Khmer Times had a question and answer session with maverick Thai investor, Dr. Supachai Veerapuchong, whose investments in Cambodia range from luxury hotels and golf courses to pharmaceuticals and drinking water. We delved into his investments, his driving energy and belief in the country and on his investments. The following are excerpts from that interview.
What brought you to Cambodia?
Supachai: I first arrived in Cambodia in October 1991, when the Thai Government under General Chatchai Choonhavan declared the policy to ‘’Change the Battlefield to Marketplace”, to expand my father’s Thai Nakorn Patana Company (producer and seller of medicine) to neighboring countries. Cambodia in 1991 was completely different from today. Phnom Penh had no water, electricity, telephones and not even a single private car. Cambodians were just starting to return to find work in Phnom Penh.
I remember fondly the first time Khunying Pankrua Yongchaiyudh (wife of then Army Commander-in-Chief General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh) introduced me to Samdech Techo Prime Minister and Samdech Kitti Prithbandit Bun Rany Hun Sen. Khunying Pankrua asked Samdech Techo PM to kindly treat me as their family member. At that time, I had given them a promise that I would make investment in Cambodia to change the face of the country, by strictly adhering to good corporate governance and integrity. I also remember that it was Samdech Tea Banh who kindly gave me accommodation for three months.
What was your first business in Cambodia and how has it grown over the decades?
Supachai: My first business in Cambodia began in 1992, when the Ministry of Health gave approval to establish Thai Nakorn Patana Co. in Cambodia.
That same year I also received permission from Samdech Tea Banh to rent a piece of ‘26 August’ land on Sothearos Boulevard along the Bassac River, which eventually became the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel to accommodate foreign investors and diplomats and to develop the hospitality business in Cambodia. In 2010, the hotel was rebuilt as the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra.
In 1996 I signed a contract to rent a 6-hectare piece of land adjacent to the road leading to Angkor Wat. In late 1999, Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort, with collaboration of Accor Group, was completed and inaugurated with Samdech Techo Prime Minister and Samdech Kittiprithbandit Bun Rany Hun Sen in attendance. At the inauguration, they suggested I open a country club too, and the Phokeethra Country Club was eventually opened in 2006.
In 2012 the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra was included in the golden list of Condé Nast and Travel & Leisure magazines, the top two world-leading travel magazines, and was listed in the top ten hotels in Southeast Asia. The Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort was also listed in the top twenty best resorts in the Asia-Pacific. All credit goes to the staff members of both hotels who had been working tirelessly to achieve such high honour and recognition from foreign tourists, contributing to Cambodia’s ability to offer world-standard hospitality service.
In the field of media, in 1995 my company received concession from the Ministry of National Defense to operate a TV broadcasting station, today known as Channel 5 Cambodia, a joint venture with Kantana Group in Thailand.
As for the food and beverages sector, we launched Lyyon bottled drinking water in 2007 and now have a joint venture with Srinanaporn Group to produce snacks under the brand of SC Food Products. Furthermore, in cooperation with MPP Group from Thailand, we are building one of the world’s largest ice factory with high production capability meeting all international standards.
What has the journey been like in all aspects, from business, to challenges, to spiritual, to building business and personal relations to your diversified interests, from business to sports?
Supachai: My vision is to play a part in building trust among the 5 Mekong Basin Countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam), in order to achieve our aspiration of creating an ASEAN Community with shared values and beliefs. Ever since I arrived in Cambodia on October 11, 1991, I dreamt that the Mekong basin countries will unite and work together for peace and stability under Buddhist guidelines.
Due to my experience as manager of a Football team in Thailand, I was invited by the Cambodian Ministry of National Defense to help manage the Cambodian Army Football Club. This was a great opportunity for me to give back to Cambodia and I was determined to manage the Cambodian Army FC using Buddhist virtues as a guiding light to elevate the players’ minds.
I believe that physical and spiritual development must go hand in hand. Players should always be mindful of what is happening around them to be in control of everything and not allow emotions to dictate their performance. Similarly, the youth in Mekong countries can use their wisdom, mindfulness and concentration to achieve many things.
Having the opportunity to be close to Cambodian leaders, I discussed with H.E. Mr. Hun Many, head of the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia (UYFC), the importance of educating the Cambodian youth to fully understand the basic teachings of Lord Buddha and develop a society that thinks and acts with virtue and integrity, being in control of their own emotions.
What advice would you give other Thai entrepreneurs who wish to enter Cambodia for business and investments?
Supachai: One has to know the countries in which one works. Foreign entrepreneurs have to understand Cambodia’s past and present. Cambodia is an open and welcoming society. I would advise them to do everything legally and with transparency. Being sincere and doing everything with good intention will form a safety net and good foundation for a sustainable business.
