Values in Thai People and Business
Aloke Lohia, founder and Group CEO of Indorama Ventures PCL, a Thailand-based global petrochemical producer and manufacturer of wool yarns, spoke to HQ Asia about insights — drawn from over 30 years of experience working in Thailand — into the Thai national culture, work culture and the future of businesses in a globalising world.
As the only Southeast Asian country never colonised by the West, Thailand has evolved a particularly strong national character and identity. For leaders in Thailand, this presents a unique situation when managing and doing business in this economy.
Thai Character Means Inclusivity
Lohia says that the Thai character is a “demeanour of strength”. Thailand has weathered economic hardships in the past, epitomised by the financial crises in 1997 and 2007, and Thai businesses and business owners have had to adapt and transform to keep afloat.
As Thailand has endured numerous military coups, the Thai people have adopted the notion of Mai Pen Rai, which roughly translates as, ‘not to worry, everything is okay’. However, do not mistake Thai workers for happy-go-lucky people. Though they have a calmness and patience that is a legacy of Thailand’s Buddhist influences, Thais demonstrate industriousness, detail-orientation and execution to perfection as well.
Although Thai people see their workmates as an extension of their family, it remains a hierarchical culture. “Once the leader has been selected, employees will respect the position and they will respect each other’s roles and responsibilities,” says Lohia.
A New Risk-Reward Equation in Family Businesses
Thailand’s recent tumultuous economic history has seen Thai businesses adapt and transform in a prudent manner. One outcome is that family-owned businesses in Thailand have become more risk-averse and do not take on debt, choosing to sacrifice the potential of rapid growth. The generation of leaders that came out of the two financial crises have “a certain risk-reward question in their mind,” says Lohia. They always consider whether the reward was worth the risk.
The next generation of family heads will need to differentiate their businesses in order to survive. “They may need to go international and produce speciality items,” says Lohia. He refers to three aspects that will greatly impact the next generation of leaders and change how businesses develop and what business models look like:
- The Internet creating a borderless world
- The pressure to compete for business within Thailand
- The impact of an international education and the networks it creates
In Cross-Border Exchanges, Show Rather Than Tell
“Leaders must deliver,” Lohia explains. “Thais depict themselves as low-profile, low-key and less aggressive, so they are wary of people who seem to over-promise or tend to oversell themselves.”
In addition to leading, delivery also matters to Thais. “Tell Thais what to do and show them how to do it, and they will follow it like a script. While productivity might be higher in places like India, the workforce [in Thailand] executes tasks perfectly,” says Lohia.
This perfect execution can lead to higher overall productivity. Lohia shares an example around the wool industry in Thailand and India. In both countries, workers are told that the machine spindles need to be oiled every 24 hours. In Thailand, the workers will oil the spindles daily. In India, the employee will grease the spindle on the first and second day, but on the third day, he will realise there is grease on the spindle, so he will stop greasing daily.
“[The Indian worker] is using his intelligence and trying to save the company money by not greasing the spindle,” says Lohia. However, as not greasing the spindle daily eventually lowers productivity, Lohia argues that the Thai attention to detail is more productive in the long run.
He also sees the same attention to detail with Thai administrative staff, and believes they would excel in a skills-based economy. “They are hardworking, educated and keen to learn.”
Overseas, But With a Return Ticket
Lohia predicts that Thai businesses will go overseas because the local market is limited. “How to compete in international markets and how to behave in international markets is something Thais want to learn,” he says. But while Lohia predicts that Thai professionals will cross borders for a global experience, he also recognises they are comfortable in their country. “They would like to go for the experience of living abroad for one to two years, but eventually they want to come back and stay in Thailand,” he explains.
Indorama Ventures PCL was one of the first Thai companies to enter the international market. Lohia advises local companies who wish to learn from Indorama Ventures to “think long term, show your partners in the Western world commitment and continue to strengthen that commitment; then you will be a success.” Thais, argues Lohia, demonstrate the above abilities, as well as patience, thoughtfulness and long-term thinking.