Thai tycoons creating U.S. jobs through investments

Although all but unknown to most Americans, several Thai business tycoons who are household names in the Kingdom have been quietly creating thousands of jobs in the United States by investing in or acquiring U.S. companies such as Red Lobster, Dean and DeLuca and Chicken of the Sea in purchases that demonstrate the growing global prowess of Thailand’s top businesspeople.

“We are ready to open another 20 [Dean and DeLuca] stores in five major U.S. cities this year,’’ said Sorapoj Techakraisri, chief executive officer of Bangkok-based Pace Development, in an interview with Monocle magazine. The 38-year-old tycoon bought Dean and DeLuca for $140 million in 2015.

With just 11 stores in the U.S. at the time of the acquisition, Sorapoj said he plans to expand aggressively and open hundreds across America, creating jobs in the process, in addition to bringing the brand to more locations around the world.
Sorapoj is one of a new breed of top-level Thai executives who have been taking their Thailand-based businesses abroad, either through expansions, partnerships or acquisitions. Prior to the economic crisis of the late 1990s, most Thai business owners were content to rely on the domestic market for growth, as the economy was one of the fastest growing in the world.

But in recent years, the ride has been rockier and economic growth has slowed to more modest levels. Consequently, the more cash-rich and dynamic companies have begun looking abroad as a means of sustaining vibrant growth, returns on investment and competitiveness.

One company that typifies the arc of this trend is Thai Union, one of the world’s largest seafood companies. In 1997, its CEO Thiraphong Chansiri bought Chicken of the Sea from its American owner because the famed tuna brand was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was a bold and ambitious move as he had only been running the company for three years, having taken over from his father.

Since then, Thai Union also purchased several European seafood brands such as John West. Just last year, Thai Union bought a large stake in Red Lobster, the U.S. restaurant chain that is the largest seafood restaurant chain the world. He is mulling over whether or not to buy the whole company.

For those concerned about foreign firms taking over American businesses, Monocle wrote that, “From the beginning of Thai Union’s buying spree two decades ago it has been more corporate savior than corporate raider. After it acquired France’s MW Brands for $833 million, the French ambassador presented Thiraphong with the Legion d’honneur.”

Thiraphong said his company’s investments and acquisitions should not be viewed as any kind of threat. “We’re not private equity, we are not a hedge fund,” he told Monocle. “We are a seafood company and this is our life.”

And by keeping brands such as Chicken of the Sea and Red Lobster afloat with investments and acquisitions, Thailand’s tycoons are helping to create brighter horizons for American workers and the U.S. economy.