The hardship of his past is what shapes Sukanto Tanoto today. His father is an immigrant from Putian city, Fujian province, mainland China. Born 65 years ago, young Sukanto was not able to finish his high school at the age of 17. It was because all local Chinese schools were shut down in the New Order Era by Suharto, due to his obscurity of hatred towards the Chinese ethnic people. He also was not able to continue his study to national school because his parents held Chinese citizenship. In this sense, he tried to learn Bahasa Indonesia and English independently, using the dictionary.
The Childhood of Sukanto Tanoto
Sukanto Tanoto claims that he inherits his mother’s harsh character. In his childhood, Sukanto often sneaked quietly to play on the beach, and her mother was not happy about that. His tough and bold character also plays important role in shaping his attitude in business. That is what takes him into his place right now.
Young Sukanto had a dream of becoming a doctor but he could not pursue his dream due to financial constraints. Instead of continuing his studies, Sukanto chose to continue the family business to sell oil, gasoline, and automobile equipments. By this experience, Sukanto learned business management and and problem solving skill. These contribute to his never-give-up attitude.
The Beginning of Success
In 1972, he started his own plywood company. He was the pioneer in producing plywood while at that time; Indonesia still imported plywood from other country. His ability to see the market’s potential turned into his first company, CV Karya Pelita, which is then changed its name into PT Raja Garuda Mas (RGM). Once he succeeded with his first business, Sukanto Tanoto established other business in various sectors; now, he owns more than 10 companies in Indonesia and abroad countries. His struggles against poverty; and hardship turns him from zero to hero.
Still in the series of posts about Sukanto Tanoto’s keys to success in business, the recent post focuses on his “think, act, learn, read, listen, and see,” principles. He thinks two steps ahead his competitors. He acts immediately to realize his visions. He learns from mistakes. He reads every kind of books. He listens to what people say about his business, and he sees the condition of other people surrounding his business enterprises.
A Lifetime Student
Having been successful in running his business does not make the man, who can speak in both English and Mandarin, satisfied with himself. He keeps seeking for more knowledge and learning new trends in business. This is evident from the fact that he ever took a course in Insead, Paris. He was also a regular member of a Management Education and Development Institution in Jakarta.
Even currently, he often takes a leave to participate in short course or seasonal course. “I have another career in my life: a lifetime student,” he said. One time, he took a three-week course in Harvard, another time in Tokyo, or in London School of Economic. “If I don’t know about something, I find the answer by asking to the expert,” he said further.
“Do the right thing, do the thing right”
This is another principle Sukanto Tanoto always holds in every aspect of his business. “Do the right thing” refers to how he manages his business. He utilizes and develops the existing resources. He is responsive to the changing market demands, and he is responsible to the environment and the society. “Do the thing right” means that he puts emphasis on immediate action. “Never waste your time in futile; do the thing right by listening and getting involved in it,” he said. Finally, Sukanto Tanoto is never interested in confusing business and politics. This shows that he is a pure businessperson and that is why he succeeds.
The previous post discussed that three of Sukanto Tanoto’s keys to success are eagerness to read, learning by doing, and creativity to find opportunities other people may not recognize. In fact, Sukanto Tanoto still has some other keys to success in his business “think, act, learn, read, hear, and see”. They include competition strategy and learning from mistakes.
Two Steps Ahead the Competitors
This is the competition strategy applied by Sukanto Tanoto. “I take two steps ahead before other people think about an opportunity.” He successfully applied this competition strategy when he established palm tree plantation in Sumatera. At the time he established the company, there was no large-scale private plantation in Sumatra, even though there had been some large-scale foreign plantations there. When the other investors followed his path, his business has been established.
Learning from mistakes
Even a successful businessperson is not free from mistakes. The same thing applies for Sukanto Tanoto. However, for him, mistake is no something to regret. Instead, it is something to learn from. He admitted that he made a mistake in running PT. Inti Indorayon Utama (IIU). The company focuses in reforestation to produce pulp, paper, and rayon. It also supplied superior seeds of pulp-producing timber. The company was subject to rejection from the surrounding society and environmental activists due to alleged pollution on Toba Lake. As a result, UII was temporarily shut off.
Sukanto Tanoto got meaningful learning from the mistake and he promised not to do the same mistake in the future. He proved it when establishing his second pulp company in Riau – PT. Riau Pulp, one of the world’s largest pulp factories. To minimize the risk of public rejection, he works with non-governmental organizations to design a community development program for the surrounding community. What we did was “giving the seeds and we educate the community on how to cultivate them in a proper way.”
One of the richest businesspersons in Indonesia, with investments in more than 10 countries in the world, Sukanto Tanoto was not born and grown up in a wealthy family. His father, Amin Tanoto, passed away when Sukanto Tanoto was 18 years old. After his father’s death, as the oldest child in his family, he then received the burden to support his family. It was another reason for him to quit going to school, in addition to disadvantageous government’s decision at that time.
The question is how could he become a rich person without formal education? The following are some keys to Sukanto Tanoto’s success in business.
- Reading every time possible; since his father was still alive and he was still going to school. Sukanto Tanoto spent much time reading, while helping his father selling fuel oil, gasoline, or automobile spare part. He has been reading much since the age of twelve; he read any books, including those about American Revolution and World War I and Two. Later, he is interested in finding out how the American companies survive the Great Revolution and the World War.
- Learning by doing, he learned business for the first time from how his father managed the family business. He learned how his father dealt with various challenges; and he learned not to give up to any kinds of problems and to find the right solution.
- Being smart in looking for any opportunities, Sukanto Tanoto was smart in looking for opportunities other people might not think of. For instance, when plywood import from Singapore disappeared in North Sumatera at the beginning of 1970s, he thought that it must not have been a problem since Indonesia is rich in timber. “If we have much plywood, why should be depend upon import from another country?” he said.
Sukanto Tanoto is an example of rich businessperson who began his business from zero point. He did not inherit his wealth. These are only three keys to his success in business. More will be discussed in the next post.
From a youth who was denied formal education because of racist policy, Sukanto Tanoto rose to become one of the richest Indonesians with many businesses from pulp and paper to flight company Air Asia, which is famous as the pioneer of cheap flight in Indonesia. His secret of success lies of several chunks of wisdom that he never stops delivering in various opportunities, citing his success as the result of years of hardworking, dedication, ingenuity and support from the loved ones.
Are you wondering about the secret behind Sukanto Tanoto’s success? Here are some chunks of wisdom from Sukanto Tanoto that should help you carving your success from the very humble beginning.
Deliver More than You Promised
This is Sukanto Tanoto’s secret of success, which made him a recognized plywood tycoon in Indonesia by President Soeharto, the same person that had closed down his Chinese school when he was 17. When Sukanto was trying to build a plywood factory, he asked for permit from the Minister of Industry, and promised to prove the result in 14 months. He later impressed the minister by reducing the period into 10 months. This achievement made him immediately recognized by the president.
Use Every Opportunity
Sukanto Tanoto has a lot of businesses, and this is because he is good in spotting business opportunities. In fact, his abovementioned plywood business was started after he had spotted the fact that Indonesia exported logs to other countries and imported the plywood they made with more expensive prices.
Always Manage Your Time Well
Time is precious and will never return once it passed you, so you must use your time well. Sukanto Tanoto is famous for never wastes time; even during flight or when waiting, he will immediately engage himself in business reports or reading news and books about economy, history and business.
So, are you ready to follow Sukanto Tanoto’s wisdom for your success?