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POWER ON THE PACIFIC RIM : Profiles : 10 Pacific Rim Giants Tread Own Paths to Influence : Dhanin Chearavanont: Cliffhanger on the Phones

May 21, 1991|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANGKOK, THAILAND — One is the illegitimate son of a wealthy industrialist. The foundation of another's fortune was a long-ago U.S.-backed loan.

A third is a notorious high-stakes gambler liable to risk millions of dollars in a day at the racetrack, while yet another furnishes his house in plastic.

A capitalist who backed a revolution is on the list, as is a refugee from communism who is now devoting much of his energy to courting his giant Communist neighbors.

They're all among the wealthiest and most influential businessmen in Asia--10 titans of the Pacific Rim. Not surprisingly, several of them have extremely close ties to the political leaders of the region. Five are ethnic Chinese. Six were born to wealth, but four others started from little or nothing.

Meet a diverse group of business leaders likely to continue having a strong influence on the shape of the region:

Perhaps the greatest cliffhanger in Thailand's business history is about to end. In the next two months, the Thai government has promised to end years of hesitation and make a final decision on a massive project to triple the number of telephone lines in the country.

The $5.9-billion effort constitutes the largest privately funded such project in the world after the Channel Tunnel connecting Britain and France. And, just as it represents a great leap forward for Thailand, whose communications are choked by a decade of rapid development, it will probably constitute the latest in a string of commercial triumphs for Dhanin Chearavanont, who gained fame as the man who made chicken widely available at affordable prices in agrarian Thailand.

Better known abroad as the head of Thailand's Charoen Pokphand Group of companies--CP, as the empire is called throughout Asia--the 52-year-old Dhanin has parlayed an inherited animal feed business into his country's biggest conglomerate, with interests ranging from beer and chickens to petrochemicals.

CP was started by two Chinese brothers who came to Thailand in the 1920s to sell seeds and fertilizer imported from China. In the 1950s, they established a feed mill, and the company is now the world's fifth-largest producer of animal feed.

Dhanin, the son of one of the founders, forged an alliance in 1971 with Arbor Acres in the United States, a world leader in poultry production.

He introduced the idea of vertical integration--controlling everything from production of chicken feed to ownership of a string of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, from veterinary supplies to chicken sales in Japan.

"The CP concept is that when we enter into a new business we try to bring in those already successful in that business," Dhanin said in a recent interview.

After its success in the chicken business, CP branched out into shrimp farming and retailing (partnership deals with 7-Eleven stores and the Dutch merchandiser Makro), chemicals (with Belgium's Solvay) and even motorcycles (with Honda).

In fact, with CP's more than 200 interlocking companies, only five of them traded publicly, no one is quite sure what the conglomerate owns and controls, wrapping the firm in an aura of commercial mystique.

Another CP asset is Dhanin's political connections. It is no coincidence that he serves in the National Assembly appointed after a military coup in February.

Still, some analysts are wondering if the company has gone too far, even for CP, with its proposed venture into telecommunications in partnership with British Telecoms PLC. Despite having no previous experience in the field, CP would, in addition to expanding the phone system, operate it under a 25-year concession expected to generate $58 billion for the company coffers over the life of the contract.

Many in the government argue that the deal is far too generous to CP, but with Dhanin's political connections and financial savvy, few people doubt that it will eventually get the green light anyway.

"CP very cleverly picked up the development cycle of Thailand and changed from an agricultural firm to a diversified company," said David Scott of brokers W. I. Carr (Far East) Ltd. "In the final analysis, the people who rule the telephone system will be the ones making the money in the next century."

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