Sudden death of my father: Saha Group chairman’s story (21)

Boonsithi Chokwatana is chairman of Saha Group, Thailand’s leading consumer products conglomerate. This is part 21 of 30-part series.

No one can escape death. I knew this to be true, but the loss of my father Thiam came so suddenly.

On June 29, 1991, many of the Chokwatana family, including my father, were gathered in the resort town of Pattaya in eastern Thailand. My brothers and sisters and I were competing in a golf tournament organized by Siam Commercial Bank.

My father, who did not play golf, came with us to make an appearance at the party following the competition.

According to an outside director who was with him, my father suddenly lost consciousness and collapsed right after having lunch at the hotel. He was immediately taken to a nearby hospital, and I was notified while I was in the middle of my round. My father had always been a healthy man. I thought he might have just been a bit tired and continued to play.

As soon as I arrived at the hospital, I realized the situation was more serious. The doctors were taking turns giving him a cardiac massage, and the entire family had gathered at the hospital. After nearly two hours of treatment, my father passed away. The cause of death was a heart attack.

He had just celebrated his 75th birthday five days earlier. The day before he died, the family had gathered at the Dusit Thani, a venerable hotel in Bangkok, for a family dinner.

He had been invited to Lion’s 100th anniversary party and was scheduled to visit Japan from July 7 and was fully prepared with airline tickets and a visa. He was looking forward to stopping by Kyoko in Osaka for a while.

My father had no preexisting medical conditions and showed no signs of ill health. The last time we had spoken was the day before at the Dusit Thani, but I cannot remember what we talked about. I did not expect things to go like that.

My father’s body was taken to the Wat That Thong in Bangkok. The funeral, which lasted a week started the next day. It was attended by thousands of people, from old friends and acquaintances to celebrities from various fields. Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun also came. Anand, a former diplomat, was a senior executive in Saha Union Group, led by my uncle Damri. He was brought in as interim prime minister after the military coup in February 1991 toppled the Chatichai government.

Many people from our Japanese partners also came. Lion President Atsushi Kobayashi came all the way to Thailand for the event. Thirty-five years earlier Atsushi-san had stopped by Bangkok on his way back to Japan after studying abroad and he hit it off with my father. That led to us ordering toothpaste — the beginning of our cooperation with Lion. I was touched by his kindness to my late father.

I, along with my brothers and sisters, had to deal with those coming to pay their respects. According to Chinese custom, we would go to the temple mortuary every week, and on the 100th day my father’s bones were placed in a tomb. I have a 3-meter-long photo, taken with a wide-angle lens, of the crowd that gathered for the casket procession hanging in the hallway outside my office.

It is difficult to describe my father in brief. I was always by his side when he had to make tough business decisions. He was a great manager and a tremendously respectable person.

From a son’s eyes, he was a very kind man. I could talk with him about anything, and he would clearly say what was good and what was bad. He put his whole effort into everything he did, so everyone around him would follow. What influenced me the most was his ability to take the initiative and set an example for others.

What would happen to the Saha Group now that it had lost the force that held it together? People inside and outside the company watched with great interest. Those of us left behind had to quickly set up a system of succession.

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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