My Business: Indonesia's beauty magnate

Martha Tilaar: 'Indonesians had a mind set that everything that comes from the west is the best, because we had yet to have cosmetics that were convenient to use'

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What makes an entrepreneur? The BBC's Alice Budisatrijo hears from Martha Tilaar about her journey from beautician to cosmetics magnate.

When Martha Tilaar first tried to open her store in one of Jakarta's newly sprawling luxury shopping malls in 1996, she was turned down.

The mall office said her Indonesian-made cosmetics and beauty products were not up to par with the foreign brands prominently displayed in the glitzy shops.

Undeterred, she fought her way to secure a lease and won. But the customers did not come.

Then the Asian economic crisis hit. The US dollar exchange rate skyrocketed, making foreign products too expensive for most Indonesians.

"People started looking at our store and found that our face cleansers, for example, cost a fraction of those in other stores, and were actually good for their skin," Martha says, explaining how she first convinced customers to switch to her brands.

Martha's use of natural resources

herbs in jars
  • Rice extract - softens moisturises and refreshes the skin
  • Roses, found in Lembang, Ambarawa and Bromo - the oil has antiseptic properties
  • Jasmine, one of Indonesia's national flowers - the oil relieves stress and pain
  • Mangosteens, found in Sunda and Maluku - high in antioxidants and are said to slow ageing
  • "Blewah" or cantaloupe - the extract is used as the base for a variety of cosmetics

"It was made possible because of our years of research to find what was good for tropical skin, otherwise we would not have been able to compete."

By the time the crisis ended in 1998, she says, her shops' monthly profits had increased more than tenfold.

Obstacles and triumphs

It was just one example of the struggle for success that Martha has faced frequently in her 40 years in the beauty business.

Her now multi-million-dollar venture started in 1970 with a small hair and beauty salon in the garage of her father's house in Jakarta, employing one staff member.

When Martha's salon first opened, her use of herbal facemasks and body scrubs were met with scorn and scepticism by her Indonesian friends.

"My friends thought I was a crazy person who wanted to be a shaman, or a witch, to get rich quickly," she says.

So her first loyal customers were foreign diplomats.

Today, she has nine cosmetic brands, catering to women of various ages and income levels.

People working on the cosmetic production line Since starting in her father's garage 40 years ago, the operation has grown

Her Martha Tilaar Group of Companies has 4,500 employees.

Its subsidiary, which manufactures cosmetics and herbal medicines, is a listed company with annual sales of $62m (£39.7m; 47m euros) in 2012.

But the group also has other businesses in distribution, industrial manufacturing, beauty schools, advertising, human resources and a salon and spa franchise.

Proudly Indonesian

"Indonesians had a mindset that everything that comes from the West is the best, because we had yet to have cosmetics that were convenient to use," Martha says of the public attitude that she had to face when she started her business.

Using turmeric, clove flower buds or rice powder as skin care or medicine is a generations-old tradition in Indonesia.

But the more affluent and urban Indonesians have long left it behind.

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That was why Martha set out to make natural skin care products and cosmetics that were more convenient to use and suitable for Asian skin - with the appropriate colours and less oil.

Martha first learned the tricks of the trade from a beauty school in Bloomington, Indiana, in the United States.

She had been a teacher and her husband was on a scholarship at Indiana University's School of Education.

"If we both went back to Indonesia and continued as teachers, we would have been OK, but would not have been as prosperous as we are now," Martha says.

With her wealth, she says her satisfaction comes from improving the lives of her employees and customers.

"If we don't have more, how can we share?"

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