Presently, as nearly 5% of Hong Kong's workforce are having a hard time looking for jobs, I hope that through these series of My Entrepreneurial Friends, with their struggles and ultimate goal attaining, I could encourage these people who are unemployed, who might be thinking that they have reached their wits' ends to think again - it might just be an opportunity knock! It might be time for you to start your own business!
A Will to Survive and Love Your Life!
Khun Boonchai Bencharongkul)
In this first series, we have the pleasure of interviewing Khun Boonchai Bencharongkul, presently Chief Executive Officer of United Communications Industry Public Co., Ltd. (UCOM), ex-Managing Director of Narai Insurance Co., Ltd. (Narai), and ex-Chairman/ex-Managing Director of Digital Total Access Communications Co., Ltd. (DTAC), Bangkok, Thailand, with a total workforce of 5,000 in all.
Khun Boonchai would share with us his experiences of how he has started his company and how he has coped with his business' decision-making.
Auw: Khun Boonchai, may we know about your education background?
Bencharongkul: I had my university education in the States, in the suburb of Chicago, at Barrington College. I went to a junior college first, called William Harper College, and after two years, I have moved onto Northern Illinois University, majoring in Management and Economics, and minoring in Arts.
Auw: How did you start your business?
Bencharongkul: It was first built up by my father (Khun Suchin), and I had taken it over when my father passed away, on my return from the United States in 1977. My father had put me in charge of his insurance business, looking after a new market's development, when I was supposed to sell new types of insurance in Thailand, after a brief training in Germany. At that time, I tried to pursue sales of hails and frost insurance, which didn't occur that frequently in Thailand, but I was encouraged by our German insurance company to go and sell to tobacco farmers, which was the most difficult job of my life.
Auw: You were learning a new line of insurance business then.
Bencharongkul: I think it is very difficult to sell insurance to people in developing countries, with their low education background and tendency to take chances - leaving everything to fate, and their reluctance to pay premiums for something which they would consider would never happen, whereas for people in developed countries, they are more aware of the value of insurance.
Those five years were good marketing training for me, and I guessed after that I could just about do anything with my management background.
Auw: Was it for your other company - Narai Insurance Co., Ltd.?
Bencharongkul: Yes, it was.
Auw: How could it be related to UCOM's business?
Bencharongkul: Insurance is part of the family's businesses. So is UCOM, which later went on to become a public company, listed on the Thailand Stock Exchange, whereas Narai Insurance Company still remained to-this-date as a family-owned business. Pretty soon, Narai Insurance will have a new U.S. partner called Liberty Company.
As for the communications' business, it was something which my father had started forty years ago. He did the first twenty years' part and I continued with the second twenty years'. The company will continue to prosper, after we have come out from the financial crisis. This year is the year in which UCOM will celebrate its fortieth anniversary.
Auw: What was the most difficult time for you?
Bencharongkul: Last few years, because the whole market, country and region were facing the same crisis. Things were difficult to pick up. However, telecom sector still showed a good sign of growing, and the trend for cellular communication was going much stronger, with a customer base getting bigger by the day, and a market penetration reaching 90% of the population, which would mean that they were hoping 80% of the population in the country would own a cellular phone. So the market is very big, requiring a lot of capital investment. So, it is truly a global type of business. We don't think that this business can sustain on its own, in its own country. It needs to globalise, with partnership joining hands together.
Three years ago, when the financial crisis first hit Thailand, it was bad for many people. They lost everything and couldn't stand such a heavy hit on their businesses. Many were laid off and couldn't find new jobs, and have to start some small businesses on their own. Some even went on to sell sandwiches, and some opened small restaurants. Bankers stayed home and didn't have anything to do until today.
Auw: You must have gone through a few ups and downs in your twenty years of business dealings.
Bencharongkul: Right. When my father passed away, it was quite a test, because at that time, I was not really someone who had done anything successful, but was merely working for my father, with no confidence from the banking industry and customers. And I have always worked in the insurance business. I have started to go back to the communications' side, because of large amount of debts left behind by my father, when he passed away. He had 25 kinds of businesses and they all seemed to go into coma. It was very difficult to get any confidence from the banking sectors. Fortunately, some banks did have some confidence in us and lent us the first sum of money to get started, and I was able to sell communications equipment to the Royal Thai Army. The reason why I have chosen communications' business was that, in the midst of everything that was deteriorating and falling apart, I convinced myself that as long as people needed their ears to listen and mouths to speak, communications would still be a good business. That was about twenty years ago.
So I came back and took over the communications' company, and left the insurance company to my younger brother and sister to look after, because it could generate enough income to cover the debts. You would need pretty big projects, things that could give you revenue and profits, to pay off some of the debts. The first few projects got off the ground, because some customers who had known and loved our father stepped in and helped us to start in this industry.
