At 25, Anne Patricia Sutanto was part of new management that took over a struggling garment maker, Pan Brothers, at the onset of the Asian financial crisis in 1997.
“There was a demo at that time, because the employees didn’t want any change in management,” Anne, now 42, recalled.
She is now deputy chief executive and a minor shareholder in PT Pan Brothers Tbk, which is today Indonesia’s largest garment company, producing 69 million pieces of clothing a year.
“Everyone says I’m very ambitious. But I say we are ready to work hard, the infrastructure is there, and that the people are very supportive. There are challenges here and there, but we can prove that we can make it globally.”
Anne said Indonesia had supplied only 1.8 per cent of the global garment market in 2013, compared to Vietnam at 3 per cent, Bangladesh at 5 per cent and China at 35 per cent.
But the country’s textile and garment exports are expected to grow from 12.6 billion dollars in 2013 to 75.3 billion dollars in 2030, with Indonesia’s global export share predicted to rise to 5 per cent.
“We do believe we can supply much more. But then we have to work more to be competitive,” she said.
“China will decline in the garment and textile industry because … labour intensive is becoming less popular in China and they are more into capital intensive and more into the technology side.”
Anne, who obtained her engineering and business degrees in the United States, recalls how tough it was for the new team to set the company back on its feet when she joined it in 1997.
“We went through thick and thin,” she said. “There was the Asian financial crisis and in 1998 there was a change of power,” a reference to the downfall of long-time dictator Suharto after widespread rioting in the capital Jakarta.
“But we have grown from 12 million dollars to 314 million dollars (in net sales).”
Pan Brothers produces clothing and apparel for dozens of global brands such as Adidas, Nike, Calvin Klein and Lacoste.
In 2006, Anne tendered her resignation, saying she wanted to continue her father’s wood-processing business, but the main shareholder wanted her to stay involved, so she was given the title of president commissioner.
In 2010 she returned to a management job and became vice-president director.
“When I came back I told the rest of the team: Look we can only be two things: We become obsolete, or we become number one,” she said.
“If you want to enhance everyone’s imagination, you need to provide a pathway. Back then I told everyone we wanted to be number one in Indonesia within five years, in 15 years number one in Asia and in 25 years number one in the world,” she said.
Anne insisted Pan Brothers’ workers are better paid than the industry average and they are generally satisfied.
“We have 30,000 workers and it’s almost not possible to make everyone happy,” she said.
“There may be some unfairness, but if you really have good communication, if you have transparency and good faith, the workers will understand.”
She said as an Indonesian company, Pan Brothers has the advantage of familiarity with the country’s culture and its regulatory maze, which often frustrates foreign investors.
“The labour law. Is it a burden? Yes, but we look at it as a challenge and turn it into an opportunity,” she said.
“How many people want to enter Indonesia? Because you are Indonesian, you have the advantage of operating in your own country.”
Indonesia’s labour law makes it difficult for employers to terminate employees, even for efficiency reasons, and employers are required to pay hefty severance pay to workers who are fired, even for non-performance or errors, unless a crime is proven in court.
A typical gratuity severance after 3 years’ work is 4 months’ salary plus 2 months salary in appreciation for length of service.
“I have to agree that actually the labour law in Indonesia protects workers and is sometimes too over-protective. What we don’t want is over-protective labour laws. Just about right is what we need,” Anne said.
She says she works six days a week and tries to spend at least half a day with her husband and two children every Sunday.
“I’m very blessed my husband understands me 100 per cent,” she said. “Anything I want to do, he supports me fully. Of course here and there he complains, but as a wife I accept that.”
She said Indonesia is the best place for women to work.
“I haven’t seen many female executives in Japan or Korea, which are developed countries,” she said.
Apart from business, Sutanto is also known for her charity work.
She was among eight Indonesian business people, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who donated 5 million dollars to the fight against malaria, tuberculosis, HIV and AIDS.
Her company also provides scholarships to poor Indonesians.
“We need to give back to society. If your society is uneducated and unhealthy, there will a lot of inefficiency and unproductivity,” she said.