Thai at heart

Thai at heart

Singaporean executive Raymond Han makes the most of life in his adopted second home, where he helps steer the fortunes of Patra Porcelain.

Raymond Han, deputy managing director of Patra Porcelain SUPPLIED
Raymond Han, deputy managing director of Patra Porcelain SUPPLIED

Born and bred in the city-state, Raymond Han is 100% Singaporean. But his bond to Thailand goes deep, spanning almost two decades. It has led him to where he is now as a top executive of Patra Porcelain, which has been making some of the country's best-known products since 1982.

Work first brought Mr Han to the Land of Smiles in 2004 when he was with Heineken -- known as Asia Pacific Breweries then. "I was the one who was in charge of the launch of Tiger beer in Thailand," he recalls.

After 12 years as a commercial director, Mr Han decided to take a sabbatical and do something away from business. "I wanted to stop and recharge and also to use the time to give back to society a little bit."

He came back to Thailand and worked as counsellor in a hospital. "I worked there for almost six months for nothing. It was really tough but it was very fulfilling." he says.

"You go home knowing you have helped someone to get back on their feet. Going to a hospital is not easy. Sometimes it's not only the patient but the caregiver, so we need to give them the support as well," the 54-year-old executive tells Asia Focus via Zoom from Patra's Bangkok office.

He resumed his career in the beverage industry by joining Diageo, the British multinational known for Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff. Mr Han remembers how he was sold after being told the job was in Thailand -- "without hesitation, I jumped into it."

Three years later when the company wanted him back in his hometown, "I didn't want to go," he says. He stayed and decided to do consulting for the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and a few other companies.

Another client was Talaad Thai, the biggest wholesale market for agricultural products in Southeast Asia, owned by tycoon Pradit Phataraprasit, who also owns Patra Porcelain. The two hit it off and he asked Mr Han to join the company, where he is now deputy managing director.

Mr Pradit, a lover of fine ceramics, founded the company nearly four decades ago. In its first 10 years it produced stoneware products under the Patra Ceramics brand. It was then renamed Patra Porcelain, focusing more on porcelain and bone china.

Patra has two world leaders as long-time strategic partners. Nikko, a 113-year-old Japanese ceramics manufacturer helped set up the factory in Saraburi province initially. Royal Copenhagen, a famed 276-year-old Danish manufacturer of porcelain products, has a joint manufacturing arrangement with the Thai company.

Like other companies, Patra has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, "I would say we were lucky in some sense because 80% of our products are exported," says Mr Han, adding that its main markets were in Europe and the United States.

Early last year, President Donald Trump was still referring to Covid as "a flu" and business in the US was going as usual. "We were less affected in the US in the first half of 2020," recalls Mr Han. At the same time, Europe was badly hit as it struggled to contain the virus.

"Our sales were down but we were able to balance a little bit," he says. Later, in the second half of last year, "things were the other way around".

That's when infections began to surge in the US surged and lockdowns were put in place. Meanwhile, European countries has adapted, with working from home and dining in resulting in higher demand for home products, influencing the tableware market.

"Our retail segment in Europe was climbing up the roof," says Mr Han, "It was even better than pre-Covid levels … but of course, we were still behind (overall) compared to 2019."

Covid has been a global crisis, but Mr Han tries to look at it from another angle as well. "I like to use the Chinese word for crisis -- wei ji -- which actually means opportunity in a crisis.

"In the past, we were too busy doing a lot of things, so we didn't have time to do anything," he says. As a result, the Patra management team tried to use the crisis "efficiently (and) effectively".

The team sat down together and strategised to prepare for the new normal. "Let's drill down into our operations and see what was good and what could be improved in our processes," he recalls thinking.

Examples from Patra's Topia collection of porcelain ware. SUPPLIED

LEARNING THE PROCESS

Mr Han spent three days in a factory when he first joined Patra learning how each process of porcelain manufacturing works -- "I want to be someone that knows what they're doing rather than just give instructions."