Auw: People normally would say that starting a business is difficult, but the person who could continue it would have an even harder and tougher job to do. What were the strategies you were using to overcome difficulties?
Bencharongkul: Yes, the overheads were always there. The people who have worked with my predecessor, in this case, my father, could not change, because they have been working that way with my father for the last twenty years. We have to keep them, because it was a small family business - forty-five people twenty years ago, whereas today, we have five thousand people. So we kept them, but in the meantime, we have recruited new blood, assigning some jobs for those people who used to work, and trying to change their ways of thinking. It is better to do everything yourself, so that when it comes to difficult times, people would know that you have worked very hard day and night.
Auw: Do you have a Think Tank - a committee of people helping you, when you ere facing difficulties?
Bencharongkul: No, we would normally share our difficulties, thoughts and plans together among forty or fifty people; not that many. After the first year, we had about seventy people. I'd brought in fifty more people into the company. Basically, it is you who has to create a vision of what you want to be, where you want to be, and you would work at it; never give up. Think in the Chinese way. I'll always remain oriental, even though I have spent eight years growing up in the States. I would always stay oriental in my culture and value, and we will go on with our lives - our commitment to our family, our colleagues who work with us, and our belief, and work hard.
Auw: When you employ people, what qualities were you looking for in them? Do you treasure university education, someone who has a creative mind, or someone who might be stupid but still can be trained?
Bencharongkul: After twenty years, I am much older and wiser. It depends on the type of work you would utilise people for. Many years ago, I used to believe in kinship, development of bonds, relationships of working partners, going through life together and be successful together. Later, I have found that people have different agenda in life. As they grew older, they would gradually show their independent ways of thinking, or preferred ways of life. That's why, musical bands do not stay together for a long time, if they are really good. If they are really creative, they do not want to stay together. I think business is the same. Unless they are all professional employees or entrepreneurs who would always come back to you. I used to think very sentimentally for the company to last a hundred years. Today, I would make sure that the company is profitable, looking after the shareholders and customers very well. Of course, your staff and employees have to be well taken care of as well. But they must share the work to fulfill their duties which they have been paid for.
Auw: When you were young, who was your hero? Or do you have anyone you would admire the most, e.g. Some want to be a policeman, some want to be a fireman? What was the vision you had when you were young? Did you have an easy life what was all laid out for you, or did you have to struggle for what you have today?
Bencharongkul: When I was young, I didn't have a hero. I had a comfortable life, but it wasn't a luxurious one. We got what we would like to have. Our parents looked after us very well. When we were in Thailand, our parents were very strict. But their attitudes towards us changed after they sent us to the States, as they realised that our upbringings in the United States would give us a different perspective of independence.
Auw: Could the fear of losing you change their attitudes?
Bencharongkul: No, they just wanted us to be independent. I think my father had struggled all his life, because his father died when he was only seven years old, and he had to work very hard to send him to school. So, he just wanted to make sure that we could survive on our own when he would have to leave us one day, which he did. We survived. Each of us was very independent.
Auw: Your father left you when you were a teenager?
Bencharongkul: He left us when I was in my prime, twenty-seven years old. Four years before he died, we had some difficulties with court cases, involving our partners at the hotel which my father owned, over some misunderstandings and differences. He passed away with cancer and didn't have a chance to solve the problem. We solved the problem and went on with life. We didn't want to continue to go to court.
Auw: What is your secret of staying alive in your business, that you would give to other entrepreneurs for guidance?
Bencharongkul: I think people need to have a will to survive, to love your life. You must think about responsibilities you have for others. I think people who give up, usually think only for themselves and have no responsibilities. Some people whom I had known, committed suicide, were not good and responsible persons. They gambled a lot, losing money and making wrong decisions. I don't think they were responsible for their family with young children, because their wives have to pay off a lot of debts, after they died.
I think as long as we have breath, we should still have the will to fight. If you have the will to survive, you will survive. Just stand on your feet and be strong. If you have borrowed and ended up having a lot of debts - work hard and pay them off, because you have borrowed and spent them. Whether you have spent them on business or on investment, you did borrow from others. I think heavy debts would be the only thing that would kill a business.
I also believe that I am a good person, doing businesses that are good and legal. The products and services are good. And people whom we are working with are good people. That should be something to be proud of.
Auw: During your many years of managing business, you might have encountered challenges from your competitors, how did you handle that? Nowadays, people are saying that competitors no longer exist, they can be invited to join in as partners as well.
Bencharongkul: You could never get away from competitors. There are even more competitors today, for our case, in Thailand - big, international companies. I often tell our employees that we have to compete with ourselves - do better than we did yesterday. When we do good, our customers would be happy with us. These are things they would like to have and like to see. This way, you can keep your customers and grow your business. Very often, we do not satisfy our customers' needs, just sell what we think the customers would need. So, sell the right things, the right products. Make sure the customers do not get dissatisfied.
