Indonesian tycoon known for Asia's biggest default dies at 98

JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - Eka Tjipta Widjaja, who became a coconut and palm oil trader at the age of 15 before building a multi-billion dollar empire with businesses spanning paper and pulp to financial services, has died.

Widjaja, 98, passed away at his home in Jakarta on Saturday (Jan 26), Gandi Sulistiyanto, a managing director at Sinar Mas Group, said. The founder of Sinar Mas was Indonesia's fourth-richest person with a net worth of US$9.3 billion (S$12 billion), according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

The Indonesian tycoon of Chinese origin will also be remembered for the US$14-billion default by his flagship Asia Pulp & Paper after the 1998 Asian financial crisis. While several of Sinar Mas' businesses were taken over by the government after the fall of the dictatorship of General Suharto, Widjaja managed to rebuild his empire, which employs around 380,000 people in Indonesia.

Widjaja landed at Makassar in Indonesia's Sulawesi province as a seven year old with his parents from mainland China. His early success in commodities trading spurred him to diversify into paper and pulp, real estate, food and telecommunications, with holdings primarily in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

Fallout from the Asian financial crisis forced the group to surrender control of its flagship bank, Bank Internasional Indonesia, after opting for a bailout from the central bank. Widjaja moved back into banking by acquiring Bank Shinta Indonesia in 2005 and later renamed it as Bank Sinarmas.

Widjaja's business empire is now run by his children and grandchildren. Sinar Mas group companies include Singapore-listed Golden Agri Resources, one of the world's biggest producers of palm oil, and Bumi Serpong Damai, Indonesia's largest listed property company.