Helman Sitohang’s play on Asia

By:
Eric Ellis
Published on:

Few investment bankers dominate one market as much as Credit Suisse’s Helman Sitohang does Indonesia. With other banks sensing opportunities, can his connections keep the bank ahead of the game?

Mention the name Aburizal Bakrie in the smart bars, clubs and restaurants of Singapore and Jakarta where bankers gather and the name Helman Sitohang is often uttered in the next breath.

Sitohang is Credit Suisse’s chief rainmaker in Jakarta and Singapore, a man regarded by many as perhaps the best-connected banker in Indonesia. Some of his envious colleagues even say he almost enjoys a father-son relationship with Bakrie, one of Indonesia’s richest – and most powerfully connected – businessmen.

Throughout the last 14 years, when most foreign banks, still bearing wounds from the late 1990s, wouldn't touch an Indonesia deal, Credit Suisse kept its door open in Jakarta and its Rolodex up to date. That was mostly down to Sitohang, rewarded for his efforts as co-head of Credit Suisse’s Asia-Pacific investment banking operation.

Sitohang’s Bakrie relationship has served him and Credit Suisse well, but it’s not been without its sleepless nights. As Indonesia’s highest-profile Muslim pribumi, or indigenous, business family, the Bakries have been something of a protected species in mostly Islamic Indonesia, where the business elite tends to be ethnic Chinese. Politically-wired Bakrie has been close to the wall several times, only to be bailed out or have his obligations waived in controversial deals stitched up behind official Jakarta’s secretive walls.

Shares in Bakrie’s main operating company Bumi Resources have fallen to a three-year low as the market frets about its ability to service around $4 billion in debt, most notably a pressing $1.3 billion obligation to Beijing’s state-owned China Investment Corp.

Bumi Resources’ coal reserves, gathered mostly in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, are the mainstay of London-listed Bumi plc, which Bakrie co-owns with financier Nat Rothschild, a deal Sitohang helped set up through 2010/11.

But it’s a relationship that has often had tensions, sometimes breaking out into open warfare between the two sides as they publicly traded barbs over Bumi Resources management and debt levels. Adding to the drama is the sharp fall in coal prices in the last year, and the slowing of the Chinese economy – Bumi’s main customer.

Now operating from Singapore, Sitohang is a trusted keeper of many of the cosy Jakarta elite’s commercial secrets. It seems to help that many of them bank – mostly in secure Singapore, out of reach of grasping hands in Jakarta – with Credit Suisse’s private wealth management division. "We have this concept of ‘one bank’ and we have three big businesses – investment banking, private banking and asset management," says Sitohang. "So obviously if the clients can be serviced with more than one product, it’s a good situation. If somebody is already covering them with one product, why don’t we offer them the others."

Sitohang has been Indonesia’s top dealmaker for years, positioning Credit Suisse close to all of its big transactions, corporate and sovereign. Credit Suisse has topped the Indonesian investment banking league tables for most of the past 15 years.

Sitohang attended one of Indonesia’s most prestigious schools, the Bandung Institute of Technology, alma mater of many prominent Indonesians, including Bakrie and modern Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno.

But Sitohang is far from being a typical Asian banker. And it also turns out he’s rather less Indonesian than many believe. He’s actually half-Slovakian, his family history a throwback to a very different kind of Indonesia.

Through the 1950s and early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the former Soviet bloc was locked in a fierce ideological struggle with a west led by the US. The newly independent and populous Indonesia under the leftist firebrand Sukarno was a particular Soviet favourite and Moscow wooed Jakarta with many favours.

Some of the largesse is still evident across the islands. One of southeast Asia’s biggest sporting stadiums is Gelora Bung Karno in central Jakarta, built six years after the massive Lenin Stadium was opened in Moscow by the same engineers and architects, a gift for Sukarno’s hosting of the 1962 Asian Games. The then USSR also gave rise to the modern steel industry in Indonesia, providing most of the plant that would become Indonesia’s biggest steelmaker, PT Krakatau.

The Soviets sponsored cultural and educational ties too, and it was under this programme that Sitohang’s father, an ethnic Batak from Indonesia’s northern Sumatra region, won a scholarship to study economics at Prague’s Charles University, where he met – and married – a fellow student, a Slovak from the small Tatra mountains town of Ružomberok, who is Sitohang’s mother.

Sitohang was born in Prague, in communist times. "My first language is actually Czech," he reveals. "I only started studying Bahasa Indonesian when I was nine years old." Sitohang’s father recently passed away, but his Slovak mother still lives in Medan, the northern Sumatran capital. "She went back to Slovakia recently after my father died," Sitohang says. "I thought she would stay there, but she came back because she told me her heart is in Indonesia."

