Stewardship was inherent in our family business long before we had a word to describe it. Three generations ago, my great-grandfather, Khanchand Vaswani, opened a small textile retail shop, operating with values that his father, Seth Tolaram, embodied – Humility, Respect, Courage, Commitment and Trust. Each subsequent generation has internalised this and understood that the business is ours to tend for the good of those around us – and to leave better for the next generation.
Khanchand Vaswani with family and townsfolk outside our shop in Malang, Indonesia.
In 1948, our family settled in Malang, Indonesia, after a long, arduous journey. The aftermath of the partition of India meant that there was no certainty of returning to our ancestral home in Sindh, so he started a business to sustain the family and gradually laid down roots within the community.
From early on, the family recognised the need to give back to those who embraced us. Khanchand recruited fellow migrants and locals who worked side-by-side at a time when Indonesia, too, was establishing its independence, and all employees were treated like part of the family. Many remained for decades, imprinting knowledge and wisdom that would shape the future of Tolaram. Several times a year, during festive seasons, family and employees would head to wholesale markets to buy stationery and food items, filling goodie bags to distribute at local temples, schools or hospitals – the seeds of our philanthropic giving.
Early days of Tolaram giving.
In East Java, the sense of community and a desire to support one another was strong, and over time, the shop became a focal point of hospitality. We thrived because my great-grandparents understood that our success depended on how we shared it with those around us.
Cultivating courage and resilience
Khanchand handed over the reins of the business to his son, Mohan, in 1957 with the mandate to take the Tolaram brand international. Mohan’s cousin Vishu joined soon after, and with this second-generation driving force, the business grew beyond textile retail to manufacturing in Indonesia and then beyond. In 1975, Tolaram moved its headquarters to Singapore and, over the next decade, expanded to the Americas, Europe and Africa.
Lagos, Nigeria, in the late 70s.
With new territories came new challenges, and we began to develop tenacity by facing them head-on. Whether it was the dissolution of our first major partnership, political turmoil, rapidly changing laws, or currency fluctuations, Mohan and Vishu accumulated essential experience through hardship, and even failure. By the mid-eighties, they understood the opportunities inherent in emerging markets, including the long-term potential of Africa, where we decided to stay and build.
Empowering an ownership mindset
By the start of the millennium, Tolaram had completely pivoted away from the textiles industry and firmly established itself as a consumer goods manufacturer. The third generation of the family had joined the business, and there were now teams of professionals leading expansion across different parts of the world. To allow for maximum agility, everyone was encouraged to think and act like owners, regardless of seniority. Proactive responsibility allowed us to scale quickly and respond to dynamic business environments in countries like Nigeria.
Tolaram's first factory In Ota, Nigeria.
As owners, we were also ready to demonstrate our commitment to new geographies through investments in factories, logistics, and an extensive backward integration strategy that created jobs for local communities and supported a thriving economy of microentrepreneurs. Over time, our relationships with these communities deepened through increasingly structured corporate social responsibility programmes and philanthropy.
Taking a long-term view
In 2015, the second and third generations of our business began to think more deeply about longevity. This culminated in Tolaram being restructured as a trust, with two new entities introduced alongside the operating business – Maitri Asset Management, a wealth management company, and Ishk Tolaram Foundation, a philanthropic organisation. From inception, these entities embraced responsible investing, sustainability and strategic philanthropy as core principles, aligning themselves with Tolaram’s belief in doing well by doing good.
As we approach our 75th anniversary in 2023, we are revisiting our purpose as an organisation at a time when trust in institutions is low, and many of the world’s most pressing issues are coming to a head. “Creating Possibilities, for Generations” was generated after extensive dialogue with our global teams and encompasses what we do best as an organisation. As we build forward, we must continue to ask ourselves what possibilities we can create to leave behind a better business and world for all.
Tolaram's second, third and fourth generation.
The answers remain a work in progress, but as my generation increases its participation in the business, we find ourselves returning to our origin story and the rich lessons passed down by those who came before us – starting with our values and ending with the reminder that wealth is not ours to own but to steward for a time, and always to be shared.
Posted 02 February 2023
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