Inheriting my father’s management style: Saha Group chairman’s story (22)

Boonsithi Chokwatana is chairman of Saha Group, Thailand’s leading consumer products conglomerate. This is part 22 of a 30-part series.

After my father’s funeral and memorial service, we needed to discuss how to run the group.

An old friend of my father’s, Prasit Kanchanawa, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, attended the family meeting and took over the role of traffic controller (my father must have asked him to take care of the group in case something were to happen to him).

It was decided that the head of Saha Pathanapibul, the core of the group that was engaged in joint ventures with Lion and others, would change from Boonchai, the fifth son, to Boon-Ek, the eldest son. The head of the holding company, Saha Pathana Inter-Holding (SPI), was changed from me, the third son, to Boonpakorn, the second son.

It was decided that I would fill my father’s shoes as the head of the entire group. I was 54.

Before his death, my father did not explicitly name his successor. Even so, he had told people around him that he “gradually wanted to hand things over to Boonsithi.”

Unlike me, all of my siblings received their higher educations abroad. As the only one who graduated from an old-style junior high school, I had worked with my father for almost 40 years. I was proud to say that I knew the group inside and out.

There was no opposition at the family meeting, but we did need to show some consideration for elder members of the family. Prasit thought it best to leave two of the three core companies, including ICC International, to my elder brothers. There was no conflict within the family or the group, and from the outside it must have looked like an amicable succession.

I am often asked about this, but there is no company called the Saha Group, and there is no legal basis for my position as “chairman.” As the founder of the company, my father was involved in all aspects of management, and he never had the title of group chairman or president.

Naturally, I felt some pressure. I could no longer turn to my father for approval or advice.

In 1991, the group already contained close to 190 companies, and I had to protect the livelihoods of 10,000 employees. People inside and outside the company were watching to see how Saha would change. If we were to make wrong decisions, we would not only lose people’s trust, but our company could fall apart.

I thought to myself, “I will not change anything from how my father did things.”

I did not want the power of a chairman, and I did not want to change the decentralized style of management that looks for growth by splitting up. I myself do not like being told how to hold my chopsticks, and I had no intention of telling others how to do so.

So, the main idea was to just keep on working the way we always did.

The mechanisms were already in place. My father, the founder of the company, and I, the president of SPI, received monthly reports from the companies in the group. Then as the head of the group, I would look over the reports, get a sense of the profits and losses and problems at each company, and provide support if I thought it was necessary. I also continued the Thursday luncheons that my father had held for family and senior executives as a forum for informal discussions.

Part of the reason I felt no need to change anything was because Thailand was booming in the early 1990s. The economy was growing nearly 10% per year. With the yen appreciating after the 1985 Plaza Accord, Japanese manufacturers accelerated their expansions overseas. Many of them came to Thailand. Saha just had to keep on expanding its business.

Later dubbed the “Detroit of Asia,” Thailand was beginning to become a hub for the auto industry, especially for Japanese manufacturers. This was around the time that we entered the auto parts industry.

We set up a joint venture with Seiren, a Japanese textile maker that approached us about producing seat fabric in Thailand. We began to make new rubber parts with Molten, with whom we had already partnered to make soccer balls and basketballs.

It seemed that everything was running smoothly. However, both the Thai economy and Saha would go on to face unprecedented challenges in the late 1990s.

This column is part of The Nikkei’s “My Personal History” (“Watashi no Rirekisho”) series of autobiographies. The series first appeared in The Nikkei in 1956. Since then, a wide variety of world-changing individuals have written or dictated their life stories for publication.


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