At a time when golf course development is the domain mostly of multinational companies, three Thai families are showing that an important place remains for private family investment and management in the game that is sweeping Asia.
These are far from small-time “mom-and-pop” operations. You don’t become a member of Asia’s most successful and prestigious golf destination-marketing program, Golf In A Kingdom, without solid credentials; nor do you receive industry accolades and awards, as well as record impressive visitor numbers, without good reason.
In each case, the Phornprapha family’s Siam Country Club, the Samakoses family’s Chiang Mai Highlands and Muang Kaew courses and the Pongsak family’s Suwan Golf and Country Club owe their current status in Thai golf circles to the foresight and dedication of the current chief executives’ grandfathers.
All were visionaries and self-made men who acquired land in expanding areas, turning it into a productive business that just happened to be one or more golf courses.
The grandfather of Chai Phornprapha, managing director of Siam Country Club near Pattaya, ran a junkyard business that recycled old parts and machinery. From there, he developed business relationships with entities in Japan that grew into a manufacturing joint venture in Thailand with Japanese partners. It proved so successful that additional manufacturing joint ventures soon followed.
“Today, we have 43 companies under the family umbrella, primarily specialised in the automotive market,” Chai explains.
But golf is also important, as the immaculate conditioning and facilities at Siam Country Club’s twin courses – with a third being built – demonstrate. The Plantation Course, opened in 2008, was last year named best-maintained course in Asia Pacific at the Asia Pacific Golf Summit held in nearby Pattaya.
More than 80,000 golfers a year, many from overseas, play at Siam Country Club’s Old and Plantation courses each year. The former farming land – that grew pineapples, tapioca and sugar cane – has been owned by the Phornprapha family for more than 40 years. Its Old Course, built in 1970, was the first privately-owned golf course in Thailand and has hosted the Honda LPGA Classic for the past two years, as well as in 2008.
By the time the third Waterside course opens in 2014, annual visitor numbers at the three courses will exceed 120,000.
Chai is a self-proclaimed number cruncher who has led major corporate restructuring in the United States. Much of his philosophy for operating the Siam Country Club courses is a result of disciplines learned from manufacturing joint ventures with Japanese partners, with efficient policies in place for every asset and procedure.
His attention to detail means he even can tell you how much fuel is in the greens mowers at any given moment.
The managing director of Muang Kaew Golf Club on the outskirts of Bangkok, Woranon Samakoses, also owes the family’s business success to his grandfather. “He was a visionary who understood that Bangkok would grow eastward, so he started acquiring land out this way,” Waranon explains.
Muang Kaew is situated on some of the original acreage along the main commercial industrial corridor between Thailand’s capital city and the eastern seaboard. Today, Muang Kaew, which opened in 1992 and was renovated by Schmidt-Curley in 2005, is the closest golf course to the heart of the city.
The family’s other golf course, Chiang Mai Highlands, was built in 2007, also to a Schmidt-Curley design, after another family land acquisition.
Waranon’s father has been looking for investment land in northern Thailand for retirement. Already having a golf course in Bangkok made him think about turning their purchase near Chiang Mai into a golf course, and today it is regarded as one of Thailand’s best and most scenic layouts.
Woranon travels extensively and hopes one day to visit the South Pole. Until then, his favourite place is Iceland. Away from work, his passion is scuba diving and his main hobby is working in his kitchen as an accomplished chef in preparing western and Asian cuisines.
The grandfather of Suwan Golf and Country Club’s managing director, Pongsakorn Pongsak, established textile business interests that became the foundation for hotel, managed apartment, and shopping center investments.
Suwan, which opened in 2005, derives its name from the original textile company, Suwan Spindle and Weaving. Today, the textile business is the top producer of yarn in Thailand, while the family also has invested in residential and commercial real estate. In addition to his duties managing the golf property, Pongsakorn is preparing to open a bottling factory to private label OEM beverages.
Pongsakorn, who was educated in the US, returned to Thailand to manage the family’s golf development.
“We all loved golf in my family, so it was natural for us to expand into building the Suwan golf course,” he explains. The decision was also strategic as the property is located just west of Bangkok in an area earmarked for a new seaport that will facilitate direct shipping routes to Europe.
“In addition to the strategic location, our experience in the hotel business played a part in our decision to get involved in golf,” Pongsakorn explains. “We saw the impact of authentic Thai service, something our culture is naturally good at, and we wanted to bring genuine Thai hospitality to Suwan.”
Here lies a common thread among all three families. Each is committed to owning world-class golf courses that are supported by 100 percent Thai staff, with first-class amenities and service.
They also operate pure golf venues without on-site hotel or real estate development.
“We have 70,000 hotel rooms within 25 minutes,” says Chai Phornprapha. “This is not to say that we’ll never build a hotel here to facilitate our three courses if that’s what our guests demand. All this land has been in the family for a long time so we are able to sustain very good revenues by providing a first-rate golf experience.
“For us, it has always been about championship golf that is equal or superior to the best that the USA and Europe have to offer with the added value of distinctly Thai hospitality. We are quite sure that Thai service is second to none,” Chai Phornrapha says.
“At Muang Kaew and Chiang Mai Highlands every effort is made to preserve our Thai heritage in every detail because it has become clear that our culture of warm friendly service, combined with excellent value, attracts both our regular customers and visiting guests,” adds Waranon Samokoses.
The three managing directors also have many similarities of their own. While none of them are able to find the time to play regularly, they each maintain a strong personal interest in the game that is now the centre of their business interests.
All have travelled extensively and lived abroad, giving them a firsthand feel for western mindsets and lifestyles—a real plus when welcoming overseas tourists and business travellers to their courses.
All three played golf regularly when growing up, but never thought seriously about assuming responsibility for running a golf course until their respective family investments occurred.
While it may no longer be common for private families to develop golf courses, the first golf course in Thailand – Royal Hua Hin – was built in 1924 at the behest of the Thai Royal Family.
In their own way, the Phornprapha, Samakoses and Pongsak families are continuing the tradition.
Golf course members of Golf In A Kingdom are: Banyan Resort & Golf, Hua Hin; Black Mountain Golf Club, Hua Hin; Chiang Mai Highlands Golf & Spa Resort, Chiang Mai; Laem Chabeng International Country Club, Pattaya; Loch Palm Golf Club, Phuket; Muang Kaew Golf, Bangkok; Red Mountain Golf Club, Phuket; Siam Country Club Old Course and Plantation Course, Pattaya; Suwan Golf & Country Club, Bangkok; Thai Country Club, Bangkok.
For more information, visit www.golfinakingdom.com
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