William Soeryadjaya: Eight Lessons Learnt From The Founder of Astra International


Did you know that Astra International was started only by four people? Did you also know that its first business was in trades, selling fruits and other produces before it became Indonesia’s largest automotive manufacturer and retailer?

In every company success, I can’t help but to question how it could possibly be done. Creating long lasting companies that last for years which employ hundreds of thousands of people directly as well as creating the multiplier effect to the economies, to me somewhat a superhero job. It is, in my opinion, is the most rewarding career you could ever undertake.

I believe that William Soeryadjaya is largely unknown to the most of my generation and below. I certainly had trouble when researching further. The main source of this writing largely credited to his biography book, written by Teguh Sri Pambudi & Harmanto Edy Djatmiko titled “Man of Honor”. I for one, lack of knowledge of this prominent business figure until I had the chance to read this book cover to cover. Although I did not have the chance to work with the man, I must frankly say that he has inspired me personally in many ways through his stories and actions, and would live to tell his tale to my son. With numerous testimonies from his core families, closest friends to the vice-president of Indonesia, this source is as close as you could get to get to know him. I strongly advise you to pick up a copy and start reading his story.

Here are the eight lessons I learnt from the founder of Astra International:

1. Integrity above everything

Nobody wants to work with people who is lack of moral compass. Nobody.

Those who are willing to take everything and give nothing in return? There are too many of them around already.

One of his business highlight, and arguably the hardest, was the time when he had to let go the ownership of Astra International to ensure the integrity of his family name. Most of us may be too young to even remember Bank Summa. The bank was owned by one of the Soeryadjaya’s family member when it was on the verge of liquidation in 1992. The crisis hit the bank ferociously that it threatened the depositors’ money. The story of Bank Summa was being recounted by my parents when I mentioned the case to them. It turns out that they were once the customers of the bank, and at the time, they were advised that they might not be able to see their deposit money again as the bank’s businesses were going down the drain. As small depositors, my parents felt helpless and had abandoned the slightest hope that they will ever see their savings again. They made a promise to themselves that should the money were refunded by some miracle, they would be using the money to do the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Back to William’s story, while it was true that Bank Summa was none of his responsibility, but he felt strongly about his role to protect his family’s name integrity. Note this: not just personal, but his family name as a whole. He quoted saying that nobody would want to do business with anyone with a Soeryadjaya name attach should he refuses to take responsibility. In order to pay the bank’s liability to creditors amounted more then USD$1 billion (in 1992 money), he needed to sell his shares in Astra International, hence letting go of the ownership of the company he built from scratch 35 years earlier.

As to my parents, it was a miracle indeed. They received their money back in full and fulfil their words to perform Hajj in Mecca.

2. Inheriting large sums of money is not a pre-requisite prior to building long-lasting companies

This gives most of us hopes. Money could be an obstacle or a blessings if you happen to gain this windfall in life. In William’s life, he never inherited substantial amount of money from his parents. Both of his parents passed away before he even graduated from primary school. His uncle took over the responsibility when both of his parents passed away. He started to get in to trading business early in life by selling anything that he could sell at the time to get by in life.

He built Astra International from scratch at the age of 35 in 1957. This was started after he was released from jail as a result of a business partnership gone sour. With his brothers, they bought a small dormant company with the view to utilise its export and import license, something that was very difficult to acquire when you were of Indonesian-Chinese descent. When first started, they were selling everything they could from corned beef to lemonade drinks. Although a big opportunity came when the government was building Jatiluhur Reservoir and Astra was named as its main supplier, it was not a very profitable project to Astra due to hyperinflation which was experienced during that year.

Another big break came when the change of regime took place in the country. The former president Soeharto prioritised policies that stimulated the economy and encouraged trades. This change of event brought many opportunities to Astra and William. they were selected to be the main supplier for numerous government infrastructure projects such as the building of House of Representative Building, Steel bridges in West Java, the reconstruction of road around Indonesia, to supplying bike to farmers in small villages. Also at this stage, the Japanese giant automotive Toyota Corporation was looking for an Indonesian partner who would undertake the task of automotive assembly, as well as partnering in distributions of the products in the country.

Notice that many of his life’s opportunity came along at his doorstep not due to his prior inheritance nor wealth, but it came to him as a result of years of hard work and exceptional reputation in business.

3. Businesses will succeed and fail, be ready to start from the bottom over and over again

Not all of businesses he started successful. Prior to starting Astra, he had multiple businesses that were started and failed. He was a natural born trader. Naturally, most of his business revolved around trading businesses. In early years prior to Astra, he sold range of produces at traditional market, supplying asphalt for government projects, animal skin tanning, as well as selling rollaway bed. None of those lasted, all of them failed for various reasons. Selling rollaway bed for example, ended when his business partner conspired against him to seize control of the company.

