Ubud, 28 March 2016 — Meet Bambang Setia Dharma, an apple seller with a passion for marketing who rose to the corporate top in Southeast Asia and then became a boutique resort owner. What can we learn from his leadership journey, and what are his 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
Born in 1962 in Sumbergondo village as the second of three siblings, Dharma grew up on the slope of the Arjuna volcano in the town of Batu —famous for growing tropical apples—in Indonesia’s East Java province.
Dharma’s childhood was not easy. His mother, daughter of the village headman, was the only woman in the village to marry an outsider, a paramedic from far-away Kalimantan island. As the only non-farming household, Dharma’s family was economically poor compared to their neighbors who were prospering from apple farming, which was a lucrative business at the time.
“What I remember about my childhood in the village is that we were always working to make ends meet in our family. As a young boy, I spent a lot of time walking in the hills to collect firewood so I could earn money.”
From his mother, he learned to be tough and work hard.
“My mother had a passion for working hard. Rather than looking for quick profits, she always focused on doing things right, and with honesty, believing that the money would follow. ‘Do not lie and do not steal,’ she said, and those two words are imprinted in my mind until today.”
His father inspired him to share what he had.
“Father was always giving, even though we had so little. He would give away one of his shirts when he saw people who didn’t have a proper shirt to wear.”
Dharma and his siblings learned how to live without expectations, and instead, to dream big and work hard.
“Dreaming is what we could do since we had little. And sharing. I learned how to enjoy good things in small quantities. My Mom cooked well, and friends loved to come to our house. I remember how in other homes, people would divide a chicken into 4 parts to eat together. In my home it may have been 40 parts, so that we always had a little bit of good food to share with many. I still have that passion for sharing food now.”
Investing in education
Dharma’s parents valued education. After attending primary school in the village, he went to junior high-school in the nearby Batu town, and then moved to a senior high-school in the regional capital Malang, an hour away by bus, only to return to Batu to finish his high-school education there because funds ran short to pay for the student accommodation in Malang. He longed for more.
“Every time my mother traveled to Malang City by bus, she passed Brawijaya University, one of the leading universities in my country. She told me that she made a vow in the bus that her children would study there one day.”
At that time, other parents in Sumbergondo did not send their children to university, and Dharma’s parents sold half their land to pay for their children’s education.
“My parents’ investment in education was a wise decision. Because of climate change, farming is now going down, and many of my fellow village kids are struggling to make a living as farmers. Their parents still had good incomes from cultivating apples. Now, as the temperature has increased, apples don’t grow anymore below 1,200 meters altitude, and many farmers have lost their livelihoods. Those without education are now at a loss. They should have gone to study when they were young.”
Discovering his passion
In primary school, Dharma’s dream was to become like his father’s friends who visited them at home, businessmen from Surabaya (Indonesia’s second-largest city), and traders from Kalimantan. He noticed how different they looked to the farmers in his village, and wanted to become like them. He also learned valuable life lessons from a German engineer who married the neighbor’s daughter, and whose mentoring he respected.
As he moved to junior high school, Dharma found his passion for creating things that he could sell, from used wood and other materials, including broken luggage and old furniture. He discovered how to make handwritten greetings on the leaves of the jackfruit tree that he sprayed in gold paint. They sold, and he used the income to support himself in his education.
While in high-school, Dharma developed an interest in economics, and he started earning money to pay for Brawijaya University’s entrance exam. While helping his mother by selling apples from a small kiosk, he also worked for his uncle as a landscape worker in a newly constructed hotel in Batu.
When he graduated from high school in 1981, with excellent grades, the family was not doing well yet economically, and the available funds were just enough to send Dharma’s older sister to college. He had to put his own university dream on hold, and continued earning money while pursuing free education in a teacher training college.
Two years later, in 1983, he entered Brawijaya University in the economics and management department, where he quickly developed an interest for marketing.
“I loved newspapers and magazines with nice things on offer. My focus was still on selling, because I needed more money to support myself. The only extra-curricular activity I allowed myself to join was the English club. That helped me build my confidence, overcome shyness, and practice conversation and making presentations. I learned to speak up.”
He also learned how to network with different friends. By tapping into his circle of school and university friends from Malang and beyond, he developed his communication skills to set him up for his first job.
