THOSE looking for the secret to success in the Land of Smiles would do well to study the life and times of Narinder Sachdev. This Indian-born, naturalised Thai is one of the biggest exporters of locally-made fabrics in the country and his family business ventures include real estate and operation of the 33-storey Fraser Suites serviced apartments on Sukhumvit Soi 11. During the course of our interview, Mr Sachdev showed himself to be as charming, caring and humble, as much he is prosperous. As he described his business and private life in Bangkok over the years, he also told a colourful story of how much the city and its people have changed.
Mr Sachdev is devoted to his family and the memories of his grandparents and parents. “My father came to Thailand (it was known as Siam then) in 1923 from the part of India that is now Pakistan. My grandparents had four sons and one daughter. My father was number three in the family. One day when he was already grown up, one of my grandmother’s stepbrothers came to our village and asked my father if he wanted to go to Bangkok. He asked his mother and she readily agreed, so my father was the first person in the family to come to Thailand,” Mr Sachdev said.
“My father started working in Bangkok as a labourer selling textiles. He did it for one year and said, ‘this is not my piece of cake, I can’t sell textiles’. So he quit and joined a company in Sampeng district in Chinatown area of Bangkok that was importing textiles from Japan. He looked after the company’s finances and when the bosses were short on cash, he would borrow money from them. He had the courage and he was always friendly and willing to help people and they would help him in return. His reputation was absolutely the best. He married the daughter of one of his bosses and continued to work with the company until 1940. In 1931 he invited his two brothers from India to Thailand and opened a shop for both of them.
“During World War II, we had a place in Thonburi, near the Wongwian Yai circle. The Japanese converted this circle area into a military camp and we had to move away from there. We then lived in a shack near the floating market. The roof used to leak when it rained. It was horrible. We stayed there for a few months and my mother said: ‘I can’t live here’, so we moved back to Wongwian Yai, where my uncle built a shelter for us. I remember Allied planes flying over and bombing the military camp. The Japanese were zeroing reflectors on them so you could see them. This was almost at the end of the war.
From grade one to four, I studied at the Indian School in Bangkok called Bharat Vidyala. I further studied at the Assumption College in Bangkok from fifth to tenth grade and graduated in 1956. I used to come second or third from last in the class, but I was good in mathematics. Nobody in my family ever checked to see if I had done my homework. After six years at Assumption College, I went to India to learn English. I joined a missionary school there, St Joseph’s Academy, in Dehradun. Soon I started coming in second or third from the top in the class, which was the total opposite of my Assumption College days.
I started working in Bangkok in 1958 after I left school at the age of 18. At first, I worked for a company in Sampeng as a salesman, for two or three months. Then, I joined my father’s company, starting right from the bottom level like opening crates, measuring textiles, carrying them on my shoulders and delivering them. It was very hard work. On Sundays, I even used to carry the textile samples while visiting my buyers in Bangkok, Nakhon Pathom and Chonburi.
“I often went to the Sani Chateau nightclub near Ratchaprasong. I also used to go to the Champagne Room nightclub (Chez Eve Club) at the corner of Suriwongse Road and New Road. I was earning only 1,000 or 1,200 baht salary/month, so had to play cards to get the money to go to nightclubs,” Mr Sachdev said with a laugh. “Once I went to Sani Chateau nightclub with 200 baht in my pocket. I was drinking beer with one girl and told her that I didn’t have any more money. She offered to pay for me and signed the bill. Next day a man from the nightclub came to my office to collect the money. Luckily my father was not in the office and I paid the bill, and from then on I never allowed a woman to sign the bill for me.
“I was fond of dancing and in 1958-59 I frequented a dance school behind the King’s, Queen’s and Grand theatres in the Wangburapa area. I liked it and I went every day. I loved to dance rock n’ roll and cha-cha-cha. The school and the three theatres have been gone for a long time. There are still some dancing schools in the Ratchadamnoen area, but fewer than in the 1950s.
“I was very lucky because the moment I joined the business, one person who was very knowledgeable about the Japanese textiles market suggested to my father and uncle that we should open an office in Japan, which we did. The office opened in Osaka, Japan, in 1958 and started importing fabrics from Japan, and since then we never looked back.
