PAUL Greenhalgh is an Englishman who came to Thailand in his mid-20s by way of Dubai. He has had remarkable success in building a rewarding professional and private life in a country that he admits overwhelmed him at first. The 48-year-old specialist in Construction Services with integrated manufacturing of related products has been working for Trepax Innovation Company (TIC) in Samut Prakan province since 1994.
“Working in Dubai was like being on holiday and being paid for it; it was all expats and everything was nice and new. Suddenly coming to Thailand to live was a bit of a culture shock, especially as it was quite different from today.”
The ease and comfort he now feels in his adopted country are partly due to its rapid modernization, but more to changes in his personal philosophy and attitudes that allowed him to adapt to the new circumstances.
“Just out the door of our house in Heywood is countryside. It is quite nice there. The town itself is a typical northern small working class town. I studied in a government primary school and high school, and when I left school at 17 the economic climate was very bad. There weren’t many jobs around, but I was lucky to find employment with Master Builders Technologies, a company that helped prepare me for what I’m doing now. They put me in a course on polymer technology. I worked for the company in England for several years, studying and working at the same time. I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Polymer Science, and in December 1992 they transferred me to Dubai where they had a relatively new business.
“We were making construction chemicals for buildings, including admixtures, repair materials, waterproofing and flooring materials. I worked in the research and development department. That business was fundamental in supporting the construction boom in the UAE and beyond.
“I worked in Dubai for about two years. During that time a friend put me in touch with the group of Thais I am still working with. They were using materials we manufactured for their specialist construction contracting services and they wanted to start manufacturing their own materials. I first came here to meet them.
“As I said, I loved Dubai. I was single and on my own. I was employed by a big, established company and I could expect to have a good career. But being naive or stupid, I decided to come here in 1994 anyway to set up and run the manufacturing operations. Something inside me wanted to do something on my own. It wasn’t about money. I just wanted to be in charge of my own destiny and future rather than work for someone else.
“At that time, I really didn’t like Thailand. It wasn’t attractive to me whatsoever. In contrast, Dubai was like a Disneyworld, a playground near the beach with a good expat lifestyle. In 1994 Thailand was already one of the economic tigers of the region and things were going up quite fast. The traffic was horrendous already.
“Also, in Dubai there was no need to try to learn Arabic; everybody in the business world spoke English. I was used to working with multi-national companies with westerners or western-educated staff, and suddenly I was working with Thai people who didn’t speak English so well and were also culturally quite different. So I wasn’t sure I did the right thing at first. But things change and so do people. I am now very happy here.”
Building the foundation
“TIC was a lot smaller when I joined the company. They gave me stocks, so I became a shareholder straight-away. This was one of the big attractions of coming here. I started by basically building the manufacturing part of the business. In the first years it was a struggle, but once the foundation was established it was much easier to grow from there. I would say that around 12 of the 22 years I have been in Thailand I was building the foundation, which included coming to understand Thai culture, how to work and do things here, and build a network and relationships with suppliers and customers. Once you achieve all that you can go forward very easily and quickly, and that’s been the case in recent years.
“Originally we were operating only in Thailand, but about ten years ago we started to expand outside the country. Essentially, we are specialist contractors and work on the principle of selling solutions. Our main markets consist of resin flooring, waterproofing systems, structural repair, corrosion protection and wear protection. We get a lot of repeat business.
“I left the manufacturing end after putting a good management team in place and then focused on developing the company’s international business. This really took off with the mining and infra-structure boom, and I cultivated a strong customer and peer network that has allowed many opportunities to come to our doorstep. I often get calls out of the blue that may lead to multi-million dollar projects.
“We deliver an exceptional service and our customers trust us to take away the hassles of a very specialized and important area of their projects. Needless to say, this wouldn’t be possible without a highly motivated and skilled team. We are not afraid of thinking outside the box, or of going places where others don’t dare. We regularly work in locations so remote that it’s an adventure just to get there.
“I don’t think too much about the title on my name card. I wear many different hats and I am not afraid to get my hands dirty. There are four Thai partners and myself, and we each have different responsibilities. I am in charge of international business. I run an office in Malaysia and two in Vietnam. Our market is mainly in Southeast Asian countries but sometimes we have opportunities in other countries as well, including in Africa and the Middle East.
“If it is attractive, interesting and of value to our clients then we will go there. I travel a lot, always on an airplane. The farthest place from Thailand I have worked is the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Recipe for success
“I am married, but that story would fill the magazine,” said Paul. “What I think is interesting about my experience in Thailand is not that I have done well in business, but that I have stayed with the same group of Thai people for 22 years. Most expats I know start their own businesses or maybe they work for an international company. The ones that work for Thai companies may last two or three years, then there is a disagreement and parting of ways.
“I have learned to adapt. I understand Thainess and the Thai style. I am not totally fluent in the language but I speak quite well and also read and write a bit. I have a very special place in my heart for Thailand, Thai people and the Thai culture.
“One of the things I try to do is to put myself in other people’s shoes and look at things from their perspective. Thai and Western cultures and ways of thinking are different, and much of the success I have had comes down to understanding that and adapting.”
Paul believes the “service mind” – that is, a natural inclination to do things for others – is one aspect of Thailand he likes most. “Customers love our company because we are very service orientated, and we have made it more professional through the use of Western ideas and concepts. As a result we get a lot of repeat business.
“One reason I have been so successful at Trepax is that I am not afraid to do something different. I also could not be successful without good people beside and behind me. We have about 120 full-time staff, and depending on how busy we are we may employ up to 300 workers at a time. We also do business in four or five countries at once.
“Compromise is very important, and it doesn’t mean bending over. In Asia there is a famous saying that I like very much: ‘The reason why bamboo can grow everywhere is because it can bend with the wind.’ I never compromise my beliefs, but I do adapt to suit the situation that I am in.
“Even though I am in business and support consumerism as a concept, deep down I hate it. It spoils people. Once you get into the rat race you are never satisfied, no matter what you may have.
“I believe in and enjoy what I do, which is providing a service to customers which they are prepared to pay for. Some people do it the other way around. For them money is the motivating factor. For me money is more like a side product that comes from something I just love to do. I am quite happy to carry on with what I am doing. I want to build the business and I want the company to go on after I am gone, a kind of legacy. I want it to be here for the next generation of the Trepax family.
“You have to consider how many people the company provides for. Workers usually have spouses and children and they may be providing support for extended family members. I think that employers here have a different level of responsibility than what you typically see in the West. Some business owners may not accept this responsibility but I certainly do.”