Born in Medan, North Sumatra province, on Christmas Day 1949, Tanoto was the eldest of seven boys. His Father was an immigrant from Putian city in China's Fujian province. In 1966, Tanoto's education was abruptly interrupted after Chinese schools were shut down by then-President Suharto's new regime. He was prohibited from attending national schools due to his parents' Chinese citizenship.
Tanoto's Business interests are represented by the Royal Golden Eagle (RGE), a global resource-based group of companies with Manufacturing operations in Indonesia, China, Brazil, Canada and Europe, and sales offices worldwide. Since Sukanto Tanoto started his entrepreneurial journey in 1967, the Business has grown considerably, with a workforce of over 60,000 people and its assets exceeding US$18 billion. The Business has five key operational areas: pulp and paper (Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings or APRIL, Asia Symbol), agro-industry (Asian Agri), specialty cellulose (Bracell Limited) and viscose fibre (Sateri) and Energy resources development (Pacific Oil & Gas). APRIL has been involved in conservation controversies related to the use of native Sumatran growth forests, which led to the company withdrawing from the Forest Stewardship Council in April 2010. In September 2011, Fuji Xerox ceased selling paper manufactured by APRIL. The company has denied the claims, stating it has a commitment to implement practices that mitigate climate change and promote sustainability. Furthermore, in June 2015, APRIL pledged to eliminate deforestation from its entire supply chain. The announcement was well received by both Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund.
When his Father suffered a stroke, Tanoto was left to run the family Business. He gradually moved beyond basic trading to winning contracts in building gas pipelines for multinationals. During the 1972 oil crisis that increased prices dramatically, Tanoto took advantage of clients rapidly expanding their operations. With this injection of capital, Tanoto turned his attention to another Business in 1973, noticing that Indonesia exported raw logs for conversion into plywood in countries like Japan or Taiwan, before importing the finished plywood back to Indonesia at great cost.
Tanoto recognized an opportunity to develop his own plywood mill in Indonesia. However, he required a permit to do so. Under the Suharto regime, permits were sought from politicians who often served as army generals. Tanoto was forced to work with a general who gave his blessing and was quickly convinced of the mill's potential after seeing the completed factory, with Tanoto citing the potential value-add to Indonesia's economy and the creation of new jobs. The plant began operations in 1975 after being inaugurated by Suharto. Slowly, from the plywood Business, his company branched out into palm oil as well as pulp and paper.
Tanoto and his wife, Tinah Bingei Tanoto, began their philanthropic work in 1981 in Indonesia with the opening of a kindergarten in Besitang. They formally established the Tanoto Foundation in 2001. Its numerous educational initiatives have included the funding of Teacher training and the provision of over 700 scholarships a year. The Foundation also delivers basic amenities such as clean water and sanitation, as well as Health care. Through the provision of access to productive assets, startup capital, technical skills and links to markets, it helps to empower families and deliver sustainable livelihood.
In 1997, Tanoto elected to settle in Singapore with his family, establishing his company's headquarters there.
Tanoto donated the building of the INSEAD library in Singapore in 2005, which was renamed Tanoto Library in 2005.He was the first donor to the construction of the Beijing National Stadium in 2006. He also donated to the building of the Beijing National Aquatics Center.
Sukanto Tanoto also awards professorship awards. In 2007, the award valued at US$130,000 was granted to two Indonesian academic Scientists for their efforts to enable socially-responsible technological research programs. He also funds a support professorship in metabolism and endocrinology at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore and is a regular donor to Carnegie Mellon, where his contributions fund the Tanoto Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering position. Three other professorship awards in the area of oncology, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases were also awarded in year 2016, 2013, 2014 respectively. The Foundation has also supported disaster relief efforts across Asia.
Tanoto donated 30 million yuan for the construction of a public library in Rizhao, Shandong, China in 2010. He later donated 200,000 children's books to a public library in June 2016.
Tanoto Foundation and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania launched the Tanoto Initiative in July 2013. It is a multi-component program to promote studies and research on ASEAS, with a focus on Indonesia. The Wharton faculty works closely with selected Indonesian universities to offer research grants, academic courses, exchange programs and scholarships aimed at deepening thought leadership and Business education in the ASEAN region.
In Dec 2015, Tanoto launched the Tanoto Forestry Information Center at the Bogor Agricultural University. The Center supports the development of forestry science in Indonesia.
In March 2016, Tanoto Foundation donated 100 million yuan to fund and develop training programmes under the One Belt, One Road framework for 10 years.