June 5, 2014 12:00 am JST

Southeast Asian women bring fresh perspectives to top jobs

Philippines BDO takes banking to the people

The SM group is a Philippines conglomerate made up of the country's largest shopping mall chain and one of its biggest banks. The family operation was founded by Chinese-Filipino business tycoon Henry Sy, who was born in China's Fujian Province. Weekly family meetings decide the direction of all group companies.

     Sy's six children each have one vote, so investments and other policy decisions are determined by a majority vote. "During the discussion, my family most often uses the Chinese dialect of Fujian that is spoken too quickly for nonfamily members to understand," Teresita Sy-Coson, Sy's eldest daughter and a pillar of the family empire, said with a smile. Sy-Coson is often referred to as the heiress apparent to her father's company, which has grown into one of the nation's largest business groups after starting life as a small shoe store, Shoemart, in downtown Manila. The store's name was later abbreviated to SM.

     Sy-Coson is now the chairwoman of the SM group's banking unit, BDO Unibank. She constantly checks all bank staff, regardless of their gender, to see if they are projecting a positive image for the company. The chairwoman has also changed the interior design of the bank's 800 branch offices across the country to make them neater and brighter. To make banking services more accessible to workers, she extended closing time from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

     A customer-oriented mentality was instilled in Sy-Coson from childhood as she spent hours watching people buy shoes at her father's store while observing what visitors and passers-by wore and carried. Her experiences of living in poverty as the granddaughter of one of the many Chinese immigrants to the Philippines motivated her to expand business.

    She has absolutely no hesitations about pursuing aggressive investment strategies. BDO Unibank has grown into the country's largest bank, in terms of assets, through a series of acquisitions, with its 1977 purchase of Acme Savings Bank starting the growth. "We have to acquire, otherwise it is hard to open more branches," Sy-Coson said, adding that evolution ultimately results in competition. BDO Unibank accounts for 43% of the SM group's net profit.

Grow in Japan

BDO Unibank is now looking to expand and grow in Japan by teaming up with several Japanese regional banks. The Philippines' largest lender is also considering setting up branches in Japan. Expecting securities services to grow in the economically fast-expanding Philippines, BDO and Japanese securities giant Nomura Holdings have signed an agreement to explore potential areas of cooperation. Sy-Coson leverages her keen sensitivity to customers' needs and decisive action to pursue investment opportunities to steer the SM group in the right direction.

Jakarta 7-Elevens become Blue Bird taxi safe havens

Getting around Indonesia's massive capital can be a challenge. Public transit is limited to buses, though a new rail system is under construction. Taxis are a vital means of transportation. Blue Bird Group Holding and its president and director, Noni Purnomo, 44, have found ways to take the stress and risk out of grabbing a cab.

     Blue Bird partnered with the 7-Eleven convenience store chain to set up taxi dispatch terminals. Customers can relax and sip coffee while waiting for their ride.

 "This way, our customers can wait for our service safely, even in storms or late at night," Purnomo said.

     Simply duck into a store, get a taxi confirmation number and wait in the eating area.

     Purnomo is determined to maintain a clean, cheerful, customer-friendly image for Blue Bird. This makes the company stand out in a Jakarta taxi business notorious for shady practices.

     She was 3 years old when her grandfather established the company in 1972. By the age of 5 she was helping the family business, wrapping cash for payment to drivers. Her father was a driver himself, while her mother answered the phone. Purnomo grew up surrounded by mechanics and autoparts. She went on to earn an MBA in the U.S.

    Upon returning to Indonesia, she rejoined Blue Bird in 1996 and set up new divisions: business development, public relations and advertising, and quality control. She prioritized hiring drivers with integrity and good manners. She stressed proper values, such as endeavoring to return belongings left in cabs to the owners.

    Blue Bird started out with 25 cars and has become Indonesia's top taxi company. It had a fleet of 34,000 as of early 2014, including high-end cars it calls Golden Birds and Silver Birds.

     "In the past three years we've grown by 18% annually," Purnomo said. Her goal is to "add 11,000 taxis by 2015."

Pertamina president scores energy-points for Indonesia

If running a company were a sport, Karen Agustiawan would be playing in overtime. She officially completed her term as CEO of Pertamina, Indonesia's state-owned oil and gas company, in March of last year. She stayed on due to the lack of a suitable successor and uncertainty stemming from the national election coming up this year. As long as she remains in the game, industry watchers will be expecting her to keep scoring points for Pertamina's global development.

     Agustiawan, 55, is only a year younger than the company she leads. "At 56, Pertamina is still evolving into a world-class energy firm," she said. In February, she announced record earnings and laid out a program of ambitious new goals.

    She became Pertamina's first female CEO in 2009. She had previously worked for a couple of American companies -- Mobil Oil, now part of Exxon Mobil, and oil field developer Halliburton. She has a scientific background, having majored in physics at the Bandung Institute of Technology.

     Prior to taking Pertamina's top job, Agustiawan was a director in charge of upstream operations -- in other words, oil prospecting and development.

     That expertise continues to serve her well. Indonesia is the largest oil producer in Southeast Asia, but in the mid-2000s it became a net importer of oil. Declining domestic oil production -- partly attributable to corruption in the nation's intricate system of oil and gas concessions -- has combined with growing demand to tighten supply. Agustiawan has dealt with this by jetting around the planet to land foreign oil concessions.

     In the past year alone, she secured one in Algeria from ConocoPhillips of the U.S. and another in Iraq from Exxon Mobil. Such deals pave the way for expanding Pertamina's domestic sales.

     Agustiawan has also emerged as a foe of corruption. In January, at the request of Indonesia's Corruption Eradication Commission, she voluntarily testified in a case against an executive working under the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources. The official, she said, had asked for "gift" money and hinted she might be dismissed from the CEO post if she refused. She said she rebuffed him; the official was recently found guilty.

Nikkei staff writers Minoru Satake (Manila), Sadachika Watanabe (Jakarta) contributed to this story.