Citing the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2018, a recent article on the Asia Times website calls Thailand’s economy the most unequal in the world. It reports that in 2018, 67% percent of the nation’s wealth was held by 1% of the population, a rapid increase from 58% in 2016. On May 7, 2019, Forbes website published a report titled ‘Thailand’s 50 Richest’ detailing the country’s wealthiest families and individuals. The list – headed by the Chearavanont family with a net worth of US$29.5 billion is presented annually, with rankings based on net worth. (For the record, the family of Worawit Weeraborwornpong, chairman of Siamgas & Petrochemicals PCL with net worth of US$590 million, is ranked 50th on Forbes’ Thailand list).
The top 50 families boast a staggering US$160.56 billion in net worth, about 4.86 trillion baht at current exchange rate. To put this in perspective, Thailand’s budget for fiscal year 2019 was three trillion baht. The original budget for 2020 was 3.2 trillion baht.
It’s no secret that Thai-Chinese are at the top of the local socioeconomic order. Most of the richest Thais claim forebears who migrated from China several generations back. Some of them were aided in their quest for wealth by affiliations with powerful government officers. Many women born into ethnic Chinese business families married high-ranking civil servants. These unions proved to be win-win, cementing mutually beneficial financial arrangements.
The Big Six
The half dozen families highlighted below don’t follow exactly the one-through-six positions on the latest Forbes list, but all can claim a place at the top of Thailand’s power structure. The Chearavanont, Chirathivat, Yoovidhya, Sirivadhanabhakdi, Srivaddhanaprabha and Bhirombhakdi clans rank one, two, three, four, six and fourteen respectively on the Forbes list, which gives the combined net worth of the six families as US$93.55 billion or around 2.83 trillion baht.
• Company: Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group
• Net worth: US$29.5 billion (892 billion baht)
• Source of wealth: Food
The CP Group is a Thai conglomerate based in Bangkok. It is Thailand’s largest private company. Charoen Pokphand means in Thai “prosperity for consumers.” The CP Group has evolved into a conglomerate of hundreds of companies in many countries, including China. The Group is one of world’s largest conglomerates, with investments in 21 countries. Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF), in which it owns controlling stakes, is the world's largest producer of feed, shrimp, and a global top three producer of poultry, pork, among other agricultural produces. It also operates Southeast Asia's largest retail business by revenue, with over 10,000 Seven Eleven stores and a leading cash and carry business through Siam Makro. In the telecommunications sector, CP Group subsidiary, True Group, is one of the largest telecom firms in Southeast Asia with over 25 million mobile customers.
Dhanin Chearavanont, or Chia Kok Min, stepped down as CP’s chairman and CEO in 2017, but remains senior chairman. His eldest son, Soopakij, is the current chairman and his youngest son, Suphachai, is the CEO. Dhanin also stepped down as chairman of group flagship CPF in April 2019.
Background: The roots of the CP group date back to 1921, when 18-year-old Chia Ek Chor and his 10-year-old brother Chia Seow Whooy arrived in Thailand from Shantou in southern China, and began peddling vegetable seeds from a cart. Shortly thereafter, they opened a seed, fertilizer and insecticide trading business in Bangkok’s Chinatown.
In the early years, Ek Chor spent much of his time establishing new markets in neighboring countries, leaving Seow Whooy to manage the Thai operation. Following the communist takeover of China in 1949, the brothers decided to base their operations in Thailand, and adopted the surname Chearavanont.
• Company: Central Group
• Net worth: US$21 billion (635 billion baht)
• Source of wealth: Retail
The family owned and operated Central Group is Thailand’s leading department store retailer and service business. It has expanded far beyond Thailand with a strong presence in Europe and Vietnam. The retail giant is said to get more than a quarter of its US$12.4 billion (375 billion baht) in revenue from abroad. Central Group consists of a variety of diverse investments in various corporations domestically and internationally. Its branches have become leaders in retail, property development, brand management, hospitality, food and beverage and digital lifestyle. The firm joined in a US$560 million (16.9 billion baht) venture with China’s JD.com to set up an e-commerce site, JD Central.Tos Chirathivat, is the grandson of the group’s founder, is currently executive chairman and CEO of Central Group. A number of other family members hold important positions in the Group’s companies.
Background: Tiang Chirathivat (born Cheng Ni-Tiang) reportedly emigrated with his family from Hainan in China, where he was a rice farmer. He worked in his father-in-law’s store before opening his own small shop in the Thonburi area of Bangkok in 1928. In 1947, Tiang moved to a large site on Sri Phraya Road and established Central Trading, a landmark step for the Chirathivat family. Anticipating a demand for foreign goods, Tiang stocked imported clothes, cosmetics, books, magazine and other periodicals. His business strategy proved to be very successful and he moved again to a building in Soi Oriental adjacent to the Oriental Hotel. In 1956, he opened the Central Department Store in the Wang Burapa district of Bangkok with his eldest son Samrit. The store was the first of its kind in Thailand and revolutionized the concept of retailing here. Among the innovations it offered was the introduction of fixed pricing to consumers accustomed to bargaining over every purchase.
Both father and son, the group’s founders, were fully engaged in running the business, and were helped by other family members. In an era of bustling trade and growth, the young entrepreneurs quickly established businesses that were characterized by many ‘firsts’ in Thailand, including; first to import international cosmetic brands; first to focus on impeccable customer services; and first to implement innovative marketing communications.
Samrit Chirathivat believed that success would come from honesty and hard work, along with providing the best possible services and products for Central’s customers.