When Suraj Vaidya returned to Nepal from the United States after being trained in automobile assembly 25 years ago, he put in a proposal at the Ministry of Industries to manufacture fiberglass three wheelers in Nepal.
Given the light volume of traffic in those days and the need for public transport, the Mr Bean type cars could have been a hit.
"I still remember the man in the ministry looking at me like I was mad," Vaidya recalls, "maybe I was a little bit. But I never got the approval."
Today, Suraj Vaidya and his family's Vaidya Organisation of Industries and Trading Houses (VOITH) is into exporting tea, importing vehicles, agro-industries, construction and education and employs more than 7,000 people.
"In Nepal it is not enough to be a successful businessman, you have to ask yourself what value are you adding to your country's brand?" Vaidya told Nepali Times after VOITH was selected as the paper's Company of the Month for March.
VOITH's tea venture has taken off and the company is getting ready to install a third factory in eastern Nepal. It will soon be promoting its own export brand of herbal and regular teas called Shangrila Tea that will make the Nepali brew instantly recognised in Japan and other markets. VOITH is also partnering with a Philippine company to set up a nursing school in Biratnagar that will open in 2009.
The firm was set up in 1967 by Suraj's father, Vijaya G Vaidya, who is currently chairman of the group. All the new ventures have been pushed back five years because of the instability in Nepal, but the company is now trying to make up for lost time.
One section of the VOITH business empire that has really taken off is United Traders Syndicate that imports Toyota cars. The spread of highways in Nepal in the past five years, increased mobility of Nepalis after the end of the conflict in 2006 have meant there was a huge pent-up demand for public transport in the 16-20 seater category.
The Toyota Hi-Ace van fit the bill and became an instant hit with operators and passengers throughout Nepal because of its fuel efficiency, capacity and widebody comfort. United Traders has sold nearly 800 of the vans nationwide in the past year alone and can hardly keep up with demand.
"We took a huge risk, we didn't know how the market would respond and we work with the banks with our guarantee," says Vaidya.
But won't all these cars make Nepal more dependent on expensive imported fuel?
"Ultimately we have to raise fuel prices, there is no other way," says Vaidya, "and the only way to do that is to take politics out of our national energy management plan. But until alternate fuels are available we have to go for more fuel-efficient cars that cost less to maintain."
Indeed, the pace at which the Toyotas have replaced Tatas on city bus routes and highways, it is clear bus owners and passengers now want speed, comfort and efficiency. United Traders have also set up a network of dealers who conduct regular workshops for mechanics and regular follow-ups up to three times a year.
Even Corollas doing surprisingly well considering cheaper Indian and Korean models currently in the market. Imports of Toyota brands like the Prius, however, will take time because of the lack of charging stations and other infrastructure.
Vaidya says the unique selling point of his vehicles are where they are made. "In the end, a made in Japan brand is a made in Japan," he says.
VOITH, of which Suraj Vaidya is President, is also involved with a slew of social service projects throughout Nepal: supporting the Jawalakhel Zoo with a Rs 4 million upgrade, making proper bus stops in the capital, supporting schools for the handicapped and most recently with the Save the Bagmati campaign.
Says Vaidya: "Maybe it's just as well they didn't give me a license to build three-wheelers back then, it showed me we can't wait for things to happen to us, we must make them happen."