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Dhanin Chearavanont

Dhanin Chearavanont (22): Changing how the world eats

Production at Tops Foods, a Belgian maker of ready-made meals acquired by CP Group, is almost entirely automated. (Courtesy of the company) <--Tops Foods??

There is only one way to successfully take over as manager of a company, and it is this: Continue to create new businesses.

My father started his career by selling vegetable seeds, and my brothers expanded his company's operations into feed. Taking over from them, I moved Charoen Pokphand Group into a wide variety of businesses: chicken and hog raising, shrimp farming, food processing, retail and communications.

Shortly after introducing broiler chickens to Thailand in the 1970s, CP Group entered the hog-raising business. Up until the 1980s, we partnered with European and U.S. companies to bring better hogs to Thailand. These Western breeds did not suit the tastes of the Thai people, however, so we set to work creating our own varieties. Eventually we succeeded, and in the 1990s we began using our own independently developed breeds.

Affordable luxuries

Next came shrimp farming. CP Group's feed and chicken-raising operations in Taiwan were overseen by an executive dispatched from Thailand. One day this executive hinted to me that shrimp farming was flourishing in Taiwan. "If you're interested, bring the technology to Thailand," I replied. "I'll leave the business to you."

Shrimp farming was pioneered in Japan in the 1960s and later introduced in Taiwan. Although we tried raising shrimp in partnership with a Japanese trading house, the Japanese variety known as tiger prawns, or kuruma shrimp, was not suited to the Thai climate.

Ultimately, we introduced technology for raising black tiger shrimp from Taiwan, as this type was better suited to conditions in Thailand. Later, we switched to a breed known as whiteleg, or vannamei, shrimp, which is more resistant to disease.

Farming shrimp is no different from raising chickens or hogs. Shrimp are first raised to the fry stage, then handed over to farmers to raise until they are large enough for processing.

In 1987, we began exporting shrimp to Japan, dramatically changing that nation's culinary life. Fried prawns and shrimp for sushi, until then luxuries for most people, were now something almost everyone could afford. Next we started exporting black tiger shrimp to the U.S. and Europe and eventually to markets around the world.

A logical next step

We were now involved in raising chickens, hogs and shrimp. It was around this time that we received an important suggestion from a high-ranking Taiwanese official in charge of the island's livestock industry: "You should definitely get into food processing." We had been exporting skewered chicken for grilling to Japan, but we had not gotten into frozen processed foods.

In the late 1980s, microwave ovens were starting to catch on even in Thailand. This set the stage for frozen meals that could be easily warmed up and enjoyed at home.

At a new plant, we installed production lines that can finish meat and shrimp into dishes such as fried chicken, chicken nuggets, pork steaks and shrimp cutlets. One of the products we are most proud of is wonton soups in which a whole shrimp is rolled up in each wonton, thus preserving the pleasantly tender consistency of the shrimp. The noodles, soup and other ingredients are placed in a cup, rapidly frozen and then shipped out.

Each time a new product is developed, I personally check the taste and make suggestions for improvements.

Many Thai companies followed us into the broiler and shrimp businesses, areas that CP Group had pioneered. Continuing to follow our lead, they exported large quantities of these products to Japan. At one point, Thailand came to be called "Japan's kitchen," but I was not one to stop there. My sights were set on becoming the world's kitchen.

Two years ago, we acquired a factory to make ready-made meals in Belgium, making it even easier for people in Europe to enjoy Thai-style Asian cuisine. This plant is so automated that it takes just seven engineers to operate it. I would like to introduce this level of automation at plants around the world and bring gourmet dining to dinner tables across the globe.

Dhanin Chearavanont is chairman of the Charoen Pokphand Group.

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