hairs,” says Chaudhary. “Each of my sons has received a mission in the company. I trust them, but it’s my role to ensure that they are well supported to compensate for any possible weaknesses. I want the business to stay in the family. That being said, nobody can predict the future.”
Chaudhary remains passionate and full of energy, and it’s difficult to see him stepping down as the group’s chairman. But there is one factor that could see him leave the business stage, and that’s politics. Chaudhary is now a member of parliament representing the Nepali Congress, the main opposition party. But it’s not in his character to remain one among the crowd.
“You have to live a life you will never regret. If I did have a regret, it would be that while I was able to build a multibillion-dollar company in Nepal, I wasn’t able to do enough for my own country.” There is passion and sincerity in the way he talks. Transforming Nepal and making it a prosperous country is his ultimate dream.
“My country has great resources but our politicians are activists,” he says. “They fought the system, they fought the king, they fought the Maoists. They have spent all their lives fighting, so they didn’t get to know how to manage resources.
My country deserves to get out of poverty. I am obsessed with the idea that locals can achieve their aspirations, without suffering, without being exploited. The younger generation of Nepalis reach out to me and ask me to do something to help our nation. This call is what propelled me to try and do my part through politics. I am not sure whether I will be able to get to the top and transform this country, but I know I am going to make a sincere effort.”
But political leadership will come at a price. “Making politics in South Asia will never be an easy task. There are no rules and your opponents are capable of hitting below the belt.” More importantly, if elected into a leadership position, Chaudhary would be forced to abandon responsibility for the Chaudhary Group, the pride of his life. You can feel his hesitation at this alongside a strong attraction to providing political leadership.
“I am conscious of the fact that to aspire to a leadership role in politics is highly contentious and would be challenging, given my position in business. Look at what happened to Thaksin Shinawatra,” says Chaudhary, referring to the businessman who became prime minister of Thailand in 2001 and was overthrown by a military coup in 2006. Since then Shinawatra has lived in exile.
“I can easily continue to make the business grow, but there are thousands of family groups like ours,” says Chaudhary. “To have the opportunity to transform my country and to change the fate of millions of people… that’s something incomparable.”
It remains to be seen where the road will take Binod Chaudhary. But at the end of the day, it seems his father was right all along: at times you do have to sacrifice something to gain something else.
This story originally appeared on HongKongTatler.com.