Top business newsmakers of 2014

Top business newsmakers of 2014

Individuals and the NBTC found themselves thrust into the media spotlight this year, some unexpectedly

It must be said that Thailand itself became quite a newsmaker along its up-and-down ride throughout the Year of the Horse.

"Raw materials, talented people and money belong to Charoen Pokphand Group. It depends on how w can maximise benefits from them and whether those companies will let us in." — Dhanin Chearavanont, Chairman of Charoen Pokphand Group, referring to his company's international investment policy

Amid the months-long stories about political unrest, rallies and violence, a military coup and much more, several key figures stole headlines for their influential business and political moves, massive acquisitions or sudden infamous downfall.

The Bangkok Post has selected five newsmakers of the year for their dominant headlines including tycoons Dhanin Chearavanont and Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, whose business moves are always in the media limelight, and MR Pridiyathorn Devakula for his significant political role in the military government.

Two unanticipated newsmakers were Nopporn Suppipat, a billionaire businessman turned fugitive, and the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), which has frequently made headlines and come in for criticism and legal action along the rough road of the country's digital TV transition period.

Dhanin Chearavanont once proudly said, "Raw materials, talented people and money belong to Charoen Pokphand Group," an empire founded by himself. 

This is certainly not the first time that Mr Dhanin, Thailand's second-wealthiest man as ranked by Forbes magazine, has made the annual list of newsmakers. Last year, CP Group broke news with its record buys of cash-and-carry wholesaler Siam Makro for 188 billion baht and Chinese insurer Ping An.

Early this year, CP All Plc, a retail arm of CP Group, made headlines over speculation the company had been in talks with the major shareholder of a small bank, LH Bank, about a possible acquisition.

The question is why a giant retail business operator such as CP All, which runs 7-Eleven convenience stores and just added Siam Makro to its stable, would want to purchase a small bank. The market believes where there's smoke, there's fire.  

The chatter about LH Bank was toned down when news reports about the ailing British retailer Tesco Plc came out, stressing its urgent need to sell off Asian assets and shore up its finances.

CP Group was named as one of three major Thai retailers said to have expressed an interest in buying Tesco's assets in Asia. The two others are Central Group, owned by the Chirathivat family (Thailand's wealthiest, according to Forbes), and Thai Beverage (ThaiBev), owned by Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi.

Tesco Lotus, which grew out of the former Lotus chain founded by CP Group, was eventually sold to Britain's Tesco during the 1997 financial crisis.

Rumours swirled until Mr Dhanin broke his silence for the first time in a year.

While he denied Tesco in Thailand was a done deal, he confirmed the rumours.

As Mr Dhanin put it at a much-talked-about press conference: "I'd take the opportunity to buy anything if it had potential and a good price."

He said he was interested in buying Tesco if it were put up for sale, likening the hypermarket to his "baby". In his view, however, Britain may decline to sell its most profitable Thai operation and instead seek loans from financial institutions.

Regarding LH Bank, Mr Dhanin confirmed there had been negotiations but said nothing had been finalised.

His message calmed the market but prompted questions about CP Group's financial readiness after its huge acquisitions a year earlier.

With no deals done, speculation is likely to carry on into the new year. And it will be no surprise to see Mr Dhanin, a 75-year-old tycoon, top the newsmakers list again in 2015.

Liquor tycoon Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi's buying frenzy seems unquenchable.

Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi

In almost every month of 2014, he stole news headlines with his acquisition deals, be they land plots at Bangkok's prime riverside locations or beverage and retail firms inside Thailand and beyond.

Some of his purchases of riverfront plots were from firms he himself controls. Another Charoen-controlled enterprise, SET-listed Berli Jucker Plc (BJC), sealed a deal in August to buy out German retailer Metro AG's cash-and-carry unit in Vietnam for €655 million (26.3 billion baht). The move was aimed at strengthening BJC's business and operations across Asean.

At home in the same month, a consortium led by Mr Charoen was awarded a lease by the Crown Property Bureau to develop a sought-after central Bangkok location, the site of the former pre-cadet school on the corner of Rama IV and Wireless roads, into a new landmark.

The lease is for 30 years with an option to renew for an additional 30 years. The value of the deal was not disclosed.

The consortium of Univentures Plc and TCC Assets (Thailand) has come up with a comprehensive development plan for the 90-rai site.

The project will consist of a cultural venue, hotels, residences, commercial offices, a low-rise retail and entertainment complex and education or medical facilities on 62 rai. Open areas, infrastructure, green spaces and public event areas will cover the rest.

The development is expected to be a multibillion-baht project, though no exact figures have emerged.

In July, Singapore's Frasers Centrepoint Ltd, a company backed by the Thai billionaire, reached a deal to buy Australia's Australand Property Group for A$2.6 billion (69.3 billion baht).

In September, Mr Charoen bought a 10-rai riverside plot in Bangkok owned by Sermsuk Plc, bottler of the Est soft-drink brand he owns, for 1.8 billion baht.

In October, Golden Land Property Development Plc, the SET-listed developer majority-owned by his two sons, Panot and Thapana, acquired 22.22% of Krungthep Land (KLand) from Property Perfect Plc.

Combined with existing holdings owned by SMJC Real Estate Co, part of the TCC Group owned by Mr Charoen, the family's ownership of KLand will increase to 66.66%. 

Also in October, Mr Charoen bought the Est brand in a further move to turn ThaiBev into a leading drinks company in Asean over the next three years. The value of the transaction is estimated at 1.56 billion baht.

In the latest development, Mr Charoen is one of the top contenders to buy embattled British retailer Tesco's Asian assets. Tesco Lotus would be an entry ticket to becoming a leading retailer immediately.

