AFTER 16 years at the helm of the Bangkok-based company Civil Master International (CMI), co-founder and managing director Matthew Harrison couldn’t be happier with his professional and private life in Thailand. “I have discovered that as long as you are careful, doing business here as an expat is far easier than you might be led to believe by some of the horror stories in the media.”
CMI, an architectural contracting company, operating mostly in Bangkok, specializes in virtually anything that involves the exterior of major buildings, including façade renovation, repainting, and repairs. Thanks to a combination of factors, it is clearly ticking all the boxes.
Matt was born near Hull in the northeast of England in 1971, but his family moved south to Ipswich six years later where he spent the rest of his childhood and teens. I was destined from an early age to be in construction. When I was a boy I loved to build things from wood I found in the garden in back of my family home.
“I went through school and college and was recruited by a large construction company, called at that time John Laing, to undergo training as a civil engineer. I spent four years with them and at the same time earned my engineering qualifications. After completing my contract with John Laing, I decided to go freelance,” said Matt.
“I did site engineering and took on various projects around the UK for a few years, including the Sizewell B nuclear power station and the Severn Bridge in Bristol. In 1994 I decided I wanted to see the world and work outside the UK. In December of that year I took a job in Bangkok as a building inspector at Future Park Rangsit, which was then under construction. I was on a six-month contract and during that period I fell in love with Thailand.
“Shortly before my contract finished, I met my Thai wife-to-be. I went back to the UK for about two months and returned to Thailand in August 1995. I have been here ever since. I worked for a Thai construction company for a year and a half and then took a job with a German-run construction company. I was with them for almost two years. When the financial crisis hit in 1997-1998 I struggled along with the company as long I could but ultimately it collapsed.
“I took a couple of temporary jobs but I was basically ready to pack my bags and return to the UK, when in 1999 I bumped into a good Thai friend whom I had previously worked with. He suggested we set up a new business together. At the time some people were probably saying it wasn’t the right time for such a bold move, but after I gave it some thought I was all in. We formed CMI in November 1999, exactly 16 years ago, and time has shown that we made the right move.
“I am the managing director and major shareholder of the CMI. There are now three other Thai partners but I basically run the business. The relation with my partners is excellent. I am also on the board of directors of the Civil Mater Group (CMG), which is comprised of 12 other companies, all of which provide construction related services. The head office of CMI is located in Bangkok. We are on the 4th floor and other floors are taken by companies under CMG. CMI also has a branch office in Phuket to cover our southern operations.
“CMI has altogether 35 Thai staff and three expats including myself. We are an architectural contracting company. Most of our projects are in Bangkok and around Thailand. Primarily, we do pretty much anything that involves the exterior of the building. We are involved in the construction of new buildings, but most of our work is the renovation of old ones. We are specialists in façade renovation, repainting, repairing, window re-sealing on high-rise condominiums, hotels, hospitals, office buildings and resorts.
“Over the years we have built up an excellent customer base which includes high-end hotel brands. We also work with embassies. For example, we have just completed the renovation of the Dutch embassy, both the residence and the chancellery. We don’t do design work but we can support the design if the customer wants to upgrade or make changes.
“Another part of the business is importing and installing specialized roofing materials, mostly for resorts and residential projects. We import from companies in Canada. A third area of the business is importing and installing specialized concrete coatings from Australia that are used for swimming pools. The coating incorporates glass beads to make the pool very reflective and beautiful.”
Matt travels a lot within Thailand. “Every Thursday I fly down to Phuket to see how things are down there. I am off to Phuket in the morning and return to Bangkok in the evening. I also often see customers or visit projects in Hua Hin, Pattaya and Chiang Mai.
“We also work in other countries. I just came back from Da Nang in Vietnam where we did a swimming pool project. We have done projects in Maldives, and a little work in Myanmar, Singapore and Cambodia.
“Business is very good and has been steadily increasing year after year. Over the past five years we’ve seen an average turnover increase of around ten percent per year, although this has slowed a bit in 2015 because of the economic effects on the hotel and resort industry. I want to expand the business more in the region but I want to do it slowly. We are looking with interest at setting up branches in Vietnam and Myanmar down the line.”
Asked which Southeast Asian country is best to do business, Matt replied:
“Singapore is a very easy place to get around and a good place to do business. But there are also plenty of opportunities in Thailand. It is relatively easy to get around, you can fly easily to most destinations and the roads are pretty good. The customer base potential for business is still very promising.”
Matt is happily married. “We have two sons. Our eldest son studies in the UK and our youngest goes to school in Bangkok. I enjoy the weekends. I love to travel, to take journeys around Thailand and go abroad. To keep fit I like to eat good food and cycle. I have a couple of bicycles and go for a ride whenever I have the time. I exercise a little and play football.
“As for hobbies, I love cars, and I love to restore cars. I have the facilities and equipment here to do the restorations, although it’s a little more challenging than in the UK. Actually, I look at my work as a kind of hobby because it’s something I love to do. I have enjoyed the entire experience of running CMI. There is never a dull moment for me because there’s always some aspect or development of the work that holds my interest.”