Indonesian businessman Sukanto Tanoto, ranked among the richest individuals in his country, learned from an early age to prioritize hard work, responsibility, and charity. The son of Chinese-born parents who immigrated to Indonesia, Mr. Tanoto started off in business selling plywood products through his RGM company in the early 1970s. Now known as RGE Group, his $15 billion corporate family encompasses oil and natural gas products, as well as pulp and paper, palm oil, and a range of other agribusiness concerns.
Sukanto Tanoto’s father relocated from China’s Fujian Province to Medan, Indonesia, and began operating a small family business that sold the spare parts needed by oil and gas companies. Sukanto Tanoto, the eldest of nine children, was born the year his father went into business in Indonesia. From an early age, he assisted his father in the shop. By the time he turned 17, the young Sukanto Tanoto had to drop out of school to take over the business due to his father’s illness. Even so, the value of a good academic and practical education has been one of the driving forces of Mr. Tanoto’s life. He has continued on a journey of lifelong self-education in business and other fields. He has additionally taken high-level courses at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Building on his father’s experiences, the young Sukanto Tanoto developed an eye for detecting lucrative streams of income. From a staff of four, including himself, he grew the family’s spare parts business into a company with capital of $1 million inside of three years. His smart business sense led his company to take advantage of the growing demands on Indonesia’s oil industry during the global energy crisis of the early ‘70s. By his mid-20s, he had earned in excess of $10 million and controlled an international corporation.
Not content to confine his interests to a single commodity so dependent on the whims of the market, Mr. Tanoto went on to expand into timber products and palm oil production, often against conventional business wisdom in Indonesia. Although an old saying describes immigrant Chinese families’ limited business activities with the “three knives” metaphor—knives of the kitchen, tailor, and hairdresser—Sukanto Tanoto has developed his own business concerns in several sectors of the economy, and has expanded his generation’s ideas of what immigrant families can accomplish.