Problem solver Sukma Nirmala Latief brings love and determination as the boss of one of Bali’s leading business consulting companies. Words: Tony Stanton. Image: Ryerson Anselmo For Costes Portrait.
Sukma, what’s it like doing business in Bali as an Indonesian woman?
Of course it’s very challenging. Creating a successful business is hard anywhere but even more so in Bali and again even more so if you are a woman. You have to be tough to run a business here in order to deal with the ups and downs. It’s fun but can also be scary sometimes, and I’m often pumped with adrenaline and then so happy when I solve a big problem or do great work for a client. It’s also important to me that my business is in Indonesia, because it means I can directly contribute to my country. I love paying taxes!
Growing up – what advice did your mother and father give you that you found useful later in life?
My dad told me three things. Be honest. Be useful. Get a good education. He taught me these three values from a very young age. He would say: “Always be honest to yourself and to others, wherever you are, and everything will work out for you.” He also taught me that your worth in this world depends on how much you can contribute.
He said: “Be useful, otherwise you might as well not exist.” He wanted me to do something meaningful and valuable with my life, where I can help not just myself but also everyone around me. And of course, education is incredibly important if you want to get on. I could not do what I do today without studying hard and learning new things. That my dad valued education so much drove me to finish a master’s degree and I still read daily even now.
You left home when you were 14 to pursue your independence … how did your parents react when you told them you wanted to leave?
Yes, I wanted to leave and go out into the world. The village in Sumbawa where I grew up is beautiful and the people are lovely, but there are not many opportunities. So by the time I was 14 I had made up my mind. I was going to leave and I thought, “If I am going to leave anyway, why not right now?” So I tried to speak with my dad even though I already knew the answer.
I said: “Papa please, I want to talk to you but you must first promise not to get angry.” He promised. And of course he had to break the promise, he was so shocked when I told him I wanted to leave. We are both very strong willed and didn’t want to find a compromise. I said: “If you let me go, I promise I will be a good student, always pay attention and get good grades. If I have to stay here, I don’t want to go to school anymore!” He said: “OK! Better stay here and be stupid then.” So I said: “If you don’t let me go, I will be so sad that I won’t eat anything anymore.” And he said: “OK! Don’t eat then. But stay here!”
This went on for a while and we couldn’t find a compromise, but I was still determined. So I decided to just run away when he was on a business trip. He was heartbroken but then forced to negotiate. Luckily he has forgiven me for that and we now have a very close relationship. He is my best friend and greatest adviser until this day. I love him, I want to make him happy and proud of me.
How did it shape who you are today?
I learned independence and that I can rely on myself to find a solution to any problem. That’s a very valuable asset in my business because my clients often come to me with big problems that I have to help them fix. I also learned courage. I mean it was a big step to just run away, but it took even more courage to not quit and just go home. I faced so many challenges living on my own that were really scary and overwhelming at the time. Going to the hospital by myself when I was sick, managing my own money, building a life in a new city … I learned a lot and I learned that I can take on anything.
Tell us about your company Actual Synergy, how it started and what it does?
It kind of happened by accident. Before I started Actual Synergy I was working in the hotel industry in Bali. I met my business partner Alex for the first time when I was out with my girlfriends. After he realized that I was very familiar with how business works here, he started asking me for advice and we shared knowledge often. He’s a super smart guy and it was fun to be able to work with him. In the end he suggested we start a consulting business together, but I refused. I was happy with my job and life at the time.
He was persistent though and in the end he convinced me that we could test each other and that we could test the business. We started to do some pro bono consulting for our friends and they became our first clients. They also referred us to other companies and our business took off fast. We were growing so quickly, it was exhilarating.
I had no choice but to take a chance, leave my job and focus on Actual Synergy full time in 2017. Now we do finance and HR consulting, legal and taxes, management set up, training and recruitment for some of Bali’s leading companies.
What does Actual Synergy do differently to other business consulting and accounting firms in Bali?
We have a strong company culture; our clients are like our best friends or even like family to us. Their business is our business. Their problems are our problems. We listen closely and we have a very personal approach to both consulting and all our other services.
We are a high tech company with very streamlined processes, so we can spend less time on administration and paperwork and more focus on client’s need and direct interaction with our clients. I believe that each business is unique, and so are the issues and problems they face.
What are the biggest growth areas today for business in Bali?
The hospitality industry and everything related to it. The safest bet is accommodation. If you have property, open a hotel, build villas, even guesthouses, it’s currently almost impossible to fail. F&B is also growing fast, but much harder to get right. So unless you really know what you are doing, we advise against it.
When you first meet clients are they surprised to discover that you’re the boss of a business consulting firm?
Yes, sometimes it’s funny. New clients that come to us for the first time often keep asking “No, I want to talk to Sukma!”, because they think I’m just the secretary. They underestimate me until they work with me and see how good I am at what I do. So yes, it’s a challenge. We have many clients who are not sure if they can trust me at first, because I’m so young and don’t look like a typical business owner. The solution is actually easy, we just let our results speak for themselves. Sometimes we even say “let us do our work, you can pay later”. And they pay happily because our results are always the best you can get in Bali.
What drives you to succeed in business?
I want to be useful. Like my dad taught me my whole life. I want to be of use to my people and then I want to contribute to society and the world. That’s the most important thing for me. And of course I want to make and enjoy money, have a good, comfortable and fun life without depending on anyone’s help for it!
What do you do when you are not working?
I meet my close friends, go to the gym and I take hip hop dance classes. I also read and meditate a lot. When I have the time I love to enjoy and explore Bali, find new beaches and waterfalls. It’s such a beautiful place and I cannot imagine living anywhere else.