Australia’s most interesting oil baron

While now a proud resident of Australia, D.D. Saxena was long a peripatetic global citizen. Born in India, he attended high school in the US, returned to his birthplace to study for a Bachelor of Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (India’s equivalent to MIT) then rose through the ranks at multinationals such as Unilever, project managing greenfield developments in developing nations and ending up heading up a US$1 billion division of Indonesian conglomerate Bakrie Group.

After a couple of decades making money for others in the food manufacturing and marketing industry, Saxena decided to strike out on his own and got involved in entrepreneurial activities such as co-founding a Bangalore-based company called Unibic Biscuits, which, among other things, produced the individually wrapped Anzac biscuits Australian airlines gave their passengers.

The seed is planted

Saxena, who’d become a permanent resident of Australia in the mid 1990s after becoming enchanted with the country during his frequent visits here for work, then relocated down under and decided to exploit the growing demand for ‘soft oils’.

“Consumers were starting to have health concerns about palm oil and tallow, and I knew food manufacturers would eventually have to switch to using soft oils, such as canola, soybean and sunflower,” he explains.

By this point, Saxena had migrated to Australia and saw his adopted homeland had a soft oil sector ripe for disruption.

Saxena decided to build a massive, state-of-the-art, fully integrated oilseed crushing and refining plant in Wagga Wagga, the heart of NSW’s Riverina district. He founded Riverina Oils & BioEnergy (ROBE), where’s he the Managing Director.

Saxena self-funded the venture using a combination of his own seed capital and some investors from India, China and a US venture capital fund. He then faced a time-consuming approvals process.

“Our facility was in the middle of nowhere and was going to be built using the most cutting-edge technology available, but the approvals process still took three years, and the cost blew out by 50 percent,” says Saxena.

Global exports

Despite the hurdles, Saxena had his $150 million facility up and running in 2013.

“We’ve got one of the best facilities in the world crushing and refining over 165,000 tonnes of oilseeds a year,” he says. “We’re producing 200 tonnes of refined vegetable oil a day, which we sell to the likes of Mars and McCains, and 300 tonnes of vegetable protein meal a day, which is used by companies such as Ingham, and employing over 100 people.”

And Saxena, now 62, is just getting started. ROBE exports, directly or through partners, to India, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand and the US and he’s now focused on expanding both ROBE’s capacity and its range of value-added products.

“That’s tied to opening up even more export markets; the ones I’m working on currently are Japan and the Middle East but even big producers of palm oil such as Indonesia and Malaysia now import soft oils, so they’re on the radar as well,” he says. “By the end of the decade, I intend for ROBE to be one of Australia’s top five food manufacturers.”

What’s his advice for other businesspeople facing similar challenges? “You have to believe in your vision, not for emotional or intuitive reasons but solid business ones,” he says. “Then it’s simply a matter of showing courage and never giving up.”