After graduating in management in 1988, Dharma moved to Jakarta to apply for work with an international company.
Spending a year to apply for jobs, he survived by selling apples that his aunts sent him in bulk from Batu. Now 25 years ago, he met his future wife when she bought apples from his kiosk and was surprised to find the seller reading Readers Digest in English.
“I also remember how recruitment managers reacted when I told them that I sold apples. They thought I was selling Apple computers, rather than real natural apples.”
In 1989, after a year of applications, he landed a job as trainee manager in McDonald’s, who were preparing for their launch into the Indonesian market in 1991. His communication skills made the difference, they said.
After initial assignments in purchasing and logistics, working 16-hour days, he was promoted to purchasing manager after only 3 months. During this period, he worked intensively with US staff, and learned valuable lessons from them.
His dream to work in marketing came true when he was appointed manager, associate director and later VP for marketing and communications. As Dharma continued to grow and excel, the company expanded his area of responsibility from Indonesia to include Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, to build up the capacity for marketing and communications in those countries.
Among Dharma’s marketing milestones were to introduce McDonald’s in Indonesia and Malaysia as McD, which was easier to pronounce and more trendy with young buyers. Adapting the trusted US formula to the taste of Asians in Indonesia, he brought rice-and-chicken meals into the line-up, marketed as PaNas, followed by a value meal called PaHe. He also introduced 24-hours service, McCafe, and chicken porridge meals.
Leaving at the top
In 2004, after 15 years with McDonald’s, Dharma faced a choice to continue his career there and become an expat manager in the US to guide their corporate work at the international level. This prompted him to take stock of his goals.
“I returned to mapping my life, to review my dreams and goals, and my family life, now including my wife and two daughters. Around me, I saw colleagues and relatives in executive positions struggle to maintain a quality life and avoid getting swallowed up in work pressures and routines. I decided to stay in the driver’s seat for my life, invest in what I believed in, and create a next phase that would be different.”
At age 46 he pressed the restart button and began his next phase by investing his savings to create Kampung Lumbung, an eco-friendly boutique resort in his hometown of Batu.
“After 20 years I came back to Batu and found that young people's capacity had not changed. The apple-growing industry is now suffering from climate change and a lack of interest among young people.”
This led Dharma to focus on boosting the local economy at a time of vulnerability and changes.
“I am now training young professionals to excel in the most promising economic activity here, which is sustainable tourism. We are still far behind market leaders in the service and hospitality industry, like Bali, and I want to change that. To get going, we need to first stop destroying our natural environment, and the place to start is to change people’s minds and build new skills.”
As newly elected chair of the Batu Chapter of the Indonesian Hotel and Restaurant Association, Dharma has found a new platform for his creativity to influence change and deliver results.
What is Dharma’s favorite leadership style?
He calls himself a staging leader, who is good at developing leadership in others, by preparing them and coaching them.
“I lead by showing how to do things. I give examples, and then my staff have to work with their own creativity. Often, I found that they don’t like me. I expect results, and expect them to become independent. I am not easy to work with. Later on they realize the benefits.”
What allowed him to climb the corporate ladder so fast? He attributes it to the qualities of visualization, culture, and decisions.
Concepting to set the stage
First, Dharma emphasizes the importance of concepting.
“My strength is in concepting, in creative thinking, visualizing new directions, and developing new products. And I set the stage for others to speak, including my bosses at McDonald’s and now the younger generation of entrepreneurs in Batu. I coached my boss on speaking with influential media, including CNN, to make them succeed, and I want to do the same with younger leaders.”
With Dharma’s leadership in marketing, McDonald’s in Indonesia sky-rocketed from 98th to 8th in transactions ranking within two years—a phenomenal achievement that was acknowledged when he received the International Marketing Achievement Award for Outstanding Marketing Excellence in 1999-2001 for McDonald’s Indonesia.
“I see myself as an autodidact. I learn by observing others and then emulate, improve, and adapt solutions to the local needs. I believe strongly in developing and using my internal power to visualize results. When I create a new product or opportunity, I know deep inside me that people are going to love it and find joy in it. I have learned how to visualize that in advance.”
Developing culture for business
Next, he highlights how to transcend cultural barriers.
