April 8, 2011

THAILAND: Theme park founder Chaiwat Luangamornlert, 74, recalls his formative experiences

BANGKOK / The Bangkok Post / Lifestyle / Family / April 8, 2011

Triumph of the fighting spirit

By Yvonne Bohwongprasert

Despite his advancing age veteran entrepreneur Chaiwat Luangamornlert recalls his childhood with exceptionally crystal clear vividness peppered with a good dose of humour to keep listeners entertained. The 74-year-old founder of Suan Siam theme park is a self-made man, who rose from rags to riches through sheer determination and a fighter's spirit.
"I come from a Chinese family of eight children and a hard-working pair of parents," mused the father of three.

"As long as my memory takes me I have had to work hard for my upkeep. We weren't really down in the dumps but certainly not rich, so at a young age I learned the value of money. My mother was the biggest influence in my life while I was growing up. She worked endlessly to see that we were clothed and fed. My father, on the other hand, was more low key and laid back, often surprising the cutest child among his brood with sweets and their favourite food."

As a young businessman Chaiwat Luangamornlert believed there was nothing he couldn’t do.

Chaiwat recalls days when the family had barely enough to eat. His mother purchased a kilogramme of rice daily to feed 11 members in the family, which apart from her children and husband, included a grandmother. Always a mother's helper, the budding businessman's fighting nature to dream big in spite of the odds stacked against him continued to be tested throughout his childhood. His well-meaning mother decided he stop his education after fourth grade despite his being given a shot at a higher education. Knitting his eyebrows while recollecting this painful chapter in his life, Chaiwat noted that in retrospect it was like his mother knew best.

"I was very hurt when my mother said that it would not be fair on my other siblings if I got to have a higher education than them," he said with emotion. "I still recall her words like they were told to me yesterday. She asked me what I would do with an education, because that would just mean that I would end up like the rest of them, an employee and not the owner. In fact, she never worked under anyone. In her own right, she was a self-made women. Throughout my life this had a profound effect on me.

"Another time my mother put her foot down to an opportunity that arose for me was when I was called on to do military service. Thai soldiers at the time were being recruited to fight in the Japan/Korea war. I thought the overseas exposure would be great to broaden my horizons, but my mother had other plans. She went in tears to plead with my superior, and I was taken off the list. Looking back, I know she did this because she loved me and was afraid I would die ."

Suan Siam theme park has been around for over 30 years

Chaiwat says personal attributes such as sincerity, loyalty and gratitude have always helped him to be in good standing with people who have put their trust in him. During his formative years, he worked odd jobs to supplement the income of the family, in turn forming in him a strong desire to succeed in whatever he put his mind to. At a young age, he knew the need to never refuse any type of work, no matter how menial or demanding. In his teen years, a day's work meant slogging for 18 hours. This schedule has continued into his adult life. Working endlessly was not so much out of dedication, he says, but need.

From washing dishes at the open air market to being a ticket collector on the Bangkok to Udorn Thani bus, he is proud to say that he has done it all.

"For one thing, it taught me to be resilient," he said.

"Some of the highlights of my work experience in my younger days includes transporting steamed fermented fish from Bangkok to neighbouring provinces. I was making a pittance for the long hours but it taught me a heck of a lot about camaraderie. The friendships that you form along the way work together as an alliance to benefit you in the long run. To keep my customers happy I used to work against the clock to get their deliveries on time.

"Then there was the time that I rented space in front of the shop of a Thai shopkeeper of Indian descent to ply second grade kitchenware. He played an instrumental role in bailing me out when I had a minor brush with the law over a financial transaction gone wrong.

"I have to admit that it was breeding exotic fish that gave me the opportunity to eventually launch my career as a property developer," said Chaiwat.

"Here again it was the trust and friendship of a marine biologist that helped me to start this fish farm. The investment was low and the know-how came from him. I was able to do very well for myself financially. Another friend who happened to be a radio DJ helped to promote my business free of charge."

The fourth-grade dropout with little English conversational skills says the hard knocks of life served him best with what he needed to become an accomplished merchant. His well-rounded entrepreneurial personality, combined with his reputation for being sincere and loyal, paved the way for him to rub shoulders with prominent businesmen.

Four decades later Chaiwat says he is proud of his accomplishment with Suan Siam. However, if he could do it all over again, he would probably not have invested everything in this family-run establishment.

"This business transaction has taken a heavy toll on me both financially and emotionally," he said. "I single-handedly decided to manage this huge investment by myself at a time when I was just 30-something. Now I realise that it was not a wise decision, but what the heck, at that age I felt I could've conquered the world alone!"

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