The atrium of the 20,000 square metres Boonthavorn showroom is a lush green open-aired space centred around a lively dancing fountain. It was here that we met Wiwat Thayanuwat, CEO and founder of this colossal and wildly successful home supply business. A spry gentleman in his early seventies, a smiling Wiwat greeted us, offered us refreshments, posed for our photographer, told a staff member to change locations of his favourite Charlie Chaplin mascot to face shoppers, as well as organised the location for our upcoming interview.
It was clear that this is a man in control and one very much still in charge.
“My peers all doubted me,” Wiwat explained of his first years selling tiles. “I am a graduate of Civil Engineering from Chulalongkorn University and here I was opening a business selling bathroom supplies, when all of my friends were working their way up the corporate or government ladder.”
Born to Chinese immigrant parents who ran a cement pipes and construction supply business, Wiwat knew at an early age that he was destined to join the family business.
“It was a matter of face and loyalty. My father said that he would close his construction factory and shop if I didn’t join. I had no choice, but I was terrified!”
“But after graduation, I realised that I didn’t want to be a merchant or a middleman, like my parents. They were essentially messengers delivering products and taking a commission. I had other ideas. As an engineer I understood the products, I studied building structures, I knew the skills required to build, I saw the big picture and not only that I saw through all the layers. I look at a house and don’t just see a wall and doors and windows, I see through it all. I realised that I was in a unique position, knowing what most merchants didn’t know, so we changed the Chinese name of my parents’ business to Boonthavorn a good strong name with much merit and I took it into a whole different direction.”
Wiwat opened the first Boonthavorn on Ngam Wong Wan Road in Bangkok, setting up the first tiles and toilet showroom in Thailand that actually had real mockups, a first in the country.
“Forty years ago western toilets and tiles were a luxury few could afford,” Wiwat explained. “In those days it would be the contractors and architects who would choose the products and often workers didn’t have the skills to install them properly. We started to offer training as well. We had showrooms for them to come and learn and study. We had examples set up so that actual clients could come and choose their preferred products. Today it is the end user who brings their architects or designers along with them to choose products.” This was revolutionary for its time and soon Boonthavorn took off.
“I started importing things that people hadn’t seen before,” he continued. “No one was offering such a full service. We would offer consultation, training, delivery as well as doing the job ourselves. I wanted the experience to be seamless. The way I saw it was that there is a headwater, the body of water and then the estuary. Instead of offering just one sector, we have covered the entire waterway.”
“My parents’ peers used to say that the crazy Chinese guy at Ngarm Wong Warn wouldn’t last six months!” he grinned, acknowledging that he turned the industry onto its head.
Boonthavorn consistently stayed ahead of the curve, being the first business of its kind to use computer technology in 1990. It was around then that Wiwat truly pushed for growth, integrating not just new technology, but new staff and ideas. “I must admit that my background helped. I had many connections in the industry and my education was a big plus. I maintained my high standards. I made sure I was always open to new ideas and the big picture.”
Today, Boonthavorn has ten branches all over Thailand and employs over 4,000 people. The fully accredited Boonthavorn Technology College was founded five years ago for over 100 students a year to gain diplomas, as well as career paths. Retired employees are not neglected at Boonthavorn either, as Wiwat has now set up a training system to teach expert employees in their field, upon retirement, how to become speakers.
So now students who are enrolled at Boonthavorn College are also taught by retired Boonthavorn staff, amongst other professionals. Apart from its college, it also provides housing for hundreds of employees, often rotating staff from branch to branch so that they can learn the entire business and hone their skills. Boonthavorn is the largest importer of tiles in Thailand as well as being the rep for some of the biggest and best brand names in the industry.
As the business grew, new partners were bought in so that they could expand, and now network companies under the Boonthavorn umbrella includes construction, design, architecture, transportation, logistics, warehousing and many more.
“I am most proud of myself for having become an integrated businessman, rather than just a merchant. I was afraid that when I graduated I would be selling toilets,” he chuckled, then points to a range of luxury imported toilets behind us self depreciatingly, “I suppose I still am!”
It took many years, but all the detractors have now come around. Friends who were disappointed in Wiwat for many decades for opening shop rather than joining a firm, now concede that he took the right path, and one of his numerous awards and recognitions, and one which means the most to him is when he received the Best Engineer award from his alma mater, Chulalongkorn University, in 2007.
We sit in plush leather sofas looking out through a floor to ceiling glass window onto a large garden with water features and swaying trees to the green mountains beyond.
“That garden sits on 42 rai of land, it is for my staff as well as for the local community. I believe in treasuring the environment, it is very important to me. This land will never be developed. We are using nature’s resource and we must understand that it is finite. I am beginning to use solar panels, our water system in the garden, which has an actual natural stream running through it, is fully integrated with our own system and we have created ponds and reservoirs to manage our water resource. We can’t just live in the present, we must help preserve the future.”
Since building Boonthavorn in Chiang Mai, which opened last year, Wiwat has fallen in love with Chiang Mai and made it his home, having bought a plot of land nearby where he built his house — a complete Boonthavorn product, naturally.
“I have set aside 15 rai of land on my property for the neighbourhood,” he explained. “They can use it for community meetings and events, picnics in the garden, or for exercise in the mornings and evenings. I am a very independent person and a jogger, I’ve run many marathons. I don’t allow society to take me away, so I spend most of my time with my family and doing what I like.”
What the 71 year old CEO likes is taking a walk up Doi Suthep when the mood strikes.
“I am saturated,” he smiles. “I have everything. I have education, success, a good family with three sons who are all working in the business and so it is time for me to give back. I believe that good ideas are unlimited and I still have many ideas to come, so watch out for us in the future, there will be some exciting developments.”