ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
Interview with Asean decision makers
WHY PUTTING YOUR MONEY IN THAILAND
Mr. Nitti Meyer, CEO Novatech, and Vice-President of Swiss-Thai Chamber of Commerce, shares his views on Thailand’s competitiveness, or lack of it, as an investment destination in Asean.
“As a Swiss person, I would say that we have a certain formality, a certain work ethic and a serious approach to work. But you cannot say that has not been successful.” Educated as a lawyer in the Universities of Freibourg and Stanford, Nitti Meyer has become a leading light in the Swiss business community in Thailand.
His business interests cover the distribution and marketing of all kinds of pumps and technical equipment, as well as refueling operations at the new Suvarnabhumi airport and airports across Thailand. Quietly-spoken and rather suave, Khun Meyer revealed some surprising facts about Swiss business in Thailand.
It might be expected that some manufacturing operations have been relocated here, particularly in those areas in which Swiss firms have competitive advantages, such as watch-making and watch parts manufacture. Large firms such as Nestlé have of course been present in Southeast Asia for some time, while Swiss expertise in pharmaceuticals is also well-represented.
However, what might be less expected is the presence of a company which, in a factory near Lopburi with nearly 2000 employees, makes fully-sculpted wedding cakes which are flown back to Switzerland to form the centre-piece of many happy days. That is a real sign of globalisation – but then, the Swiss business community has always been aware of the issues of international business since the multilingual country needed to find common ground for people to deal with each other on a daily basis. These days, it is easiest for Swiss just to use English nearly all the time.
“In the future,” observed Mr Meyer, “Swiss business in Thailand will develop in similar ways to that of many other countries. It will no longer be sufficient for there to be just cheap labour or low-skilled manufacturing operations such as textiles, since these will disappear and no Swiss will wish to invest in a non-sustainable industry. They can go to China or Vietnam to do that. Instead there needs to be specific raw materials or skilled labour that will encourage the investment.”
Swiss business in Thailand is not insignificant – Board of Investment figures indicate Swiss investment in the Kingdom amounted to nearly 8 billion baht in 2006. In addition, some 5,000 Swiss people are long-term residents of Thailand and this number is increasing around 10% per year, while in 2006 there were nearly 150,000 arrivals from Switzerland.
However, it is not inevitable that this level of investment will continue to increase. As Mr Meyer feared, if the Thai government continues to act in ways which appear unfriendly to foreign investors, then people will start to look elsewhere. For knowledge-based industries, which are essential for the future of the Thai economy, better opportunities will appear in Singapore and Malaysia.
The Swiss Chamber of Commerce has been active as part of the combined, joint chambers of commerce attempting to persuade the Thai government to change its course. “They appear to listen,” says Mr Meyer, “at many seminars and presentations, as well as through our position papers, but it all seems to fall on deaf ears.”
There is certainly a strong call from the international business community for more responsiveness from the interim government. “Even so, tourism figures are holding up and this is a positive sign as people still see Thailand as a safe and nice place to visit.”
“Of course,” he continued, “this is good for our airport business, which is based to a large extent on plane and passenger numbers. Besides which, I remain optimistic because there is so much infrastructure that has been created already and that is in place. Not everyone agrees with me but I do think that, after an election, we can start to rebuild the economy again.”
Another issue for Thailand is the supply of skilled labour. The shortage of such workers provides opportunities for them to go job-hopping and this does not help when considering long-term training and skill development. As Mr Meyer observed,
“There is a lack of institutional mechanisms in Thailand to ensure that a sufficient supply of skilled and semi-skilled workers becomes available. Some universities are doing a good job but there are so many new graduates who have insufficient ability to work in an international company that it really becomes a problem for us.
Of course, everyone lacks experience when they first enter the job market and we can work with that but they really need to have the basics in place. There is room for improvement here. We do what we can by providing job satisfaction and with personal encouragement so as to make our employees want to stay with us and we have enjoyed good job retention rates.
In-house training is really a vital thing in the industries in which we work and it is possible that we will see further involvement by the private sector in providing this. Who knows, perhaps one day there will be a Swiss school offering apprenticeships for young, diligent Thai workers?”