December 10, 2012 3:24 am

Bold deal turns spotlight on Thai tycoon

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Dhanin Chearavanont©Bloomberg

Dhanin Chearavanont, chairman and chief executive of Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand Group, is a household name at home but little known overseas.

But that changed last week. Mr Dhanin’s unlisted CP Group, the umbrella for a vast network of companies including the listed CP Foods, struck an audacious $9.4bn deal to buy HSBC’s 15.4 per cent stake in Ping An, China’s second-largest insurer.

The transaction is one of the largest M&A deals ever by a Thai company and the second largest in Asia this year, after Chinese oil group Cnooc’s $18bn takeover of Canada’s Nexen.

The world suddenly appeared to take notice, not only of Mr Dhanin but also of Thailand’s M&A boom, which has seen Thai companies agree nearly $19bn worth of – mainly cross-border – deals this year, according to Dealogic.

Like Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, whose TCC group is at the centre of a $7.3bn bid to gain control of Singapore’s Fraser and Neave, Mr Dhanin is a Thai tycoon of Chinese ethnicity.

“Khun Dhanin is the archetypal, old-style Chinese-Thai tycoon,” says a Thai businessman who has known Mr Dhanin for many years, using the Thai honorific.

“He is completely unprepossessing – you might think he runs a mid-sized trading company – and totally absorbed in business and family,” he says.

Forbes recently put Mr Dhanin’s net worth at $9bn. CP Group, which employs nearly 300,000 people globally, is expected to bring in more than $35bn in revenue this year. According to analysts, the company is the world’s largest producer of animal feed at 26m tonnes per year, and top global producer of processed shrimp.

Mr Dhanin, who has five grown up children and many grandchildren, lives in much the same style as when he was growing up: several generations live in a five-storey building in a Bangkok suburb.

He was born in Thailand in 1938 but his strong links with China go back to Guangdong province. His father, Ek Chor, emigrated to Thailand with his brother, Siew Whooy, and established CP in 1921 as an agricultural seed shop.

The pair built the business aggressively, branching into production of animal feed and, later, after Mr Dhanin joined his elders, livestock farming, marketing and distribution.

Mr Dhanin had a flair for business, and according to those who know him, was always thinking of ways to expand, both existing businesses and into new areas.

There was no time for a university education. By the 1970s, the company had built a monopoly in poultry and egg production in Thailand and branched out, moving into Indonesia, Japan and Singapore through the 1970s.

By the early 1990s, the group was moving into more diverse businesses including telecoms and retailing through its 7-Eleven franchise, through which it operates nearly 6,500 stores in Thailand.

But China was always in Mr Dhanin’s sights. As the first multinational to enter China’s agricultural sector, in 1979, Mr Dhanin built close ties to the Communist party leadership, securing a leading – and highly lucrative – role in the country’s agricultural modernisation drive.

CP is now the largest foreign lessee of agricultural land in China with at least 200,000ha of property devoted to animal feed and livestock production among other agribusiness activities. China accounts for more than half of CP’s agribusiness profits. CP also owns 75 Lotus supermarkets.

These ties with the Communist leadership, as well as the promising outlook for the country’s insurance industry, lie at the heart of Mr Dhanin’s investment in Ping An.

While some analysts expressed surprise at CP’s move into financial services, the company had positioned itself for such a move. In a little-known agreement forged over the past year, CP Group secured approval from Beijing to engage in financial transactions.

In a recent speech in Bangkok, Mr Dhanin said he expected “another great leap forward” for China after its recent leadership change, and urged Thai companies to invest, repeating predictions that China would shortly displace the US as the world’s leading economy.

However, it was not a straight line to the top. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the ensuing plunge of the Thai baht inflicted huge losses on Mr Dhanin and CP Group. At one point, his net wealth fell to less than $1bn.

Ironically, it was HSBC, calling in $400m worth of loans in 1998, that inflicted the biggest hit. Mr Dhanin sold a swath of non-core businesses and slashed costs.

“I was prepared to use any means to ensure our survival,” he told Time magazine in 2004. “It felt bad, but I always believed we’d get it back tomorrow.”

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