Thursday, August 29, 2019

Interview with Alain, Belgian Expat

As soon as Indonesia is like Europe, I move. If it becomes, “Life is a big competition, you have to be number one,” I move.
Alain van den Bossche, a gregarious Belgian, owns one of Jepara’s newest resorts, a 16-villa resort named Coconut Lodge steps away from Coconut Beach. Interestingly, his name contains the term ‘bos,” meaning “wood” in Dutch. Impressed with the construction—much of it with local wood—and details of his resort, I had the opportunity to talk with Alain, who speaks Indonesian, French, English, and some Flemish.
Q: This is one of the best-designed hotels I’ve seen. You’re also in the furniture business, a common profession in Jepara because of its well-regarded woodworking reputation, but how did you learn design? Almost all the details are perfect here. For example, the straw I’m using is bamboo, not paper (which interferes with taste) or metal (which rusts). The song playlist features beautiful Spanish songs I’ve never heard before, like Alma Corazón y Vida by Los Panchos and Azúcar Amargo by Fey.

Alain: I do it myself, by traveling, by seeing different countries, combining everything, mixing it all together, [and] trying to make something look the way I want. I want to make this place feel like home. It’s not important to make something big. Most places [in Indonesia] are more like a market. They call it in Indonesia, the “target,” [but] I don’t really care about [business] targets. Number 1, be happy, enjoy, and if you make a little bit of money, it’s good. I’m already 51 [years old], the train is already passing. If I want to be a millionaire, it’s too late.
Q: You had mentioned construction to me. Were you a subcontractor or foreman in Belgium?

A: I wanted to be an actor, but I was a teacher for mentally disabled people like [you see] in the Special Olympics. I re-made a very old home [using my time] every weekend and on my holidays, but I left Europe without sleeping a single night in the house. I was supposed to get married, but my father had just passed away. She [my ex-fiancée] didn’t want to wait a few months. [Instead of re-scheduling,] She canceled the wedding a month before… she was Italian. [Alain throws his hands in the air to communicate he should have known the result.]

I took my rucksack, put my house on the market, told the agent just to get me my costs back—it actually sold much higher than I expected but I let him keep the difference--and I was free. I spent a year traveling, went to Bali, where I made friends with an English guy who advised me to go into the furniture business. By then, I had not much money left, and although I had a ticket to Australia, I threw the ticket away, stayed in Bali, and went into furniture import-export. [Back then,] I used to sell on the flea market, too. I would go to Europe once a month, pick up quality items [from the trash], refurbish, and sell. I opened a shop in Belgium doing import/export, then I came back to Jepara, made my first small company with my then-girlfriend. We rented a small place for three years. It was really tough that time. That was 24 years ago.

Q: 24 years?

A: Yes, 24 years ago.

Q: You mentioned the [property] foundation to me earlier. Can you tell me more about your strategy in achieving stability while being so close to the beach?

A: River stones are the best for foundation. Take stones from the river, put them all the way around the property, fill it up with dirt, use a leveling system [Alain draws a three-pronged tool in the air resembling a self-leveling tool] every 4 meters, [and you] gotta do your pillars all the way around the full space.
Q: Why did you choose this location? It’s a bit isolated and far from the town centre.

A: This is my fourth [constructed] property in Jepara. I like the social life, [but] I also like my privacy, privacy here is like having gold. If you have a house in the village, someone will knock on your door all the time [to make social visits]. In Europe, [if you want to be alone] you go to the back portion of your home, but here, four guests will come [to say hello], and when they leave, another four [neighbors] come. The reason [I chose this location] is [for the] quiet. You have rice fields and the ocean.
[Indonesian businesses] like to be near the road… the beach idea is only the last 10 years. Before, [Indonesians] wanted to go to the mountains. They didn’t want to get sunburned, they enjoyed the cooler weather, but tendencies are changing. [Local] Movie stars are getting tanned and influencing others to enjoy the beach. [And] Indonesia is booming completely. Middle class is exploding. 20 years ago, the only thing you saw were foreigners or government or criminals but now you see young entrepreneurs. 20 years ago, it was just business hotels. But you look on Instagram now, they [young Indonesians and Europeans] go everywhere [and as a result, businesses are diversifying].
We have a saying in Belgium: “Belgian people have a brick in their stomach.” [Editor’s note: the exact phrase in English is, “Every Belgian is born with a brick in the stomach.” It means every Belgian wants to build their own house.] In Europe [today], no one [young] wants to take [mortgage] credit for 20, 25 years [anymore]. They want to travel. [In my case,] I met the right person at the right moment, it’s all luck. I always say, “I’m the luckiest guy on the planet.” If I could, I’d give some of my luck to other people.

Q: How do you motivate your employees?

A: I try by explaining to them [how things should be, instead of giving orders.] I also give them attractive salary, about 50% above minimum salary. Here, minimum wage is about 1.8 million [rupiahs] monthly. I give them 2.5 million [rupiahs], [and] I would like to give them more. I tell them, if you can take the stress off my shoulder, then I’ll pay more. I want to sell this place and build another one with no debt.

Q: Did you get a euro-denominated loan or one from a local bank?

A: We got a local loan, [equivalent to] 100,000 euros loan in rupiahs. I owe about 1,000 USD a month for 20 years. I think it’s about 10% [annual] interest. You know, foreigners cannot buy property here, they can only buy through a local [Indonesian citizen] or a company. I already have a furniture company but I don’t want to mix it [so I have an arrangement with a local]. I live all the way in the back on this property. [10% interest sounds high] But here, savings deposits pay out 7% net [interest] in your pocket. If you bargain, you might even get 8%. [For me] it’s all about the rupiahs because I live in rupiahs. I sell in euros, but I live in rupiahs [so currency fluctuations don’t impact me as much].

