An innovative business from a conscious and sincere entrepreneur
TCDC Connect met Tongdee Srikulsasitron founder and owner of an "ink seller" company. He discovered Panorama Soy Ink, a printing ink, from a natural source and he is also the only person in the world who owns the patent for "Hybrid Technology Soy Ink". We are fascinated in finding out how an engineer, a chemist, a businessman and an environmental thinker are perfectly blended in to one personality.
Hi Tongdee! How many projects do you have these days?
I have been running several businesses - a property business, a civil engineering consultancy, an architectural business, as well as working for royal charities, namely, H.M. Queen Sirikit Arts and Crafts Center and Chai Pattana Foundation etc. I\'m also involved with a structural engineering project for a printing house who are looking to improve air circulation techniques without depending too much on conventional air conditioning systems. For this I have introduced the \'Air Change\' system which has been widely used in Europe for a long time already. However, this is the first time for Thailand. The system helps reduce huge environmental impact.
Sounds like you need at least 48 hours a day?
Indeed. That\'s not everything though. Another main responsibility is managing companies under the Chareon Aksorn Group. Chareon Aksorn is a large conglomerate within which I have set up an extra business line. Even though I have rather different views to them, I am keen to put greater emphasis on environmental concerns whilst also enjoying the development of new initiatives. So, bearing that in mind, it is better to run it separately by myself.
What is your business approach?
The first is to find ways in returning things back to society. Secondly, making sure that the business is surviving well, not just buying and trading. In this modern day, you have to think and do it. When you do it, you wish to gain from it. However, the business must contribute something back in to society as well.
What is your view on Thailand printing industry?
The print service sector is a huge business in Thailand, with a total market value over 50 billion baht. People just do not realize that we are surrounded by so many types of print media whether it be text books, advertising, public relations materials telling people about products and services, or even ink jet printers in individual households printing leaflets and flyers etc. Since the old days, Chareon Aksorn is the very first print service provider in Thailand to use the letter press technique for newspaper printing. I came in to manage this business 15 years ago which was a down time for business in Thailand. From there, I started thinking about how actually to run a business with sustainable growth. I foresaw the increasing concerns in environmental issues. However, in those days, Thai printing services still used chemical ink. Well, they still do at present, but I do not use chemical ink. Once you had decided to invent an environmental friendly ink, what did you do? Study and research - I went to Japan in order to understand everything about ink. What it\'s made of? What are the production processes? I also did a lot of research on the Internet. Eventually, I found a source in United States who were developing ink from soybean oil, mainly because petroleum is very expensive in the States. They were searching for an alternative source of energy. However, as soybeans are not abundant in Thailand, I successfully developed a \'Hybrid Technology Soy Ink\' which is now patented.
What is Hybrid Technology Soy Ink?
"Hybrid technology" is a saving phenomenon. It reduces the amount of ink consumed during the printing process. Ink is only slightly coated over the surface of the paper. It is similar to applying a brush-on to your cheek. This is because a mixed vegetable oil, which has higher density, has already been soaked into the bottom. If it is petroleum-based ink, you need to inject as much ink as you can. Let\'s keep it as simple as that.
Is the color pigmentalso a natural product?
Yes it is. There are several components in ink production; color pigment, resin (glues used in binding the color pigment with vegetable oil) and so on. I adjust the formula hundreds of times before it is satisfactory. Although, part of it is still chemical, my attempts are to minimise the remaining chemicals and substitute them with natural components where possible. Then, I keep adjusting the formula until I get a better quality in terms of color, printing output and cost.
In this context does "saver" also mean cheaper in investment cost?
In fact, if you compare the cost per unit, natural ink is more expensive than chemical ink. However, if you compare quantity of print output, natural ink is more economical. In the printing industry, we refer to it as "mileage". Ink made of natural component helps reduce accelerating speed when running a print. That way it is more economical.
So in what sense would you claim it is better?
In the old days, I could tell from the smell of the ink which newspaper a person was reading, especially the black ink used in Thailand. Once, while aboard an airplane, a Japanese passenger told me that Thai newspapers are dreadful. He told me that after reading the paper, he always needed a wet hand towel to clean his hands. Come to think about it, when fried banana is sold in paper bags at street food stalls, they\'re always made of Thai newspaper. Chemical ink is unavoidably mixed with the food in the bag which results in health problems. I have managed a print factory for 15 years. I have lost 15 printing technicians who all died of either liver cancer or cancer of the nasal passage. I am reassured that what I have been trying to pursue offers the better choice for people.
Is it very difficult to gain acceptance from your customers?
Certainly! Some big boys in the industry do not care as long as their papers sell. It\'s tough to convince them to contribute something back to society. It is entirely about the individuals conscience. My spirit and energy have been blooming ever since I met TCDC team three years ago, together with the opportunity to visit with His Majesty the King. His kind guidance has made me feel more confident in what I have been trying to achieve.
From being a structural engineer, how did you become an ink manufacturer?