As is her son’s, though he has been long a resident of Singapore, which many bankers regard as Indonesia’s preferred financial centre.

Sitohang is Credit Suisse’s chief rainmaker in Jakarta and Singapore
Helman Sitohang is Credit Suisse’s chief rainmaker in Jakarta and Singapore
Fourteen years after Indonesia’s reformasi, the period that ushered in a wobbly democracy, Sitohang has become Credit Suisse’s Indonesia booster.

He tells Euromoney that in the next decade "Indonesia will experience the highest growth of the G20 countries". He says: "You could even see a year where Indonesia matches China’s growth." He expects Indonesia’s GDP per capita to rise to around $7,000 by 2019, double current levels – in other words moving from Moroccan-level standard of living to something approximating a present-day Bulgaria, an EU member.

Sitohang says he’s "not big into politics" and politely declines to discuss the antics of the Suharto clan, many of whom remain active today in Indonesian business. Indeed, as one of the few foreign banks to stay the course in Jakarta, Credit Suisse has long had tight and extensive links with Indonesia’s ancien régime and its cronies, notably banking and advising projects associated with Suharto’s second son, Bambang Trihatmodjo.

Those links famously came into sharp focus just weeks before the corrupt Suharto edifice fell when in March 1998 the late US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, hired by Credit Suisse as a door-opening vice-chairman, was made to apologize to Suharto for his remarks that the Indonesian strongman was "captured by cronies" and should step away from power. The remark caused outrage in Jakarta, where Credit Suisse had a big presence. Holbrooke blamed jet lag for his "unfortunate impression" and insisted he had "high respect for the historic role of president Suharto". Some months later, Suharto would be toppled amid claims that he and his family had looted impoverished Indonesia of up to $70 billion.

Sitohang says the old regime’s passing has "given an opportunity for a new breed of businessman", such as the media and property mogul Chairal Tanjung, a Credit Suisse client. Sitohang claims that in today’s Indonesia one no longer needs to be politically connected to operate in business.

Sitohang praises Indonesia’s reform drive since 1998 but would like to see greater efforts made by government on infrastructure development, which he forecasts could add 1% to 2% to GDP growth.

Sitohang’s Credit Suisse has been active in Indonesia’s sovereign debt market, alongside UBS and JPMorgan. He says he has no special relationship with any department or with any of the eight finance ministers Indonesia has had since 1998 because of rotation by the ministry. "That’s the right and fair way," he says.

Two areas where Credit Suisse is indisputably number one in Indonesia are the M&A and IPO markets.

"I was lucky that I had a boss who was a big supporter of us staying here," he says. (The boss being American Eric Varvel, now chief executive of Credit Suisse’s investment bank. Varvel was based in Jakarta as country CEO before and during the Asian financial crisis, helping to build Credit Suisse’s close ties to Indonesia’s big business families.)

Sitohang joined Credit Suisse a few months before the crisis. He remembers the riots in Jakarta and the sclerosis of the collapsed economy. "Frankly, there was no job for the first six months," he says.

Credit Suisse pitched for the government’s banking reconstruction, privatization and economy support body it managed alongside the IMF’s rescue package, but lost that advisory business to JPMorgan and the old Lehman Brothers.

"By 1999/2000 there were not that many competitors," he says. "Then slowly business started coming in."

And how. According to Thomson Reuters data, Credit Suisse has earned some $250 million in Indonesia fee income since 2002, doing around 120 deals. That’s almost double the income of its two main competitors: UBS and JPMorgan. Alongside the many Bakrie deals, the biggest transaction Sitohang has handled is the $5.5 billion purchase in 2005 by the Altria Group of the US, the former Philip Morris, of the clove cigarette maker Sampoerna, corporate Indonesia’s biggest-ever takeover.

Today, there are six investment bankers in the Credit Suisse Indonesia team. Sitohang says "that decision to stay while everyone was pulling out" was critical to the bank’s success today. "The fact that we stayed when eventually the country starts recovering and people want to do deals, of course you call someone you know.

"We are friends with as many people as we can be, that’s the trademark. It’s a team effort."

As for the Bakrie relationship, Sitohang says: "I don’t think its different from any other client relationship we have. We believe in longer-term relationships. Our clients choose us; we are committed to the country, we have the knowledge, we have the global capacity, we are with our clients through good and bad. And that’s important."

Sitting in Singapore and now the co-head of Credit Suisse’s investment banking division for the entire region, enjoying a career built in large part on riding the Indonesia story, Sitohang insists Bakrie’s political clout in Jakarta has no bearing on his business relationship with the bank. But in another part of Singapore, there’s a claque of his knowing and ever-so-envious colleagues who beg to differ.