“I went to Japan in December 1959 and stayed there for five years. I was an assistant to our partner there. I was God gifted about judging whether a particular fabric was saleable or not.
“The turnaround came in 1963. We started importing one fabric from Japan to Thailand, on which we started making a handsome profit. The rest of the market never knew anything about it. We used to deliver the fabrics after they arrived from Japan, right from the port to the house of the buyer in Bangkok. We made a lot of money from this for two years. The import business continued well till 1974.
We started a company, Desmond International, in 1983. Our office is on Sampeng Road. We stopped importing fabrics from Japan in 1975 and started to export fabrics made in Thailand. Today we export around the world. For example, to South Africa, Europe, United States, Peru, Guatemala, Japan, Germany, China, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and a few more markets. We also have an office in China and from there we export to the biggest work wear garment manufacturer in South Africa. We are mainly selling 100 percent cotton fabrics and poly cotton fabrics. All textiles that we export are 100 percent made in Thailand. We also do lots of high-end cotton for shirts.
“I buy top-end fabrics from the best mills in Thailand. My customers never bargain with me. I work on fixed margins and I look after my customers well. If I am late, I ship by air at my expense and never let anybody point a finger at me for any reason. My integrity is more important to me than money.
he textiles business is like money lending. You buy cash and you sell credit. There’s no textile business where you can sell cash, but you have to buy cash. I give credit and I know that my customers will pay me back. You must have good instincts and understand the psychology of the person you are doing business with. This is so important. You cannot give credit to just anyone. I always do business with people who are recommended to me. I have got a network of agents who recommend customers to me. My business is built on relationships. All business depends on relationships,” Mr Sachdev pointed out.
“After my son, Rohit, graduated from New York University and returned to Thailand in 2002, I suggested he take over my textile business. I told him, ‘it is the best business and the easiest business. You have the customers, supply and finance’. He replied that he wasn’t interested and wanted to start his own business and run it his way.
“My family had empty land measuring 750 talang wa (1 talang wa = 4 sq m) in Sukhumvit Soi 11 which was bought in 1992. My son suggested that we develop this land and make an apartment building. My family agreed and we started the project which later on went on to become Fraser Suites Sukhumvit. I promised Rohit that I would arrange the finances for him. He was in charge. Halfway through the project, my son suggested that we build a serviced apartment instead of the originally planned apartments for rental. I told him to give me calculations on how much return we would get and how much money he needed. He said he would need about 250 million baht more but the return would be much better. I looked through the figures and did some research and agreed that it would be more profitable to change the project from apartments to serviced apartments. I arranged all the finances. The bank lent the money and we started construction of the building 10 years ago, in 2007.
“Today Fraser Suites is up and running very well with my son in charge even today. We rent rooms by the day, month or year. It has facilities for a serviced apartment, but we run it as a hotel, as the license is for a hotel. Fraser Suites belongs to our family. It is not solely mine. I am only a shareholder.
“Rohit is 42 years old and he makes his own decisions. He is not involved with my textile company Desmond International. He is running Fraser Suites, as well as its food and beverage operations. He married a Peruvian girl, went to Peru, and really liked the food. So he came back and opened a Peruvian Japanese Restaurant called ‘Above Eleven’ on the rooftop of Fraser Suites. It is full every day. He also opened ‘Charcoal’ an Indian restaurant on the 5th floor. This one is also doing well. He is also operating elsewhere an Italian restaurant, a bar, and a recently opened French restaurant.”
Mr Sachdev has seen Bangkok grow from a remote South-east Asian backwater to the tourist-filled international megalopolis it is today, and he vividly remembers each step along the way. “In the past, the whole central market in Sampeng was full of Indian merchants selling textiles, but there are hardly any Indian merchants now, while we still have three textile shops in Sampeng, he said. There may be only 10 shops left now that are still selling textiles, where as in the past every Sampeng shop was a textile shop. The reason for this being the land value going up so much that people weren’t able to afford the high rentals, and moved out of the main market to some other cheaper place. Sampeng is the most expensive real estate in Thailand. Most of the Sampeng merchants are now selling other products like fashion jewellery, stationery, toys, mobile phone accessories and gift items, but not textiles,” Mr Sachdev said.
