Erick Thohir likes to think of himself as a regular businessman, but he is also seen as a visionary by both employees and competitors alike.
As president director of Beyond Media, a holding company for Mahaka Media, Erick is the owner of lifestyle and sports magazines (a+, Parents Indonesia, Golf Digest), newspapers (Harian Sin Chew Indonesia, Republika), a television station (Jak-TV), radio stations (GEN 98.7 FM, Prambors FM, Delta FM, FeMale Radio), advertising, ticketing, entertainment and Web sites.
And, as if running a media empire does not keep him busy enough, the 39-year-old is also the founder of the Darma Bakti Mahaka Foundation, which focuses on education, and charity organization Dompet Dhuafa Republika.
A basketball fan, Erick is also known within sporting circles as the president of both the Indonesian Basketball Association (Perbasi) and the Southeast Asian Basketball Association (Seaba.)
And while he appears to be a laid-back leader, Erick never takes his eye off the game.
“I’m easy going, yet, at the same time, a perfectionist,” Erick said.
“Given the current level of competition, you have to really do it right. You can’t just say, ‘Hey! I have an idea, let’s do it.”
In 1993, after five years in the United States where he completed his master’s degree in communications, Erick formed the Mahaka Group with partners Muhammad Lutfi, Wisnu Wardhana and R. Harry Zulnardy. But he didn’t enter the Indonesian media industry until 2001, when the opportunity presented itself in the form Republika, a Muslim community newspaper that was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Mahaka purchased the newspaper and Erick was chosen to lead it by general consensus by his partners because of his communications background.
Though he had no experience in the newspaper industry back then, Erick was never short of good advisers.
Besides his father, Teddy Thohir of Astra International, he counts Jakob Oetama and Dahlan Ikhsan as mentors.
The two are senior journalists who spearheaded Kompas and Jawa Pos, two of the biggest national newspapers. He fondly recalls touring the Jawa Pos newsroom in Surabaya with Dahlan in 2001.
“[Dahlan] had made an office with a high ceiling — all the reporters on one floor, all the editors on another,” he said.
“I spent 12 hours with him. I learned a lot — how he is a true media entrepreneur.”
Over the years, under Erick’s management, Mahaka also took over a Chinese newspaper, Harian Sin Chew Indonesia, and built a multimedia empire.
“He’s a great wheeling-and-dealing guy and a man with a vision,” said Svida Alisjahbana, COO of Femina Group, the second largest magazine publisher in Indonesia.
“He really is a person who loves the media, and he wants to be in all types of media.”
The media companies acquired or established by Erick are based around education and the community, such as the first female radio station in Indonesia, Female Radio, and Parents magazine.
“I would like my media organizations to give something to the listeners, to the people, to the readers,” he said.
Being a frontrunner in his early 30s was not without trials and tribulations.
Erick faced doubts from those in and outside of media circles when he took the reins of Republika.
“In the beginning, when I took over Republika, people questioned me. Questioning can be positive or negative, mainly it’s negative. When people say bad things about you, you don’t have to tell them I’m nice or smart. You just show them with your work,” Erick said.
The subject of his age is not the only criticism Erick has had to deal with.
In an era of newfound democracy in Indonesia, with an abundance of media outlets, and more operating by the day, the media often falls under public scrutiny for being a mouthpiece of the powerful individuals who own them.
“Everybody can create media. But many of them don’t use it wisely. There has to be a law to regulate it,” Erick said.
“Yes, I’m the owner of Republika, but if one of my companies does something that isn’t good, then it’s in the public domain.” “Our paper has to write about it too. I think the law and newspaper associations, magazines and journalists have to sit together to find a way to ensure our media business is on the right track,” he said.
Erick plans to focus on the media business until the age of 45. His aim is to see his companies led by professionals — and growing, even when he isn’t around.
“I want to give my team a chance to lead the companies,” Erick said.
“I can be involved in other issues — in strategic matters, in the vision of the company. But with the operations, I like to give opportunities to other people.”
And Erick has already begun to let go.
He is no longer the director or commissioner of Mahaka Media. Instead his title is president director of Beyond Media, the holding company of Mahaka Media.
“In Mahaka I don’t have any seats as a director or commissioner. That’s what I’d like to see with all my media companies — running professionally. In the media business, the key is the people in the company,” Erick said.
For Adrian Syarkawi, president director of Jak FM and Gen FM, Erick’s faith in his staff has been a good enough reason for him to stay with the Mahaka team for almost a decade.
“Erick’s very open-minded and has never forced his ego — the owner’s ego — onto the staff. That’s why we’ve managed to survive the competition in radio all these years,” Adrian said.
For a man who grew up around the family business, and who is himself a father of four, Erick is against nepotism, saying it would be unfair to place any of his offspring in positions of power in his companies over his long-term employees.
“The people who have been with me for the longest time need the opportunity to develop the company,” Erick said.
“If my son or daughter wants to go into the media, and my team accepts them, and they’re good [then they can join the company]. Not because I interfered. Because when I built this, I struggled. I want them to know the struggle,” Erick said.
Perhaps Erick’s sense of fair play and his forward thinking are behind his success.
“I really hope I make a difference in the media,” Erick said. “I have a dream, I have a vision, but I need everyone to change the vision together. If it’s only me, it won’t happen.”