There are four main types of ceramic products: earthenware, stoneware, porcelain and bone china. Patra's porcelain and bone china are known for their whiteness, durability and silky smooth glazed surface.

Porcelain looks as white as bone china at a glance from someone outside the industry. Both have clay as their main ingredient but there is one component that distinguishes one from the other: bone ash.

Mr Han eagerly explains that by typical standards, bone china contains at least 40% bone ash from cows, but the ratio at Patra is 48%, resulting in translucency that makes the products more expensive and premium.

The raw material is both imported and locally sourced. "We place a high priority and importance on the raw material we use," he says, adding that only top-grade, above-standard quality material is allowed.

More than 10 components in all are precisely weighed and mixed in large barrels to create a slip, or slurry clay. Excess water is extruded and the remaining clay is de-aired to create a workable, plastic stage. It later goes into an automated or semi-automated plate-making machine to achieve the desired shapes.

The unfired piece, known as greenware, then goes through its initial firing -- turning it into bisque ware. Then comes the stage of glazing which can be done by brushing, dipping, pouring, spraying or other techniques. Glaze can serve to colour, decorate and waterproof the ceramics. Then glazed bisque ware is fired again.

Sometimes a decal or gold lining is applied as final decoration, which also requires a third firing.

"Porcelain manufacturing is very different from manufacturing stainless steel or a car, which are fully automated" with results that can be expected, says Mr Han.

"Porcelain manufacturing can change every day. It depends on the weather. It depends on the person that is handling the product. It is one product that passes through a lot of hands so there's a lot of human intervention in the process."

"When things pass through many hands -- you need to have a lot of care and especially love," says Mr Han highlighting the hot and dusty working environment that can easily scare people away. Passion about the craft is thus essential for anyone who wants to stay.

These lengthy processes are strictly controlled to meet Patra's standards. Mr Han always tells his team members -- "I don't call them employees because I believe that we are all a team" -- to treat each section within the company as their customer.

"It becomes a chain within the company. Everybody has got a customer to take care of, not only the salesperson but everyone," he says. "You have to make sure that your customers are happy and if the customer complains then you have to handle it."

One of the challenges in porcelain manufacturing is design. Patra has two design teams: a pattern team that designs patterns and sometimes works with clients on customised designs for a plate.

Another team is in charge of design shapes which Mr Han described as "the most difficult part" and "a constant challenge" for designers in porcelain manufacturing. Because it does not want to become just a commodity, Patra needs to create something different from the rest of the market.

Instead of saying, "I want three plates, two bowls and one cup" to a designer, Mr Han challenges him by saying "I want something for … " salad, soup, noodles, because shapes don't necessarily come in a plate, they can be in various sizes and designs.

Examples from Patra's Topia collection of porcelain ware SUPPLIED

LEAVING A LEGACY

Patra today has a footprint in over 40 countries, but Denmark is its biggest market given its partnership with Royal Copenhagen -- "if you can produce Royal Copenhagen you must be good," says Mr Han. Other important markets include Switzerland, the UK and Italy.

Mr Han acknowledges that Patra is not big in every market it has entered. "That's primarily because there is a lot of competition from other brands, especially those from China that are low-quality but very cheap."

"Sometimes the selling price (of Chinese products) is lower than my cost price," he quips. But what keeps Patra going is the belief in the products from the customers.

As a foreigner living in Thailand for a long time, Mr Han says "there's something special about Thailand". One example he observes is that Thai people use the word jai, which means heart, in so many ways. "I can easily think of 50 words starting and ending with the word jai," he says.

"Even tad sin jai, how come you use your heart to make a decision, not your head," Mr Han says while pointing at his temple. It means Thai people use a lot of heart to express a lot of things including emotion, respect, and a spirit of doing business, he says.

The fascination with Thai culture and the way of living has motivated Patra to announce a new tableware series collection that will be released in the fourth quarter of this year.

"There is a certain charm in Thailand that we need to do more to introduce to the world," says Mr Han. This determination is combined with another purpose: creating something that is unique to Patra.

