On a wing and a prayer
It was 1989 when Delia Murwihartini, a fresh-faced graduate from the communications school of Gadjah Mada University, sold a gift from her parents, a precious pair of earrings, for Rp5 million. With some money in her pocket, Delia was determined to go out into the world and create jobs. Now, her business supplying bags to American and European fashion labels including The Sak, Missoni, Mazzini, Biasia Francesco and Luna Llena employs thousands of people.
“It all started when I was preparing to finish university and my friends and I were chatting about what we wanted to do after graduation,” recalls Delia Murwihartini.
“They planned to get jobs either in the public or private sector and it hit me that despite our government-subsidized tuition being really affordable – at the time only Rp50,000 per semester – we still had ended up poor and desperate for work. “I started toying with the idea that maybe I could create the jobs we, and so many others, needed.”
Delia decided to set up her own company. Easy enough. The hard part came when she had to settle on what exactly it would do.
Like many young women, she enjoyed dressing up and was known for her keen fashion sense. While other students pondered what books they should bring to class, Delia was busy putting together stunning outfits to wear around campus.
It made sense to apply her natural talents to a new business venture, and coupled with a desire to help women feel great about themselves, Delia turned her hand to making beautiful bags.
“Bags do not require a huge amount of capital to start with,” she says. “But producing clothes or shoes is expensive, because for apparel you need a machine to sew with, while footwear demands an array of constantly changing molds.”
Delia’s bag production house swung into action with the help of five assistants. At first, she sold her wares through three guest houses on Sosrowijayan, a street connected to Malioboro in downtown Yogyakarta, and put advertising brochures in a local tourist information center.
While an interest in the bags began to develop and sales were enough to keep the company afloat, it soon became apparent that Delia needed to do more to promote her products. “I thought to myself, if I just keep going like this, waiting for customers to find me, how will I grow my business?”
Delia knew that showing her bags in an exhibition might give her the publicity she craved, but she had no idea how to – logistically and financially – make that happen.
By chance, then trade minister Arifin Siregar and the long-time head of the National Export Agency (BPEN), Rudy Lengkong, stopped by her small workshop and introduced themselves, so when news about an upcoming display of Indonesian goods in Paris surfaced, she picked up the telephone and asked a favor.
With the World Bank also handing out grants for the development of small to medium enterprises at the time, the stars aligned and soon Delia was winging her way to France with eight other Indonesian artisans.
“I was so excited and determined not to waste the opportunity I had been given,” she says. “I had booked an expensive, four-star hotel, the Sofitel, close to the exhibition space, because I knew I had to build the confidence and trust of prospective buyers.
“Conducting my meetings in its lobby was one of the ways I could convince people I was a legitimate businesswoman. In reality though, I had no money!”
It was her first visit to Europe, but Delia refused to be sidetracked by sightseeing and shopping expeditions. Instead she spent her time making appointments with buyers and planning visits to them in their home countries after the Paris show wound up.
In her one week off, Delia went to Belgium and the Netherlands to finalize orders for her bags. When she met up again with the other exhibition participants to fly home, she was shocked to find that while she had been busy doing business deals, they had spent their free time scooping up souvenirs like crystal from Vienna and pearls from Spain.
“I asked them what they were thinking, because the Indonesian government had paid us a lot of money to come here and work,” she says. “But they thought it might be their one and only chance to see Europe.
“I fell silent and realized I was different from the others. I don’t know why, but I felt sure that I would make it back there, and not just for business, for holidays too.”
With her fists full of order forms, Delia’s next challenge was to find the money to make what she had promised her clients. Raw materials weren’t cheap, so she asked the bank for credit. They refused, pointing out Delia had nothing in the way of collateral.
“I was so innocent back then,” she recalls. “I told the banker that if I had collateral I would have sold it to buy what I needed already and wouldn’t be asking him for credit in the first place.”
The indefatigable Delia then presented her papers to the material shop owner, who kindheartedly agreed to loan her what she needed first, and take payment later.
“Not only that, every Saturday he would call asking whether I had enough money to pay my staff. He even lent me money for their wages, because he said he needed to make sure that I could fulfill my orders and pay him back for the supplies,” she says.
The rest is history. Delia’s exports peaked at $10 million in 1999. That figure fell to $4 million in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. Since 2005, her exports have been worth $5 million a year.
Domestic sales too have flourished and now total Rp7 billion a year. Delia anticipates that is about to increase to Rp9 billion.
She has 400 direct employees and almost 5000 people in villages around Central Java earn an income by supplying her company with materials.
“You know, once I tasted success and had some money to my name, the bank came and offered me credit,” she says, laughing.
When Delia isn’t working with top international designers, she’s nurturing her own brand, Dowa, which means pray. Started in 2008, the label is designed for the Indonesian market. While her exported goods are mass-produced, for Dowa she takes a different approach, limiting each different-colored bag model to 800 pieces.
Treating customers well is Delia’s guiding business principle. When it comes to her creations for Dowa, she feels it’s not about the price she wants to charge, but how much her customers feel the item is worth.
To keep the bags as affordable as possible, Delia doesn’t bother placing paid advertisements for them. She believes that by offering a quality product and delivering excellent service, new customers will hear about her brand through word-of-mouth.
“Advertising will only raise prices and in the end, that’s not fair to the customer,” she says.
Already, Dowa has the phone numbers of 4,000 fans and keeps them up to date on new arrivals and sales via text message. The label’s flagship store is on Jl. Godean in Yogyakarta.
There were even fleeting plans to open two more shops in Jakarta. “But my customers started protesting, saying it’s not fair to open stores in other cities,” Delia says.
“So I decided against it. You know, in this market, to be exclusive is a value in itself. The customers do not want us to make it too easy for them to get their Dowa fix.” GA