Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Peter F. Gontha: Shifting from business to jazz music

The Jakarta Post
February 22, 2007

Relaxed, modest and friendly is the impression one gets of this gentleman who was born in Semarang, Central Java on May 4, 1948. His name is Peter F. Gontha.

Peter was often in the media spotlight when he was a top executive in the Bimantara Group (1983-1998). Earlier he had worked for Shell (Holland; 1970-1975), Citibank (assistant vice president for Jakarta, Athens, Kuala Lumpur, New York, 1975-1979) and American Express Bank (vice president and operational chief for Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia; 1979-1983.

Bimantara, owned by the family of former president Soeharto, was reportedly so impressed by this man that it offered him a job. Peter accepted the offer and joined Bimantara in 1983.

"The late Alex Frans took me back to Indonesia. He was the father-in-law of Adrie Subono. I worked at Citibank, then in Amex in New York. Later I was stationed in Hong Kong. While I was working in Hong Kong, I was approached to join Bambang Tri's (chairman of Bimantara) company," Peter said.

Bimantara Group was ready to pay him a big salary. And the offer of high financial reward was enough for Peter to regard the seriousness of Bambang Tri and his associates in hiring him.

One may triumph in one's own home but lose in the international arena. Peter is different, though. Foreign companies like him when they see his performance. What is his secret? Honesty, Peter said, is the most effective way to approach foreigners.

These days, with retirement age is approaching, Peter starts to combine business and art as part of his journey in life. The Java Jazz Festival (JJF), which may be considered a barometer for the revival of jazz in Indonesia and which reverberates the world over, is one of Peter's projects.

"I like jazz because I grew up with it and live in a jazz environment. My father was one of the pioneers of jazz in Indonesia. He set up the first big band in Indonesia. Jack Lesmana, Bubby Chen, Maryono and many other great jazz musicians joined this big band," Peter said.

Indeed, Peter has everything, especially in terms of material wealth. Then again, some people may think that JJF is just an expression of his idealism, which means that this giant project is not a profit-seeking undertaking.

"I have always adhered to the saying 'Don't ask what the country can do for you, but what you can do for the country'. I feel I am doing something for the country by organizing this festival. We introduce Indonesia to the international arena," he noted.

It is only natural that Peter believes in this principle. He is enamored by presidents, particularly J.F. Kennedy, Sukarno and Soeharto. "They were great men," he said.

Indeed, many people once thought of Peter as being inseparable from Soeharto. This is understandable because at one time Peter was considered one of Soeharto's cronies. "Pak Harto is actually a great man. I love him dearly. He had a forward-looking vision. I was influenced by Pak Harto, with all his pluses and minuses. But I also love Pak Karno (Soekarno). I also love Pak Habibie, and Gus Dur. Whoever is the president of Indonesia must be very intelligent," he said.

However, politics put him in great difficulty, and it is this situation that he abhors. Indeed, Soeharto's cronies were greatly stigmatized at the advent of the reform era.

"I am a crony or someone from the New Order era. However, I forgot to steal. At that time, I saw a lot of people steal using a great variety of tricks," he said. However, he was never tempted to do the same. Did he regret it? "Yes, I regretted not stealing ... But Thank God I can now appear in public or in the press and hold my head high," he said, laughing freely.

Peter's professional journey has indeed not been easy. He confirmed his position outside Indonesia before returning home.

"Not many people are as lucky as I am," he said, adding that it was just a matter of luck.

One day his mother gave him a one-way ticket to Holland. With just a courage and confidence on his ability, Peter flew to Holland and managed to make it on his own. "I used to be very obstinate but as I had to survive abroad, I had to be serious," he said.

Finally, he applied for a job with Dutch Shell, which he landed after going through a selection process and testing.

At first, Peter joined Shell only as an ordinary staffer earning 400 guilders (then equivalent to Rp 300,000) a month and worked there for five years. In 1975, he returned home to Indonesia at the invitation of Alex Frans. Back in Indonesia, Peter joined Citibank and initially earned Rp 75,000 a month. Of course, this salary was much lower than what he earned in Holland. However, he felt he had better opportunities in Indonesia. Four years later, Peter joined Amex Bank. Thanks to his great skill, after some time at this bank Peter was named Amex Bank chief for Asia supervising the bank in 14 countries. He was then going on 32 years old.

Peter believes in the philosophy of being sensitive to his environment in building a career. Listening to other people, working hard and never dismissing as trivia any input from other people are his principles.

"Nobody can be smart alone. Take, for example, the Japanese. If they did things individually, they would be in difficulty. Together, they became smart people," he said, adding that the Japanese philosophy respects cooperation highly and this covers all aspects of life.

He said the biggest difficulty in managing a company is the human resources. "Many aspects are involved, for example, they get sick, want a pay rise, ask for a holiday, strike, protest, steal the company's secrets, denigrate the company and many other things," he said.

However, he also has a way to overcome such problems. "Just find out who is loyal and who is not. Keep those who are loyal and bid the others goodbye." (Iwan Suci Jatmiko)

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