WKND Conversation: Meet Binod Chaudhary, Nepal's first and only billionaire
Nepali entrepreneur Binod Chaudhary, on building an empire tapping on gastronomical cravings and why 'Taj JLT' is a culmination of a life-long dream
Dr Binod Chaudhary, 65, is Nepal’s biggest export to the world after Mount Everest. Chaudhary, whose net worth is estimated at $1.6 billion (Dh5.88b), is the picturesque yet impoverished Himalayan nation’s first and only billionaire and has accumulated his wealth over the past four decades.
The affable and dapper Chaudhary, the head of CG Corp Global, is a proud third-generation Nepalese national of Indian descent. His grandfather, who belonged to Churi-Ajitgarh village from Rajasthan, had shifted his base to Nepal around 140 years ago to set up a textile business. Chaudhary, who is ethnically a Marwari, has business in his gene. He reminisces about bootstrapping his fanciful business concepts into a money-spinning reality. Wealth creation, he recalls, is his unbridled passion, as he’s not born with “the proverbial silver spoon”.
His initial business venture embodied the late 1970s’ Kathmandu that was basking in the glory of the Beatniks and the Flower Power generation. Chaudhary, then in his 20s and sporting long locks, had opened Copper Floor, a nightclub, which soon caught the zeitgeist of Kathmandu’s bohemian rhapsody, much to the delight of the Western backpackers and locals alike.
He struck out on his own outside the family business with Copper Floor, which was a sign of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin in somnolent Kathmandu. Copper Floor opened royal doors for Chaudhary. The late Prince Dhirendra of Nepal became a close friend of the budding entrepreneur and led to his intimate relationship with the former late King Birendra. The bonhomie stood in good stead in a country like Nepal, where close personal relations are key to business success. Chaudhary was a starry-eyed youth, who was passionate about travel, music and Bollywood movies, in his formative years. But passion took a backseat, as his biggest idea came fortuitously during an idle chatter with a friend who worked for a travel agency in Kathmandu. The friend had seen large quantities of instant noodles that were brought home by Nepalese families arriving from Bangkok, Thailand, on the luggage conveyor belts at Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) in Kathmandu.
Soon, Chaudhary flew to Thailand and convinced Kitti Pongsri, the managing director of the Wai Wai noodle brand, to get into a collaboration with him that would take the brand beyond the Land of Smiles. Wai Wai, which was launched in Thailand in 1972, opened a new manufacturing plant in Kathmandu in 1984, as Chaudhary spawned the brand’s success in the Indian sub-continent with technical support from the Thai group.And lo and behold, a noodle king was born. Wai Wai has emerged as Nepal’s most famous export over the years. Now, instant noodles are sold in over 40 countries in the world. It has 30 per cent of the market share in India, and over 60 per cent in neighbouring Nepal. Wai Wai factories are spread all across the world — from India, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan to Serbia and Egypt. Chaudhary’s business empire spans over 30 countries from Moldova to Kenya. Over 15,000 employees work for Chaudhary Group (CG), the only multinational conglomerate headquartered in Nepal, and CG Corp Global is for its global operations. The instant noodle-to-consumer goods conglomerate comprises 160 companies and deals in 123 brands, capturing the spirit of a diversified transnational corporate entity. The noodle king has diversified over the years from CG Foods, the maker of Wai Wai, to Nabil Bank, the first private bank in Nepal, and 134 hotel assets, including 36 owned and 98 managed properties, including a string of luxury hotels with India’s Taj Hotel’s chain owned by the Tata Group. His business portfolio is like a mini republic: from cement, telecom to hydropower and renewables coupled with education, biotech and Ayurveda. Hospitality sector may have been roiled by the raging novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic and many people have become collateral damage because of the contagion. But Chaudhary, a large-hearted employer known for his generosity, didn’t let go of a single employee because of a Covid-19-induced downturn in his businesses.
“My employees and colleagues have been my strength, they have stood by me through thick and thin amid these unprecedented hard times,” he says. Chaudhary, a die-hard optimist, sees “a new business opportunity despite the pandemic”. He has come up with a three-step mantra for the beleaguered hospitality sector. “Survive, revive and thrive” is CG Hospitality’s three-year plan, which is on display at Taj JLT, a 200-room property that was opened on December 8, 2019, in Dubai barely a couple of months before the pandemic struck. Chaudhary, who believes in establishing a key asset in a new geography ahead of expanding his business footprints, is actively exploring more investments and partnership opportunities in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. CG Corp Global, which has been operating in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region for the past 17 years, opened Taj JLT to tap into businesses, as Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC) has over 20,000 companies registered at Jumeirah Lake Towers (JLT). “Taj JLT is an ideal property to cater to this market known for affluent business houses and discerning business travellers, who are getting back their mojo, thanks to the wise and visionary UAE government’s mass vaccination drive,” Chaudhary says. He’s pinning his hopes on Taj JLT in his expansion plans in the region, as Dubai holds the centrestage because of its unique geo-strategic location. “Wai Wai is primed for an expansion.
Besides, Taj JLT will play a pivotal role in growing our wellness brand, The Farm, in Dubai and the MENA region,” he adds. Chaudhary’s sprawling white house in Kathmandu is a happy home for him, his wife Sarika and three sons Nirvana, Rahul and Varun. Each of his sons are responsible for part of the conglomerate’s 16 business divisions. An excerpt from Chaudhary’s autobiography, Making It Big captures his joie de vivre. “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,” says a poignant quote from the book. Chaudhary, who has an incredible talent for connecting the dots to power a new business venture, counts several former and current prime ministers, such as Narendra Modi (India) and Mahathir Mohamed (Malaysia) to spiritual gurus like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Bollywood stars such as Salman Khan, among his friends and well-wishers. Chaudhary was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by the Sri Sri University in Odisha, India, in 2015.
Today, he wears many hats — from being a philanthropist to a Member of Parliament (MP) in Nepal representing the Nepali Congress Party (NCP). Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has issued a grant to the Chaudhary Foundation, his non-profit organisation since 1995, to launch, develop and scale Baliyo Nepal that seeks to mitigate chronic malnutrition, stunted growth and hunger in the impoverished nation. Baliyo Nepal reveals the art-of-giving facet of Chaudhary’s persona that’s a happy blend of his keen interest in meditation and trekking. Chaudhary’s business trotternama bucks the stereotype of an exploited Nepalese and celebrates the success of a community, who are feted globally for their bravery, pride but seldom for their business acumen.
His material success couched in self-belief and making friends from all walks of life is a tale of road less travelled and where even angels fear to tread. Lessons learnt from life that no business school in the world teaches.