Sukanto Tanoto – A Portrait of an Entrepreneur

A recent conversation among Indonesian business executive Sukanto Tanoto and other top-level associates revealed a number of strengths attributed to him by his colleagues. Common themes included Mr. Tanoto’s dedication to reading and study, his focus on diversification, his intellectual curiosity, and his focus on careful preparation and ingenuity. One commenter talked about his foresight and forward-thinking attitude. Another described his firm faith in his companies’ abilities to succeed and his close personal relationships with staff. Yet another remarked that his business abilities had enabled him to create a “miracle.”

The head of the $15 billion RGE Group, Mr. Tanoto has risen from a humble background as the child of Chinese-born immigrants to become one of Indonesia’s richest men. His business interests include oil and gas exploration and development, palm oil production, paper and pulp mills, and other natural resources-based products. He additionally gives back to the people of Indonesia and China through the nonprofit Tanoto Foundation’s wide range of educational and social welfare initiatives.

Mr. Tanoto reads widely in both English and Chinese. He concentrates on books on business, philosophy, entrepreneurship, and history. In addition, he is self-taught as an English speaker. Throughout his career, he has tried to translate the insights of major historical figures such as Mao Zedong into practical wisdom that can guide the way modern corporations do business.

For example, Mr. Tanoto likes to mention Mao’s “contradiction theory.” He explains it like this: When an entrepreneur is hoping to succeed, he should study the work of those who have failed as much as he focuses on those who have been successful. By combining the positive with the negative, we often arrive at the wisdom necessary to avoid repeating others’ mistakes while building on their insights.

Among Mr. Tanoto’s other words of advice for fellow entrepreneurs: Don’t pretend to know everything. Instead, take the time to investigate best practices in your field. Talk to experts with an attitude of humility and a true desire to learn something new. Approaching a new enterprise with this kind of preparation and mental focus is always helpful over the long term.

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