Women in Business
NUR SAIDAH: SURABAYA’S STEELWOMAN
Nur Saidah had some misgivings when offered a secretary’s job with an Indian firm starting business on Surabaya’s outskirts.
The company was building a steelworks on 16.5 hectares of rice fields at Sidoarjo, far from her home. Public transport was bad, the roads often flooded. She reckoned she’d have to walk barefoot to work in the wet season to preserve her shoes.
The industry is rough, hot and dirty. It’s a tough guy’s business. There’s no glamour in molten metal or fashion in steel-capped boots. Hard hats muss hairdos.
But she gave it a go – and 30 years later knows she made the right decision.
So does her employer – Mittal Steel, now striving to be the world’s number one steel producer with a US $22.6 billion takeover offer for Europe’s Arcelor.
Mittal’s first venture overseas was into Indonesia. Curbs on steel production by the Indian government is said to have been a factor in the move to East Java; other versions have the young Lakshmi N Mittal wanting to make his own way. His Dad, Mohan Lal Mittal, had a steel mill in Kolkata (Formerly Calcutta).
Nur remembers the early days well. Now 53, with two children and married to a Pertamina employee, she’s combined career and family. Her position is deputy general manager in personnel and general affairs at PT Ispat Indo. (Ispat means steel in Hindi).
Despite the lack of a university degree Nur has risen with the company to heights seldom scaled in Indonesia by secretaries with no family connections to the firm.
“When Lakshmi Mittal came here with his wife Usha and young son in 1976 he spoke little Indonesian,” she recalled. “He was only 26. I was hired because I understood English. But Indians speak so quickly – it was very difficult.”
She persevered and gained her boss’s trust. She also set out to learn everything about walking hearth furnaces, roughing trains and other steel talk.
This knowledge was essential as Nur became the go between, attending every meeting, translating Lakshmi’s plans to workers who’d never seen a steelworks.
And this was no ordinary mill, but a state-of-the-art investment in the latest technology, then costing US $ 15 million. Her language had to be precise, her knowledge exact. She also had to be conscious of cultural differences.
At first there were only 200 workers but the plant grew quickly. Now there are 760 on the payroll and a further 500 contractors, working the mill 24 / 7 making rolls of wire. Production has multiplied tenfold from an original 60,000 tonnes a year.
Billets of steel are heated by electric arc and forced through a caster several hundred metres long. This gradually squeezes the hot metal into a smaller diameter. One unit can produce 100 metres of wire a second and is still the fastest in Asia.
As the business expanded, so did Nur’s responsibilities. Now she’s a boss, travels every year to Amsterdam where Mittal is headquartered, and regularly visits steel plants in other countries.
By 1989 Ispat Indo was well established and the company ready for its next move. The first stop outside India had been Surabaya. The second was to be the world.
Under the banner The LNM Group, Mittal bought an iron and steel company in Trinidad and a few years later moved into Mexico. From then on advances were rapid – Canada, Germany, France, South Africa, Algeria, Romania, Poland, the USA and the Czech Republic.
Nur’s boss is now either the world’s third or fifth richest man, depending on which list you read. Labelled by the British press as the King of Steel, the pound sterling billionaire also owns what’s reported to be the world’s most expensive house in central London, bought for US $128.25 million (Rp 1,178 billion).
His 29-year old son Aditya, who went to school in Surabaya, is also in the family business as head of mergers and acquisitions.
“Lakshmi still calls me Mrs Nur and always treats me with respect,” said Nur. “When we have meetings overseas he asks me to sit alongside him.
“It’s a very decent family and always polite. They believe in equality and quality. Their philosophy is that every job must be done properly, however lowly and simple. And I expect that from my staff. Whatever they do it must be done perfectly – even if it’s just serving refreshments.
“To be successful in business you must know exactly what you’re doing. You must give loyalty and expect loyalty. Take your responsibilities seriously.
“I believe in open communication. When I’m faced with a problem I try to handle it immediately. I’ve learned never to give up, to always find a way around a difficulty.
“Women in business need to be able to take care of themselves and not expect to be spoilt. I usually travel alone overseas, even in places like Kazakhstan. If we behave professionally people treat us as professionals.”
Analysts overseas have credited Mittal’s rise and rise on its ability to scour the world to source low-cost scrap metal and sponge iron as feedstock. Mittal is famous for buying state-owned loss-making plants, cutting costs, sacking the idle and turning a profit, though ventures in Ireland and Slovakia failed. China’s booming economy and great hunger for steel has seen the world price double in the past few years.
Nur said the Mittal family was always interested in installing the latest technology in their factories and ensuring they were never overtaken by progress.
Because Mittal’s plants are spread across the globe she gets messages at all times of the day and night. Her day’s activities can’t be determined by local schedules.
“The Japanese have a reputation for hard work, but in my experience the Indians work harder,” Nur said.
“They are also fanatical about getting a good education. One of the problems we have in Indonesia is that not enough people think education is important for the future of the nation.
“University graduates today are seldom prepared to start small and learn the basics. We have to grab the opportunities, to begin at the bottom and work hard. Everything depends on the individual.
“At the end of the day remember that new challenges are always waiting and we must be prepared. Keep in mind that whatever we do today it will not be enough for tomorrow.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post Monday 3 April 2006)