Saturday, July 07, 2007

Thailand’s Mr Sandwich happier 10 years on

Thai Takes

IS IT a happy anniversary? I had directed the question at the most recognisable face of Thailand’s 1997 economic meltdown on July 2, which a decade ago was the day his country devalued the baht, triggering the Asian financial crisis.

The pocky face of Sirivat Voravetvuthikun turned animated as he recalled the crisis that turned him from a multi-millionaire property developer and stock market investor to a sandwich hawker.

“Yes, today I am happy,” declares Mr Sandwich, as Sirivat is known. “Because of the crisis I found a new business – although it is selling sandwiches for 40 baht (RM4.30) apiece versus selling a condominium for 5 million baht (RM546,000) a unit – I am happier,” he said.

“I’ve learnt that the size of the business is not important, as long as it is long lasting and in a real sector like food and beverage.”

In early 1997, Sirivat was in the “bubble business”, borrowing heavily from finance companies to bankroll his property projects including a one billion baht (RM109mil) condominium development and to dabble in the stock market.

It was a “big business” which, on hindsight, the US-educated Chinese Thai businessman says, was beyond his financial capacity.

“I borrowed heavily at an interest rate of 17% a year,” he recalls. “But I was not scared of my borrowings considering my capabilities and experience. I never thought I would go bust in a couple of months.”

However, around February 1997 Sirivat had to inform his staff of 40 that he was going bust as he was unable to service his loans. His cash flow had dried up when he could not sell any condominium unit. Even after the banks seized his properties, he still owed them about 400 million baht (RM43mil).

Depression hit Sirivat but he did not commit suicide, which was the option of many who lost their fortune during the Asian financial crisis.

“If I killed myself the problem would not be solved, and the burden would be on my wife and children,” said the man whose motto is “I’d rather be bankrupt than dead”.

In those dark, sleepless days, Sirivat blamed himself for losing his fortune. “I was too greedy. Why wasn’t a couple of million baht enough? Why did I want to make a billion baht?” he asks.

To eke out a living, Sirivat strung a 12kg yellow foam box around his neck and began peddling sandwiches on the streets of Bangkok.

On his first day, Sirivat had to put on a brave face as many people asked him: “You are a multi-millionaire, why are you selling sandwiches?”

He sold about 40 sandwiches on that day.

He sold more when local and international media zoomed in on the compelling story of an insolvent multi-millionaire peddling sandwiches.

“It is you, the media, who helped me to sell my sandwiches. When my story became known to the public, they supported me by buying my sandwiches,” he says, adding that Sirivat Sandwich now sells about 800 sandwiches a day.

What happened to your 400 million baht debt, I asked the 58-year-old man who is so famous in Bangkok that the public frequently interrupted my interview, greeting him in Thai and saying “I’m glad to meet the real person I saw on television.”

In 2003, he was declared a bankrupt. And according to Thai law, he was free of bankruptcy after three years. Now he owes about 11 million baht (RM1.2mil), to several friends.

“I’m not worth anything today except for my brand,” he declares, stabbing at his company logo (a symbol of a baht inside a hot air balloon that is held back by the initials IMF, the International Monetary Fund) on his T-shirt.

“How much is my brand worth now? You will be surprised, a hundred million baht.”

In 2009, the Sandwich Man plans to list his food and beverage business on the Thai stock market.

At present, Sirivat is not optimistic about the Thai economy, saying Thais have not learnt the lesson of 1997. “Thai people forget easily. They are over borrowing again,” he notes. “It is not a Happy 10th anniversary for Thailand.”

(Published in The Star on July 7, 2007. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)