“For 18 event-filled years, Judy Benn headed the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand as its Executive Director, leaving in 2018 to be closer to her daughter and family in the U.S. It was the “best job” of her life. Although she’s now hoping to spend several months a year here, despite losing her retirement visa during Covid, Judy has decided on
a permanent base in Europe.
One of the more difficult questions I get in my life is, “Where are you from”? The simple answer is usually Chicago. I was born in Chicago, but my family moved to the U.S.-Mexico border when I was under a year old. I returned to work in Chicago for a few years in my mid-twenties b ut haven’t resided there since.
When I was seven, my father accepted a position with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Monrovia, Liberia and then in Taipei, Taiwan. We had yearly R&R trips to Europe and this period must have instilled my passion for travel and foreign culture which has been a lifelong pursuit.
I earned a degree in Business Administration from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah and moved to Calgary, Alberta where I spent a few years working for the U.S Consulate. The skills learned there were helpful at AMCHAM because of the Chamber’s close engagement with the U.S. Embassy Bangkok.
First time in Asia
After Graduate school, I found myself back in Chicago for a few years with KPMG Consulting supporting clients all over the U.S. In 1990, KPMG Taiwan offered to relocate to me Taipei to assist them in setting up their Taiwan consulting practice. The subsequent 10 years became my ‘China years’ flying regularly between Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. I can recall days having breakfast in Taipei; lunch in Hong Kong and dinner in Shanghai. There was one day on a flight between Shanghai and Hong Kong around 1997 when we were forced to return to Shanghai as China and Taiwan were playing a game of “my missiles are bigger than yours” on the flight path to Hong Kong. Commuting had its challenges!
My move to Shanghai in 1995 included picking up some regional clients which expanded my responsibilities to Southeast Asia, including Thailand.
As much as I enjoyed my work with KPMG, the res-ponsibilities and travel were intense and something was missing in my life. And I found that ‘missing something’ when I adopted my daughter, Maggie Mei, from China in 2000 and I’m grateful every day for my sweet baby girl!
With a baby to raise as a single mother, it didn’t seem feasible to travel and work the grueling hours required in the consulting field. So in 2000 I headed to Thailand, where my dream was to rent a hut on a beach for a year and chill. However, it didn’t quite turn out like that at all!
By sheer accident I ran across an ad in the Bangkok Post that said the American Chamber of Commerce was seeking an Executive Director. I almost didn’t apply as the qualifications didn’t really line up with my background - and as I tell people - I wasn’t looking for a job! But I was hired and spent seventeen years running the Chamber.
“On a flight between Shanghai and Hong Kong during my ‘China days’ around 1997 we were forced to return to Shanghai as China and
Taiwan were playing a game of “my missiles are bigger than yours” on the flight path to Hong Kong”
Leading the Chamber really was the best job of my life! I so enjoyed the diversity of the services the Chamber provided, the fabulous membership and the vast network of talented regional colleagues. Due to the Chamber’s membership in a regional AMCHAM organization, I traveled several times a year throughout Asia and those experiences continued to fuel my travel passion as I visited other AMCHAMs in such places like Mongolia, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka and Guam. We also visited Washington, D.C. annually to meet with U.S. government officials and these were always fascinating trips.
My first years at the Chamber were very chaotic. Five weeks after I started September 11, 2001 occurred and suddenly the world became a scary place. The Chamber and U.S. businesses around the world were now thrust into making their people, places and products more secure. People trusted each other less. The Chamber office relocated twice in four years primarily for security concerns.
Other challenges the Chamber and members faced over the years included the 2004 tsunami, 2006 and 2014 coups, bird flu and SARS, the 2010 riots and protests, and the 2011 floods. The 2010 event was the only time safety issues became a concern for me; the blockades and protests took place between my home and office, and I sometimes felt uneasy as I walked between the two. It was quite a disruptive period and I remember hearing gunshots in Lumpini Park while standing on my home balcony and my daughter crying while watching TV and seeing CentralWorld (our Sunday playground) burn.
AMCHAM’s most memorable events
The Chamber’s mission has three distinct focuses: Networking fozmembers and member busi-nesses, advocacy, and promoting corporate social responsibilities. Over the years, we had a number of really memorable events, including the annual USA Fair and the Government Appreciation Dinner featuring the Thai Prime Minister.