“In the old days, Indians here never wanted to invest in Thailand. They wanted to take money back to India. But nowadays no one is based in India; they are based in Thailand, so they keep their money here. Also, in the past Indians didn’t want their children to be born in Thailand because they didn’t want the boys to enlist in the military. It is completely different now.
“I was born in what is now Pakistan. I don’t think there’s any difference between Pakistan and India as far as the environment is concerned, except in terms of religion. There are fanaticism and non-fanaticism. I am religious but I am not a fanatic. I go every Sunday to a Hindu temple near the Giant Swing in Chinatown. In fact, my uncle who was a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba (who believed that he is the reincarnation of Lord Shiva), initiated a boarding school in Lamnarai in Lopburi province. Even today we are supporting the school. It is one of the best schools and it’s all free.
Mr Sachdev married in 1965 and he and his wife are still together. He says he has “started slowing down, while she is much stronger and healthier than I am. She does a lot of exercises and walks every day. I also walk every day.
“My mother passed away in 1970. She was suffering from a brain tumour. My father had a heart attack in 1970 and passed away in 1983.
“I changed my nationality from Indian to Thai in 1969. I am now an overseas citizen of India and entitled to go there without a visa. I can buy property and invest in India, but I am not going to live there. There’s nowhere like Thailand,” said Mr Sachdev. He still speaks Japanese fluently, as well as Punjabi, Hindi and English. He can speak, read and write Thai.
“Asked about his hobbies, Mr Sachdev replied: “I am a member of Rotary Club of Bangkok South and was the president of the club in 1997. I am also a member of Royal Bangkok Sports Club. I play golf. I used to play badminton, but my knees started to give me trouble so I decided to switch to golf before I damaged them further. The most important thing about golf is who you play with. You must enjoy it. I still play cards too and play rummy with my friends on Saturdays, sometimes until 3 am.
My family is large. We are two brothers including me and three cousin brothers, all from the same generation. I have two daughters and a son and five grandchildren. I meet my family every Sunday my daughters, my son, my grandchildren, everybody gets together. My children decide whether they want to have lunch at home or go out. All my family is bonded closely together.
“I work from 10 am until 4-5 pm and play golf on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Nowadays it is easy to do business because of smart phones. You can read your email on the phone or do whatever you want. I don’t know how to use a computer. Even in my office, when I receive an email, I write the reply on a piece of paper and give it to my boy, who will type it up and send it.
“I love music, especially Indian music, but in the 1950s I used to like Dean Martin, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. They were my favourites. I used to know all the top hits and the best song of the week. Now I don’t know anything about contemporary music. When I was young, I used to put on the radio and hear the top songs. Nobody listens to radio anymore. Now you have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and you can listen to any music you want.”
Words of advice
“Borrowing is easy but you must have the ability to pay back. Making money is more critical than borrowing. If you can make money you can always pay it back. I have never defaulted on payments to the bank and I have never ever asked the bank to let me roll over my instalment. I always pay by the due date.
“Trading business is always there. Everything depends on a calculation. You do the right calculation and you never lose money. You have to be very sensitive to be a good businessman. I am very sensitive. I can judge people. It is another of God’s gifts I would say. Usually, in my family, I always make the decisions and every decision has to unanimous.
“If you want to do business, you must make sure you have a good product. Don’t compromise on quality. I always tell my son, don’t bring down the quality of your product, which in his case is hospitality and service. You will always get customers. You may make less money, but this is ok. You won’t lose a customer.
“I have never used political or other influence in my business dealings. We have never wanted any favours or used connections. We have always played according to the rules, kept a low profile and we never ‘showed off’.
“I will go on working as long as I can. I am not going to retire. I do my duty to the best of my abilities and I have never lost money in my life. In my textile business, we don’t have any competition. I give the best quality and the best service and the customers never leave me.
“As far as personal relationships, it depends on who you know and who you meet. You have your own circle of friends. You just don’t go around and make friends with every ‘thick head’. You should make friends with people you can trust, otherwise, you don’t need them. My advice is, don’t expect anything from anyone. You will be happier. The world is changing, and in the past 40 years or so, there have been a lot of changes in Thailand. Values are different, and this applies to both sexes.
“My motto is to always be happy. I never sleep with a problem. I try to find the solution before I go to sleep. If I can’t find the solution, then I put it aside, because only time can solve the problem.”