Founded in 1953, Thaisri Insurance celebrates its diamond jubilee next year, and approaching that milestone it can lay claim to being the only out of 60 or more such companies to have its headquarters outside Bangkok _ across the Chao Phraya on Thon Buri side of the river.
Its CEO Natee Panichewa takes Life down the memory lane on the humble beginnings of his family-run business that is poised to consolidate its place as a key player in Thailand's business sector.
The Panichewas are landed gentry of Thai-Chinese ancestry with origins in Suphan Buri province, and they are kin to the Srifuengfung family through Natee's paternal grandmother.
"My grandmother operated wood factories, rice mills and the Banglee market in Suphan Buri before forming an insurance business with her brother [Kiarti Srifuengfung], Boonsong Srifuengfung and Sombat Panichewa," said Natee, whose family received two insurance licenses more than half a century ago leading to the establishment of Thai Srinakorn Insurance and Warehouse Co Ltd.
"In those days it was a given that most insurance businesses had warehouses to store collateral such as rice or agricultural products against loans given to clients," he said.
There was a close business relationship between the Panichewas and the Rachakhru group, associated with former military strongmen Field Marshall Phibunsongkram, Gen Phin Choonhavan and Pol Gen Pao Sriyanon as such.
"The Rachakhru group played a role in the startup of Thai Srinakorn Insurance and Warehouse [Panichewa family, Rachakhru group and employees each owning a one-third stake] which my father served as the first managing director," said Natee of his father's role in bringing in Krung Thai bank as a major shareholder resulted in the name change of Thai Srinakorn to Krungthai Panich Insurance.
Today the Panichewas are heavily invested in industries such as plastics, soda-ash, construction, real estate, car rentals and salt production but have yet to consolidate their business empire.
"The way the business world has changed clearly puts focus on the service industry. Our problem is that we are too diversified but we have plans in the pipeline to consolidate our operations," said Natee.
Natee, who also is chairman of Unique Engineering and Construction Plc, was a car-buff from a very young age, "I always liked to watch people working on cars. Back then it was the old carburetor technology and engine tuning was done by listening to engine noise. That's incredible.
"I was the designated test driver of the family when it came to new cars. Actually by the age of 10 I already knew how to drive," admitted Natee who recalled several close calls involving automobile accidents which he survived. "I used to be reckless and I truly believe that every person has their own destiny. It just wasn't my time."
Natee, who read economics at Chulalongkorn University and earned a business degree from the US, served an apprenticeship _ as an assistant to his uncle, Sombat Panichewa. "I went to New York and it wasn't what I expected. Life was pretty harsh because it was a night-school master's degree programme for working executives. It wasn't until I moved to Texas that I was able to adjust with life in the US," said Natee, who also admitted to his passion for audio/stereo systems. "I'd drive five hours to Oklahoma just to listen the latest stereo equipment [lower sales tax when compared to Texas]."
Upon returning to Thailand Natee was given the unceremonious title of "secretary" to his uncle, which initially didn't go down well with Natee. "At first it wasn't what I expected but then I found out it was a great training experience because all important matters referred to my uncle passed through me. It was the best training," recalled Natee who was soon promoted to financial analyst as he steadily moved up the management ranks of his family business.
Natee's two-year stint in the US also resulted in a three-month romance that fetched him his wife, "My sister and my wife's elder sister were friends in college so we ended up going out together on various trips. We married after three months of courtship," said Natee whose wife's family operates Siam University and the Robinson piano school.
Natee concedes time is ripe to consolidate his family business, which includes over over 30 entities including insurance companies with over 15 billion baht in annual turnover. "I envision that our insurance business entering lifestyle segment, as a specialist with niche products and services without emphasising on volume."
That said, Natee's latest achievement has shifted to philanthropy in the guise of a 20- baht donation from every policy holder of Thaisri Insurance to charities that merit assistance. "It creates a sense of participation within the community. We can't live alone. Giving is happiness, the more we give, the more we receive."
What is your favourite car?
Bentley Continental GT and the Mercedes Benz SLS AMG.
Patek Philippe. The longer you wear it, the nicer it looks.
Favourite destination in Thailand?
Former Manchester United great George Best.
It used to be the Metropolitan at Gaysorn Plaza but now it is Calderozza at Lang Suan.
Favourite human being?
My wife (Pornsawan Panichewa).
The Sea Change.
What are you reading now?
Magazines on cars, food and home decoration.
I am content; perhaps seeing my children entering college and graduating counts as one of my greatest achievements.
If in charge of automotive policy, what would you do?
Focus on alternative energy sources instead of depending on oil imports and pollution problems.
About the author
- Writer: Alfred Tha Hla
Position: Motoring Reporter