Hans Rausing – Businessman behind the Swedish Tetra Pak empire

Hans Rausing, who has died aged 93, became a billionaire through the Tetra Pak drinks packaging enterprise. He deposed the Queen from the top of Britain’s rich list many years ago but told an interviewer: “I am an industrialist. I understand machinery. I understand things. I do not understand money. I have no idea how much money I have.” Forbes magazine, though, calculated that he was the world’s 112th richest person, with a net worth of $12bn built on the Tetra Pak fortune that he and his brother Gad inherited from their father, Ruben, in 1983.

The Tetra Pak empire began in a kitchen in Lund, Skåne, in Sweden’s dairy heartland, in 1944. Ruben Rausing was watching his wife, Elisabeth (nee Varenius), make sausages, pinching the ends shut. That gave him the idea for a sealed triangular pouch that could be a germ-free means of storing milk. Along with a research scientist, Erik Wallenberg, Ruben developed the idea into a rectangular cardboard carton for storing milk, juice, yoghurt and ice-cream. “The object was to construct a package that would be free from leakage without any special tightening process before being filled,” Wallenberg said. Ruben bought the patent and all rights from Wallenberg for less than £300.

By 1952 the first Tetra Pak containers were successfully produced and in a few years Ruben had amassed a business that included bank-note dispensers, water purifiers and paper mills. He brought all his three sons into the family business – the eldest, Gad, was a chemist, the youngest, Sven, a linguist. It was the middle son, Hans, though, who was the chosen one.

Hans, born in Gothenburg, went to the cathedral school in Lund before going on to study economics, statistics and Russian at Lund University, and then following his father’s path to study in the US. “‘He was,” Wallenberg recalled, “extremely able and, like his father, single-minded. He believed he was the perfect salesman. I once heard him say he could sell air or water.”

From 1950 to 1995 Hans held roles as chief executive and chairman of Tetra Pak, while Gad served initially as deputy managing director. Hans was responsible for Tetra Pak breaking into the Soviet Union, where it became the biggest foreign employer. Today 137bn patented Tetra Paks are sold each year. The Rausings’ success helps explain why early morning Britain no longer rings to the clink of milk bottles.

If Hans claimed not to understand money, he and Gad were financially astute enough to leave Sweden for Thatcher’s Britain in 1982 to avoid high taxes. Gad bought a vast house in Holland Park, London; Hans purchased a 900-acre estate in the village of Wadhurst in East Sussex where he lived with his wife, Märit (nee Norrby), whom he married in 1958, and their three children, Lisbet, Sigrid and Hans Kristian.

There the Rausings designed and built, with the architect John Outram, a terrazzo and steel one-storey building that he named the New House. At Wadhurst, he raised one of Europe’s largest herds of deer. He also owned a 600-acre wild boar farm in Tenterden, Kent.

Those few journalists invited to Wadhurst Park found the man who topped Britain’s rich list in 1983 humbly squeezing his 6ft 8in frame into a Morris Minor to drive around the estate. Dominic Lawson called him “the Greta Garbo of business”. Both Hans and Gad eschewed gossip columns and parties.

Business journalists struggled, too, to penetrate the Rausings’ empire. Because it was a private company controlled through a Liechtenstein foundation and a Dutch holding group, the firm could avoid publishing annual reports or accounts. In 1991, though, Tetra Pak bought the Swedish agricultural, engineering and food processing group Alfa Laval for £1.5bn.

Though fabulously wealthy, with homes in Sweden, London and Barbados, Hans deprecated the high life: “Either you have 20 mistresses covered with diamonds and a Mercedes 500, or you achieve something with your money. For me it is a passion to try to develop and create industry in different ways.”

In 1995 Hans sold his share of Tetra Laval to Gad for an estimated $7bn. In 2001, though, he was back in business launching a successor packaging venture, EcoLean, with a container made of about 60% chalk and 40% natural gas. What looked like sibling rivalry to create another multibillion pound packaging business, was rather, Hans claimed, “ecologically perfect”.

“Nobody else has, so far as I know, imitated an eggshell before, but this is basically an eggshell, only not brittle,” he said. “When the product is disposed of, it becomes brittle in sunlight and after a month or so it just disintegrates into sand.” Today EcoLean, based in Skåne, has operations in 30 countries.

In 2006 Rausing received an honorary knighthood in recognition of his philanthropic services. These included a donation of £2.5m to Cambridge University for a maths centre in 1997. His Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project at the University of London supports research, training and archiving of disappearing languages. In 2004, among other donations to the Conservative party, he gave £198,000 as Michael Howard sought funds to fight the 2005 election.

His children, who described Rausing as “a loving father and devoted family man”, followed their father in philanthropy. The total value of his family’s donations since 1998 has exceeded £1bn, funding medical research, as well as cultural and environmental projects.

Sigrid has written of inheriting great wealth that: “The pros … I believe, are largely illusory and can become pathological. An illusory sense of being special and different, the assumption that one is interesting to other people only, or mainly, because of the money and subsequent feelings of isolation.”

In 2017 she published a memoir, Mayhem, focused on the story of her brother, who became a drug addict in his 20s, and his wife Eva, whom he met in an American rehab clinic, and who was found dead at their home in London in July 2012. She had died two months earlier from what the coroner called the effects of cocaine on a damaged heart.