The milk of human kindness: Meet the Rausings

They're among Britain's biggest philanthropists, giving away millions each year. But you won't find the Rausings on the gossip pages. As one of the Swedish heiresses buys a UK publishing house, Ian Irvine unwraps the elusive Tetra Pak billionaires
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Fortunately, in a much quieter and dignified fashion, there is another way. Last week it was announced that Sigrid Rausing had acquired Granta, the distinguished independent publishing house and magazine. The company wasn't in difficulties - it made a modest profit last year - but it will undoubtedly feel more secure with the backing of one of the world's wealthiest women. She is also funding Portobello Books, a new independent publisher, led by Philip Gwyn Jones, whose first titles appeared this month. This was only the latest of her many and very generous acts of cultural and social goodwill. Her charitable trust this year disbursed £13.5m and next year plans to do more. Though her name, her wealth and her philanthropy may be unknown to many people in the country, it seems probable that this is entirely to her liking and that of her family.

Unlike many other plutocrats, the Rausings rarely appear in the papers, though they do at least once each year on the publication of that pre-eminent gawkers' guide, The Sunday Times Rich List. When the Swedish brothers Hans and Gad Rausing arrived here with their families in 1983 they at once took the number one slot with an estimated £7bn between them. This came from their co-ownership of the packaging company founded in 1950 in Sweden by their father, Ruben Rausing.

The enterprise first flourished through the invention of the Tetra Pak, the efficient and hygienic waxed card container, and under the brothers' direction it grew to be the world's largest supplier of cartons and bottles for milk, soup, fruit juices and other liquid products. Today what is now the Tetra Laval Group employs 20,000 people in 165 countries. Gad later moved on to live in Switzerland (where he died in 2000). In 1996 when Hans reached 70 he sold his share of the business to his brother. His and his children's wealth is thought to be in the region of £5bn.

The brothers first came to the UK because this country has a very lenient tax regime for wealthy foreigners. It's not just the climate and the shopping in Bond Street that brought Roman Abramovitch and Boris Berezovsky to London. As long as they are registered as "non-domiciled" in the UK, which means that they have ties with their home country and intend to return there at some point in the future, they only pay tax on their income in this country. This loophole means that many foreign nationals pay no tax anywhere in the world since their money is deposited in offshore tax havens. Of the 40 billionaires living in Britain, 13 are foreign nationals.

From time to time politicians make noises about doing something about non-domiciled status when the possibility of raising large sums for the Treasury appears to outweigh the likelihood of many non-doms taking themselves and their UK investments elsewhere (pity poor old Chelsea FC if that happens). Gordon Brown has indicated that he has been considering changes, but nothing as yet has come of it. Lord Rothschild, not short of a few hundred million himself, took a pragmatic view in print of the value of the non-dom millionaires and billionaires among us: he had found them an invaluable resource of cash and high-level contacts abroad when he required them for his many cultural responsibilities like the Heritage Lottery Fund. A quick call to a Getty is obviously much easier than the bureaucratic tedium of trying to extract some cash from the Government.

Certainly many non-doms have been very generous in their charitable giving, but the Rausings have been outstanding over the past decade. Hans Rausing gave £2.5m towards a new mathematics centre at Cambridge University. There were also substantial gifts to the Courtauld Gallery, the National Gallery and the NSPCC. He also funds scholarships for doctoral students at Imperial College London. Last year he gave £1.5m towards brain tumour research.

Both of Rausing's daughters, Sigrid and Lisbet, have their own charitable foundations and disburse considerable sums. The Sigrid Rausing Trust was founded in 1995 and since then has given away about £60m. This year it became the fourth biggest philanthropic enterprise in the country and gave grants of £13.5m to a variety of human rights, women's rights and environmental groups, including Amnesty International, Victims of Torture, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam. From next year the trust will annually distribute £15m. Sigrid Rausing supports refugees from Burma, sex-trafficked women in Albania, Ethiopian women damaged in childbirth, indigenous tribes in Colombia, slum dwellers in Kenya and victims of domestic violence in Dorset. She gives money to protect child workers, to educate people about landmines, to monitor illegal logging in South-east Asia, to limit toxic waste and to end discrimination against gays and lesbians.

She observes: "I always had a really strong sense that one has to give something back. It's easy for inheritors to slip into thinking that the economic position they are in is something other than accidental. Inherited wealth or position is, of course, never deserved, by definition. It's just incredibly lucky."