Entrepreneurs and investors should come to Cambodia to feel the pulse and dynamics. If their businesses face any unexpected problems, as businesses nearly always do, they should be there to solve problems without delay.
The population size in Cambodia makes it a good training ground for Thai entrepreneurs to test the market and add up their experience before exploring bigger markets. Sharing a long border and similar ways of thinking has proven to be advantage for Thai investors.
What would you say is your biggest achievement and also your most regrettable incident if there was one and if you were to look at it as a regret?
Supachai: I have no regrets investing in this country. Since I started my business in CLMV countries in 1991, I have spent almost 70% of my time in these countries and have visited almost every province in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. I have always conducted my businesses with righteousness and morality, regardless of political developments between these countries and Thailand.
During the Preah Vihear conflict, Samdech Techo Prime Minister explicitly asked Cambodians not to boycott Thai products or Thai investors, separating politics from business. Even when in conflict with other countries, the Cambodian leaders would stress that the businesspeople have nothing to do with the governments. This proves that Cambodian leaders give much importance to development and support foreign investors no matter where they are from.
Over how many countries do your businesses extend? Are they all in the same line of business?
Supachai: Thai Nakorn Patana Co. has been doing business in the Mekong countries for the past 30 years. Most of our investments are in Cambodia and Vietnam, and we have trading companies in Lao PDR and Myanmar to sell medicine from Thai Nakorn Patana Co. as well.
We are currently in the process of seeking license and approval to expand our medicine producing plant in Tuy Hoa province in Vietnam to an industrial zone in Ho Chi Minh City. It is expected that the construction of this new medicine producing plant could commence in early 2021. It will be one of the biggest medicine-producing plants in Vietnam.
Thai Nakorn Patana Co. has also been exporting its products to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Philippines via other trading companies without establishing our own trading company in these countries.
How have Thai-Cambodia business relations flourished over the years?
Supachai: Thai-Cambodian relations can be described as “tongue and teeth”. As we live next to each other, there could be occasions when we may get entangled in each other’s feelings that could lead to disputes and skirmishes.
At present, both countries enjoy the best state of bilateral relations. It would be ideal if the leaders, diplomats and armed forces of both countries could build upon this excellent foundation bearing in mind that we are friends and relatives.
My dream is that civil servants from every agency from both countries work together hand-in-hand to achieve prosperity.
What would be your legacy?
Supachai: In 1991 when I was ordained as a monk in India to seek merit for His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great, my fellow monks and I founded the Bodhigaya 980 Club which later developed itself into Bodhigayavijjalaya 980 Institute in Kushinagar, India to bring the teachings of Lord Buddha back to Suvarnabhumi (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam). After that, I was invited by the Head of Dhammaduta in India and Nepal to lead the committee for the restoration of Wat Thai Buddha Gaya in India. Later, H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn graciously presided over the groundbreaking ceremony to construct Bodhigayaavijalaya 980 Institute at Wat Thai Buddha Gaya.
Around six years ago, a meeting of Thai Ambassadors and Consuls-General to the CLMV countries in Siem Reap under the topic of Buddhist Diplomacy led to the start of the Dhamma Yatra project in the five Mekong countries. The project is a Buddhist pilgrimage programme for monks to travel continuously to the five Mekong countries with the support of each country’s government and Buddhist clergy. It was the first time that Laos and Vietnam allowed for Buddhist events organised by Buddhist organisation from outside the country. I have organised Dhamma Yatra among the five Mekong countries twice already and look forward to organising a third one next year once the pandemic is over. As a Buddhist, I seek to apply Buddhist principles to my businesses, so that my businesses will bring stability to the people and not do any harm to damage the country. My dream is to use Buddhist diplomacy as a means to unite all Mekong countries. I consider myself lucky to have established friendships in every Mekong country and received blessings and cooperation from all the Supreme Patriarchs of the five Mekong countries in these project. I believe that Buddhist Diplomacy will create stability and prosperity in the Mekong region and bring about sustainable development.
Kindly give us an insight into your spiritual journey.
Supachai: My life goal is to be a success in both worlds: a successful businessman in the material world and to accumulate virtue in the spiritual world for the long journey towards attaining enlightenment of nirvana when I cease to be stuck in the cycle of life and death.
From the first two Dhamma Yatras in the five Mekong countries, we performed a ceremony to pay respect to the divine beings at all levels that look after the human beings, including past monarchs that had reigned in the five Mekong countries with true beliefs in Buddhism as their guiding principles. I believe that the divine beings of the five Mekong countries also played their parts in the success of the first two Dhamma Yatras.
My dream of doing business in Cambodia is to see Cambodia return to its glory days like the time of Jayavarman VII under the leadership that embraces the four sublime states of mind which are loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity; a Cambodia where everyone is prosperous, while strictly adhering to Buddhist principles.