Eye on Expansion

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Suparat Chirathivat Uahwatanasakul
Vice President
Centara International Management,
Centara Hotels and Resorts

Meet the guy who has not only directed the introduction of the Centara Hospitality experience to well over 10 countries but also oversaw for the chain an annual gross revenue in excess of US$200-million.

Centara Hotels and Resorts is a company on a roll. In just five years, Thailand’s leading hotel chain has expanded its holdings from 11 to 55 — both owned and managed — not only in Thailand but also overseas. Brand categories are increasing as well, with a new economy brand soon to be announced to join the already established Centara Grand (hotels and resorts), Centara hotels, Centara Boutique Collection, Centra, and Centara Residences. The man responsible for driving strategic partnerships for the company and overseeing the chain’s rapid international expansion is Suparat Chirathivat Uahwatanasakul, vice president of Centara International Management, a management arm within the Centara Hotels and Resorts.

Before joining Centara, Suparat was president and CEO of Pop Network Co., Ltd., a high-tech consulting company in the U.S. that mainly do jobs for big corporations. Suparat has held a number of directorships and participated on the boards of many U.S. IT companies, was a consultant for U.S. Robotics, and later CEO of Maxtec Development Inc, Los Angeles.

“I’m a strategy guy, a numbers guy,” says Suparat – who is also advisor the Thai minister of finance — adding he never thought he would be a hotelier. But since he started with the chain five years ago, he became largely instrumental in helping entrench the homegrown chain as a leader in its field.

What could have possibly attracted the energetic, goal-oriented, dynamic, high-tech consulting hotshot in the U.S. to the Thai hotel industry? “Part of it is family,” Suparat tells Lookeast in an exclusive interview. “Five years ago, my uncle Suthikiat – knowing that I am in the consulting field — talked to me about hotel development work; he wanted to make some changes. But it came to me that he was actually thinking of not just changes in how we build, run, and operate our hotels, which we have been doing in the last 26 or 27 years; he was thinking of managing other hotels.

“Keeping that in mind, I started to do some research, talked to big, successful guys how they do it, asked a lot of questions about the business, and compared ourselves to what others are doing, and then talked to him again later, saying, ‘we have to do this, and this, and this.’ He asked me if I’m sure these could be done and I answered, ‘I believed so!’ Basically he challenged me,” the MBA graduate from University of Southern California continues. “If you think you can do it then just come and do it, he said. That’s why I’m here. Based on what we have achieved in the last five years, I think we’re doing pretty good.”

In fact, in the last few years not only has Suparat directed the introduction of the Centara Hospitality experience to well over 10 countries. He also oversaw annual gross revenue in excess of US$200-million for the chain. The high-tech consulting field’s lost became the Thai hotel industry’s gain.

“We have decided to move from just owners-operators into a model of using our assets and advantages,” he explains. “The basic idea is to invest less and instead use our expertise to manage other properties. I convinced our chairman that we could move faster if we set up a separate company and he bought my idea so we set up the Centara International Management.”

Using his skills and exposure as a high-tech industry veteran, Suparat started the new entity like all high-tech start-ups: by recruiting very highly capable to work with him (“very, very good people,” he describes them). “We started flat,” he says. “When we started we have only 12 hotels, now we have 55, 70 percent of which are managed.”

He sees being part of the Centara umbrella playing a big role in their overwhelming success. After all the Centara (or Central brand as it was known before the rebranding) is really a strong brand in Thailand.

“That’s why when Central was relaunched into Centara it was accepted right way,” he recalls, “and even then I really saw — as did our chairman and president – that we can capitalize on our brand name. Of course, the Centara International Management team has to learn lots of things along the way, which we did, but with some of the best people in the business helping us, the success factor has always been assured. Being part of the group, we can make use of certain advantages. For example, resources are always there, human or otherwise. That’s why, when we do procurement, we can do it relatively inexpensively.”

Plus of course, credibility is always there. “It’s something that we have been lucky about because our older generation have built solid credibility for so many years,” adds Suparat, a third-generation Chirathivat. “All we have to do now is capitalize on what is already there. Thus when we started this, we can move faster.”

And moving faster is one thing Suparat – a two-time car racing champion, incidentally — is used to. “Again, I come from the high-tech industry that moves a lot faster so I’m used to moving fast,” he says. “Moving faster than our competitor gives us somewhat of an advantage, an advantage that comes with me from my old job. And I think we’re achieving the goal—actually we’re doing better than our goal. The challenges are still there but we respond faster.”

His biggest challenge, he says, is to explain: “why us.” “When we started to go out and talk to people, they say: ‘why you?,’ he says, “But we come back to them with, ‘why not us?’ With our strategies, company philosophy, and a set of other things, we can easily tell people why we are different.”

“We never say we’re a first-tier brand, a second-tier brand, or a brand for everyone. But we are serious in what we do. If you join us, we will make sure to achieve the goals we promise. When we promise to our partners, we deliver – that’s the most important thing we do.”

One thing that probably separates Centara from other homegrown hotel chains is that it’s always been part Thai and part international. “Even before I joined the group, we have always been like this; everything in our service is founded on this blend of the best of both worlds. We are a Thai company with an international system. All of our presidents were foreigners although when they do business they have to transfer the Thai charm to our products, because Thai hospitality is now accepted worldwide. When I came in, I just looked at what we have, spice it up a little bit, and basically sell it.”

A message he wants to impart of those hotel owners looking to find management companies: “Try talking with us before you talk to others. Over here we do things really different and we really deliver our promise. We keep our promise. As our elders taught us, ‘Don’t promise things you cannot do.’ That’s a philosophy we stand by and that’s why we’re successful.”

With a rapid growth of 10-12 properties in a year on average, no one can doubt that Centara is riding on the wings of success indeed. “Actually,” he adds, “our boss wants us to slow down. But I do not know if we can slow down. We have a new CEO – Thirayuth Chirathivat — who has the will to expand. So I don’t’ know if we can slow down. In fact, we’re looking at 100 hotels in our portfolio in the next five years, and I think we’re looking good at that.”

And the future? “One day, I want us (Centara Hotels & Resorts) to become a global brand, not just an international brand,” Suparat says. “Right now we’re concentrating in Asia. After Asia, Europe, and after Europe, maybe America; although I’m not sure if this will happen in my lifetime. But that’s my vision.”

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