Softly spoken, private and petite, Nicke Widyawati might not be most peoples’ image of an energy company chief executive, but it seems she certainly punches above her weight in business circles.

An Indonesian Cabinet minister once commended Nicke, saying she is “able to carry out any task assigned to her”.

This faith in her abilities saw Nicke recently reappointed as president director of Indonesia’s national oil company, Pertamina, becoming the first person to hold the top post for two consecutive terms.

Nicke’s first term — from April 2018 to September 2022 — had seen her steer the state-owned enterprise toward the energy transition despite the challenges caused by the Covid pandemic, geopolitics and climate change.

Positive energy

“I thank all Pertamina officers for their hard work and support. Hopefully in this second period we can continue to strengthen consolidation to continue the company’s transformation,” she says.

“Positive energy is the uppermost renewable resource.”

Nicke adds that the three main strategies on her immediate radar are to improve the performance of Pertamina’s existing oil and gas business, maintain the company’s energy transition and develop new and renewable energies.

“We will continue the energy transition with strategic initiatives and agendas to ensure energy security while pursuing shareholder aspirations, which is to achieve a market value of $100 billion,” Nicke says.

Fortune Media recently again named Nicke one of the 50 most influential women in the world, alongside industry peers including chief executives Vicki Hollub, of Occidental Petroleum; Catherine MacGregor, of Engie; and Lynn Good of Duke Energy.

Nicke is the only woman from Indonesia and from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc to be included in the Most Powerful Women International list.

She was born on 25 December 1967 in Tasikmalaya, West Java — a city sometimes locally dubbed kota santri or “the city of a thousand pesantrens” for its abundance of Islamic boarding schools.

Nicke served as Pertamina’s human resources director in 2017 and the following year she was appointed as the company’s acting director of logistics, supply chain and infrastructure before being promoted, initially to acting president director.

Pertamina shuffle

Pertamina’s 15th chief executive became interim boss in April 2018 after predecessor Elia Massa Manik was ousted after little more than 12 months in the job.

Then-Minister of State-Owned Enterprises Rini Soemarno removed Elia Massa from the top job in a management shake-up that followed a series of problems at Pertamina including a major oil spill in Balikpapan Bay.

Four other Pertamina directors were also removed at an extraordinary general meeting of shareholders, leading to a workers’ organisation expressing its concern over the replacement of five directors at the state-owned entity, claiming the board reshuffle could negatively affect Pertamina employees and the company.

“How can Pertamina become a world-class energy company if there is a [frequent] change of directors?” Federation of the United Pertamina Workers Association president Arie Gumilar said at the time, reported.

Any such concern appears to have been allayed with 54-year-old Nicke lined up — at least that is the Cabinet’s plan — to ultimately serve more than four years at the helm, including her interim time.

However, the historic high turn around of Pertamina directors could yet repeat itself amid the prevailing commodity-price volatility, while allegations of corruption have been known to rear their head within the ranks of the state-owned enterprise.

Previous Pertamina president director Karen Agustiawan (the first woman to hold the post; Nicke is the second) was sentenced to eight years in prison for alleged graft relating to an Australian asset acquisition. However, Karen appealed and the Supreme Court overturned the ruling a year later in 2020.

While some industry veterans claimed Karen was a scapegoat, it can be difficult for the national oil and gas company boss to distance themselves from the government or from any scandal in the sector.

Nicke finds herself having to contend with the population’s feelings running high — not least in her hometown of Tasikmalaya, where in September locals blockaded a Pertamina fuel truck during peaceful protests over spiralling energy costs that they believe she has the power to reduce.

Next big challenges

One of Nicke’s next big challenges will be to raise financing to achieve the national oil company’s — and the government’s — ambitious production growth plans and stimulate fresh investments into Indonesia’s upstream industry, ideally from industry heavyweights to exploit the country’s discovered resources.

The Jakarta administration has set an ambitious target of boosting domestic output to 1 million barrels per day of oil plus condensate and 12 billion cubic feet per day of gas by 2030; and against this backdrop the government has pledged to cut emissions by as much as 41% by the end of this decade, compared with a “business as usual” scenario.

Nicke is an alumnus of SMA Negeri 1 Tasikmalaya. She then studied at the Bandung Institute of Technology, majoring in industrial engineering and graduating in 1991. She continued her postgraduate education at Padjajaran University, majoring in business law and graduating 13 years ago.

Her distinguished career has not only been with the national oil company. Nicke has served as director of strategic procurement at state-owned electricity company Perusahaan Listrik Negara and subsequently she was president director of electricity contractor Mega Eltra, local media reported.

Under Nicke’s tenure, revenues at Pertamina last year increased 39% to $57.5 billion while profits skyrocketed by 95%, according to Forbes.

In tandem with being chief executive of the national oil company of the world’s fourth most populous nation, Nicke has a husband, Fitriyansyah, and their son.

Alongside her current job title, Nicke’s Instagram account simply and modestly refers to herself “Mom & Wife at Home”.

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