Too often the news in North American media about Indonesia is bad: natural disasters, terrorism, economic uncertainty.
After 15 years as a resident of Jakarta, Montreal native Sirk Verelst, 43, long ago learned to see beyond the headlines. As a successful business owner, he focuses on the opportunities, of which there have been many for his company, Kardono Creative Action.
Mr. Verelst founded it in 1998 with his wife, who is Indonesian. Kardono specializes in helping corporations with branding. In Indonesia, this means a range of activities from commercial architecture to office interior design to marketing strategy and event organizing. Kardono's client list includes the United Nations local office, German conglomerate Siemens, Canadian telecommunications giant RIM, high-end private hospital Bogor Medical Centre, and Bank International Indonesia.
Mr. Verelst says the outlook for his privately held business is “to be honest, for us, very positive. Unlike elsewhere globally where there was a financial crisis. Not here.”
After a period of economic stagnation following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which saw the rupiah massively devalued, the political stability of recent years and a strong domestic consumer base have delivered good growth for the country of 230 million.
Mr. Verelst graduated from McGill University in 1988, with a civil engineering degree and a minor in marketing. He cut his teeth in the brand business in Canada, working with his father. “It's a family tradition. My father did product design, interiors, architecture and exhibitions in Europe and Canada. Then he taught at university in Montreal.
Mr. Verelst left Canada for Asia in 1993, first working in Singapore. Within a year he quickly realized he would do better in another environment. “The mindset was too safe for me, and so I jumped to Indonesia.”
He relocated to Jakarta in 1994, in the throes of the economic boom before 1997, and he found it was just the kind of business adventure he was looking for. While his natural gung-ho attitude helped, he also had to adjust his way of thinking, something that would come in handy later in the difficult downturn years that Indonesians refer to locally as Krismom – krisis moneter (financial crisis).
One of the biggest challenges for businesses in an emerging economy is what Mr. Verelst describes as managing “to create something out of nothing.” On projects, many materials and processes considered standard in Canada might suddenly be too expensive for the client or hard to source locally, yet the product has to be durable and appear to be of quality. A project that might be have originally budgeted for granite floors in the end could wind up with plain, raw cement.
It's easy to get frustrated. Mr. Verelst rationalizes it as having to “come up with creative but affordable solutions.” He and his company, which has 20 full-time employees, have embraced this dictum and thrived through the years. Mr. Verlest says: “When you are in North America, everything is regulated and the options for out-of the box thinking is limited by that.”
His positive attitude and ability to work with limited resources have served him well. Imagination also helps. His firm has been contracted to create an ambitious new project, working on the study for an international film school. “The idea is to create an Indonesian Bollywood,” Mr. Verelst says, “with all production facilities included.”
Fifteen years in Jakarta has schooled him in the habit of studying the local market and its idiosyncrasies. Kardono has been consulting for BlackBerry's Indonesia offices, trying to improve sales of the popular devices.
In Canada and the United States, the BlackBerry has been embraced primarily among the business crowd. In Indonesia, the gadgets have been popular with a broader demographic, from teenagers to retirees. Marketing needed to be adjusted. It's easy to rely primarily on data from a mature and heavily studied market such as North America and take for granted that the insights are universal.
But for global businesses, small and big, it pays to keep a finger on the pulse of the local.
Special to the Globe and Mail
Alexandra A. Seno has written about economics and business trends in Asia since 1994. She is a regular contributor to Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune and The Wall Street Journal Asia. She lives in Hong Kong.
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