Purser's guiding philosophy is what the British call doing well by doing good: as he enriches himself, he has made it his parallel goal to create a prosperous community of Javanese artisans. Now in his late 50s, Purser says that when he moved to Tembi in 1995, there were no roads and few jobs. "A lot of people had moved away to find work in the cities," he says. When he started Out of Asia, he surveyed the skills of the village's 800 people "with the objective of creating a job for at least one member of every family."
Despite his good works, Purser is not purely an idealist. He's also a shrewd businessman. He first saw Indonesia during a 1968 honeymoon in Bali. He stayed for 12 years, starting a guide service that grew into Pacto, which, he says, "was and is the largest travel company in the Republic of Indonesia," with a staff of 500. When the government changed the law, prohibiting foreigners from owning businesses in that sector of tourism, Purser accepted a job with the U.N. Development Program and served a stint as director general of tourism in Vanuatu.
Out of Asia is his most extravagant entrepreneurial venture. Capitalizing on Javanese resources and skills, the company offers some 28,000 products ranging from bamboo boxes to picture frames made from hand-rolled newsprint to furniture molded from tawny water hyacinth. "The world is looking for interesting materials presented in a sophisticated, minimalist style," he says. Evidently so: Out of Asia goods are carried in élite stores and mass-market chains in Europe and the U.S., among them Macy's and Harrods. Although precise revenue figures from the private firm are unavailable, he's currently expanding with a new venture called Warwick Purser Lifestyle, selling housewares and furniture in department stores and boutiques throughout Asia.
Purser's personal ethos is based upon old-fashioned ideals of hard work and country living. On a fine, Monday morning, the women of Tembi gather in a pleasant pavilion in the center of town to construct nested rattan boxes for Marshall Field's, the Chicago-based department store chain. As Purser wanders through a clean-swept clearing sheltered by what he calls a "hugely important" banyan tree, where a member of the royal house of Yogyakarta is buried, residents make way for him with discreet Javanese gestures of respect. "When someone gets married, I'm there. When someone dies, I'm there. It's like a huge family."
Village life might be rustic, but Purser is hardly deprived. The compound he shares with his daughter, Polly, 29, who is a designer for the firm, rambles like a Sultan's palace, landscaped with pools and pavilions and tended by a large retinue of servants. If there are any in Tembi opposed to the rule of its high-minded foreign potentate, they keep it to themselves. One of the company's foremen, a Tembi native called Daud Subroto, has worked for Purser for seven years. "Before, people in Tembi were only farmers. Now they have good jobs," he says.
Prosperity brings social stability—just as the boss intended. One of Purser's objectives is to create conditions that will keep young people in the village. "When kids leave for Jakarta to look for work, so often they can't find a job and they get into drugs. In Tembi there are no drugs." He surveys the scene with satisfaction. "Once I realized how much the employment opportunities offered by my business could change people's lives," Purser says, "it became my passion."