AP Honda's veep ready to ride into the Thai sunset
Suchart Arunsaengroj looks back on his decades of work with the top-selling Japanese motorcycle maker
September is Suchart Arunsaengroj's last month as vice-president of AP Honda, the local sales unit for Honda motorcycles, before his retirement.
At age 58, Suchart-san, as his colleagues call him in the Japanese style, can look back at many achievements for AP Honda in the past 33 years. One of his biggest was to increase market share for Honda bikes in Thailand.
Honda has enjoyed the largest share of the local motorcycle market for 30 years straight, and the company expects to maintain market leadership in Thailand.
In 2018, Honda had a market share of 78.5% for motorcycles sold in Thailand, while chief rival Yamaha had a 15.1% share.
The country's motorcycle market in 2018 saw 1.79 million units sold, with Honda selling 1.4 million.
"It was unexpected to work at AP Honda for such a long period," Mr Suchart says, "but I have learned a lot from this company: Japanese attitude, teamwork and organisational DNA."
As a young man, Mr Suchart decided to further his education in Tokyo using his own funds on a two-year study plan.
"My parents did not have much money to pay for my tuition fees, so I had to support all overseas expenses by myself," he says. "I personally wondered why Japan recovered so surprisingly as a developed country after waving the white flag in World War II in 1945."
Thai people in the early 1980s drew inspiration from Japanese influence in cartoons (anime) and movies while embracing home appliances, motorcycles and cars from Japanese brands.
"So Japan was my final choice for studying abroad, unlike other popular destinations for Thai students 40 years ago like the United States, the Philippines and India," Mr Suchart says. "I had some cash to start my short-term life there, then caught a flight to Japan with a communication level of Japanese language from school, but zero level of the Tokyo map.
"I was just 19 years old, without fear of leaving my home country, and all obstacles that I faced were fun experiences and challenges."
He says he was fortunate to meet Thai people in Tokyo, helping him to land a part-time job (arubaito) in a restaurant.
"I lived in Shinjuku for a year, then I advanced to a second year of study for which I needed more money, so I had to switch to a higher-paid arubaito at a newspaper press. I studied hard from 8am to 2pm, hit the basketball club, went home to take a nap and went to the night arubaito from 10pm to 4am."
It was a tough routine. After finishing the second year, he received a diploma in 1984.
"My basic interest is doing marketing, which is what I graduated in," Mr Suchart says. "After moving back to Thailand, I started to out as a trader of ready-to-eat fruits."
He bought two carts, sought cheap fruits from the Mahanak market and hired two boys to sell the fruit on footpaths near Hua Lamphong station.
"It was my first marketing activity as a trader, gaining a good margin of 3,000 baht per cart, then I thought I might have 100 carts," he says. "But it dawned on me that it was the street hawking that messed the city up because I saw such cleanliness in Tokyo, so I could not carry on with the business."
Mr Suchart shifted into snack trading, buying wholesale snacks and dividing them into small packs for sale at one baht each.
"Then I had to suffer the price hike from wholesalers who started later to sell small-pack snacks themselves," he says. "It was too aggressive to compete with them, as I was just a small distributor."
Mr Suchart applied at AP Honda after seeing a job posting in a newspaper. He was eager to learn more about marketing and the big picture of business from a large corporation.
"I was accepted at AP Honda to start my first salaried job in 1986, something I never planned," he says. "I originally aimed to work roughly two years for the company, and the first department I worked for was product planning."
Mr Suchart was vaguely aware that Honda was a quality motorcycle from Japan, but the brand's reputation in the Thai market before the 1990s was surprisingly poor.
"One of the duties of the product planning department was a marketing survey of Thai bikers," he says. "I found that many Thais did not like Honda motorcycles because their looks were outdated and the engines did not produce high enough speeds."
Honda aimed to make more motorcycles in the market, so the product planning department conducted further surveys and held focus groups to find out what Thai riders were after.
During 1986-88, the motorcycle market in Thailand stood at roughly 200,000 bikes sold annually. Honda was in third place with a 22% market share. Japanese rivals Yamaha and Kawasaki were the market leaders.
"I had to travel alone to many provinces to conduct marketing surveys," Mr Suchart says. "Sometimes I stood at local intersections to count the motorcycle brands and record them. I had many difficulties during the two-year survey, but it was fun and exciting. I analysed all the findings, consulted with R&D and checked out mock-up bikes in Japan."
Ultimately, in 1989, the Nova was born. The two-stroke bike marked the turning point in Thailand for Honda, which achieved the largest market share that year.
"Honda expected only 2,000-3,000 units sold in a month, but sales were 10,000 bikes," Mr Suchart says. "Our marketing survey was the right method. If Thais love to eat noodle soup, Honda has to make this dish for them."
After that, Honda used the method to develop other models -- Dream, Wave, Sonic and NSR -- for the Thai market.
Another fork in the road came in 1997. Honda Motor's president announced that the motorcycle plant in Lat Krabang had to end production of two-stroke bikes and shift to four-stroke models within three years.
The four-stroke engines had lower emissions and consumed less fuel.
"I disagreed initially because AP Honda had just succeeded in selling the Nova series, but we had to commit to this business plan and conduct marketing research again," Mr Suchart says. "It was coincidence that Thailand's financial crisis hit in 1997, and the four-stroke models like Dream and Wave became popular because many Thais had to tighten their belts after the crisis, so fuel-saving vehicles were their first choice to buy."
The success of Honda motorcycles in Thailand brought Mr Suchart experience in other departments, including sales, promotion and advertising. He was assigned to help other Honda markets in Southeast Asia after a stint in Tokyo during 2002-05.
Giving benefits back
"I was glad to be a part of AP Honda's achievement after we bottomed out 30 years ago," Mr Suchart says. "But Honda could not take all the benefits from its success. It has to give back to locals and the society in keeping with the global company's philosophy.
"My personal attitude in terms of the motorcycle market was 'happiness to end-users' and 'benefits to dealers', but I added another one: 'advantages to societies'."
Mr Suchart says he always encourages Honda's distributors to adhere to the philosophy.
"Honda has many projects: road safety education, recycling used lubricants, sports campaigns," he says. "I initiated some sports campaigns that directly benefited Thai youths in remote provinces; for example, Honda ran a football competition for primary students."
He says the winners were not from competitive or famous teams, but rather selected based on individual ability from many students nationwide. They got to fly to Britain for short-term training.
Another project was a 31-leg walk and run competition at the student level, adapted from a Japanese race.
"This race can foster teamwork and a unified mindset for Thai youth, and I want to support good attitudes and habits for students when they grow up," Mr Suchart says.
Through these actions, he says, AP Honda has been a part of changing Thai society for the better.
- Vocational certificate, Bophit Phimuk Campus (now Rajamangala University of Technology Rattanakosin Bophit Phimuk Chakkrawat Campus)
- Diploma, Sangyo Noritsu Tanki Daigaku (now Sanno University)
- 2016-19: Vice-president, AP Honda
- 2011-15: Director, AP Honda 2006-10: General manager for sales, AP Honda
- 2005-06: General manager for business planning of Asian Honda
- 2002-05: Honda Motor in Tokyo
- 1999-2001: General manager for sales promotion, AP Honda
- 1992-98: Manager for product planning, AP Honda
- 1987-91: Assistant manager for product planning, Honda R&D Southeast Asia
- 1986-87: Ocer in the product planning department, AP Honda
Married with two sons
Basketball, golf, watching movies and TV shows