It’s hard to believe these days, but as recently as the 1970s Indonesia was reliant on U.S. food aid. Franciscus Welirang, Director of Indofood Sukses Makmur, one of the nation’s biggest companies and owner of popular brands like Indomie and Supermie, remembers those times well – so well that he still worries about the issue of food security in the archipelago. Known informally as Pak Franky or simply Franky, Welirang has been in day-to-day charge of Indofood subsidiary Bogasari Flour Mills, Indonesia’s biggest producer of wheat flour, since 1991.
The visionary food-industry leader is also Chairman of the Indonesian Flour Mills Association. Welirang bemoans what he sees as Indonesians’ over-reliance on a diet of rice. The public, he says, has been “conditioned” to choose rice as its staple food, in spite of many other options. One of those options is wheat. Indonesians began eating noodles and bread in significant quantities in 1969, when the United States introduced an economic cooperation package that extended humanitarian food aid in the form of wheat to the archipelago.
Since then, Indonesians have developed a taste for instant noodles, bread, pastries and pasta. Their taste for wheat products is still growing to be sure – thin of the recent growth of businesses like J. Co and BreadTalk – but his countrymen still don’t eat enough of these foods for Welirang’s liking. The Chairman of the Permanent Committee on Food Resilience at the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry believes that there are risks for civil society in relying so much on rice. What if a shortage occurs? “When food prices soar, people get angry and blame the government,” Welirang points out.
It has often been stated that the archipelago’s climate makes it impossible to grow wheat here. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s dependence on imports of the crop is a source of criticism. Welirang puts the record straight. “We have done research into tropical seeds and we have discovered that it is indeed possible to grow wheat in our climate,” he declares during an interview with Prestige one Friday afternoon at his corner office at Indofood Tower on Sudirman. “But to get farmers to grow wheat in sufficient quantities would be a huge project and, to date, the government has not offered the support we would need to pursue it fully.”
Welirang studied Chemical Engineering in London. After his return to Indonesia, his career as an entrepreneurially minded big-business executive “skyrocketed”, according to Louis M. Djangun, Bogasari’s former PR Division head, when Salim Group founder Liem Sioe Liong (Soedono Salim) asked him to take charge of Indocement Tunggal Prakarsa in 1992. Three years later, with Indocement having acquired Bogasari, Welirang became Director of Indofood. He is the right-hand man of his brother-in-law Anthoni Salim, who in 1992 succeeded his father as head of the Salim Group, one of Indonesia’s most powerful conglomerates with interests that also include automobiles, hotels and resorts, property development, medical services and banking.
Djangun refers to the “cowboy style” of Welirang, who is known for his long-hair and ponytail and his famous blue jacket. (The CEO jokes that it’s the only jacket he owns when asked why he always seems to be wearing it). But he adds that as well as being “revolutionary in his approach, [Welirang] is strict and professional in managing the division.
Through these qualities, Franky is seen as a central figure in the Bogasari division for being able to hit a number of the company’s targets.” Welirang has achieved recognition for successfully repositioning Bogasari to face the demands of the 21st century. “At the height of his leadership in Bogasari,” adds Djangun, “he had the impression of being able to look far into the future. All of his predictions would turn into reality.”
In Franky Yang Frank, a biography published to celebrate his 65th birthday last year, Welirang says of his leadership style: “I started by disciplining myself, learning from my own weaknesses and fixing them. I learned from the founders how to lead Bogasari, I learned about the organisation and also the people in it. The biggest lesson I learned was from Pak Anthoni Salim in regards to work ethic and how to run a company. I frequently sat in front of his desk and watched how he worked. I learned how businesses run in the Salim Group. I also learned many details about the process and technology of wheat milling. From the external side, I learned how to socialise with many kinds of entrepreneurs, gaining insight on how to network within this field.”
Welirang is married to Mira Salim, daughter of the late Liem Sioe Liong. “I don’t know how I did it, in regards to who I got married to,” he has said. “I did not set some kind of target to be with this person, or that person. I have known Mira for a long time. At that time, I was just considering the first woman I liked when I got back from England from my studies. I just went with the flow when I met her. I never targeted myself to marry the daughter of a tycoon. We liked each other, and that’s it. However, for me the most important thing is to be myself. I am where I am because of the experiences I had with perfect situations, conditions and opportunities, also with the help of many friends and colleagues. My wife and my children have their own lives. We take time off to spend with our grandchildren.”
The Bogasari boss says he has the ability to get along with people at all levels. “I can be friends with anybody,” he has said. “I consider every person I know and encounter as a friend. Friends are not just people who you hang out with. Friends are those who, in their own characters, thoughts, words and actions – whether they are done on purpose or not – have contributed to my own thinking and my work. Are there special ones? Maybe one or two. But who I call special depends on the specific situation and condition when the encounter takes place. For me, having friends is good as well as necessary. However, it would be more valuable if we can consider every person we meet every day as our friend.
“My role at Salim Group, Indofood and Bogasari, is as an entrepreneur, a professional one at that. I don’t want people to see my position as being part of the Salim family. Thus, every person should strive to be themselves. Every person has a talent and potential that should be elaborated optimally. The key is discipline and learning.” Welirang believes that, like a pilot or a driver, “a leader must look over his or her dashboard every day as a map to monitor and control the organisation. I must be able to see and measure the need for flour on a national scale. How to fulfill that need. Who buys the flour and where is it sold? Who uses the flour? For what purpose, and how is the flour processed? I must also know the profiles of each distributor and partner of Bogasari, the type and scale of each firm and how they market the finished product.”
Says Djangun: “Franky is not the type to say something recklessly or without any purpose. He guides his ideas to reality. For him, an initial concept or an aim has to be clear, transparent, easy to understand. It has to be recorded and documented. At certain times, he would call officials to update the development of ideas and the project itself. At other times, he would be on location to take control.”
A man of great charm, Welirang agrees there is necessarily a tough side to his persona. Writes Djangun in Franky Yang Frank: “Franky reads a lot. He is wise and has a wide-ranging understanding. As much as he is praised, Franky’s less-charming side shows that he is an emotional person. Whenever there is a meeting or if employees visit his office to report on a conflict, he would interrupt saying, ‘I already know!’, with eyes ready to pop and an expression that immediately scares his employees. Especially if the report he checks is incorrect or problems that should have been handled are still in a vague state, explicit curses would automatically come out of his mouth. The meeting would turn dead silent,… his gangster side has arrived!”
Welirang asserts that he has a right to be angry when his instructions are not carried out properly. But even though he can be hot-tempered, he might easily be telling jokes again by the end of the meeting. The people who received his wrath earlier would be warmly greeted again. For his part, Bogasari’s leader reasons: “Why do I have to keep all the anger in? It will only cause a headache.”
How does Welirang define strong leadership in today’s competitive business environment? “To lead, one needs to be sharp in looking at priorities,” he declares. “For a big business with myriad challenges like Indofood and Bogasari, one needs to have almost extrasensory perception to determine the right direction and steps to take. Creating a vision and a mission for the company is one of the priorities. Building a strong organisational structure is a must. However, in choosing priorities, one must be able to look outside the box. This is the way for a business to be unique.”