THE charismatic and legendary Dane, Dr. Haldor Topsoe, a researcher, an eminent scientist, an entrepreneur, an investor, an administrator and above all a philanthropist died in Copenhagen on May 20, 2013 – 4 days short of his 100th Birthday which fell on 24th May 2013.
In 1978, at the age of 65, Dr. Topsoe, Chairman of SAS, came to Dhaka with a proposal to set up an export-oriented 1000/1725 metric tons per day ammonia-urea plant costing US$ 500 million in the private sector in Bangladesh as a joint venture with the government. The plant would be built on a platform in Swedyard, a Swedish Shipyard, floated down the high seas, beached in Chittagong by the bank of River Karnaphuli and connected with the gas pipeline. The Swedish government’s contribution of US$ 250 million for the project on attractive terms channeled through Swedyard was a part of the deal. Dr. Topsoe produced the picture of a paper factory which was manufactured in Japan, floated down the Pacific, installed by the side of River Amazon in Brazil and was now in full production.
As Secretary, Ministry of Industries, I was convinced about the soundness of the proposal, its financing arrangement and promptly issued a letter of intent extending GOB support for the project. This was the beginning of a long and arduous negotiating process which finally resulted in the signing of the Promoters Agreement of the Karnaphuli Fertilizer Company in Washington, DC on December 01, 1981 at the Headquarter of IFC. Each of the 3 parties, namely, GOB, Swedyard and Haldor Topsoe, agreed to contribute one-third of the equity. The agreement stipulated that a separate Gas Supply Contract for the plant has to be negotiated with the relevant Ministry of the Government. IFC also indicated its willingness to participate in the project.
I left the government to join UNIDO in Vienna in the latter part of December 1981 satisfied that the project was on course for successful completion and accepted Dr. Topsoe’s long standing invitation to visit Copenhagen during the course of a month long holiday in Europe with my wife and children in the summer of 1982.
Unfortunately, the project suffered a serious set back on the question raised by IFC of the hazards of the sea and the inherent risk of losing the US$ 500 million project during the course of the long sea journey from Sweden to Chittagong. IFC backed out of the project and along with it, the fundamental basis of Swedish assistance also fell through. Undaunted, Dr. Topsoe changed the whole concept, made it a shore-based fertilizer plant and organized a consortium of foreign investors with OECF, Marubeni, Chioda, CDC, IFU and his own company and went ahead with the implementation of the project which in 1994 saw the light of the day.
I have seen and known Dr. Haldor Topsoe as an entrepreneur with a vision but little knew about his scientific achievements for which he was better known to the rest of the world. His passion for science was as intense as his determination to create new institutions and profitable ventures. Founded in 1940 as a modest venture for fundamental research on catalysis, Haldor Topsoe A/S, headquartered in Ravnholm in Denmark, has presence in 10 countries across 5 continents. Haldor Topsoe A/S catalysts are now used in the production of 50% of the world’s fertilizers, helping the agricultural industry meet the global demand for food.
Apart from being the Chairman of SAS, he was a Board Member of IBM and a member of the US Population Council. Dr. Topsoe was made a Knight of the Grand Cross of the Dannebrog Order in 2008 for his outstanding contribution to business. His Knighthood included the design of a new coat of arms for the Topsoe family.
In 2011, at the age of 98, Dr. Topsoe paid a visit to Dhaka and raised with the Prime Minister Hasina the proposal for a second KAFCO and also laid the foundation for a residential school complex for underprivileged children which he was constructing at Sreepur, on the outskirts of Dhaka. It was during this visit that I had the privilege of meeting him again after a long gap of 30 years at a dinner at the residence of the Danish Ambassador.
A big celebration was planned on the occasion of his 100th birthday in Copenhagen beginning 16th May and culminating on 24th May which was his actual birthday. As the guests started descending upon Copenhagen, the old man, weakened by a bout of pneumonia, tripped, broke his hip bone and underwent an emergency surgery. The gala dinner for about 500 guests which included the Queen, the Prime Minister, members of the cabinet and other dignitaries and also a symposium on “Global Social and Scientific Challenges” in which the Prime Minster and Director General of WTO Mr. Pascal Lamy were guest speakers, were cancelled. Dr. Topsoe’s immediate family members organized a get-together and dinner for 100 or so foreign guests. With a heavy heart, my wife and I returned back to Dhaka. Finally, Dr. Topsoe succumbed to his age and injury and died peacefully on 20th May 2013.
During his long life, Haldor Topsoe made significant contribution to the world in terms of technological and scientific innovation which improved the lives of millions across the world. In Topsoe’s own words: “The corporate world in itself means nothing unless it improves the lives of people and the conditions in poor countries.”
Yet, he left many tasks unfinished. A month before his death, he visited Myanmar with a proposal for a gas based urea fertilizer plant. His proposal to Prime Minister Hasina for a second KAFCO was still under GOB examination. He would be missed on the occasion of the opening of the home he built in Sreepur for the under-privileged children scheduled for October 2013. Also, remained unfulfilled his desire, expressed in his last communication to me: “I should be grateful to know what you are involved in now – maybe we could do something together – again.”
The Author is the recipient of the prestigious
The Daily Star-DHL Lifetime Achievement Award