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

Thai mogul relishes his Japan-spent youth

Boonsithi Chokwatana sees similarities between Japan, Southeast Asia

| Japan

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 the 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 experiences 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 he went to place orders for imitations of Western fountain pens and belts, then ship them back home.

After returning to Thailand, Boonsithi was put in charge of shepherding his father's business into the manufacturing sector.

In 1962, he helped set up a powder shampoo factory in Thailand with Lion, a leading consumer goods maker in Japan.

Since then, he has served as a key partner for and adviser to numerous Japanese companies expanding into the country.

As Western companies showed little interest in a small Thai business, Boonsithi built close ties with the Japanese business community.

More importantly, however, he was deeply impressed by the business 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 growing fast. He felt Thai women were gaining a new aesthetic sensitivity.

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.

His underwear business with Wacoal, however, 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 of the day 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 Thailand'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, the convenience chain operator.

Last month, he teamed with World, a leading 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 takes after his Japanese mentors.

One important factor behind the Saha Group'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 Yishion store in Thailand. Yishion is 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. Yet, Boonsithi regards Japan 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. "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."

This is the third in a series on Asians who draw on lessons from their youths to build better tomorrows.

(Nikkei)

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