Auw: In Japan and Germany, they would invest 10% of their revenue in R&D, would your company do that in Thailand as well?
Bencharongkul: UCOM is selling technology, not manufacturing technology. We spend a lot of money on a) having good marketing programmes - with people knowing about our products that we represent from overseas; b) cellular phone services; and c) on training as well. In our line of business, we do not have costly R&D.
Auw: What is your business strategy for the next five years?
Bencharongkul: Next three, six and twelve months are very important. I think a year is already a long-term, because with the internet and the introduction of different new technologies, the world is changing very fast. There would be a WAP phone this year in Thailand, which they called GPRS, which is not yet a true internet mobile phone, but what they called 'a two-and-a half generation'. It would work like a mobile internet, having different gateways; different from PC. You'd have to create a new portal for the mobile phone, and these things would change every minute in life. So, you can't plan longer than a year and every year will be very different - on this, I guess many companies in the world would agree with me. Monthly reviews on your short-term plans would be important. Of course, we would still set plans for one year, two years, three years, but no one would commit numbers. Even visions have to be changed. We don't know the actual impact internet would have on our customers every year; things move so fast.
Auw: You said you have seen some entrepreneurs doing something like selling fish-balls, sandwiches, etc. - things which have no relations to their professions. Why did they do such side-line businesses, when they should make use of what they have learnt in their life and apply it?
Bencharongkul: Some of these entrepreneurs were in the finance sectors, which collapsed, but I applauded these people, because that's all they knew all their lives. They were strong enough to take the initiatives to survive, and didn't care standing in the streets selling sandwiches, when previously they were big bosses in the company.
Auw: But people say these should not be regarded as disasters. In fact, they could turn them into opportunities.
Bencharongkul: Of course, there are different strokes for different folks. All through my troubled years, I had been thinking of what people said that in the midst of problems and difficulties, there would be opportunities. But for three years, I hadn't been able to see anything really, even though I had been thinking and thinking hard of what to do best.
Auw: But I am sure there are opportunities in life if you care to find them, they will be there, like the Chinese from China after the Second World War. In fact, for most of the Chinese in Hong Kong, their ancestors have come from Mainland China. After the war, they came with nothing in their hands, and yet they have started Hong Kong, and are still building it up. I am sure there must be opportunity everywhere.
Bencharongkul: You have to have a will to survive and to fight, then you will have opportunities, because if you look hard enough, there will be opportunities. Never give up, because giving up means that you are already defeated.
I have some friends who had given me some posters with mottos on them, which I've lost, but I could remember parts of them which said that 'Those who went to wars and lost would be better persons than those who never did go to war and sat back to wonder what it's like to win or to lose.'
Auw: It refers to the importance of experience, right? They say: 'It is better to have experience though losing in it, than not to experience anything at all, just sitting back and relaxing, not going through anything, or simply wasting time.'
Bencharongkul: Many people in the history were like that. Some people are never successful, though they have tried all their lives. I guest it boils down to what is reality, doing it and continuing to fight and survive as the world goes round.
Auw: Do you have the ambition of Julius Caesar of conquering the world?
Bencharongkul: Never. I would like to see a happy world where everyone shares resources, lives peacefully, without differences of colours, religions, or boundaries - people should not hurt one another. Everyone is born equal. There should not be revenges either. Everyone should have his opportunity if he tries hard enough. No human being should have the right to hurt, nor take advantage of another person. We are all born pure and innocent. The environment will protect us. I have seen paradise in bad places. I am quite contented with life. If you are a conqueror, you must be cruel. I don't admire conquerors, but survivors and caring people.
Auw: What is your motto in life, that you would always remember when you are discouraged, or still looking for an answer?
Bencharongkul: I have, particularly after my father died, found something. Before, I have many different wishes like any normal human being, but desires in life change as you go through different stages in life. After my father died, I realised one thing that he had left not the money nor the wealth, but he had left a good example and a good deed, which was much more than any other assets he could leave us with. His goodness opened doors for many different opportunities for his children. Many doors were opened. People greeted us with great smiles, saying how much they had loved our father, or were very close to him, and welcomed us to talk to them about business opportunities. Many have helped me up to this date. I owed a lot to my father. I would say 80% of my success are owed to those who have loved my father, without asking anything in return. The rest were to my mum (Khun Kanchana), who was a very strong woman, who would stand up and fight. Nothing could scare her. She had a strong will to live and taught us to be strong, too, to face challenges, uncertainties, etc. After all, life has many facets determined by our fate.
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IN CLOSING, I would like to thank Khun Boonchai for taking the time out to share with us, which encouraged us very much.