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 cansucceed 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.
This story appears in the May 2019 issue of Indonesia Tatler. For the full story, grab the copy at your nearest newsstand, or subscribe here.