JAKARTA — Binod Chaudhary, Nepal’s best-known — and possibly only– billionaire, is famous for his surprising, even disarming, frankness.
Chaudhary, who heads a diversified global business empire ranging from real estate to telecoms, wrote in his autobiography that to get ahead in Nepal requires one to “hobnob with the right people” — perhaps a reference to his history of doing business with the country’s former royal family.
Such candor does not take long to surface when Chaudhary, president of the Chaudhary Group and estimated to be worth about $1.2 billion, discusses politics in Nepal.
More than 20 months after a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit his country, leaving nearly 9,000 people dead and 17,866 injured, and destroying roughly 1 million homes, Chaudhary said he was “not happy at all” with the pace of recovery.
“We should have done a lot more — we are still struggling. Our monuments are [just] starting to be restored,” Chaudhary, 61, told the Nikkei Asian Review on the sidelines of a Forbes business conference in Jakarta.
Many of Nepal’s ancient temples — which, along with its Himalayan scenery and trekking routes, have long been major tourist attractions — were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake. The famous white-domed Boudhanath temple in Kathmandu reopened in November, but the $2.1 million repair job was funded privately.
Disputes over the introduction of a new constitution, intended to stabilize Nepal’s divisive politics, resulted in a damaging delay to the start of the National Reconstruction Authority, the government’s main post-earthquake rebuilding agency, which was not formed until early 2016.
“Twenty-five years, 22 governments,” Chaudhary said, his usual steady baritone betraying a hint of exasperation at Nepal’s notoriously fractious politics and frequent changes of government. “Even to put in place the authority for reconstruction took a year — the parties were still fighting over who to put in charge,” said Chaudhary, who pledged $2.5 million of his own money toward the reconstruction of schools and homes.
Despite Chaudhary’s criticism of Nepal’s politics, however, it was political disruption that spurred his global business ambitions two decades ago as landlocked Nepal — one of Asia’s poorest countries and heavily influenced by neighboring India and China — began to look too small and too unstable.
The onset of a Maoist insurgency in the mid-1990s was the trigger for Chaudhary’s first foreign business venture in Singapore — a double irony given that it was a leftist, anti-capitalist rebellion that prompted the emergence of Nepal’s first multinational corporation.
“Businessmen have to learn to adapt themselves to changing environments,” Chaudhary said. “Nothing is static in this world.”
A better life
The Chaudhary family history is one of making the best of hardship and of transforming difficulty into opportunity. The founder of the business, Chaudhary’s grandfather Bhuramul, left the arid north Indian state of Rajasthan in the late 19th century, seeking a better life elsewhere in British-ruled South Asia.
Displaying similar adaptability — and a comparable nose for an opening — Binod Chaudhary transformed the Chaudhary Group into the powerhouse it is today when he noticed that Nepalis flying home from Thailand usually came back weighed down with consignments of instant noodles. By using leftover flour from a biscuit factory, Chaudhary began producing Nepal’s first instant noodles, under the brand name Wai Wai (Thai for “quick,” a nod to its inspiration).
Now, the Chaudhary Group is what the founder himself describes as a “diversified group with over 45 companies, 60 brands in 30 countries and over 6,000 employees under its wings.” The group’s operations include eight noodle plants in India — with more lined up for Bangladesh, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Serbia – as well as hotels scattered around Asia, and property developments and construction work in East Africa and the Persian Gulf.
Chaudhary said that technological advances have transformed how business is done. “When I started back in the ’70s, life was completely different. It was an age when we used to write letters, when we used to go to [the] telecoms department to make overseas calls,” he recalled. “Connectivity has changed lives, but it has made the world open and free, so competition is of a different scale.”
Chaudhary said that most old-style businesses will have to adapt or die. That daunting counsel comes, however, with an encouraging, if perhaps obvious caveat: Risk-taking and hard work can go a long way toward success.
“The way most businesses are run is under threat because of the new tech-based [disruption that is] taking place,” he said, adding that Chaudhary Group has set up a venture capital unit to harness so-called “disruptive businesses.”
Technology-reliant innovators such as Airbnb and Uber, for example, have challenged, or “disrupted,” existing hotel and taxi services. Rather than be caught out by trailblazing competitors, Chaudhary prefers to get in on the act by funding new ventures.
“Airbnb has 700,000 rooms in no time. Uber has become the world’s largest taxi company with no cars,” Chaudhary noted. “If you wake up, if you can put together a system to not miss the bus. It is a huge opportunity,” he said, citing the photographic company Kodak and mobile phone maker BlackBerry as companies that failed to adapt to technological advances.
A different perspective
A businessman who for a period led a “double life” as a politician — he was a member of Nepal’s parliament from 2008 to 2012 — Chaudhary believes that politics is changing in tandem with business and technology.
“The time has come when we look at politics in a different perspective,” he said, commenting on the unexpected U.S. presidential election victory of Donald Trump, a billionaire who made a late-life transition to politics. “The whole world has become one; people are competing trying to attract [foreign direct investment],” he said. “People are making radical changes.”
Chaudhary did not answer directly when asked if he planned to emulate Trump. However, he said: “In my country it is late, it is overdue, people have to think out of the box, people want change.” “People want persons who can deliver, who have delivered,” he added for Trump’s victory.
Chaudhary dismissed the notion that the hard-charging, deal-making nature of the business world clashes with the inertia and necessary compromises of politics. “The rules of the game are the same whether you are running a government or business,” he said.
“In many ways in government you have a lot of things on your side — you are calling all your own shots, so it is easier,” added Chaudhary, who has traveled frequently to Japan since joining the Chaudhary empire when he was 18 and becoming a self-declared fan of the Japanese work ethic.
Chaudhary thinks it is more difficult to be a successful businessman than a winning politician, especially in poorer developing countries such as Nepal, although the country fared moderately well among those surveyed in the latest global annual “ease of doing business” league table, published by the World Bank last October.
Although it dropped seven places in the past year to 107th among 190 countries covered, Nepal was the second-best business location among the low-income countries surveyed after Rwanda. However, corruption and poor infrastructure along with political instability are factors hindering business in Nepal, the suevey found.
Transparency International ranked Nepal at number 130 of 175 countries in the 2015 edition of its widely cited global corruption index, published last January, and the World Economic Forum listed it at 98th among 138 countries covered in its latest economic competitiveness index, released in September. The WEF noted that Nepal’s sound macroeconomic management was undermined by poor infrastructure.
“In business you have to face the practical problems and limitations of the overall enabling environment, but also, in the Third World, the artificial impediments that the government and parties put forward,” Chaudhary said. If business people could overcome such obstacles, he noted, “commercial success should soon follow.”Show