"Don't put all your eggs in one basket." The Asian currency crisis brought home to me the wisdom of this saying, and I started to be more diligent about spreading our risks around.
After the crisis passed, we set about building feed plants and food processing factories in several countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. All were successful, but our Vietnamese operations have seen a particularly sharp expansion.
In China, Charoen Pokphand Group's agriculture operations had long been centered on feed. To position the country alongside Thailand as one of our key export bases for food products, we recently set up processing plants in Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province, and Qingdao, Shandong Province.
Initially, it was our company that moved into the Chinese market, but recently we have been promoting activity in the opposite direction by getting Chinese companies involved in our Thai operations. China Mobile, the world's biggest mobile phone company, bought an 18% stake in True, the telecom arm of CP Group, and we began producing cars in Thailand with SAIC Motor, China's leading automaker.
At the same time, we have been busy nurturing our global operations.
We built a rice polishing plant in the old Thai capital of Ayutthaya and began exporting large quantities to the Middle East and Africa under the Royal Umbrella brand. In Turkey and India, we operate vertically integrated plants that handle everything from feed production through poultry processing.
Tops Foods, the Belgian ready-to-eat meal company we recently acquired, boasts cutting-edge technology for sterilizing food using microwaves. This makes it possible to store food at room temperature for an extended period. Each day, Top Foods exports 100,000 meals to more than 10 European countries.
Right now, there is an opportunity in Russia, given the weakness of its currency, the ruble. We have already established vertically integrated production of chicken and pork there to meet demand within the country, and we now aim to use this as a base for exports to the European Union as well.
The heart of the group
The more global our company becomes, the more conscious I am of our corporate motto: "Benefit the country, benefit the people, benefit the company." This reflects our priorities in making business decisions. The interests of the nation should come first, the needs of the people next, and finally profits for the company. This philosophy is unchanging no matter where we do business. The reason for this is simple: If you prioritize profits at the expense of the country or the people, nobody will support you, and your business will falter.
Living up to this ideal, of course, is not always easy. Even when you believe that what you are doing will ultimately help the people, you may still face criticism and objections. When this happens, I make it a rule to ask myself why people are unhappy and try to work out a solution.
For example, even though we believed that developing our chicken business would benefit Thai farmers, the outbreak of avian influenza caused them much hardship. To remedy the situation, we built sealed coops so farmers could prevent their chickens from coming into contact with infected birds. This helped stem the spread of the disease.
In shrimp farming, the use of antibiotics -- something CP Group has long opposed -- has been seen as problematic. Our newest aquaculture ponds are sealed in such a way that no harmful bacteria can enter, either from the air, water or soil. This allows us to grow healthy shrimp without using antibiotics.
Moreover, the water in these ponds is cleaned by a purification system designed to prevent the shrimp feed from seeping out and contaminating the surrounding soil. We even had a nongovernmental organization involved in environmental protection inspect the system and verify its effectiveness.
To groom future executives and managers capable of pursuing new areas of business, we built -- at considerable cost -- the Leadership Institute, a training center in the central Thai region of Khao Yai that can house 300 people. In addition to equipping trainees with a global outlook and an open-minded way of thinking, we want to instill in them the philosophy of "benefit the country, benefit the people, benefit the company."
Even as we continue to expand our operations globally, we will never forget the debt of gratitude we owe to Thailand. When my father's farm and all other assets in China were confiscated during the Cultural Revolution, it was our Thai business that saved our family. Thailand has cared for us and helped CP Group become what it is today. That is why anywhere in the world we have an office, factory or other facility, we fly the Thai flag.
Dhanin Chearavanont is chairman of the Charoen Pokphand Group.