Business

Starting a business in the middle of a coup

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Media caption"It was very scary. We had bullet holes here," says aCommerce boss Paul Srivorakul

Trying to start a new business is tough. There are the long hours as you try to get it off the ground, the difficulties of trying to find enough money to fund it and then you have to convince customers to trust you.

But how about trying to establish a new firm in the midst of a coup? In a game of Top Trumps over who's had it hardest, Paul Srivorakul, founder and chief executive of aCommerce, would have an unbeatable hand.

He started his online retail logistics firm in 2013 in the midst of a period of dramatic instability in the country of his birth, Thailand. After months of political turmoil, the country's military seized control of the government and suspended the constitution.

The firm's Bangkok office was based near the very centre of the troubles in Lumpini Park, making for a terrifying start.

"It was very scary. We had bullet holes here. The coup was actually happening in Lumpini Park and we could see that from here and that was very challenging."

Image copyright Paula Bronstein, Getty Images
Image caption Thailand has had more coups than any other country in modern history

Despite the dangers, Mr Srivorakul decided to persevere with setting up the company, a gamble which paid off.

In fact, the company actually benefited from the precarious situation.

"People stayed at home. They didn't go out and shop. Therefore they did more e-commerce," he says.

Of course the troubles and their impact on Thailand weren't a good thing overall, he is quick to add.

And while the business appeared to be unusually resilient, Mr Srivorakul says the experience taught him the importance of not being dependent on just one area, particularly in a developing country where arguably the risks can be higher.

The firm now operates not just in Thailand, but also in other south-east Asian countries including the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia.

Its business too is diverse, with the broad aim of helping online retailers reach their customers, it does marketing and website building, as well as supply chain and logistics.

"We diversify by having other markets as well. So when there's an issue in one market, you minimise that risk," Mr Srivorakul says.

Image caption Narai Intertrade's Wasna Rungsanthong didn't make any ofher 4,000 staff redundant during the 2014 coup in Thailand

It's something that Wasna Rungsanthong, chief executive of Narai Intertrade, a chain of shops which makes the Naraya range of bags and has a chain of shops selling a variety of goods from handbags to kitchenware, knows well.

The firm, which she set up with her husband, now has 23 shops in Thailand and 14 in other countries.

Nonetheless the ongoing uncertainty in Thailand, which has had a staggering 12 military coups since 1932, more than any other country in modern history, still affects sales.

For her, one of the main risks is losing good staff during the turmoil. At the height of the recent troubles, the firm had no customers and as a result no work for their factories.

But it didn't make a single staff member redundant, instead continuing to employ and pay all 4,000 employees.

The loyalty shown by the firm to the staff meant they in turn were keen to help in keeping costs down. Little things such as remembering to turn off the lights, for example, and refusing to take additional payments for costs such as food and petrol helped to keep the firm's finances on an even keel.

"We will not make our staff afraid. If we can solve any problem we will do," she says.

For some businesses based in a sometimes unstable country, it's not just a matter of survival, but an opportunity to try and gain a competitive advantage.

Image copyright Paula Bronstein, Getty Images
Image caption The Siam Paragon shopping centre is one of the the biggest malls in Asia

Siam Piwat, a huge shopping mall and real estate enterprise in Thailand, has a policy of actively trying to invest and expand whenever there's turmoil in the country.

One of its properties is the vast Siam Paragon mall, one of the most talked about places on Facebook last year.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, chief executive Chadatip Chutrakul says it makes sense because it's the cheapest time to do so.

"All the construction costs will go down, and you know when we build it will take at least two or three years to complete. So by that time hopefully the economy would catch up, which it did every time."

Image copyright PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL, Getty Images
Image caption Thailand's economy has continued to grow in spite of its difficulties

In fact, despite the country's difficulties, growth in Thailand remains relatively robust. Gross domestic product grew 3.2% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2016, up unexpectedly from the previous quarter's 2.8% growth and despite significant exposure to China's slowing economy.

Ho Ren Hua, chief executive of Thai Wah Group, a large food products business with operations across Asia, credits Thailand's private companies for helping drive this growth.

He says the fact that they have largely continued as normal has helped drive the economy forward, while the ongoing volatility has forced firms to become more efficient.

"I think the role of the private sector to continue to help deliver economic growth, innovating new jobs and services, it's increasingly important, for the future of Thailand."

Chief executive coach Steve Tappin says that while all business leaders hate an uncertain environment, there's a lot that global business leaders can learn from how Thai bosses have handled it.

"Thailand is by far the only place where uncertainty is a big challenge - it's an issue that businesses everywhere are going have to get used to dealing with."

This feature is based on interviews by CEO coach and author Steve Tappin for the BBC's CEO Guru series, produced by Neil Koenig.

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