The major enterprise of Lisbet Rausing's Charitable Fund is a research project run from the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University to record languages around the world that are at risk of extinction. Out of some 7,000 languages in the world, more than half could disappear by the end of the 21st century. She has given £20m and says: "It's an incredibly romantic project: three elderly speakers of this, four of that. I do love languages." Other recent grants include $5m to Fauna and Flora International (of which Lisbet is vice-chair) and $5m to Harvard University for its Open Collections Project. Lisbet is an academic, a historian of science, who taught at Harvard for several years.

Sigrid studied history at York University and then did a PhD in anthropology at University College London. The fieldwork for her thesis took her to a godforsaken collective farm on an isolated peninsula on the north-west coast of Estonia. "It was wild in a way that doesn't exist in the West any more," she says.

Lisbet, Sigrid and their brother, Hans Christian, all now in their early forties, grew up in the small academic town of Lund in Sweden. The Rausings, despite their astonishing wealth, have always lived modestly, and have always shown considerable respect for academic and intellectual pursuits (Hans's wife, Marit, is a former lecturer in medieval German.) When they were running Tetra Pak Gad and Hans often seemed to business acquaintances more like shy dons than industrialists (both had PhDs).

One financier remembers a meeting in Hans's office in Lund: "His conversation was sprinkled with literary references. It seemed to me that he was almost more interested in literature than he was in the business. Half way through the meeting someone in the room mentioned a book by a Swedish writer and Hans dashed out of the room and ordered his secretary to go and get it at once."

Lisbet remembers her childhood in Lund: "We didn't have cooks or chauffeurs, or anything. Sweden is different from England that way. More classless. And I am glad because it meant I learned how to do things: how to cook and so forth.

"It's good for families to pitch in and help each other. My younger brother and sister and I always had the same pocket money as everyone else, and we went to normal village schools. I suppose some of the other children might have been aware of our family being different. But the little medieval university town I grew up in was very academic. A lot of the kids were children of vicars and doctors.

"My father never worked on weekends. And he always stopped work early on Fridays so we could go out and ride. When we got home after our ride my mother would make pancakes for us and my father would cook dinner for us.

"I don't think my father ever thought money was important. He was - still is - always thinking about machines and innovations and fixing things. That is his passion. He just likes solving problems. He has that kind of mind. Money is a by-product."

Hans Rausing

BORN: 1926

EDUCATED: University of Lund, Sweden

MARRIED TO: Marit Norrby, 1958; two daughters, one son

DAY JOB: Managing Director of Tetra Pak 1954-83; Chairman and chief executive of Tetra Pak 1983-91; chairman and chief executive of Tetra Pak 1991-93

HUMBLE HOME: Resident in the UK since 1983. Lives at Wadhurst Park, an 800-acre estate in East Sussex, in a vast modern bungalow, designed by the architect John Outram who described it as "built like a factory, finished like a palace". He also has houses in Sweden and Barbados

CHARITABLE GIFTS: £2.5m to Cambridge University, £1.5m for research on brain tumours

ABOUT MONEY HE SAYS: "Money above a certain level must be looked upon as a tool to do something and achieve something"

Lisbet Rausing

BORN: Sweden, 1960

EDUCATED: University of California, Berkeley and Harvard University, where she also taught for eight years.

MARRIED TO: Peter Baldwin, Professor of History at UCLA, Berkeley. One son, one daughter

DAY JOB: A historian and a research fellow of Imperial College London; she has written two books as well as numerous scholarly articles

HUMBLE HOME: Holland Park, London, and on a 48,000-acre Highland estate, near Fort William, Scotland

AMONG HER CHARITABLE GIFTS: £20m to SOAS for the Endangered Languages Project

ABOUT MONEY SHE SAYS: "Often Americans say, 'Oh, my wealth is a terrible burden' - and I think, 'You should be bloody grateful.' I feel enormously lucky. It brings opportunities and extra responsibilities, but it is not a burden"

Sigrid Rausing

BORN: Sweden, 1962

EDUCATED: York University and University College London (PhD in anthropology)

MARRIED TO: Eric Abraham, Oscar-winning film producer, one son

HUMBLE HOME: Aubrey House in Holland Park, London (with the second largest private garden in London after Buckingham Palace) and on a 40,000-acre estate in the Monadhliath mountains, near Inverness

PROPRIETOR OF: Portobello Books, Granta publishing and Granta Magazine

AMONG HER CHARITABLE GIFTS: Aound £60m to human rights, women's rights and environmental groups, including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch

ABOUT MONEY SHE SAYS: "It's a responsibility and it's no good avoiding that responsibility. It is only when you give it away, or consume, it transforms from figures to something in the world"