"This special collection will be a full range of tableware designed with emotional elements and conduciveness to Thai food," he says.

"I'm very passionate about this country. That's why I hope my legacy in this company will be to have something long-lasting, not only for Patra but for Thailand."

Patra strives to do business based on its philosophy which consists of people, productivity, partner, and the planet. "To put it honestly, in porcelain manufacturing it's quite a big challenge to be environmentally 100% renewable and sustainable," acknowledges Mr Han.

The process involves a lot of natural resources such as clay and gas. The firing process requires a lot of gas consumption because the products need to be fired at a very high temperature (up to 1,350 degrees Celsius) and it has to be done up to three times.

Patra is trying to do the right thing from the ground up, he says. "We talk to our suppliers first and see how environmentally friendly they are from the raw materials all the way to the packaging.

"We are also pressured by our customers, especially from the West," who demand that manufacturers meet not only environmental but also human rights laws and standards. "Every other month, I would have an auditor from somewhere auditing our factory," notes Mr Han.

Patra has committed to the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI), the European standard to improve social performance across the supply chain. It is also certified for the international ISO 45001 and 9001 standards for safety and quality management systems respectively.

Examples from Patra's Topia collection of porcelain ware SUPPLIED

'NOT A BOSS'

When Mr Han and his colleagues got together last year to re-strategise, one of the plans they made was to focus more on training team members. "We will incentivise people because we believe that team members are the main assets of the organisation, not the product," he says.

Every year, the company sets training targets for all departments, especially in the production process. Necessary skills are listed, along with the step by step training required. "I'm actually very strict on that."

Safety is a priority concern. Production team members require tremendous skill and practice to manage tasks such as automated and manual glazing, applying a decal to a plate or working with gold lining, so both instruction and on-the-job training are crucial.

"We always want to train and retrain them and upskill them. … If they are already upskilled, the next step is to be multi-skilled so they can go into different departments and add value to what they are doing and learn something new every day."

In the office, staff take part in different workshops including social media training. One thing Mr Han wishes he had more time to do is coaching, which can be as simple as reviewing emails together.

In his view, failure is sometimes preferred over success because people learn more from failures. "If you are always having constant success, you think you are so good then you never learn things," he says.

"I always tell my team 'Go try it, be daring.'" If they fail? "Mai pen rai. We do it again."

One big challenge, he acknowledges, is getting people to speak up. "Please, please, please, do not treat me like a boss," says Mr Han. "Whatever I say doesn't mean it's a command.

"Sometimes I need people to challenge back and say, 'Hey, this might not work' or 'should we do it in another way?' I prefer the team coming together. One head is definitely not better than many."

Whether in the office or the factory, he always speaks Thai -- mostly learned from lakorn, he says -- so that he can be more approachable.

Away from work, "I can be a quite a boring person," he jokes. "I can tell you I don't like walking around window shopping." Being a homebody, Mr Han likes to watch TV, listen to music and catch up with a little bit of reading.

He very much enjoys cooking, especially on weekends. His signature dish is "definitely not Thai food" because Thai cuisine has so many ingredients that it's so intricate. So he opts for something familiar such as Western and Chinese food and "my own version of certain things".

His comfort food depends on the mood of the day. It can be as easy and simple as slices of bread or a bowl of porridge because the ingredients are changeable depending on what's in the fridge.

Mr Han is also a coffee lover. Cafe hopping is his choice when going out. "I can spend two hours sitting in a coffee shop and enjoying their environment." Sometimes he goes to restaurants, which could be anything from a Michelin star establishment to a street stall to delight his taste buds with different cuisine.

Flying used to be one thing he hated but now he misses it. His last air trip was in February last year. As international flights are starting to resume, "I would like to go home to meet my parents, my family, and my friends", he says.

Mr Han will have to catch up with Patra's business partners as well. "A Zoom meeting can only so do much, he says. "It cannot replace a face-to-face interaction. You get to meet the real person rather than seeing someone on the screen, and you can have a meal together. You get things done a lot more."

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