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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 29, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 43

Adi Adiwoso
A maverick businessman looks to change Indonesia

Adi Adiwoso is looking for ways to not only start profitable companies but change Indonesia's business culture
Anastasia Vrachnos for Asiaweek
Sometime next month, Adi Adiwoso expects his other-worldly field of bright white satellite dishes on the outskirts of Jakarta to silently inaugurate a new era for his pair of young companies. It will happen as long as the launch of Garuda I, a $231-million Lockheed-Martin-built satellite, goes off as planned Oct. 31 and starts beaming information to the receivers. Then Adiwoso will be able to breathe easier and return to the task of building a new style of business in Indonesia.

Any way you look at it, Adiwoso is undertaking a risky venture. Historically, one of every 10 satellite launches ends in failure. And although insurance can cover the immediate loss - Adiwoso's companies own one-third of the Garuda I - it cannot make up for the opportunity cost of failing to deliver promised capacity for telecommunications, video signals and computer applications.

When it comes to remaking Indonesia's business culture, Adiwoso is aiming even higher. He has bet both of his start-ups - one is called Pacific Satellite Nusantara, or PSN, the other is Asia Cellular Satellite, known as Aces - on the proposition that Indonesia and Indonesians are ready to embrace Reformasi in the workplace. In fact, his employees have been doing it for years. "I have found out one thing: Indonesians can work in an environment of transparency." He talks of checks and balances, and of installing independent, American-style boards of directors at PSN and Aces. He is proud of the corporate accountability he is building at his companies, both of which he heads, and he is quick to note that his own shareholding in the companies is less than 10% each. "I'm here as a CEO on my own merits, because everybody can fire me, since 90% of the shareholders can say, 'Adi go take a hike.'"

Asiaweek Business Hall of Fame
Asiaweek salutes three business pioneers who helped make the Asia of today and stand as an example to those building the region's tomorrow
• Inaba Seiuemon: Through his computer-controlled devices, Inaba changed manufacturing
• Y.K. Pao: Hong Kong's first businessman of truly international stature
• Washington SyCip: From one-man auditor to management services multinational

Asiaweek Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame
The entrepreneurial ethic had never really caught on in Asia, where bigger was usually considered better. But those days may well be gone
• Adi Adiwoso: A maverick businessman looks to change Indonesia
• Liu Jing: China's get-rich ethic is changing private enterprise
• Daniel Ng: Are there riches in teaching companies about the internet?
• Park Soo Woong: Today's lesson: how to start a successful business

Past Laureates
Every year since 1994, Asiaweek has honored a selection of business people who have made a truly great impact on the region's commerce and industry

Asiaweek Hall of Fame 1998

Asiaweek Hall of Fame 1996

It isn't likely. Adiwoso, 47, surely one of the world's few batik-wearing rocket scientists, has in only four-years at Aces carved out a nice piece of business providing broadband data transmission capacity. The Asian financial crisis hit Indonesia especially hard, freezing infrastructure growth of phone lines, optical cable and switching capacity. Lucky for Aces and PSN, they are financially healthy companies with a growing ability to fill voids. We are well-positioned "by default," he says. "Most of my competitors are bankrupt."

PSN was born first in 1991 when a professor-friend of Adiwoso's suggested they buy from the government one of several cheap, aging satellites it owned and begin selling transmission capacity. Quickly, the company grew on the back of Adiwoso's connections within the satellite industry: he worked eight years at Hughes Aerospace; was an adviser to British Aerospace; and held a seat on the board of another space-industry company. In 1995, Adiwoso formed Aces as a separate venture from PSN to compete in the telecommunications industry as both a provider of long-distance services and infrastructure. At one point, Adiwoso got offers to buy a majority share in PSN from some global telecommunications giants. He refused: "Why should I give up control of my destiny for $60 million?"

For many people, there is no obvious reason to turn down the money. But to understand why Adiwoso values control so highly, consider one of his favorite hobbies. He likes to garden. On weekends he visits a small piece of land he owns in central Java to grow tomatoes, broccoli and bak choi. No surprise: He is intent on ensuring that his hobby turns a profit.

Adiwoso insists that he became an entrepreneur only "by accident." But in fact his desire to be his own boss seems quite purposeful. He grew up mostly overseas as the son of a diplomat. He was schooled in Europe and the U.S. and, after working for several foreign firms, he returned to Indonesia in 1981. He eventually did stints at companies dominated by two leading Indonesian families. After that, he knew he wanted to work for himself. Several times in his entrepreneurial career, he has consciously sought out foreign investors, often within Asia, partly to avoid having too many Indonesian partners. "In Indonesia you have to have connections, and I didn't like what I had to pay, whether in terms of money or services," he says.

Adiwoso's preference for Western business practices are evident at his companies. His employees say the workplaces are much more team-oriented than traditional Indonesian firms and there are no rigid demarcations on job responsibilities, a philosophy Adiwoso probably borrowed from Silicon Valley. Adiwoso himself likes to be involved in all facets of the business - even down to the smallest details.

It might be part of his work ethic. Adiwoso says Indonesians must develop a culture in which merit and competitiveness are valued more highly than mere authority. "Meritocracy has disappeared in the last 20 years," he says. Instead, many local business people have learned to simply sit back and collect fees. But he is optimistic about the future. He sees a strong entrepreneurial ethic every day on the streets of Jakarta in the form of hustling cigarette sellers. Everyone has to start somewhere.

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