FROM THE RAG TRADE TO FREIGHT FORWARDING
© Duncan Graham 2006
Transplanting Western business values and management systems into Indonesia is no simple task, as many foreign experts have found.
And it’s not that easy for overseas trained Indonesians either, as Ayda Sulianti knows well.
“The culture is so different from America,” said the US-educated director of Mitra Intertrans Forwarding (MIF). “Education levels are not so high here and there’s still a tradition of accepting what the boss says without offering a different view.
“We’re taught to be humble and not say what we think.
“That’s a practice I’m determined to stop. I’m here as part of the team – I can’t do without them and they can’t do without me. Coming back to work in Indonesia after the US has been a real culture shock.”
MIF is a unit of the Meratus Group, a Surabaya-based shipping company that started inter-island operations in 1957 with one ship.
The Indonesian shipping industry was de-regulated in the late 1980s and the company expanded. It now has 33 vessels operating on 19 routes and owns more than 11,000 containers. It also services Singapore and Dili.
If you’re using a product from Nestle, Coca Cola, Sampoerna, Indofood, Maspion or Bintang in the outer reaches of the archipelago the chances are it will have been shipped by Meratus.
MIF started in 1989 as a freight forwarding company to fill Meratus ships, but it’s not allowed to steal clients from other operators. It also acts as a general agent for international shipping lines.
Ayda, who heads a staff of 280 in 12 branches across the nation, made an unusual career move when she joined her family’s company five years ago. She had previously worked as a store manager with a clothing company in the East Java capital’s up-market Galaxy Mall.
She studied industrial economics at the University of Surabaya, did a retail management course in Singapore and took a masters degree in finance and marketing in Oklahoma. Her personal interests were designing clothes.
Freight forwarding means stuffing big ugly steel boxes with almost every product imaginable, banging them onto trucks and ships, and delivering the product intact and on time.
It’s a business of cubic metres, customs duty, lost dockets, risks and insurance, things going astray and awry, finding new clients and keeping the old. The Joseph Conrad world of leisurely coastal trade in the tropics vanished with the container and ironclad wharf and crane schedules.
“The shift from working with clothes in shops to putting containers on ships is, well, a bit something,” Ayda admitted. “The first six months were hard, but anyone should be able to make such a transition if they’re determined. I know that what I’m doing is right.”
As with all new managers entering an old company she inherited staff she hadn’t selected. Some were able to rise to her democratic management style – others found it heavy weather.
“I don’t want ‘Yes’ people around me,” she said. “In Indonesia there are 99 ways to say ‘Yes’ and all mean ‘No’. Fortunately the education system is getting better and the international schools are teaching students how to think and be more open.
“We need to instil bravery in employees so they’re not afraid to speak out.
“The need to adapt is not just one-way traffic. I’ve had to learn how the staff think and feel. Of course a few people had to be sacked because they were reluctant to change and felt uncomfortable with the new situation.
“That wasn’t done till they were given time to adapt and had their work evaluated.
“Dismissing people isn’t easy, but it’s more difficult to keep such people on the payroll when their attitudes can infect other workers.
“I don’t talk a lot but I ask lots of questions. I look at the details. I want to know what’s happening and why. We’re proud to be local, but our standards must be international.”
Ayda’s style of management included her taking the secretary’s role at weekly meetings and having a different staffer acting as chairperson. If no one said anything she wouldn’t comment to help them out. Now she says that contributions are common.
Staff are recruited directly from universities and other professions. English is widely used in the company and workers with low language skills are provided with free tuition. Office procedures follow those of big business in the West.
In Indonesia people work because they need the money. In the West there are other reasons, including women wanting to get out of the house in the empty suburbs and socialise. Indonesians tend to find their social needs are met in their community.
“I don’t have a preference for men or women employees,” Ayda said. “It depends on the person and their skills and attitude, though I’ve found some women tend to bring their personal lives into the workplace.
“There has to be a very clear separation. In my private hours I’m a quite different person. (She paints in oils and favours landscapes.)
Ayda said one difficulty she’d faced was being a physically small woman with a quiet voice. In a male-dominated culture many expect the boss to be big, loud and aggressive. To maintain the team spirit she asks employees not to address her as ‘Ibu’ which isn’t easy for some.
She said “one or two” men had found it difficult to work with a young unmarried boss (she’s 37) but most had adjusted. In the West some women have taken on masculine traits to assert their authority in the workplace, but Ayda said she hadn’t fallen into that trap.
“I’m very happy being what I am,” she said. “I certainly don’t want to be a man. As a woman I can do many more things than a man – I have much more freedom. I can wear trousers or a skirt – you can’t!
“I can go shopping for dresses and bags. I can be a housewife. I can manage a company. Women are multiskilled. We are not second-class.
“Women wanting to get on in business should try many things and be confident in their decisions. They should seek to achieve their personal goals and never give up.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 17 July 06)