Apr 1, 2013

Thailand - Thai trade diplomat Vachara Panchet is bullish on Asean-China trade

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BUSINESSMAN, politician and trade diplomat Vachara Phanchet wastes little time on chit chat.

Minutes matter. There are only so many of those in a day and there are only so many days in a week and with a jam-packed schedule, wasting any of them is a crime. So when he calls, he gets right to the point.

“Time management is very important. Given that there are limited resources, you have to have a plan. It's about economies of scale and economies of speed.”

Phanchet is publicly known as a mover and shaker in Thailand's industrial and political landscape. But he is quite accessible, despite his stature within the Sittipol Group, one of Thailand's great conglomerates, and his past roles in the government and trade diplomacy.

In person, he cuts a neat figure, pushing forward his message clearly and deliberately. Over the phone, he speaks rapidly and shifts from topic to topic in rapid-fire staccato. In seconds, he shifts from the importance of free trade within South-East Asia to time management and the influence of Buddhism on his personal and professional life and how being part of a Chinese-Thai family has shaped his approach to business.

Less than five minutes later, he has to go but with a promise to speak again the next day. The process is repeated several times over.

Phanchet has only so much time to spare on short notice.

A single father with a daughter, businessman, politician and trade diplomat, he now splits his time between managing his role as chairman and CEO of the Sittipol Sales Group - a subsidiary of his family's business group focused on sales of Mitsubishi cars - and his multiple speaking engagements as chairman emeritus of the Pacific Basin Economic Council, a group of business leaders with interests in the Asia Pacific.

These days, he is spending a lot of time focusing on free trade within the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean). He is a vocal advocate of the free trade zone that will from 2015 cover all 10 countries in the bloc. And he is in a unique position to help pave the way for integration, at least as far as his native Thailand is concerned.

In 2004, when Thailand was going through the paces of legislating in its own Asean charter, Phanchet was a vice-minister and involved in pushing it forward.

Almost a decade later, he is more convinced than ever that stronger regional links and greater cooperation between Asean and China can only help all the countries involved. Speaking in January at the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong, he underlined the importance of these links by pointing out that “the dynamism and growth of the world now rest on China and Asean”.

With China increasingly active as a global investor, strong links between it and the upcoming Asean Economic Community can only help both, he says.

Trade between China and South-East Asia has been growing rapidly, often at 20% annually, to reach US$360bil last year.

At this rate, trade between Asean and China could reach US$500bil by 2015, just as the Asean Economic Community kicks off.

China is Thailand's second largest trading partner. Trade in 2011 hit US$64.7bil, up 22% for the year. According to Phanchet, the two economies “are very close” and the “trade relationship in the future is promising”.

“China and Thailand are sisters,” he says.

His own company has done business with China in the past and is currently looking for investment opportunities, particularly in real estate.

Easier and closer links between countries in Asean and between Asean and China would certainly not hurt his business, much of which involves trade out of Thailand. But he is clear in his belief that integration will help the entire region.

“You are not just a citizen of your country but also a part of Asean. You have to make it happen,” he says. “People know about Asean but we want to move beyond talking.”

Outgoing and hyperactive, he is aware that chance has played a significant role in his life and his ability to make a difference on a large scale.

Wealth, into which he was born, has given him access to a wide range of contacts and flexibility to take on a variety of roles along with the clout necessary to ensure his work is taken seriously. In the last two decades, Phanchet has shifted his focus several times from business to politics and trade diplomacy.

“I have everything. I have connections and I'm ready to use them,” he told The Nation newspaper in 2010 after organising an “Indian Business Night” and personally convincing five heads of top Thai conglomerates to attend.

This ability to combine his various roles and contacts and leverage them into concrete results is his trademark. His job, he says, is to serve three driving forces: The king, religion and people.

“Coming from a Chinese family, we were taught to be grateful to the motherland and the people.”

Educated in Thailand and the United States - he holds a degree from the Chulalongkorn University, an MBA from Miami University, and a PhD from Pacific Western University - he is as comfortable in the West as he is in the East. His family has made a fortune over the last three generations.

“My grandfather came from China to Thailand and he started with bicycles,” he explains.

Kanok Leeissaranukul and his wife Sopa started a small bicycle repair shop in 1919.

A few years later, Kanok became a distributor for Raleigh bicycles. Fast forward to 1961 and the company enters a partnership with Mitsubishi to make and distribute cars and trucks.

The group diversified from there.

Phanchet worked in the business through the 1980s and 1990s, helping expand its international footprint. Then he shifted his focus to politics.

In 2002 he stepped down as executive vice-president of MMC Sittipol and took over as president and CEO of Sittipol Sales Group, a joint venture between the Mitsubishi Group and the Sittipol Group. A decade later he is still at the head of the company but has also taken on a number of other roles.

In 1996, he became the youngest secretary-general of the Thai Chamber of Commerce at 35.

His focus shifted again, this time to trade diplomacy. He was a trade representative for two terms and served in government from 2003 to 2006. He chaired the Pacific Basin Economic Council and the Thai chapter of Young Presidents' Organisation (YPO).

“I am a little bit lucky to have had these duties to perform,” he says.

At 51, he is taking on new roles that utilise all of this experience.

He is pushing for greater integration among the 10 Asean members and is no newcomer to the issue.

He relies on an extensive network of contacts. His years as a board member and chair of YPO, for example, have given him access to a wide range of contacts and a powerful network.

“You need a driving force,” he says. “You cannot go it alone.”- China Daily

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