“Creating the right culture is always critical to doing business. In the past here in Indonesia, we were educated not to speak. We can work well, and we have good prospects. Language and presentation are the main barriers to overcome. I saw this in some other Asian countries too. On the other hand, international partners often excel in communication and feel driven to be first. We have to learn from that as we build our business culture. We need to speak up, and take full responsibility for our work and success.”
Working in intercultural teams can be challenging and, in Dharma’s experience, it can also provide new opportunities to move ‘out of the box.’
“When working with people from other countries, misunderstandings can easily arise. As Asians we can be touchy about this, and even feel hurt sometimes. To rise above this, we need to learn to speak each other’s languages, and to build on our cultures for the business to thrive, knowing the success factors in each country.”
Focusing on quality decisions
Finally, Dharma stresses how decision-making is paramount for success.
“Early on, I realized that the product of responsible managers is decision-making. Many, however, just follow the system and are afraid of making decisions. They let things be decided for them. I decided to be independent and responsible for my decisions. Rather than following others who said ‘yes sir’, I spoke up and spoke out about the truth as I saw it. When we don’t speak up, executives don’t get the right information.”
Competitive for promotions, Dharma also emphasized how he developed his quality of thinking and decision-making.
“I always did what I thought was right, even if that set me apart from everyone else. I gained confidence to stand out, and I kept practicing how to express my ideas better. A higher salary was never my motivation. Like my mother, I felt that the money would follow my hard work. So I always gave my bosses 120% performance, and I let the additional 20% become my negotiating power.”
Three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia
So what are Dharma’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
First, to know the facts.
“As a leader, you need to have the numbers. You cannot speak without numbers, you cannot set goals without numbers. By knowing the facts, you have the numbers. Then you can take fact-based decisions.”
Second, to make decisions.
“Once you have the facts, you can make effective decisions. Even if you already reduced the risk of making errors, you still have to decide. If you don't decide, someone else will decide for you. Then you are gone, and your business gets stuck or can move to a wrong direction. Good decision-making making is rare, and leaders do it.”
Third, to plan for everything.
“You have to think and prepare in advance. Plan your work, then work your plan. Just do it. When your boss says ‘let's go to Point A’ and you know that getting there has only a 60/40 possibility, then you plan how to make it 100, and you decide to speak up on how to get there.”
What is coming up next for Dharma?
As we spoke, he enthusiastically shared his vision to create more growth opportunities for younger leaders in his country, and especially in his hometown Batu.
“From what I have seen in my corporate career, 80% of the staff in businesses in my country have bosses who prevent them from performing well. They don’t give their staff the opportunity to improve and do a real job. And they don’t appreciate it when staff speak up with their frank opinions and suggestions.”
Determined to make a difference in Batu and beyond, he is now reaching out and speaking up through the hotels association. Most of the hotels in and around Batu are small and work with outdated business models.
“It is time to wake up, I tell them, to market your specialty and look for investors to partner with. Life around us is changing. Travelers’ preferences are changing too. We have to adapt to become an enterprising community that takes advantage of these changes. We need to build smartly on our natural and human resources.”
Dharma explains that this change has to start with communication and presentation skills in English.
“Staff of the hotels now meet twice a week with the members of the association, and we spend at least one hour on training that focuses on developing soft skills to survive and thrive in the market. We will soon extend this training to the students at the local tourism academy. Last week I challenged them to set up a Whatsapp group to practice in English among themselves.”
Meanwhile, Dharma continues his favorite style of leading by example, by showing how to build a boutique resort that focuses on sustainability and meeting new demands, like teambuilding for companies.
“In our Kampung Lumbung resort we have built many indoor and outdoor training facilities, and companies are keen to come and use them for teambuilding and training events. I show this as an example how hotels can develop specialty services.”
His eyes shine when he speaks of the mentoring challenge he has taken on to develop young leaders in in Batu’s hotel industry. Among his favorite stories to share are the life lessons he himself learned from his German mentor neighbor when he was young, about showing up on time, sitting down to plan before rushing into action, and mustering the courage to take on challenging tasks first.
“I was lucky to learn these lessons early, and fortunate that my wife and daughters have supported me all these years through my ups and downs. My wife and I are now running the resort together, and I help our leaders in Batu to discover the opportunities that global changes are bringing to our community. And as they develop their knowledge and confidence to speak up, I will tell them that it is time for making your decision to create your own future.”
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