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Eye-opening Japan experience helped a Thai tycoon build an empire

Saha Group's Boonsithi Chokwatana thrives on strong cross-border ties

Boonsithi Chokwatana, chairman of Saha Group, Thailand's leading consumer products conglomerate (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

BANGKOK In 1955, an 18-year-old Thai found himself overwhelmed by the dazzle and bustle of a Japanese city. One minute, he was standing in a sea of neon lights in Shinsaibashi, a busy shopping district in Osaka. The next, he was looking at a subway for the first time in his life.

A decade after its devastating defeat in World War II, Japan was on the cusp of breakneck economic expansion.

"I thought Thailand could also achieve economic development by learning from Japan," said Boonsithi Chokwatana, chairman of Saha Group, Thailand's leading consumer products conglomerate. He was reminiscing about the inspiration his younger self found in Japan's dramatic rise from the rubble.

The knowledge and experience he gained during the six years he spent in Japan buying all kinds of items for his father's miscellaneous goods wholesale business were apparently useful: He would go on to build a business empire that sells a wide range of products, from instant noodles to detergents to clothes.

Saha Group Chairman Boonsithi Chokwatana serves as a key partner for and adviser to numerous Japanese companies in Thailand. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Boonsithi's father saw a talented businessman in his son. So off to Japan the young Boonsithi went to place orders for imitations of Western fountain pens and belts, then ship them back home.

After returning to Thailand, he was put in charge of leading the expansion of his father's business into manufacturing. In 1962, Boonsithi helped set up a powder shampoo factory in Thailand with Lion, a leading Japanese consumer goods maker.

Since then, he has served as a key partner for and adviser to numerous Japanese companies expanding into the country. Because Western companies showed little interest in a small Thai enterprise, Boonsithi built close ties with the Japanese business community.

ALL ABOUT TRUST More importantly, however, he was deeply impressed by the corporate ethics he found among the businesspeople of Osaka, who placed top priority on winning and maintaining the trust of their customers and partners.

After expanding into manufacturing, Boonsithi detected potential demand for women's underwear in his country, where the number of women using makeup was also growing fast. He felt Thai women were gaining a new aesthetic.

Using the contacts he had built up during his years in Osaka, he managed to meet Koichi Tsukamoto, the founder of Wacoal Holdings, a major Japanese underwear maker.

He spent three years trying to persuade Tsukamoto to agree to set up a joint venture with his company in Thailand. When it finally did happen, however, Boonsithi's underwear business with Wacoal got off to a dismal start. Thai women, it turned out, did not share Japanese women's tastes and preferences. Sales suffered.

He realized that, generally, Thai women at the time wanted to make their bodies look plump. So he set off to resorts to ask women if he could take their measurements. Hundreds agreed to the request.

Eventually, the partners came up with a new line of underwear that was tailored to Thai tastes. Sales gradually picked up. Major department stores, which had only been interested in European underwear, started selling the products.

Today, Thai Wacoal is one of the country's leading underwear makers.

During the past half century or so, Boonsithi has set up more than 80 joint ventures with Japanese companies, including Kewpie, known for its mayonnaise; Mizuno, a sporting goods maker; and Lawson, a convenience store operator.

Last month, he teamed with World, a leading Japanese apparel company, to open Thailand's first Takeo Kikuchi boutique.

"He nurtures businesses while taking a long-term perspective," said Makoto Iida, founder of security services provider Secom, noting how Boonsithi shares this trait with his Japanese mentors.

One important factor behind Saha's success has been the favorable sentiment many Thai people have toward Japan.

In a survey of Thais conducted by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living ASEAN last year, 60% of the respondents said they liked Japan, compared with 30% who expressed the same sentiment toward South Korea and 20% who said so about China.

But the Japan-as-role-model-for-Asia era is long gone. As Asia grew richer, Saha expanded the scope of its business partnerships. The group now makes household appliances with South Korea's Samsung Electronics and will open the first Thai store for the Yishion brand -- often dubbed the Chinese Zara or Uniqlo.

"In an era when there is more than one right answer, Japan doesn't necessarily offer a solution," said Takamasa Fujioka, director of the Sasin Japan Center at Chulalongkorn University.

Japan no longer holds the technological and competitive sway over other Asian nations that it once did. Still, Boonsithi regards the country as an important partner for Southeast Asia because of the cultural similarities. In both Japan and Southeast Asia, he points out, great importance is placed on mutual trust.

The coming era will have Japan on a more equal footing with developing Asian countries. As such, "Japanese corporates," Boonsithi said, "will have to cooperate more with their ASEAN peers and venture out into the global arena. We are now in an era of mutual harmony and prosperity."

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