September 3, 2016 5:00 pm JST
My Personal History

Dhanin Chearavanont (3): My father, the keen, curious observer

My father opened this seed shop in Bangkok in 1921.

My father, Chia Ek Chor, was fond of new things. When he opened his store, Chia Tai, selling vegetable seeds in Bangkok's Chinatown, he used an airplane for the trademark. Airplanes had nothing to do with selling seeds, but they had a special importance for my father. "Airplanes are a symbol of modern civilization, science and advanced technology," he said.

Chia Tai sold seeds of cabbage, leaf mustard and turnips. The seeds came in small paper bags printed with colored ink, a rare touch at that time. Those around him laughed, saying, "You don't need such pretty bags to sell seeds," but my father didn't care.

Another unusual thing my father did: He printed an expiration date on each bag and would exchange -- free of charge -- any expired seeds. "Farming is back-breaking work," he would say. "If the farmer plants the seeds and waters them every day, but they never sprout, he suffers a tremendous loss. There's no way I will cause my customers to suffer a loss."

An analytical mind

My father never received a higher education, but he possessed a remarkable ability to analyze things in a rather scientific manner. In Bangkok, many households raised chickens on their rooftop, but they produced very few eggs. He carefully observed his own chickens and noticed they ate primarily bugs and grass.

Thinking they may not be getting enough nutrition, he tried mixing fish powder and rice bran into their feed. He also gave them vegetables to eat, and ground up seashells for them. Even without full knowledge of such matters as protein and calcium, he could see from observation what nutrients were needed and was able to engineer an appropriate feed. The upshot: My father's chickens laid eggs every day.

He was also engrossed in developing better varieties of crops. To that end, he set up farms in Thailand and in his hometown of Chaozhou, in China. From these, he selected the highest-quality vegetables and harvested their seeds. He sought to improve varieties through so-called artificial selection. This was not something he learned at an agricultural school, but a process he discovered on his own based on experience and observation.

I pride myself on having inherited his love of new things and his scientific way of thinking.

Only the best

My father's "quality first" attitude and his respect for customers won over many farmers, allowing his seed business to steadily grow. He eventually invited his younger brother, Chia Siew Whooy, from Chaozhou to come help in the store.

In addition to the seeds he developed himself, my father also sold high-quality seeds from various parts of China and later Japan. While the details are unclear, he began selling seeds from Takii & Co., a Kyoto-based company, in 1940. The association between CP Group and Takii has continued uninterrupted, and today we enjoy a cooperative relationship, working together to improve various cultivars of fruit, vegetables and other plants. Last year, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the partnership.

My father could not speak Thai very well, to say nothing of English, so how was he able to conduct negotiations with foreign companies? By hiring a Briton by the name of Alexander Campbell and giving him a generous salary. Campbell, who lived in Bangkok and spoke Thai, handled all aspects of external negotiations, including contacting foreign companies.

In hiring Campbell and giving him such an important position, my father planted the seed of an important part of our corporate culture: a willingness to employ capable people regardless of their nationality. This is one of the reasons Chia Tai, which started out as a tiny store with only a handful of employees, could quickly join the ranks of international businesses.

Campbell continued to work for Chia Tai into the 1980s, firing off telex messages from his office in Chinatown well into his 80s.  

Dhanin Chearavanont is chairman of the Charoen Pokphand Group.

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