Thai tycoon savours a taste of Ireland as he eyes trade boost and corporate alliances
Before flying into Ireland this week, Soopakij Chearavanont had never tasted Irish chocolate. He's found it exceptionally delicious - and on such first impressions, export markets may be born.
Mr Chearavanont, 54, is chairman of CP Group, Thailand's biggest company with market-leading positions in sectors from animal feed to telecommunications. CP - short for Charoen Pokphand, or 'Prosperity for Consumers' - is a continent-spanning conglomerate with hundreds of subsidiaries across Asia and Russia and annual sales exceeding $50bn.
Chairman Chris, as he likes to be called, landed in Dublin to research Irish food and beverage products and, potentially, to identify ways of developing CP's footprint here and in the wider eurozone.
When asked whether his three-day visit means Irish products soon will be helping stock shelves on some of CP Group's retail outlets - including 11,000 7-Eleven convenience stores in Thailand alone - Mr Chearavanont didn't hesitate.
"For sure. Not just Thailand. Asia. America. Global. We have a big distribution network."
Mr Chearavanont is in Ireland to increase the range, quality and volume of food and beverage products that the network carries across Asia and Europe.
The trip has included a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Farmleigh House and sitdowns with executives of Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland and the NTMA's Irish Strategic Investment Fund.
The packed itinerary included briefings from major whiskey distillers - including a tour of Jameson's tourism hub accompanied by Irish Distillers CEO Conor McQuaid - and two more days of product samplings and briefings with Irish firms specialising in logistics, packing, e-commerce, construction and materials handling.
CP's shopping list could include distribution deals for Irish whiskey, beer, meats, dairy products, chocolate, seafood and shellfish - but Ireland in return would need to become a hub for European distribution of CP's array of retail goods.
"This is one of the topics we discussed today, the potential for two-way distribution," he told the Irish Independent.
"If you only send the Irish products to Asia and there's nothing coming back, then the logistics cost is too high.
"We have to build two-way trade, so that each cargo plane in Dublin, when it flies to Asia full of Irish product, we make sure it's full of Asian products on the way back to Ireland.
"It has to be full cargo both ways," he said. "We need to understand your distribution companies in Ireland that can distribute throughout the EU.
"Then we can build two-way traffic and create a win-win for everybody."
The Chearavanont family - perennially ranked by Forbes as the wealthiest in Thailand, with an estimated 2019 net worth of $29.5bn - knows a thing or two about getting ahead of the pack as it opens and builds markets to scale.
Three generations and nearly a century ago, what is now CP began as a small Bangkok shop selling seeds to farmers. Following World War II it built a commanding share in the manufacture and supply of animal feed, then as the world's top exporter of prawns.
When Communist China opened its doors to capitalism, the CP Group under the direction of Soopakij's father, Dhanin Chearavanont, was the first foreign company to secure permission to operate there, in 1979.
It received registration certificate 0001 in what became China's manufacturing powerhouse, the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.
Today CP Group oversees more than 200 subsidiaries and partnerships in China; is the largest stakeholder in China's largest insurance company, Pang An; and a major shareholder in the Chinese state-owned investment trust CITIC.
It manufactures motorcycles and has recruited Chinese partners to make vehicles in Thailand.
This year it won a $7bn Thai government contract to build and operate a high-speed train system connecting major airports, its first foray into rail.
Ireland might look like rather small potatoes to Mr Chearavanont.
But in the unlikely setting of the Angler's Rest pub, tucked away in Dublin's quasi-rural Strawberry Beds neighbourhood, on a sunny evening with traditional musicians playing in the background, Mr Chearavanont said he was impressed with his first taste of Ireland - particularly that chocolate.
Mindful his name can be a mouthful to Western eyes and ears, Mr Chearavanont insisted on being called simply "Chairman Chris".
He admitted to a learning curve, noting that he had never before set foot in Ireland, "only London and England".
"I've quickly discovered there's a lot of good brands in Ireland, some with unique histories, that haven't had opportunities to sell their products in Asia.
"There now will be a lot more opportunities for us to do this, to introduce good Irish products, organic and traceable products, to export to Asia," he said.
He said the current stock on Thai supermarket shelves was mostly a mix of local goods and American and Japanese imports, with few European suppliers active.
But from sampling Irish goods and discussing both the colourful background and manufacturing standards of specific brands, he said marketing Ireland as a source of excellent food and drink should prove effective in Asia.
"We've heard of Irish whiskey but we are learning many things about Ireland," he said. "We'd never heard of Irish chocolate before. I now know that the Irish have a high-quality product.
"Things like that, we can help to promote, not only through our own direct distribution companies, but also through the networks that we have," he said.
Those networks include CP's 2014 strategic alliance with Itochu Corp of Japan, owner of the major rival Asian convenience store chain FamilyMart, which has around 30,000 outlets, as well as the wider 7-Eleven empire with its own leading position in Japan and substantial presence in other Asian nations as well as the USA.
There's also CP's $1bn purchase in 2016 of American frozen foods company Bellisio that has opened up a 50,000-outlet distribution network in the USA, Mr Chearavanont said.
He said the CP Group was interested in doing more in Ireland than simply boosting bilateral trade, suggesting Ireland could become a new location for corporate alliances and European market-expanding distribution deals.
"On the investment side, we want to learn more about the good-brand companies here.
"We can invest into listed companies and become strategic partners, to create value and grow globally," he said.
The story of how Mr Chearavanont made the nearly 20,000-kilometre round trip from Bangkok involves a lot of old-fashioned Irish networking, starting with Emer and Austin Currie, children of the former Fine Gael TD for Dublin West.
Emer Currie, recently elected for Fine Gael to Fingal County Council, worked with brother Austin, a private equity manager with strong professional ties to Asia, to lobby Mr Chearavanont's business associate Randy Li to bring a CP trade delegation to Ireland.
Mr Li is managing partner and chief investment officer at Hong Kong-based Makto Capital, and part of the CP delegation finishing their first day in Ireland at the Anglers Rest.
He reckons Ireland has attractive brands but an "over-reliance on trade with the UK and maybe the EU and US".
"The growth market going forward is in Asia," he says simply.
Mr Chearavanont nods agreement.