The Chamber hosted the annual July 4 picnic for many years and it was a favorite event of the summer for the expat community. The Chamber’s annual gala ball brought in over three million baht each year to support the Chamber’s foundation. My favorite event memory was the ‘Jazz Night under the Stars’ at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence to celebrate the Chamber’s 50th anniversary. It started to rain heavily just as the event began and all the tables were in the open air. (Don’t ever believe anyone when they say it doesn’t rain in Bangkok in November!).
The highlight was U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce hitting the drums with the jazz band under the Ambassador’s house, with the rain pouring and guests lounging around listening (and making mad dashes through the rain to the bar in the garden!)
The Chamber established the AMCHAM Thailand Foundation in 2004 and since then the Chamber and members have donated millions of baht to provide scholarships to low-income Thai students. To-date over 3,000 students have benefited from the program and several scholarship students eventually went on to U.S. colleges and established successful careers. It always brought me immense pride and gratitude to know that we could help these students and their families.
At the request of the U.S. Chamber in Washington, DC, the Chamber’s responsibilities expanded from 2013- 2017 to establish and mentor
AMCHAM Myanmar. Sadly, the 2021 coup in Myanmar required most U.S. businesses to withdraw from the country and U.S. sanctions make it difficult to engage in the country at the current time. I continue to have some great friendships with some of my former team from AMCHAM Myanmar to this day.
With much sadness, but firm purpose and great memories, I left the Chamber and Thailand in 2018 when my daughter Maggie Mei graduated from KIS International School and enrolled at the University of Denver. I want to be closer to her than a 30-hour plane ride. Maggie just graduated and she loved living in Denver. She did very well in school, made great friends, learned new hobbies (rock climbing) and will start this summer as an analyst for Citibank in Dallas. I could not be more proud.
As hard as it was leaving the Chamber, it was in good hands with my successor and a number of AMCHAM team members who had been there for many years. I keep in touch with my AMCHAM team and try to visit them on my Bangkok visits.
The last three years
Rather than follow Maggie to Denver, I opted to make a home base in Dallas, Texas where my brother and family live. After being away thirty years it was time to reconnect and I have enjoyed establishing a close relationship with my nephews and niece.
I have been back to Thailand twice since then, the most recent trip this past April. I’m hoping to be able to spend a couple of months each year in Thailand going forward. I have many friends who still live in Thailand and miss all the wonderful things Thailand has to offer, including the culture, food, beaches and massages. Thailand will always be my second home as I spent almost twenty years here.
When I left the Chamber, I took a retirement visa for Thailand so that I could spend several months a year traveling in Thailand. Unfortunately during Covid, Thailand made no provisions to allow people to renew retirement visas abroad, so my visa expired. I do think that Thailand does need to be more receptive to foreigners if they want to continue to be an attractive place to live and work. This was (and still is) a constant talking point for the Chamber with the Royal Thai Government.
Back to work and staying
When I left, I had planned to take a ‘gap year’ to figure out the next chapter in my life. My main focus since leaving the Chamber has been reconnecting with my family and friends and traveling but I still have the urge to keep current on larger global issues, and for the last two years have been an advisor and Asia Managing Director for Poligage, based in Washington, D.C.
Poligage is an online marketplace for public policy and government affairs experts and its founder was previously the AMCHAM trade specialist who joined the AMCHAM during the now-aborted U.S.-Thai Free Trade Agreement talks. It also has helped me expand my Washington, D.C. network.
I also volunteer teaching financial literacy for the Interna-tional Rescue Committe (IRC)I teach refugees who are just settling in the U.S. and need assistance in navigating the complex US financial system. I enjoy the opportunity to assist newly arrived U.S. refugees and hope I am making a difference in their chances of success in the U.S.
My next permanent home
With my daughter success-fully launched, I am planning a move later this year to live in Portugal. After spending several months there the past three years, I feel that I might have found my more permanent home. The country is beautifully diverse with fantastic beaches and lovely countryside. I love the vibrancy of Lisbon and I have a number of friends who have already retired there. It reminds me of Thailand in some ways, but has an advantage of being closer to the U.S. and my daughter. I also am looking forward to exploring more of Europe. I am part Portu-guese and maybe I just feel like it is where I belong.