OBITUARY:Rajan Pillai

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

SharePoint Administrator/Developer (C#, VB.NET, VISUAL STUDIO 2

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SharePoi...

European HR Director, London

£80000 - £95000 per annum: Charter Selection: A leading Global organisation Ja...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit