Entrepreneurship runs in the family for Shinta Widjaja Kamdani. As the owner and CEO of Indonesia’s PT Sintesa Group, she has come from a long line of businessmen in the family, from whom she has learned much about how to run a successful global company. Her family has been involved in business for a hundred years, operating in several industries, namely “property, energy, industrial products and consumer products.”
Shinta Kamdani rose to the CEO position of the Sintesa Group in 1999, after her father agreed to step down. She was still in her 30s when she assumed the position. Back then, the company was going through uncertainty; Indonesia was still recovering from the financial crisis. But Shinta knew that they had to start the company’s integration stage because their businesses needed professional supervision.
Although Shinta Kamdani received an education from the prestigious Harvard Business School, she says that she has learned about running a business beyond simple book learning. In high school, she sold books from house to house so she could get extra pocket money. In college, she took internships at MNCs so she could learn even more about running businesses.
As CEO, Shinta Kamdani says the job is only worth it if you’re happy with it. She wants to use her success to help out her country, as evidenced by her memberships in various organizations and initiatives.
Check out more interviews with global entrepreneurs here. You can also watch Shinta Kamdani in conversation at the ASEAN Business Summit here.
Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Shinta Kamdani: Sintesa Group was established from a long line of history. In 1919, my late grandfather established N.V. Handelbouw en Cultuur Maatschappij with rubber plantations as its main business line. It then shifted its focus to trading in 1959 when my father, Johnny Widjaja, took over the company and changed our name to Tigaraksa. Under Tigaraksa, our family business was scattered and ran independently without any red line connecting each other. Then, one day in 1999, after working in the company under my father’s leadership for more than 10 years and seeing how his business grew, I decided to envisioning myself and to step out from the silo as ‘employee’ to bringing strategic value in the mind of a woman entrepreneur.
So then I came to him and told him I wanted to run the company differently. I gave him my vision of an integrated group of business. Back then, it was a difficult moment for me. It was daunting to go up to the company’s head, who knew the business so well, to voice out what I felt. Plus, have to challenge the company management, which was still based on family-run management and the “One Man Show” of my father. Moreover, it was more challenging when Indonesia was reeling from the Asian financial crisis. But from adversity comes opportunity, I believe this is the right time for corporate transformation.
We had our discussions and arguments, but I finally managed to convince on restructuring and re-envisioning, hence established Sintesa Group — the Indonesian word for ‘synthesis’. So I proposed establishing a more professional and integrated Sintesa Group, which consists of all my father’s businesses. I categorize our companies and then divide it into four business pillars, namely Property, Energy, Industry, and Consumer Products. Today, Sintesa Group consists of 16 companies that spread in those 4 business pillars.
Until now, Sintesa Group has been managed by a professional group of Executive Committee, who are selected for specific responsibilities with me as the Chief Executive Officer. While, my father sits overlooking Sintesa Group as the Chief Commissioner. So far, this type of management has proven to be the right mechanism for us. Our business is growing more rapid than ever before.
Ultimately, growing up in patriarchal society culture has driven me to challenge the stereotype to prove that just because my parents don’t have a son, it doesn’t mean they don’t have the legacy to continue. With me, they have a person to continue and thriving the business way forward.
Moreover, I see Sintesa Group as my family, and I will do whatever it takes to make it better, successful, and impactful. Currently, we have more than 3000 employees that rely on us and working excellently every day. I want to build this company as an office or organization and a home for personal improvement, advancement, opportunity, and leadership regardless gender, race, or religion.
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Shinta Kamdani: I do not think this is funny, but it is a more memorable experience. As a 32-year old female CEO, I faced many challenges related to differences in age, gender, and communication. Primarily, I had to be in charge of managing many people, many of whom were much older than me.
As a young leader, I was full of ideas and very straightforward, which undoubtedly surprised them, that this leadership style was very different from my father’s. It cannot be denied that we had experienced so many miscommunications because of these differences. Plus, as a mother, I still had a baby that I had to breastfeed, and it was an awkward moment for me, especially back then, we did not have any proper nursery room, so I had to excuse myself to breastfeed in my office. Often times, I was also teased when I needed to breastfeed at the end of the meeting.
Nevertheless, I found this experience to be a challenging and rewarding experience. From those mistakes and challenges, I learned to be adaptable, value people, find common ground, and communicate with trust and respect. I also found that I am not the only female leader and professional here who needs much support as a mother and employee. Thus, it gave me an idea, to transform this company towards gender-friendly and provide supportive environment and structure for females to remain productive and advance in this organization. Eventually, this had been a very steep learning curve for me, which gave me valuable insights into complex dynamics.
Jerome Knyszewski: Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Purposeful Leadership
Leadership is one of the fundamental aspects of organizational success. With the ever-changing environment and global crisis, leaders should act and lead proactively. More importantly, with organizational and personal anxiety caused by the crisis, leaders should navigate the organization towards positive transformation, build a personal connection, bring harmony, and support employee wellness to bring their best performance. More importantly, leaders also need to define the organization’s higher purpose in serving people and bring impact to the stakeholders as a whole and drive the organization towards the same vision and goal by recognizing and empowering employee’s value in reaching towards the organizational vision.
In leading Sintesa Group, I see the vision towards sustainable organization is to pursue the benefit of all stakeholders, this means the benefit of people, planet as well as profit. I believe in creating this organization, I need to establish purpose-driven leadership not only as a CEO but also to empower personal leadership within employees and subsidiaries. In achieving this, it is not all without challenge to change norms and belief that have been established for quite some years. Hence, I tried to take the step by step, first by creating change within organization by cultivating personal support, empathy, harmony, and developing organizational knowledge and transparency, where everyone feels included, supported and valued. Then, after a while, I took bold action for our organization to amplify this purpose driven leadership within large stakeholders. This means, creating positive and impactful transformation towards large stakeholders by embedding Sustainable Development Goals roadmap within our business practices and business model. We also empower collective action within the private organization to share our best practices and inspire more businesses to go sustainable. We believe every business’s actions have a strong impact on the sustainability of our social, economic, and environmental aspects.
- Inclusive Culture
In achieving a great organizational performance, an inclusive culture is needed, where everyone feel empowered, valued, respected and engaged regardless of genders, ethnicity, and religions. Diversity is good for organizational performance, but it also generates more innovation and productivity where every idea and change are encouraged.
In Sintesa Group, we acknowledge the value of gender diversity and equality. Though, our industry is mostly male-dominated, we are pursuing to build culture that is inclusive, gender-friendly, where not only men, but women can able be participate and advanced. This is why, we have built many initiatives in gender empowerment, from refining company policy for equal opportunities of female employees to be involved in the company’s decision-making, developing leadership training for women, building supportive working infrastructure for women such as childcare facilities, lactation rooms, to establishing corporate transparency in advancing gender equality through sustainability reporting. Ultimately, we want to build a safe working environment where everyone is comfortable collaborating and sharing their vulnerability to receive peer support.
- Cultivate innovation
A successful organization is an organization that can continuously innovate. Hence, cultivating open innovation is more than ever necessary. This can be achieved by building an innovation mindset within the organization and building external collaboration to create breakthrough or penetrate new markets.
One of Sintesa Group’s organizational values is Entrepreneurship. Hence, we cultivate innovation through the sense of entrepreneurship, where our employees have the sense of ownership of what they want to develop and innovate. We believe everyone ideas valuable, hence we always encourage our employees to develop a business plan and communicate their ideas.
Moreover, we also believe promoting the ideas of open collaboration and innovation. Bringing both local and global partners in generating innovation in the market has widened our space for value creation that is impactful. Hence, Sintesa group through our subsidiaries in Consumer Products pillar, Tigaraksa Satria has established e-distribution solution together with our strategic partner from numerous leading e-commerce companies to empower local SMEs to go digital to compete with modern retail stores by developing streamlined value chain flow in the distribution process to increase sales productivity and effectiveness.
Moreover, Sintesa Group has succeeded in working with many global companies to Indonesia and works with multinational giants such as Johnson & Johnson, Time-Warner, Wyeth-Ayerst, Sterling, Messer Griesheim, L’Oréal, Pertamina, Arcellor Mittal, Epson, and Yamaha. In the property pillar, we have established a strong partnership with Singapore, where we have built and managed one of the renowned hotels in Jakarta. In Industry and Consumer Goods Pillar, we have also formed strategic cooperation with numerous prominent international companies worldwide from Japan, China and European countries to expand their global market and extend distribution channels across Indonesia.
- Develop Empathy
Great organizations need to cultivate empathy. With empathy, employee engagement can be developed, where collaboration, equality, and generosity can be fostered rather than judging, we treat each team with respect. Moreover, empathy can also bring significant value to the customer’s engagement. We can anticipate market needs and develop product or service that suit their best needs and minimize their pain points.
In Covid-19 circumstances, Sintesa Group has highlighted the importance of developing empathy to minimize Covid-19 spread within and outside of the organization. This is why we are developing Taskforce Covid19, which consists of employees from our various companies or subsidiaries. The goals are to establish health protocols, evaluate policies, and ensure implementation and socialization of protocols to prepare mechanisms for prevention, control and handling of Covid-19 in the company environment.
Moreover, to maintain worker stability, we have implemented flexible working hours and arrangements considering the anticipated increased domestic work burden experienced by both male and female employees. On the other hand, we also run various workshop series, including prioritizing digitization training, SDGs, and mental health for our employees.
Not just for the group’s internal, Sintesa has actively cooperate with various private companies, NGOs and universities to ensure the distribution medical device, personal protective equipments (APD), and donation funds to help the government to strengthen the health sector during the pandemic.
In generating innovation through empathy, we also take an active part in establishing impact investment to empower impactful MSMEs to survive and thrive. Currently, we are one of the investors of Burgreens, Krakakoa and Mecapan.
- Seek for Sustainable Excellence
Companies today face more global, resource-constrained and interconnected challenges. We already learned from the Covid-19 pandemic that an imbalanced ecosystem has a significant impact on social and economy. Good companies can still focus on driving profitability, however great companies seek the opportunity to embrace change and build business strategies that tackle the global challenges in an ethical, conscious and environmentally friendly way. Ultimately, embedding sustainability in the company’s DNA.
I have probably mentioned conscious innovation, investment, and inclusive culture in the above sentences because they are all part of Sustainable Excellence. However, what I want to highlight here is to seek excellence through the lens of sustainability. Where business intersects with environmental aspects. This includes developing company operational or processes to be more sustainable and renewable by applying circular economy principles and smart energy. Moreover, collaborating with customers and suppliers to produce and use resources sustainably are also important to bring a multiplier effect.
In achieving this, Sintesa Group has established IBCSD (Indonesia Business Coalition of Sustainable Development), where together with government partners, companies, academia and civil society organizations; we start discussion, building capacity and joint actions to promote sustainable sourcing, efficient use of resources, tackling food loss and waste, handling plastic and hazardous waste, protecting forest and biodiversity, etc. Eventually, we want to be part of global solutions not the problems.
Jerome Knyszewski: Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Shinta Kamdani: The spread of the global coronavirus pandemic has made the linkages between companies, communities, employees, customers and other stakeholders strikingly correlated.
As a result of economic and social dynamic due to the pandemic, organizations are being pushed to implement what it called ‘purpose-driven concept’ in creating a safe work environment for all employees, configure supply chains to be more sustainable, and share expertise and resources to navigate the social impacts of Covid-19 to the communities. Moreover, organizations must also adapt in innovating products that are safe for consumers and able to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
Hence, what we can conclude here is that companies that have established purpose-driven principles have chart the pathway forward than other. They performed better than others in navigating the crisis.
Generate Innovative Products or Service
Organizations or companies that are purpose-driven are also able to generate more innovative products or services. The company that I invested like Burgreens has long ago established itself as a plant-based food company that promotes conscious eating and a healthy lifestyle. They have currently grown into a community-based social business connecting local partners and conscious customers to promote more healthy and ethical society. In the pandemic, the food company even performs better and EBITDA positive amidst the retail lockdown. This is because customers are shifting their needs towards a sustainable and healthy lifestyle during Covid-19.
Better Customer Relations & Engagement
To serve customer better and sustainably, the company can generate more engaged relationships with their customers. This is because companies are able to treat customers humanly, where they are not seeing customers as money makers, but instead to deliver sustainable solutions in a humane way.
High Organizational Productivity and Employee’s Commitment
Purpose-driven companies can generate more productivity because employees feel motivated, engaged, and empowered to work better for good. Moreover, purpose-driven companies see the employee as an asset and as a family and community that they want to take care of, developed and advanced, thus increasing employee engagement, productivity, and performance.
Jerome Knyszewski: As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
Shinta Kamdani: In my view, it is essential to be engaged with the customers. This is limited to sales or customer support and to anticipate customer’s need by keeping in touch with them to foster the relationship even in the more personal level to offer tailored solutions or products. Moreover, by building trust and open communication, by giving transparent and timely information for customers to capture the value of your products, more importantly, always engage with customers when you have new information available and include customer’s participation in company events and milestones. You may also offer incentives for customers e.g exclusive promo, referral bonus, and complimentary consultation, to attract your customers to buy and refer your product.
Jerome Knyszewski: Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Shinta Kamdani: One way is to humanize your brand. With Covid-19, customers are more concerned to their safety and well-being, they want a resource that they can trust and make them feel safe and offer support when they need the most. Consequently, they are getting more selective towards the brands that they can trust, they are more care about whether the brands are responsible, safe, even on how they treat their employee and community.
This is why sustainable brands are getting more attention and traction in the last two years. Sustainable brands have demonstrated genuine care and offer support for their customers. They focus on delivering products that is safe and healthy for the customer’s well-being. Furthermore, they also pay attention on how their product can make an impact for the environment and community. Thereby, they are considering the safety of the product and the company operation and manufacturing across the value chain to make sure they are responsible, sustainable, and even renewable. At the end of the day, what they offer is more than just product but also service and contribution towards the well-being of large community and environment.
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Shinta Kamdani: Please connect with me through my Instagram.
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
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