Erick Thohir: In It for the Enjoyment

Erick Thohir seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to running media companies. Burhan Abe finds out how he’s done it.

Although many say that life begins at 40, there are also many who doubt it. One thing is for certain: The phrase perfectly decribes Erick Thohir, a successful media magnate in Indonesia. For Erick, 40 look to be at the start of his second phase of success.

Many doubted that he would succeed when he first entered the media business but now, at 38, Erick owns a mega multimedia business: PT Abdi Bangsa (ABBA), known subsequently as Mahaka Media (MM), is worth hundreds of billions of rupiah. TV stations Jak TV and TV One, radio station Gen FM Radio plus some magazines are all under the MM umbrella.

Born in Jakarta in May 1970 and married to Elizabeth Chandra (“Liza”), Erick has 10-year-old twins, Magisha Afryea Thohir (“Asha”) and Mahatma Arfala (“Arfa”), as well as Mahendra Agakhan (“Aga”, nine) and Makayla Amadia (“Alia”, four). His father, Tri Nugraha Thohir, is a founder of Astra, one of the largest automotive companies in Indonesia. “Even my family doubted me when I first bought shares in Republika newspaper in 2001,” he recalls. At that time, the paper, popular with Muslim readers, was already on the brink of insolvency.

He acknowledges that his move was based entirely on shrewd business calculation. He could see that Republika already had an established Muslim readership – with huge market potential in the future. Hardly rocket science, for Muslims account for more than 90 per cent of the nation’s 230 million populations.

Back then, and even now, no other media product had a similar target segment. Now, seven years later, Republika has grown to become one of the biggest media in the country, with a daily circulation of 250,000 copies.

Surprise Departure

Erick is a man of many surprises. He unexpectedly decided in late June 2008 to relinquish his post as MM president director, yet held on to his position as president director of PT Republika Media Mandiri (Republika’s publisher). It has become very much his trademark to withdraw from a company after managing it successfully.

Some of his close friends or those who already understood his way of doing business were no longer surprised by the resignation. “After seven years, I’d managed to build MM and made it successful; it was time for me to leave,” he said. Exactly what does Erick wish to accomplish? He said he had no particular reason for his “hit-goal-run” approach. “I never thought originally that I would join the media business,” he said. (The first company he set up with colleagues was in mining, under the name Mahaka.)

He concedes that joining the media business was a courageous move. He remembered how people would joke that only “nutty” people would enter it.

Although it was really time-consuming and mentally challenging I was able to enjoy myself because it turned out that there is also a fun side to the business, he added. That is what has maintained Erick’s interest. It’s most likely also that by enjoying his work so much, he was able to become a successful businessman at a relatively young age.

His success, he says, involved good planning and clear targets from the beginning. “Although I might not have planned to enter the business initially, I soon identified targets and stayed focused,” he says.

Erick considers life to be a combination of the things we plan and do not. “We have to set our vision and dreams – how to make it all happen. That’s what we have to survive and struggle for,” he said.

Media, he adds, is a business full of uncertainty. That was why he decided to stay really focused on his work and learned from his seniors, including Jacob Utama (Kompas-Gramedia group) and Dahlan Iskan (Jawa Pos group). Those figures are also his competitors.

“As they are successful media icons in Indonesia, why not learn from them?” he said. Erick said he was as close to them as he is to his businessman father.

Through the process, Erick concluded that the right content offered to a targeted market was the key to success in the media business. However, creativity and innovation were also important.

New Directions

Away from the boardroom, Erick is a huge basketball fan. In fact, he has become something of an icon in the sport within Indonesia. “Although I no longer sit as chairman of the national basketball association (Perbasi), people still seek my opinions,” he said.

He has also has made financial donations to the education sector in Indonesia through his Mahaka Foundation, from providing scholarships to students to donations for teachers. He realizes that the education sector requires special attention and funding. It explains the true meaning of success for Erick.

“Success to me means that we can do useful things for the people around us,” he said. That includes stakeholders, employees, suppliers and communities living around the companies or factories. Being a top person in a company is apparently not his idea of success.

That may explain why he has shown no interest in politics, although with his business empire and wise outlook, he could easily win the trust of others. “All I want is to enjoy life,” he said, adding that politics is not his idea of enjoyment.

What will he do when he reaches 40? Erick wants to enter the hospitality and restaurant business. He comes from a family with a background in the business, owning Pronto and Hanamasa restaurants. It’s like inheriting the family talent, he said.

However, he is not planning to build a conglomerate. He simply likes doing things that have a human dimension. Maybe his dislike of wearing a tie, which tends to set him apart from most other successful businessmen, is also symbolic of his “unbuttoned” view of life.

A Diversified Group ABBA Group now has seven subsidiaries:
• PT Republika Media Mandiri
• PT Pustaka Abdi Bangsa (publishing)
• PT Danapati Abinaya Investama (JAK TV management)
• PT Golfindo Indonesia (Golf Digest magazine publisher)
• PT Mahaka Visual Indonesia
• PT Avabanindo Perkasa
• PT Radio Attahiriyah (Gen FM Radio management)

The Peak, December 2008

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