Mochtar Riady – Life Lessons

Part of a small pioneering group of Dr Mochtar Riady shaped the entrepreneurial spirit of Asia as it came journeyed from poverty through war to wealth. By Kannan Chandran

Even at the age of 87, you still get a feeling there are more chapters to come in Dr Mochtar Riady’s story.

In My Life Story (2017, Wiley), Dr Riady takes the reader through anecdotes that have shaped his life. The short chapters serve as easy reference points to his thinking as well as the growth of Asia as a major player in global economics. Against a backdrop of early tumult, Dr Riady cheated death and applied logic to build the Lippo empire that spans a spectrum of industries and countries.

At his book launch on Wednesday afternoon, at the Mandarin Orchard Singapore — the hospitality arm of the OUE Group, which his son, Stephen Riady helms — a packed ballroom of the business elite gathered from near and far to hear platitudes about the Indonesian businessman who built the Lippo Empire.

It was quite the spectacle that prompted one of the five high-powered panelists, Prof Kishore Mahbubani of the LKY School Of Public Policy to quip: “I’ve published five books, and I get around 50 people at my launch. When you launch one book, 1,000 people come.”

It’s perhaps telling that successful people who generally keep a low profile — especially in the field of business — attract much curiosity when they step into the limelight. The audience is hoping some of that aura will rub off on them, and then there’s that whole networking opportunity. Given that business is built on such ties, it’s probably the smart move.

With the help of his progeny (there are 98 members in the extended family), the Lippo empire has diversified in Indonesia and anchored its growth in property deals outside of the country. Along the way, social causes have been championed, in particular health and education. With 24 hospitals, three universities and 57 schools being set up in the Riady name, Dr Riady has been lauded internationally for his noble efforts.

Modestly, he says: “It’s not my money. It’s my children’s money. I’m thankful my children are obedient. I tell them how to use their money.”

Dr Riady is still entrenched in the acquisition of knowledge and ideas. His curiosity about technology and nanotechnology has spurred him to embrace the Industrial Revolution 4.0 which will open up the way for the future of business.

“There’s a Chinese saying that wealth will not last more than three generations. Is that the same for businesses? We are already seeing it, where companies that have been strong in the past are facing difficulties, and are being sold off.

“They don’t understand Industrial Revolution 4.0 which is mainly driven by infotech, nanotech and biotech. All these technologies have taken businesses into the digital age.”

Dr Riady commented that it was less about which industries would become irrelevant, but rather which enterprises embrace technology.

“Someone asked me if the textile industry is a sunset industry. No it isn’t. Do you want to have a day when you don’t wear clothes? But if your textile factory doesn’t use technology, your business will be a sunset business.”

Dr Riady expressed concern about the next generation and what will motivate them. With the third generation stepping into the Riady empire one might think there is need for some concern based on his earlier remarks. But not so for Dr Riady.

“Many people are afraid of the changing technology landscape. I read a lot and I know what the younger generation is talking about. There is no generation gap. Our family can keep young.”

As Prof Mahbubani opined: “There’s a sense of confidence for the future. Asia will be better off for it. You won’t get that confidence in a book launch in Europe or America. In Europe you have Brexit. In America you have Donald Trump.”

As the laughter died down, Prof Mahbubani continued: “Why are we different? It’s because of the perseverance of Pak Mochtar’s generation. If they had given up, Asia wouldn’t be where it is today.”

Three early business principles of Dr Mochtar Riady:

  1. Archival system. Clean up the records, even if it means rolling up your sleeves and digging in. A clean back of the house is the foundation for growth.
  2. Mastering the accounts. It’s not just about dry numbers and figures, this is a minefield of information. It tells you so many stories about a business.
  3. Analysing workflow. Find the most efficient way of making the system work for the good of the  business.
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