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The Maharaja of Mayfair.
POLYESTER KING

How this synthetics tycoon went from teenage Indian emigrant to one of Indonesia’s richest men

By Manu Balachandran

Sri Prakash Lohia could well be the poster boy for immigrants all over the world.

Almost four decades ago, a 19-year-old Sri Prakash moved to Indonesia from India to make a new life. Today, he is Indonesia’s third richest man, according to Forbes.

As the chairman and managing director of Indorama Corporation—one of the world’s largest polyester producers—the 62-year-old billionaire keeps a rather low profile and little is known about his remarkable business journey.

But, not only is he one of Asia’s richest men—with a net worth of $4.6 billion—the Lohias are also among the the top 50 wealthiest families in the continent, according to a recent report by Forbes. And his extended family is no less wealthy—Sri Prakash’s wife Seema is the sister of the world’s 82nd richest man, Laxmi Mittal.

So how did a teenager from India achieve this feat? Quartz has culled some highlights of Sri Prakash’s business life. The Lohias did not respond to an interview request.

All in the family

The Indorama Corporation—a $10 billion textile and petrochemical company—was founded by Sri Prakash and his father, Mohan Lal Lohia, in 1973.

“Indo is for Indonesia and Rama is after the God Rama,” Sri Prakash said in 2013.  Born in Kolkata in 1952, Sri Prakash studied commerce at the University of Delhi before graduating in 1971. In 1973, the father-son duo set out for Indonesia, then under the military leadership of Suharto, an army general who wrestled control of the country from its founder president, Sukarno.

The duo set up Indorama Synthetics, a producer of spun yarns with a manufacturing facility in Purwakarta, a city in Indonesia’s West Java province. ”The hardest period was only the first three to four years,” Sri Prakash said in an interview to the Jakarta Post in 2005. Since then, the company has grown to become Indonesia’s largest producer of textile raw materials and has manufacturing facilities spread across Indonesia, Uzbekistan, and Thailand.

As of 2014, Indorama Synthetics recorded net sales of $726 million with a net profit of $4 million (pdf).

In the late 1980s, Manohar Lal split the empire between his three sons to avoid any future family disputes. Sri Prakash’s elder brother Om Prakash was sent to India, where he set up Indorama Synthetics. Aloke, Sri Prakash’s younger brother, moved to Thailand to set up Indorama Holdings, a wool yarn producer.

Polyester king

By the mid 1990s, Sri Prakash diversified Indorama Synthetics and began manufacturing polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is used for manufacturing plastic bottles of beverages including Coke and Pepsi. Around the same time, Sri Prakash’s younger brother, Aloke, also started building a PET manufacturing company, Indorama Ventures, in Thailand.

In 2008, the brothers decided to merge their PET businesses, with Sri Prakash selling his stake in two polyester fiber and yarn companies and two purified terephthalic acid companies to Indorama Ventures, in exchange for a stake in the larger Indorama Ventures. Today, Indorama Ventures has annual revenues of $8 billion and is the world’s second largest maker of PET bottles. Sri Prakash is the chairman of Indorama Ventures, with a 34% stake.

“It (polyester) is the basic raw material for our yarns,” Sri Prakash said in an interview to the Jakarta Globe. “For years we had to import polyester from Taiwan but I decided I could do it myself so we bought existing plants from all the big players including from Dow Chemicals in Italy, Dupont in the US and SK Chemicals in Poland and Indonesia.”

In 2006, Sri Prakash set up base in Africa and invested in the fledgling petrochemical industry by acquiring Nigeria-based Eleme Petrochemicals Company. Until then the company was owned by the government-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and Indorama picked up the company for $225 million. 

That acquisition raised eyebrows because Eleme had been underperforming for years and remained unprofitable. But since the acquisition, Eleme has staged turnaround and saved Nigeria some $1 billion by reducing resin imports, according to Lohia. Resin, a plastic product, is used to manufacture items such as Crocs shoes, tennis strings, and auto parts.

Indorama Corporation is now the largest foreign investor in West Africa’s petrochemicals sector and has so far invested close to $2 billion in the country. The group is also in the midst of setting up a $1.2 billion fertilizer plant in Nigeria and in 2014, it acquired a 66% stake in Industries Chimiques du Senegal, a state-owned fertilizer company in Senegal.

And Sri Prakash isn’t done yet. With son Amit Lohia, who is currently Indorama Corporation’s group managing director, the 62-year-old billionaire is still involved in running Indorama’s operations.  The group operates in as many as 19 countries now with annual revenues exceeding $10 billion. “Dad is more of a risk-taker. He operates from the gut, and his gut is usually right,” Amit said in an interview to Forbes last year.

Art lover

But it is not all business and plastics for Sri Prakash. He is also a well-known art aficionado.

As one of the world’s biggest collectors of rare books, Sri Prakash boasts a collection that includes a 16th century edition of The Holy Bible and an 18th century version of the Quran. He is also the world’s second largest collector of lithographs—an illustration printed from a stone block onto paper—including many from the 17th century when the art was invented.

In London, where he occasionally lives, Lohia spent $75 million on renovating a 243-year-old mansion in Mayfair. That took him five years and help from a number of historians, designers and craftsmen.

It isn’t without reason that some call him “the Maharajah of Mayfair.”