September 1, 2016 5:00 pm JST
My Personal History

Dhanin Chearavanont (1): The Thai company with Chinese roots and a global vision

The author's gentle smile has attracted many around the world.

Thailand's Charoen Pokphand Group would not be the company it is today without its long-serving chairman, Dhanin Chearavanont. Over the course of nearly five decades, he has transformed a small seed shop founded by his father into one of Southeast Asia's largest private corporations. His family is now ranked as Southeast Asia's wealthiest.

Though he rarely grants interviews, the 77-year-old chairman recently opened up to the Nikkei Asian Review about himself and the sprawling "CP empire." In this 30-part series, Dhanin recounts the history of both a man and a business, from their humble beginnings in Thailand to their success on a global scale.

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My father founded Charoen Pokphand Group as a small store in Bangkok's Chinatown in 1921. Today, as CP Group's chairman and third leader, I oversee a conglomerate doing business in more than 100 countries.

Thailand's largest private corporate group, we are primarily engaged in three sectors -- food and agriculture, including livestock raising; convenience stores and other retail operations; and communications, such as mobile phones. We achieved nearly $45 billion in sales in 2015, and have business bases ranging from Southeast Asia and China, to Europe and the U.S. We have investments in 16 countries and employ more than 300,000 people.

These facts and figures, however, are only part of the picture, and may not clearly convey what kind of company we are.

CP Group has never been afraid of new markets and new challenges.

Take Japan, for example. One can easily find CP products in convenience stores around the country: Turn over a packaged side dish made with chicken or pork, and if you find a red "CP" inside a yellow circle, that is a product our company helped produce. Such products are partially processed in Thailand and then exported by Charoen Pokphand Foods, the core agribusiness arm of our group, in partnership with Japanese convenience stores and food companies.

It would not be an exaggeration to say CP Group changed Japan's dinner table. We first entered the market in 1973, when we began exporting chicken from Thailand to Japan. In the 1980s, we succeeded in farming shrimp in Thailand, and naturally began exporting that to Japan as well.

By providing chicken and shrimp at reasonable prices, we made it easy for Japanese consumers to enjoy fried chicken and prawns.

Seizing opportunities has always been in our DNA.

When China opened up its economy in 1978, CP Group was the very first foreign investor in the country and become the first foreign company registered in the special economic zone of Shenzhen, in Guangdong Province. Since then, we have used the name Chia Tai Group in China, and there is probably no one in the country today who doesn't recognize its Chinese name, Zhengda.

Our Chinese business alone accounts for close to 40% of group sales. How has a Thai company been able to penetrate so deeply into China? My father, Chia Ek Chor (Xie Yichu in Mandarin) was a Chinese merchant born in Guangdong Province. He traveled frequently between Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia and China, building up both his professional and his personal connections. CP Group has benefited enormously from these links.

My siblings and I were all born in Thailand, but my father gave all of us Chinese names. My oldest brother's Chinese name is Zhengmin, the next brother's is Damin, the next is Zhongmin and mine is Guomin (my full name in Chinese is Xie Guomin). The first characters of our names can be lined up to spell "Zhengda Zhongguo," meaning "fair, great China."

Furthermore, my father made sure his children were educated in both Thailand and China. For that reason, all 12 of us siblings can freely converse in Chinese as well as Thai. Following in our father's footsteps as business managers, we were able to associate easily and naturally with Chinese people in general and overseas Chinese in particular, which has helped the business grow even more rapidly in the Chinese sphere.

More than anything, however, CP Group's growth and development have been supported by the Thai people. They warmly welcomed the Chia family and gave us an equal chance, even though we came from a foreign country.

Even when Thailand was politically at odds with China, no one in Thailand ever tried to drive descendants of Chinese immigrants out of the country. At one point, around the time the Cultural Revolution started, my father lost all of his Chinese business. Had we not been headquartered in Thailand, the CP Group of today would not exist.

In short, the story of CP Group is the story of the Chinese businessmen who transcended national borders and the Thai people who accepted them. I would be pleased if the story of my life can provide some insights into living in a global age.

Dhanin Chearavanont is chairman of the Charoen Pokphand Group.

The "My Personal History" ("Watashi no Rirekisho") series of autobiographies first appeared in The Nikkei in 1956. Since then, a wide variety of world-changing individuals have written or dictated their life stories for publication. The list includes Margaret Thatcher, Suharto, Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir bin Mohamad, George W. Bush, Alan Greenspan, Jack Welch, Tom Watson and Seiji Ozawa.

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