How to turn shop the size of shipping container into $1.8 bn multinational

Mohan Vaswani’s father, who started selling textiles 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 Vaswani now oversees Tolaram Group, a Singapore-headquartered company with an estimated value of $1.8 billion. Tolaram 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 is expanding 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.

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.

During its seven decades, Tolaram has ventured into about 100 businesses, according to Vaswani’s nephew Sajen Aswani, who is chief executive officer of the group. About 75 percent failed, but the one in four that succeeded made up for i...

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