I turned a crisis into an opportunity. In 1995, the economic situation was so bad. My family asked me to help manage the business. If nobody had carried it on, eventually they would have had to close the business. That was during the economic bubble burst. Although, the current economic crisis is not identical to ones in the past, the consequences of it are still critical. The previous crisis was a result of a bursting bubble. Today\'s crisis is due to a stiffening bubble effect which bears a reverse, yet no less critical affect. Obviously during the bubble burst, Thai baht was weak. Now the Thai baht is getting very strong. For example, I was due to pay 90 million baht for an order of raw materials from abroad. All of a sudden, the next morning the Thai government announced a baht flotation which resulted in the baht value rising from 25 baht/USD to 50 baht/USD. My debt suddenly went up to 180 million baht over night, resulting in a sudden collapse of the business. Since taking over the management of the company, I have introduced quite a number of changes to the printing house; resising the organization, enhancing multi-tasking skilled teams and outsourcing some work. This way, we share the profit while reducing the operating costs. Another is the ink business itself. As I mentioned earlier, I visited to Japan to seriously familiarise myself with the ink industry. I noticed that the main difference between the products manufactured for export from Japan and products manufactured for domestic use was that quality is key for export, while health concerns are key for domestic use. The two approaches are very different.
What problems or challenges have you encountered in this business?
"Quality control" is the key challenge for Thai manufacturers. If you take Japan as an example, for them quality of the export products will always be consistent regardless of the manufacturing base which could be anywhere in the world. Louis Vuitton shares this same standard. Although, their main production port is in China, the quality level is still the same. Quality is controlled through good systems and processes. In turn, if it is Thai product, the quality is great if produced in Thailand, however, it does not retain the same consistency when relocating that manufacturing base.
How do you tackle those problems?
You need a good teamwork. I search for friends with a particular expertise, get the most out of my "friendship" and form good alliances with them. My idea was that if I were to run an ink manufacturing plant, I would need overall authority and control so I decided to request shares in the business. I found a rather old plant in Pusan (Korea). They were in a bad state at that time having nearly gone bankrupt.
I asked for a 20% share, authority to control the manufacturing formula, quality,
management and operating direction. They agreed. I knew all about the Korean style. When they are sincere, they mean it. However, there are times when they can be rather tricky. I challenged them a bit further on what else they were able to offer. They let me take over the whole export business. I then approached a Korean friend with a marketing background to come on board. Also, I invited a friend from Hong Kong with a background in chemistry to help. I knew both of them since my educational years in Germany. Meanwhile I looked after the management side. At present, my ink formula is exported to Italy, United States, Germany, Australia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.
Why did you choose Korea as manufacturing base?
The whole idea is about cost reduction. Thailand\'s tax rate on imported chemical compounds for ink production is 15% while the tax rate on ready to use ink is only 5%. This is the main reason for relocation. Korea strongly supports free trade. Both import and export are tax free. I decided to collaborate with them and, so far, it has been a success. Currently, our manufacturing capacity is at 15,000 tons each year, the second largest in Asia.
So could you claim that the overwhelming business success is largely due to the manufacturing base relocation?
Yes. I have 10% growth in the market each year. I take that as success.
How are you diversifying your business now?
I have invented a biodegradable ink (Flexo Soy ink) for printing coatings on plastic sheet such as plastic shopping bags. I spent only half a year developing it and currently it is in the process of being patented. It is degradable in just 45 days. I have already exported it. It is known in the United States as the Food Packaging Bag, which means that it is safe for direct contact with food. Another current business diversification is for outdoor inkjet printing ink which will soon be extended to household use.
What is your view on market trends?
Fifteen years ago hardly anyone worried about environmental issues like global warming. Today, everybody is talking about it. Fortunately, I moved faster than others. In those days, the market was tougher and I had to work harder. There were only very small groups of people aware of environmental impact. But I can wait and I will be waiting until the day petroleum runs out. I will become even more successful. At present, I am regularly invited to events and activities regarding the environment. People know me better and appreciate what I am doing. Well, pirated Panorama Ink has already sold in the market...you see!
What is your opinion on the "sustainable business" concept?
Let\'s take conscience as the key principle. Conscience defines how you lead your life and also reflects how you manage your business. My philosophy in business management is being able to sustain it, while gaining sufficient profit and maintaining product quality. Spending tireless effort striving for the fattest profit is not my way. However, "sufficient" varies by individual judgment. That is conscience. In addition, I am keen to \'give back\' to society as well as contribute towards environmental care. Nowadays, Tongdee is a well-recognized brand. My products are easily marketed with other brands. People do not hesitate to buy the products when they recognize the Panorama Ink logo on the package. People understand the quality of ink from vegetable oil.
Therefore, conscience has now become your additional value?
Yes, now it is
What are your business tips and suggestions to readers?
First of all, remember that the customer is king! Treat them to the best service you can possibly offer. Our profession is being a service provider. Secondly, do the best you can today, for each day in the future will be only get better.
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