The President Director of Blue Bird Group Holding has learnt to drive Asia’s largest taxi operator for as long as she can remember. Having spent most of her life revitalizing the family company set up more than 40 years ago, Noni Purnomo has grown to become the woman in control of Indonesia’s taxi industry.
Following in the footsteps of her family, the journey of Noni Purnomo has been defined by her determination to protect Blue Bird’s legacy, her creativity in bringing the taxi empire to the next level and her profound respect for those working for the company.
When I visited Purnomo at Blue Bird’s new office building in Mampang Prapatan, South Jakarta, she opened up about her life’s journey and how she became involved in the taxi business. Recounting her childhood days, Purnomo tells that she was first introduced to the world of cars and transportation by her late grandmother, Mutiara Djokosoetono.
As the founder of Blue Bird, Djokosoetono set up the taxi business in 1972. Purnomo revealed that ‘economical pressure’ was the reason why her grandmother decided to build the company. After Purnomo’s grandfather, a scholar, passed away, her family was left with only two cars and a house from the government as a token of appreciation.
Djokosoetono began searching for new ways to support her family, including selling batik clothing and eggs.
She eventually came up with the idea of using her family cars to open up the first taxi service in Indonesia, with her two sons as drivers.
The family at that time lived in Menteng, known as one of the capital city’s most elite neighbourhoods. Djokosoetono capitalized on this condition by borrowing her neighbours’ cars in exchange for a commission, similar to how online transportation apps operate these days. Soon after, Djokosoetono began to officially run a transportation business with a fleet of 25 taxis.
Purnomo spent her entire childhood watching how her family’s taxi business unfolded. The family got along with the drivers and sat down together over a dinner every night to talk about their work and progress. In high school, she began working part time for the company during the holidays. This inspired her to study industrial engineering for her Bachelor’s degree, which she earned from the University of Newcastle, Australia.
“When I went to university in Australia I started to think, ‘I know enough about the company but now I want to learn more from outside of the company.’ I did industrial engineering because my grandmother used to take me a lot to the maintenance department, to the factory. So it somehow created an interest,” Purnomo said.
She added that learning industrial engineering meant exploring the management side of the field, which she found to be more interesting and relevant for the company. During summer breaks, Purnomo would normally go back home and work to apply her knowledge in the Blue Bird company. Upon graduation, she wrote a thesis exploring how to make the Blue Bird maintenance department more efficient.
After completing her Bachelor’s degree, Purnomo returned to Indonesia and started becoming more and more involved in Blue Bird professionally. Through all kinds of challenges, she rose to become a leader in the company and a mother for everyone working there.
The Visionary Who Thinks Differently
After university, it did not take long for Purnomo to realize what was missing in the Blue Bird company. Despite focusing on operational excellence and providing the ultimate customer service, Purnomo noticed the company needed to maintain its growth by developing better long-term strategies. She became interested in marketing, something that was yet to be explored by the company that stage.
So when the Jakarta Convention and Exhibition Bureau was launched in 1994, Purnomo saw the opportunity to learn more about marketing. While her grandmother warned that she must still work for the family company, Purnomo made the bold move of juggling two jobs for over a year: working as a Marketing Researcher at the Jakarta Convention and Exhibition Bureau in the morning and committing herself to Blue Bird in the evening.
While gaining more insights about marketing, Purnomo became motivated in pursuing her Master’s degree in finance and marketing. What is rather surprising about this is the fact that none of her family members had any background in business, which made her decision to study especially instrumental in helping the company to progress.
“My grandfather was a law professor and my father is a medical doctor. So none had any business background,” Purnomo revealed. “It’s a family company, so learning how to have a clear, open and transparent finance system would be good.”
After completing her Master’s degree at the University of San Francisco, US, Purnomo was accepted to work at a multinational company in New York. But a week before taking on her new job, her grandmother called and insisted that she must return to Indonesia because the company needed her. She had no choice but to pack her bags and say farewell to the US.
“It was tough in the beginning because I really wanted to work [in New York]. I strongly believed that if I got more exposure outside then I could give more for the company. That was the only thing I regret. But I think life has its own curves and turns so you just follow,” she said.
As soon as Purnomo set her feet back in her hometown, she established a new department – business development. The new department, which consisted of marketing, research and development and information technology, was set up to guide the company in improving its business process and introducing the company more to the customers.
The Woman Who Breaks Boundaries
Throughout her career in the family business, Purnomo had the privilege of working to achieve the company’s goals strategically, while also making sure that staff are well taken care of. She has had to learn to overcome the challenges of a woman working in the traditionally male-dominated industry, particularly in proving herself to others that she is competent for the job.
“When I first joined the maintenance department people were all looking at me like ‘what is she doing here?’” Purnomo revealed. She added: “But it’s just about how you bring yourself to the people. What I did was instead of telling them ‘I’m an Australian graduate and I’m here to teach you,’
I tried showing them that I was there to learn from them because they had more experience than I did. So in order to gain respect, you must first respect others.”
Purnomo admitted she did struggle to fit in in the beginning. In order to blend in, she would wear long pants, male shoes and sport a short hair style before realizing that she had become just like everybody else. As years went by, she learnt that embracing herself for who she really was turned out to be effective in bringing people closer.
Being different, according to her, is ‘marketing 101’ which helps to attract people’s attention. The key is to use this kind of attention to show her strengths, so that others can listen to what she has to say and help make a difference. This also helped her to create an array of programmes with lasting impact.
By 1997, Blue Bird had around 9,000 vehicles and 12,000 drivers. Having more internal communication was inevitable for the company, which led to the establishment of another new department: public relations. The idea was to create more engagement among drivers and workers inside the company.
To care for the family of Blue Bird drivers, Purnomo came up with projects which aim to empower employees’ wives, improve childhood education and provide drivers with the space to start their own small businesses.
All of these initiatives are in line with Djokosoetono’s message when she passed away in 2000, saying that ‘Blue Bird is a bird of happiness.’ It is important for the company to not only care for its stakeholders but also the workers who have dedicated their lives to Blue Bird.
These days, Purnomo is happy to find herself working in the productive yet ever-changing environment of the transportation business. The technological revolution, for example, clearly helped the company to progress, yet it aroused a new competition with the online transportation apps in terms of price.
Compared to other countries, Purnomo believes taxi penetration in Indonesia is still relatively low. And customers today demand immediacy in transportation more than ever. So how does she manage to solve these kind of issues at work? The answer to that is communications.
“Each of us has a feminine side and a masculine side. So which sides we want to engage with [while communicating with others] is very important,” she said.
“When you enter a room full of these angry males and you bring your angry male side of you, then it is not going to work. You’ll be the weakest among all and you’ll be eaten alive. So I bring the feminine side of me to meetings, the smiling side of me, the focused side that says ‘I am here to find a solution, I am not here to fight with you or to debate with you, but I am here to find a solution. So that part works.’”
It is safe to say that we will still be seeing Noni Purnomo presenting new ideas and solutions in the long run as she continues to grow the Blue Bird Group Holding business.