Sukanto Tanoto – An Entrepreneur’s Journey (Part 1/2)

RGE Founder and Chairman Sukanto Tanoto was the keynote speaker to a visiting group of EMBA and MBA students from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania on May 25, 2015 at the Singapore Management University. (also see SMU students’ blog post)

Snippets of RGE Chairman Sukanto Tanoto at his keynote address to visiting Wharton students

Snippets of RGE Chairman Sukanto Tanoto at his keynote address to visiting Wharton students. Read the thoughts from Tanoto scholars who were in attendance.

The Wharton students were in Singapore, the first leg of a five-day visit that included Malaysia and Indonesia, as part of their Global Modular Course on ‘Sustainable Growth in ASEAN’. Speaking at the University Lounge in the Singapore Management University (Wharton’s local partner for the course), Mr Tanoto shared candidly and extensively his experiences and thoughts related to his businesses and personal life. In the first of two posts, Inside RGE shares the stories of struggle, opportunity and life-long learning the respected business leader and philanthropist had experienced. See the YouTube playlist here.

The Learning Entrepreneur

Mr Tanoto spoke candidly about his journey as an entrepreneur and the industries in which his businesses operate.

In three of my main businesses, my raw materials are carbon dioxide, sunshine and water. I grow trees. That’s the best business, but it’s not suitable for everyone. If you want something that is quick yielding, this is the wrong business for you… It all starts from this: There’s carbon dioxide absorbed, photosynthesis, water, good soil, good labour, oxygen is released and you produce the product. That’s the business I am in. These products affect people’s daily lives.

He encountered many challenges growing up in 1960s Indonesia, marked by ethnic violence. His education also came to an abrupt end with a school closure and the fact that he had to help run his family’s business on behalf of his father who had fallen ill. He took on a host of contractor work, covering roads, workshops, bridges, automobile repair, air-conditioning installation and later ventured into trading.

Mr Tanoto’s drive to improve his life was fueled by his passion and willingness to learn – a trait that continues till today. Despite having not completed his formal education, he learned by observing and asking questions from his counterparts and partners.


Against the backdrop of a developing Indonesia, the young Sukanto Tanoto thought about the “upstream” and diversification. He observed prevailing industry practices, and enjoyed pioneering success when he ventured into the plywood industry.

On a trip to Malaysia in the 1970s, Mr Tanoto learned more about palm oil and the industry. He later made the decision to diversify into the palm oil industry, which coincided with global financing and national socio-economic policies. He established Asian Agri, one of the world’s leading palm oil producers.

Catch the second instalment of “Sukanto Tanoto – An Entrepreneur’s Journey” soon on Inside RGE.

Sukanto Tanoto on Twitter

Followed the RGE Chairman on Twitter yet? Get the latest updates and thoughts from Mr Sukanto Tanoto.

You may read Part 2 of the “Sukanto Tanoto – An Entrepreneur’s Journey” here.