Martha Tilaar: ‘God is My CEO’

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Throughout the decades of her life, including her career, Martha Tilaar has acknowledged that she has been guided by the “absolute CEO”, God.

This can be read about in her biography, which was launched on Sept. 7. The book launch marked 37 years of her activities in the traditional cosmetics business. “With this book,” Martha said, “I wish to share my practical business experience with many people.” The book, titled Bagi Indonesia: Perjalanan Seorang Entrepreneur Perempuan. Mengubah Mimpi Menjadi Nyata (For Indonesia: The Journey of a Woman Entrepreneur. Transforming Dreams into Reality) was written by Ayu Hermawan and is sold as a package with the biography of Prof. Alex Tilaar, Martha’s husband. It is not without reason that the two books are sold as a package.

“My struggle has always been fully supported by Alex, in the same way that I have always wholeheartedly supported his struggle,” Martha said. That’s why their books have come out in one box to symbolize this mutual support.

Deep in her heart, Martha would like the book to serve as a source of inspiration to develop people’s entrepreneurship. Her experience shows her that entrepreneurship is not merely a matter of theory. It can be said that Martha started her business from the very beginning without any high-sounding business theories. She did not become familiar with such theories until later when she became acquainted with many business figures and marketing and management gurus. It was her association with these people that made her realize how her business practices are theoretically justified. “In fact, I started only with raw courage,” Martha said.

Martha has learned many business practices from her husband, who is a lecturer at the Jakarta Teachers Training Institute (IKIP Jakarta) and expert advisor at the National Development Planning Board (Bappenas). Alex has been the man behind the scene since Martha first started her business. Martha usually discusses her business ideas with Alex before putting them into practice. Executing her business ideas is fully within Martha’s province. When it is about a business practice, Martha said, Alex never interferes.

“He does not have the mentality of a businessman,” Martha said.

Martha’s business activities began in 1970, following her return from Indiana, the U.S. In Indiana, while accompanying her husband, who at the time was studying for his master’s and doctor’s degrees in educational philosophy, Martha enrolled in the Academy of Beauty Culture. She also applied for a beautician’s license so that she could practice as a beautician there. It was in the U.S. that she came to understand that one could make beauty their profession. “Americans love to be served, so a job like this is highly appreciated,” Martha said.

As a beautician she was paid handsomely and became financially independent. She also found she was able to save some of her earnings. In fact, Martha began saving money long before she took the diploma program at the U.S. academy. “I found a job as a babysitter,” she said. She promoted her services by distributing leaflets in which she emphasized that she was an elementary school teacher. Her strategy worked, and many parents left their children in her charge. She saved her earnings from babysitting and used this money to enroll in a school. She was also once an Avon lady, working from door to door.

“I would call out ‘Avon calling’,” she said. Some welcomed her but others slammed the door in her face. All this was a form of training for her. “I became stronger in facing various situations,” she stressed.

When Martha decided to open her own business, the only thing that was on her mind was that she had to help her husband, a civil servant. “My husband is very honest, so I had to improve the finances of our family. I respect Alex highly and did not want him to fall into anything dishonest,” said Martha. With her husband’s blessings, she opened a beauty parlor in the garage of her father’s residence. She started this business with capital of Rp 1 million, which came from her father, Handana Tjie, and Ratna Handana, her younger sister.

Later, Martha saw an opportunity to move into the realm of traditional beauty. “Indonesia is very rich but why are many of us still very poor?” she asked herself once. Martha was aware of the extraordinary cultural wealth of this country. Martha became acquainted with traditional herbal medicine when her grandmother used it to improve her fertility. Besides, some time before she departed for the United States, Titie Poerwosoenoe, a beautician in Jakarta, opened Martha’s eyes to the potential of the traditional beauty world. So she decided to learn more about Indonesia’s traditional herbal medicine.

It was indeed not an easy task. Initially she was mocked as if she were a traditional healer going astray in the big city. At that time, upper-class women in Jakarta looked to the Western world for cosmetics. So when Martha introduced Eastern cosmetics, she found herself in a strange situation. However, she had a lot of courage and forged on with her own tactics. For one thing, she set a low fee for those willing to be treated with traditional herbal concoctions. She also established cooperation with a friend, Mooryati Sudibyo, a member of the royal family. When their business collaboration eventually ended, Martha established Sari Ayu Martha Tilaar.

It was at this time that she recognized the potential of the traditional beauty sector. She learned that various palaces all over Indonesia had their own charm in terms of beauty and body treatments. So she traveled all over Indonesia to learn about beauty and body treatments in the regions.

As a result of these trips, she learned to produce a great variety of products for various layers of society. She also opened spas abroad. Since 1987, Martha has kept customers captivated by launching color trends consistently based on the cultural wealth of Indonesia.

One of her most notable business steps is the launch of Pusako Minang, two lipsticks in one. “This lipstick was launched when the monetary crisis swept the country. At that time I was quite worried as many companies were laying off employees,” Martha said. Her innovative two colors in one lipstick is really terrific. Production at her company jumped 400 percent and Martha did not have to lay off any employees. At that time, Biokos, a product created for mature women, was gaining popularity as consumers began switching brands after imported cosmetics products became very expensive.

“An extraordinary number of pre-paid orders were placed for Biokos and as a result I could purchase the shares of my partners in the company,” she said. Martha’s partners sold their shares so they could focus on their pharmaceutical business. Now after 37 years of her business journey, 43 years of married life and 70 years of life, Martha still emphasizes that “God is my CEO”. And her own distinctive asset is her courage. (Ayu Hermawan)

The Jakarta Post, January 02, 2008