Having a good start can help a businessman achieve success, but according to luxury-home builder Suratchai Kuenghakit, a good start does not necessarily make a business sustainable.
Suratchai, who is managing director of The Emperor House, said he got a good start when he took only four and a half years, instead of five, to graduate with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from King Mongkut's University of Technology Thon Buri. This meant he had fewer competitors in finding a good job, and having slightly better English skills than the other applicants, he secured a good position with Kinsun, a leading construction firm at the time.
His work record begins with construction of the Baiyoke Tower I, which was Thailand's tallest building at the time. After that he worked on many other prestigious projects, including the Rama IX Bridge - the country's first cable-stayed bridge.
He not only had a good company to work for, Suratchai also had a good boss to begin his career. He learnt many things from the English expatriate who was head of Kinsun at the time, covering both the technical and management aspects of running a construction business.
"He was my idol," Suratchai said.
As a young engineer, Suratchai was dedicated to his work - on one occasion working non-stop for 31 hours because a senior engineer who was supposed to replace him failed to show up. He was very strict in his work standards and his hot temper created regular problems.
"The most serious one was when I fired a worker for drinking liquor on the job. The guy gathered 20 or 30 others and they were after me with intent to do me harm," he said.
After three years with Kinsun, Suratchai left the employee life and began his own business as a small contractor doing house-modification jobs. Thanks to his work record on high-profile projects, Suratchai attracted more and bigger jobs. Customers referred him to others.
But as his business was growing, Suratchai learnt the hard lesson that having a good start is no guarantee of lifetime success.
"At less than 30 years old, I owned a company and I was arrogant. I was drinking, spent time in hangouts and misused my money, such as buying [speculative] stocks. In 1995, some customers began not paying, and in 1996 I went broke before anybody else."
However, before the business closed down, Suratchai said he made a good decision. He signed up for a master of business administration course and was fortunate to have the late Professor Sangvian Indaravijaya as his adviser. Gaining ideas and theories from the course, Suratchai wrote a new business plan for his company and successfully won trust and funding support to start his business anew.
The concept for his current company, The Emperor House, was unique at the time: building homes in classic Roman style exclusively for super-rich customers. His initial marketing efforts, using direct mail to reach his targeted customers, were unsuccessful, and he soon discovered that public relations was a more effective tool in attracting premium customers.
"When we introduced the company in 1996, we showed a previous work record of more than 10 homes. Reporters were fascinated to find that somebody was building homes in the classic Roman style. We continued with the PR and more people became aware of us. In 1997, when the Thai economy collapsed, I was taking off," he said.
The Emperor House was taking off because it landed a big project to build a Bt40-million house for a jewellery exporter who gained a windfall from the plunging Baht currency. The exporter had seen a small magazine photograph of a home built by The Emperor House.
The company built its cash flow and gathered more customers. It wasn't long before it won another job to build a house for Bt217 million. Now, that record is about to be broken by the imminent completion of a Bt250-million house in Rat Burana.
Suratchai said his business concept was simple: a company either has to be different or have cost leadership.
"The idea [for The Emperor House] came from a house I built not long after I graduated. I constructed the first Roman-style house in 1988, according to the order of a customer. That has become my strength," he said.
Suratchai said it would not be too difficult for him to shift to a cost-leadership model, building smaller and cheaper houses. However, an important factor in his business direction is his character as a perfectionist and an art lover. He prefers to build stylish houses.
Despite the looming crisis that many economists say will hit Thailand's economy hard next year, The Emperor House has a virtually full book of contracts for work in 2009.
"We're now looking for customers in 2010," he said.
Suratchai said that rather than financial difficulties, his most challenging job was developing human resources for his company. He needs people who are competent, excel at their jobs and strive for the best, and these qualities are hard to find in the new generation of workers, he said.
"The job we do is different to others. We have to do it better than the others. We must be highly service-minded. Others are selling [their home building] at more than Bt10,000 [per square metre]. I'm selling at Bt25,000," he said.
The Emperor House builds no more than five homes per year. This year it expects to achieve revenue of Bt250 million, up by 10 per cent from 2007.
The cheapest home it has on its current catalogue will cost Bt16 million, excluding land and interior decoration. The Emperor House has expanded to related businesses, including the sale of super-premium furniture. It is an exclusive distributor for more than 10 Italian furniture brands. Items on its books include a Bt1-million dining table and a work desk costing Bt800,000.
"Whoever has money and land, I will handle all the rest," Suratchai said.