OBITUARY:Rajan Pillai

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Rajan Pillai was a flamboyant businessman whose multi- million-dollar empire spanning six countries was built up on little more than a shoeshine and a smile.

Pillai's successes as a buccaneering corporate raider were prominently featured in international magazines and lauded. At home he earned the sobriquet "biscuit baron" after taking control of the Asian subsidiaries of Huntley & Palmer, the British biscuit manufacturing company which controlled Britannia Industries, India's largest bakery and biscuit- making concern.

But two years ago Pillai's luck began to run out. His creditors called in their debts and, unable to pay, Pillai was sued for their recovery. He was convicted in Singapore in April of cheating and criminal breach of trust. He faced a 14-year prison sentence, but fled Singapore on the day of sentencing. He arrived in India three months ago, as always in a blaze of publicity, saying he had no faith in Singapore's judicial system. In his home state of Kerala, south India, Pillai managed to obtain bail and a stay against his extradition to Singapore, despite an Interpol "red alert" for his arrest. But, earlier this month, he was arrested at a hotel in New Delhi, and died in jail after allegedly being denied medical attention for a chronic liver ailment.

Pillai was born in Kerala in 1948, the son of a small trader in cashews, and qualified as an engineer from TKM College, Kollam. Early in life Pillai wanted to become an international businessman and after investing wisely in a five-star hotel project in Goa, the west Indian beach resort, he moved to Singapore in the mid-Seventies to set up 20th Century Foods to package potato chips and peanuts.

Pillai's venture lost money, but he successfully charmed the US businessman Ross Johnson, head of Standard Brands, the giant American food corporation, and talked him into acquiring Pillai's fledgling concern and elevating him into Johnson's inner circle of executives. Johnson came to admire Pillai's daring and his ability to clinch a deal where none seemed to exist and in 1984 sent him to London to head the newly acquired Nabisco Commodities.

Soon after, Johnson took over Huntley & Palmer and handed its entire area of operation in Asia to Pillai, who in turn took over Nabisco's other Asian subsidiaries. Pillai then established links with BSN, the French food company, and by 1989 controlled six Asian companies worth over $400m.

At that point nobody suspected that Pillai's empire was being built on debt. Even though he claimed to own Britannia Industries, he actually controlled only 3 per cent of its equity and all the rest of his businesses too were a complex, interwoven and interdependent financial mesh.

At home, Pillai covered up his financial chicanery by cultivating Indian politicians in his luxurious seaside bungalow in Bombay and abroad, by hosting lavish parties for the globally wealthy and influential in his house in Holland Park, west London.

But in 1993 Pillai's creditors became suspicious and called in their debts. Pillai began selling off his companies to financial institutions. His mentor, Johnson, demanded the return of $30m which he had advanced Pillai to buy Britannia.

In the early Nineties the financially beleaguered Pillai moved to Singapore, but retained his business panache. He sold Ole, a company worth 70 cents, to Britannia India Private Ltd for $7.24m and that was to prove his undoing.

Singapore's Commercial Affairs Department, which was already investigating Pillai's business deals, completed its investigation in March 1993 and charged the former biscuit baron on 22 counts of breach of trust and fraud and running up a debt of $17m.

Kuldip Singh

Rajan Pillai, businessman: born Kerala, south India 1947; married 1983 Nina Gopika Nair; died New Delhi 7 July 1995.