He took me to a cozy noodle restaurant in a small alley near his office in Bangkok.
The owner greeted him with a big smile. He had come here so often they talked to each other as if they were close friends.
What the owner of the noodle shop probably did not know was who Supachai Verapuchong really is.
Doing business as a Buddhist
Supachai is a billionaire and a pharmaceutical tycoon, not only in Thailand but also in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. But he seldom speaks and acts like one.
My interview with the billionaire felt more like a conversation with a teacher.
He did not mention giant contracts or millions-of-dollars deals. There were instead a lot of stories about the poor people he met, his concerns about life, and his thoughts about how we should live.
“I was lucky to be born in a better-off family and I did not have to go through the struggle like many other billionaires,” Supachai said.
But if his father helped build him a strong foundation, he is the one who has expanded the business and kept it flourishing across Southeast Asia.
He said he spent every summer during his secondary school years following his father to meet with partners to observe and learn.
He came to work for his father after having an MBA from the US in 1986, looking after sales and marketing activities in poor provinces in northern Thailand.
Years spent with disadvantaged people taught him one thing that it is a misery being unable to afford healthcare services.
So he made it a mission to find out a way to produce good medicine at affordable prices.
The pain killer, fever reliever segment in Thailand’s pharmaceutical industry at the time was dominated by Decolgen from the Philippines.
But he was confident that a low-cost but quality alternative made by a Thai company could win the competition.
So he and his father launched Tiffy, which after 20 years finally dethroned the giant rival in the Thai market.
Supachai said the secret to his success is walking on the right path and doing business with an ethical mind.
He said one should spend time contemplating on the path he or she is choosing and once they decide that it is the right path, they just let the path lead them forward.
“In Buddhism, we don’t set goals. We don’t pressure ourselves or pray for results. Whatever will be will be," Supachai said.
"If I had set a goal of winning the market in five or ten years, I would have been disappointed when I failed, and I would have been only able to try for a couple more years until giving up. And there would have been no Tiffy.”
What’s about ethics? Supachai said the drugs his company produces for the market are what his family take when they themselves get sick.
A home in Vietnam
Supachai said his father has taught him to treat any country that he wants to invest in like a second home. One needs love and enthusiasm to develop a market, he said.
He took that lesson when he brought his business to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
In Vietnam, besides doing business, he usually joins public health agencies to distribute free medicine to poor people and orphans.
He spends around VND1 billion (US$44,680) from his budget in Vietnam every year on charity, including funds to Thanh Nien’s scholarship Nguyen Thai Binh, which supports hard-working students.
Supachai is now managing 13 companies in Southeast Asia but he rarely misses any important charity events.
Supachai Verapuchong is Deputy General Director of Thai Nakorn Patana Group which is the leading pharmaceutical retailer and producer in Thailand and Laos, with around 5,000 employees.
He is one of the three biggest pharmaceutical tycoons in Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia.
Among 12 other businesses under his ownership are a group of five-star hotels, resorts and golf courses among Asia’ Top 10, including Sofitel Krabi in Thailand, Sofitel Angkor and Sofitel Phnom Penh in Cambodia, radio channel FM 98MHz and TV channel 5, which is currently the most-watched in Cambodia.
As the owner of a leading five-star hotel and resort chain of Asia, he’s still willing to spend days sitting on a bus to reach poor people in Vietnam’s northern mountainous provinces of Dien Bien, Yen Bai and Lao Cai to offer grants and talk to the beneficiaries himself.
“I support Thanh Nien’s scholarship program because I want the poor students to know that if they study hard, they will not be forgotten,” he said.
During a recent trip to Yen Bai, he asked a college student about her plan after graduation and she said she would come back to her hometown and help other difficult people.
“It was such thing that makes me feel the true meaning of granting a scholarship. I want to help them so they can, later, help other people. And just like that, we are going to spread kindness around.”
Supachai has also made a lot of efforts fostering cooperation between countries in the region.
He played a significant role in the bilateral cooperation agreement between Thanh Nien Newspaper and Thailand’s newspaper Matichon, which was signed in Bangkok on November 9 last year. It was the first partnership ever established between a Vietnamese and a foreign media agency in both content and business management.
“The ASEAN Economic Community established at the end of 2015 will create a very high demand for information between businesses among the countries. The most effective channel to provide such information is the media," Supachai said.
"I love both Thailand and Vietnam and I just want to help people of the two countries understand each other better.”