Q: What was the banking experience like?

A: [Because it’s through a local] They base the loan on the manager’s salary, not on the project. They are thinking that the loan amount should be based on money the manager will receive each month. If it’s through a company, it’s different. [Since we didn’t go through a company] We opened as a homestay, [and the local] used a personal tax number to pay the tax.

[When I first came here 24 years ago,] you needed 200,000 euros in the bank or something like that to get a loan. So what the banks did, they would loan you the 200,000 for a day or a week, get a notary to certify the amount [in your account], and collect a 500 USD fee for the “service.” Now, of course, it’s stricter. [President] Jokowi is very good for people who want to invest. Compared to the old days, you can do a lot online now because of Jokowi, and you can even get your visa online. 24 years ago, it was the “Wild West” here. At that time, it was, “Give a little [money] on the left side and the right side [to get things done],” but that time is over.

Q: Most Westerners don’t know much about Indonesia. What made you choose this country over others in the entire world, including your native Belgium?

A: I fell in love. When I arrived in Medan [Sumatera], I fell in love. In Europe, people only complain. I like to talk, I like to have a lot of friends. I know people everywhere, rich, poor. You can mix here with all types of people.

Q: What have been the challenges for you, as an outsider, opening a business in Jepara? Has it been easier or harder being in a small town rather than big city like Jakarta or Semarang?

A: I arrived here as a backpacker. I don’t have the mentality of a businessman. I know other people who have the fiber of business in them, but they’re struggling. This is really funny in life. The more you run after it, the more difficult it is to achieve it. It [the better path] is actually, “Take it easy, don’t have too much big plan, [then] everything goes smoothly.” I’ve been lucky to meet the right people and to be in the right spots, but it hasn’t always been smooth. In the beginning, some locals were angry I was paying higher salaries. I had people coming after me with tire irons. Some people are still angry foreigners are paying better salaries because foreigners are able to sell in Europe and get higher prices. I think they should be happy [about the higher salaries] but it’s not that way.
Q: How did you get your contacts in shipping and import/export?

A: I was a real tourist—I didn’t even know about emails. My French friend told me about import/export in a bar in Bali. It’s really easy. You need an agent. The agent does everything for you. Most of my customers are in Belgium, including my brother [so I already have contacts in Belgium]. I’ve changed agents a few times [but the key is to find a good import/export agent].

Q: What advice can you give to Westerners who want to fit into Indonesian society?

A:  First, don’t try to make the people [here] understand your way of things. Try to find a middle way. You have to make the effort. You have to adapt, and locals have to adapt. Don’t expect people to adapt 100%. You will learn a lot, and they will learn your personal professional standards. They have a saying here: “Alon alon asal klakon.” It means, “Going slow is not a problem--you will still get there.” A bit like the old [Aesop] story of the rabbit and the tortoise. In Europe, they teach kids they have to have a lot of ambition, they have to be perfect. But in Indonesia, people seem to ask themselves, “What do you really want in life?” What is more important than having friends and being able to sit and have a coffee? But this [attitude] will change because of us [Westerners] bringing our culture here. But I’ve always said, as soon as Indonesia is like Europe, I move. If it becomes, “Life is a big competition, you have to be number one,” I move [someplace else].

Q: At the same time, you’re obviously competitive, and you have a strong desire to compete well. Where does that come from? Did you play professional or semi-professional sports?

A: I play sports and I love sports. I play futsal and football/soccer. Indonesians would tell me, “It is more important to sweat than to win,” but I told them, “The most important [goal] is to win.” They’d respond, “We sweat, that’s good already.” My workers, now they play, they go 1,000%, I like that. Age makes you change. Before I was like a piece of fire. But now… this place, I want to make sure everyone happy. It’s “ramah” [strictly translated, it means “friendliness”], it’s the reason everyone likes Indonesia, because of the politeness. If they lose that, it’s like losing the thing that makes you different. I want to see that ramah thing here [at the resort.]

Q: What do you think of President Joko Widodo's idea to move the capital from Jakarta to Kalimantan?

A: I would have a better idea. Jakarta is so crowded [and that’s the reason for the move]. Right away, I would fix a minimum salary for all of Indonesia. Big cities give a higher [minimum] salary than villages. That’s why you have so much movement, where people go to Jakarta to find opportunities. We have a lot of broken homes because of that, because of men leaving their hometowns to work in Jakarta. Reduce Jakarta salary [to bring it in line with an appropriate national minimum wage], shift workers to Semarang [and other cities], and people would say, “Why should I go to Jakarta?” Then migration to other cities would increase [thereby reducing pressure on Jakarta’s infrastructure]. He [President Jokowi] wants to move [the capital] because it’s too crowded in Jakarta, so it’s difficult to find water resources [and other problems arise because of overpopulation in one place]. Life in Jakarta is expensive, but of course it’s because salaries are expensive. But if you change from 5 million [rupiah] to 2.5 million a month…

[Interview held on August 29, 2019 in Jepara at Coconut Lodge. Transcript above has been condensed/modified from original conversation. No compensation, directly or indirectly, was received or due for this interview as of August 2019.] 

Update/Correction on September 2, 2019: Alain informed me today he was the one who broke off the wedding: [paraphrased] "She did not want to move the date [after my father's death], and she demanded I move forward or cancel. She did not expect I would choose to cancel when she gave me the ultimatum."