Nonetheless, Ek-Chai Distribution System Co, the operator of Tesco Lotus in Thailand, recently dismissed reports of the sale of the parent's Thai assets.

MR Pridiyathorn Devakula's attempts to seize the media spotlight paid off when he took up a vital role in the military government to usher the country through challenges.

MR Pridiyathorn Devakula

He was among those who ripped the Yingluck Shinawatra government's rice-pledging scheme and estimated the subsidy would create a financial loss of more than 400 billion baht — far higher than the 200 billion estimated by the government at the time.

As a former deputy prime minister and finance minister in Surayud Chulanont's government and a one-time Bank of Thailand governor, MR Pridiyathorn played a role in addressing the political rift by asking Ms Yingluck to resign and make way for a neutral government through an open letter to the media.

After the military seized power on May 22, he was appointed as the National Council for Peace and Order's adviser for economic affairs, later taking a deputy prime minister's post once Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha formed a government.

His biggest challenge is steering the Thai economy through the current storm. The Thai economy contracted by 0.1% year-on-year in the first half and grew at a lacklustre 0.6% clip in the three months through September, wracked by pre-coup political mayhem, tepid exports and lukewarm domestic consumption and private investment.

In an effort to give a big boost to the faltering economy in the fourth quarter, the government in October approved a 364.5-billion-baht stimulus. The pump-priming package included a 40-billion-baht cash giveaway to millions of rice farming families and faster disbursement of 23 billion baht left over from the Thai Khem Khaeng scheme for repair work.

The impact has been blunted, however, by delays in budget disbursement, and MR Pridiyathorn recently suggested economic growth could come in at less than 1% for all of 2014.

While his short-term attempt to bring the economy to life remains uncertain, he hopes to pave the way for sustainable growth in the long run by kick-starting the digital economy and transforming the country from a manufacturing hub to a trading nation.

To that end, the government has eased regulations — for instance, by extending the work-permit period to two years from 90 days in order to entice international firms to use Thailand as their regional headquarters.

Nopporn Suppipat, a son of dentists, grabbed headlines in June after being named the youngest newcomer on the Forbes list of the 50 richest Thais, ranking 31st with an estimated net worth of US$800 million.

Nopporn Suppipat, who made his fortune with wind energy, faces charges of lese majeste, extortion and intimidation but says the accusations are attempts to undermine his business. Pawat Laopaisarntaksin

The spotlight was on him again after he was identified by police for hiring the criminal network of former Central Investigation Bureau chief Pongpat Chayapan to strong-arm his creditors.

Mr Nopporn has been on the run since an arrest warrant was issued over several allegations including lese majeste, extortion and intimidation, but he countered that the accusations were attempts to undermine his business.

The 43-year-old made his fortune in wind farms. He started his wind energy business in 2005.

Wind Energy Holding Co (WEH), of which Mr Nopporn indirectly holds 63%, is Thailand’s biggest wind energy firm. Its two wind farms in Nakhon Ratchasima, with a combined capacity of 107 megawatts, feed energy to the power grid.

The company is also developing seven more wind farm projects with a total generating capacity of 650 MW, which would make WEH the biggest wind power firm in the region in terms of contracts.

WEH plans to seek a listing on the Stock Exchange of Thailand in the third quarter of 2015 to raise funds for regional expansion.

Following the legal action against him, other shareholders have pressed Mr Nopporn to sell his stake to other investors to prevent damage to the company. Banks have denied further project financing for wind farms until WEH can address Mr Nopporn’s problems.

Mr Nopporn also stepped down from the board of directors and his post as WEH’s co-chief executive. The company appointed Emma Collins as sole chief executive and gave her a seat on the board of directors to replace Mr Nopporn.

The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) was in the media limelight throughout 2014 thanks to the transition of the country’s TV industry from analogue to digital.

The NBTC travelled a bumpy road all year long, bombarded with conflicts, debates and criticism of its unpreparedness and poor organisation.

NBTC directors launch a caravan of trucks to deliver digital TV coupons to consumers nationwide. The first lot of 4.6 million coupons went out on Oct 20. APICHART JINAKUL

At first it seemed like the digital transition was going all right. But later the NBTC faced complaints about unclear regulations, opposition from analogue TV broadcasters who baulked at some of the new rules and a delay in distribution of digital TV subsidy coupons.

The first major conflict was the 2014 Fifa World Cup saga. RS Plc, the broadcast rights holder for the 2014 World Cup, did not want to comply with the must-have rule and air all 64 football matches on free TV as demanded by the NBTC.

RS took the case to court and eventually won. But the junta’s intervention aimed at bringing happiness to Thais came soon after. The military government ordered RS to air all matches on free TV, and the NBTC was asked to pay compensation to RS.

Later came the infamous dispute between the NBTC and Channel 3. The conflict began when the channel declined to migrate to the digital system and the regulator, based on the amended must-carry rule, ordered platform operators to drop analogue channels from their systems in early October.

The row went on for weeks before going to court and ending with Channel 3 agreeing to do a simulcast broadcast, airing its programmes on both analogue and digital platforms.

Then there was the channel numbering system. Around mid-year, platform operators freely arranged their first 10 channels. But the NBTC wanted to make changes to every platform by reserving the first 36 channels for digital TV. The regulator later decided to delay a ruling and handed the contentious issue back to the broadcasting panel for reconsideration in early 2015.

The NBTC’s coupon subsidy scheme received scorn for its delayed roll-out. Eventually the NBTC persuaded the junta to support the scheme, and the coupon value was set at 690 baht. The first lot of 4.6 million coupons went out on Oct 20. 

On the telecommunications side, hopes for the NBTC to have the 1800- and 900-MHz spectrum auctions (in August and November) for 4G service were tarnished when the junta ordered a halt for one year to allow an examination and clearer transparency.

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