Passing honesty to next generation: Saha Group chairman’s story (29)

Boonsithi Chokwatana is chairman of Saha Group, Thailand’s leading consumer products conglomerate. This is part 29 of a 30-part series.

In the past decade or so, Thailand has faced many challenges, including serious political confusion, major floods, a coup and the passing of former King of Thailand, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whom Thais respected deeply.

But nothing has impacted the economy or society more than the COVID-19 crisis.

The pandemic has inflicted wide-ranging blows on Saha Group’s business, which is involved in a variety of consumer products. Ironically, sales of home products and foods increased, driven by stay-at-home demand.

On the other hand, cosmetics and clothing are a mess. To be more specific, shirts are selling poorly but sales of pants are not so bad.

The call center business, which is a joint venture with Japan’s Transcosmos, remains especially brisk. It offers customer support for online shops and food delivery services.

As this operation exemplifies, we need to take measures to upgrade our business to be ready for the digital economy. I feel that we are in a phase where we must do whatever is necessary to prepare for the future so that we won’t be left behind.

Since I turned 80 four years ago, I have resigned from executive posts at our group companies. The only remaining key role I still have is chairman of Saha Group, a position that does not have any legal basis.

If my father, Thiam, was the first generation, then my siblings and I are the second, and my children and nephews and nieces are the third.

Sadly, we lost Narong, my immediate younger brother, to COVID-19 on July 16. He was 78. We must not waste time in handing over the business to the next generation.

Some in our next generation are playing active roles on the front lines of the group’s operations.

Thamarat, my eldest son, was groomed in the textile business and is serving as president of I.C.C. International. He is not very talkative but shows his strength when he is in a defensive mode.

Eldest daughter Teerada is the managing director of cosmetics company O.C.C. She has a prudent way of managing. The president of Saha Pathana Inter-Holding, also known as SPI, is Vichai, my second daughter’s husband. The cheerful guy has successfully built personal relationships with people at Japanese companies.

Vathit, the second son of my eldest brother Boon-Ek, was educated in the United States and is building on a successful track record as president of Saha Pathanapibul, the company at the root of our group. Pipope, the son of my second eldest brother Boonpakorn, has personal connections in governmental offices and assists Vichai as director of SPI.

I am not sure whether the role of chairman of Saha Group will remain necessary.

I do not think I need to appoint my successor. It is a decision that should be left to the rest of the management team to handle collectively after I leave, by looking at who might be doing the best job among those in the third generation and taking into account how they are thought of by employees.

If I am asked what the essential quality required for the leader of Saha Group is, my answer would be “honesty.”

My father, who insisted on the principles of “wholehearted devotion” and “trust comes first,” was an honest man. I myself have always tried to be honest. It is important to earn profits, but there are good profits and bad profits.

When I think of what Saha will look like in 50 years and then in 100 years, I wish it to be a prudent company rather than a big one.

For that to happen, the group needs to boldly correct its course. In the past process of expanding our business, we set up one company after another. We did this because we had to spread the work to respond to Japanese partner companies’ ambitions to enter the Thai market and accelerate the pace of our growth.

But now is the time to change the course and consolidate these companies. What I envision is the current 300 group companies consolidating into 200 or 100 companies, rather than increasing to, say, 500 or 1,000.

Saha’s key business model has been centered around the role of piloting Japanese companies in the Thai market. But the market has gradually matured, and we are entering a phase in which we must seek to expand into other countries. We will be going to other parts of Asia, to Europe and the United States, not just on our own but also working with Japanese companies or other Thai companies.

New business opportunities are certain to emerge in the post-COVID-19 era. I am certain of this, and the thought makes me think of what the next growth model should be for us.

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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