Salim in driving seat at

Rendi A. Witular, Jakarta

Anthoni Salim took control of the management of giant food producer PT Indofood Sukses Makmur on Friday, marking the bold return of the seriously rich Salim family, which once had dominated many sectors of the country's economy for decades.

Anthoni, the son of tycoon Sudono Salim and the heir to the Salim Group business empire, was chosen by the firm's shareholders to replace Eva Riyanti Hutapea, who tendered her resignation last December amid reports of growing disagreement with the Salim family.

In a press conference after the firm's annual shareholders meeting on Friday, Anthoni said he took over the leadership of the firm primarily to counter increasingly stiff competition in the industry.

""Every company needs to revitalize itself in order to face tougher competition in the market ... Indofood is a huge concern with around 50,000 employees. In order to survive, we need to be more focused on our business,"" said Anthoni.

The business was established by the Salim family in 1990. The family still owns 52 percent of the firm through Hong Kong-based First Pacific Co.

The shareholders meeting turned poignant when Eva burst into tears as she left the meeting room and bid farewell to her staff and colleagues.

""Eva has made her own choice of carreer, and we regret her decision to resign. We will really miss her,"" Anthoni said.

Media reports have speculated that Eva's resignation was due to increasing acrimony and disagreement over company policy between her and Anthoni, as well as other Salim family members, including Franciscus Welirang, the son-in-law of Sudono and the Indofood director responsible for the company's Bogasari Flour Mills division.

Eva was credited with bringing Indofood back to profit, reducing the company's huge dollar-denominated debt, while at the same time erasing the company's negative image as a business closely connected with the regime of president Soeharto. Soedono Salim was known as one of Soeharto's closest associates.

Following the fall of Soeharto in 1998, the family lost many of its businesses, but retained ownership of some of its most profitable ones, including Indofood. Unlike during the Soeharto years, they avoided publicity, and Anthoni's appearance on Thursday could well be his first before the press since Soeharto's fall.

A legislator said that Anthoni's decision to take the helm of Indofood signaled that the family once again felt comfortable about living in Indonesia as the government had declared the family free of all debts resulting from its past infringements of banking regulations.

""The Salim family now feels more comfortable as they don't have any legal problems here anymore. This is the main reason why they have decided to come out from their hiding places,"" said legislator Hakam Naja.

Hakam, who is from the National Mandate Party (PAN), also said that Anthoni's return also signaled that the family was comfortable with Indonesia's current crop of politicians, adding that some top politicians now contesting the presidential election had recently attended the birthday party of Sudono Salim in Singapore.

Anthoni dismissed speculation that it was the Salim Group's debt-free status that had motivated him to take over Indofood's leadership.

""Salim Group businesses have always been here and have always expanded. We will not focus our activities anywhere else... And I have always been out in front, not hiding behind a screen,"" he said.

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