Even in the subsequent years following the Bank Summa saga, he was determined to built “little Astra” from scratch. He was about to built a motorcycle manufacturer with Taiwan Golden Bee (TGB). However, as well as it took him almost a decade from 1992 to repay all of the depositor money and clear all of the issues attached, his dream crushed when 1997 monetary crisis hit most of the Asian nation and saw the deal was off.

It is amazing how a person who have lost more than $1 billion in 1992 money, still had the guts to restart his life and business. Most people who failed and lost substantial amount of money, would stopped chasing their dreams in instance. But most rules simply did not apply to William Soeryadjaya.

4. Opportunity comes from everywhere

Business ideas come from everywhere, and sometime when least expected.

One of his habit was to read newspaper. He read local as well as international newspaper everyday to find opportunities. His habit of reading newspaper is mainly to determine the government’s current policy in regards to the domestic economies and picking on business opportunities where he could find it.

Another time when opportunity arose when he was using the bathroom and bumped into one of Astra’s employee who casually said that there was a good business to be worked on. He said to that employee to work on the idea right away and to use his personal capital to start, not Astra’s. Today, Federal Oil is still in existence and being used heavily for Honda Motorbikes. The business was not included within Astra when it filed to go public in early nineties. Further, it was mentioned in the book that the company became the saviour financially to William when he ceased to be Astra’s shareholder.

5. Give, be generous to everyone

The power of giving is the secret of his life. He gave to everyone without hesitation to about everyone who crossed his path. One instance, one of his employee thought that he gave the hundred dollar bill too much to the security, and the time when he gave that same person twice. His only replied was that their wages were low, and it was very unlikely that they would see him around very often.

He believes in giving shares to his top professionals who run his business. He strongly felt that these professionals needed to be nurtured their sense of belongings to the company. Only that way then they could be devoted to the company fully of their energy and attention.

When I mentioned about his generosity, it does not always translate to financial means. He also gave one of the most important matter to his employees: his trust. William was not a micromanaging-type of owner. Once he decided, he would give full trust to its manager to run his business accordingly.This in turns, gives many Astra “graduates” to flourish and be known as fine businesspeople when they decided to part ways from the company.

6. Be very careful when finding business partners

His experience of business partnership gone sour in rollaway bed was one of his turning point in life. Conspired to seize control of the company the partner who had connection to the ruling government reported William for tax evasion which he never did. As the result, he had to stay in jail for one and a half months for the wrongly accused report made by his former partner.

On the other hand, finding a good business partner was also crucial to William’s early Astra days. James Sullivan was a much-credited figure during Astra’s early days. He was the employee №5 and was entrusted to be the Managing Director of Astra to manage five people, including himself. A hard-worker and strong-willed personality proved his worth to William during the early days.

7. Build companies with the view to give people jobs

He has the fondness of starting a business that eventually creating jobs to people. Even when the companies were being mismanaged by the management team and suffer loss financially, he would strive to keep the company alive as long as it provides jobs to its employees. He was more than willing to help those financially-troubled companies with his own capital in order to keep the company to stay afloat.

One time, his top manager at one of his big company came to him to report that she would have to retrench a certain percentage of the workforce to keep the company profitable. She could not see any other way to keep the profit of the company intact, unless she took that particular action. Be noted that William was not the type that would lash out very easily, in fact he was known as one personality with a fairly high level of tolerance and self-control. Unfortunately at this point, it could not be tolerated. He did not shy away from hiding his rage and lashed at her out harshly. He argued that it was not the employees’ fault that the business was not doing well and it was her very job to find a way how to keep the employees at work while keeping the company’s profitability unscathed.

This episode of his life showed how important it was keeping the job available to the company’s employees as well as maintaining its level of profitability. He was quoted that company’s profitability is an important factor as it will provides sufficient means for the company to expand, thus providing more jobs to the general public in return.

8. Ask from Him, and you shall receive

After being prisoned for one and half month, William became close to God. Arguably, his devotion made him focus on what he did. This point may differ from every individual since not everyone embraces the concept of “God”. But the point that I am trying to make here is the power of faith that saw him through in every difficult situation that he had to encounter during his life. Whenever he was encountered with problems to his personal and/or business career, he always reminded his closest to put their faith on God and kept believing that God will forever test one’s faith through adversity.

In addition to his strong faith towards God, he never missed the chance of being grateful. It was expressed by his gratitude of every single little thing he received such as he always be seen praying to express gratitude before every meal he had. William believed that prior to finding God, he felt like he did not express his gratitude enough. He would always try to find a way to express his gratitudes through his actions such as more of giving to the needy.

In conclusion, action always speaks louder than words. Books could be written favouring the very person it was written about. What made me strongly believes of his life story revolved around the bold action he had to undertake throughout his life. He could have passed away with Astra International’s large portion of ownership attached to his name and kept his name on the Forbes’ list for years. But he chose not to, in order to protect his very notion of reputation.

First Published in Feb 2016