On April 7, 1990, I met China's supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing. I had met him several times before as a member of the Thai prime minister's entourage during state visits. This time, however, I was meeting him as chairman of Charoen Pokphand Group.
Although Deng was 85 at the time, his manner of speaking was clear and to the point.
"You and your brothers were given good names," he said as we shook hands. As I mentioned before, my father gave my brothers and me Chinese names -- Zhengmin, Daimin, Zhongmin and Guomin (me) -- the first characters of which spell out the phrase "fair, great China" in Chinese. This phrase means "to make China just and larger."
In 1989, China was rocked by social upheaval and Zhao Ziyang, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, was ousted. Even as many foreign businesses were turning their backs on the Chinese market, Chia Tai Group, as our group is called in China, was busy making new investments.
Our company had been the very first to invest in the special economic zones Deng had created, and we received a warm welcome from the supreme leader. This gesture, in addition to expressing appreciation for our success, was also aimed at securing foreign investment at a delicate time in China's relationship with the outside world.
"I want the tens of millions of overseas Chinese around the world to follow your example and assist China," Deng said to me earnestly, pledging that China would further strengthen its economic open-door policy.
In January 1992, despite his advanced age, Deng visited the special economic zone of Shenzhen and called on the people of China to accelerate reforms and open up to the outside world. His words changed the mood both at home and abroad and helped spark a Chinese investment boom.
Having invested in the country ahead of other companies, Chia Tai Group was in a prime position to seize the opportunities that China had to offer.
Seeing the possibilities
From the late 1980s into the early 1990s, the mayor of Shanghai was Zhu Rongji, who later became China's premier. While he was mayor, Zhu launched the Pudong development project.
The Huangpu River divides Shanghai into two areas: Puxi to the west and Pudong to the east. At that time, Puxi was a flourishing commercial zone, while Pudong, apart from a shipyard, was almost entirely farmland.
Our company had already been successful at raising chickens and producing motorcycles in Shanghai. Now Mayor Zhu wanted to entrust us with developing Pudong, an area in which even Hong Kong real estate companies showed no interest. I had a hunch that this place could be successfully developed, however, especially given that there was already a bustling downtown just across the river.
Developing Pudong had to begin with the basics: roads. After that, we invested $450 million to build the Super Brand Mall, a commercial complex located near the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, now a Shanghai landmark. It took considerable time to develop the mall, but it finally opened in 2002.
Pudong was eventually linked to Puxi by bridge and tunnel, and, just as I suspected, it has grown to become Shanghai's second-most prosperous district.
Using Pudong as a foothold, Chia Tai Group opened the Lotus chain of supermarkets in China. Today, the chain has more than 80 stores throughout the country. We also expanded into the pharmaceutical business, starting with manufacturing the medicines necessary for raising chickens and hogs. Since then we have invested in more than 20 Chinese drugmakers and own such brands as Sanjiu Weitai and Qingchunbao.
CP Group has established affiliates in every region of China, with the exceptions of Qinghai Province and the Tibet Autonomous Region. Our more than 300 group companies in the country are involved in everything from farming, food production and automobile manufacturing, to TV programming, retail and pharmaceuticals. To date, our investment in China totals 110 billion yuan, and our sales in 2015 were close to 100 billion yuan. The remarkable growth of our Chinese operations is the result of believing in Deng Xiaoping.
Dhanin Chearavanont is chairman of the Charoen Pokphand Group.