Weekly Local Biography

 Boonlert Buranupakorn


Boonlert Buranupakorn, the mayor of Chiang Mai is a busy man. I caught up with him at the municipal offices, where he altered his schedule to make the time available for this exclusive interview.

His father and mother were Thai-Chinese employees in a grocery stall in the Woraros Market in Chiang Mai. They saved their money and opened their own stall, which was to provide for their growing family of hungry mouths. In fact, eleven children, of which Boonlert is number 10 in the pecking order.

In Chinese fashion, the family members worked together towards a common aim - the betterment of the family unit itself. Boonlert, being number 10, benefited from this. By the time he was ready for school, the family coffers were full enough to be able to send him to Montfort College in Chiang Mai, where he was a good, but not brilliant student. One reason for this was that while at school, he was already working as a trader in one of the family’s stalls in the market. After school, he and his younger brother would sell Kapi sauce, doing their bit for the family funds, rather than applying himself to school work. In retrospect he said, “I never was a teenager.” Those teenage years were taken up with work. Every day the young Boonlert was down in the markets, selling products.

In that Chinese family where the work ethic was paramount, the Woraros Market trade came first, and schooling came second, but as the end of secondary school came for 17-year-old Boonlert, he had to also think about the future. “It was everyone’s dream to be a doctor or an engineer,” so these were choices near the top of his list in the desired courses at CMU. “I tried so hard for my examination to go to CMU, but my grades were not good enough to be accepted for a medical course.” His 5th choice, the Faculty of Business, accepted him. In retrospect, Mayor Boonlert admits, “It was the right way.” For the youngster in a Chinese business family, it had to be the right way!

He went to CMU, as did his younger brother. During the next four years, they shared their times between university and a new family business - a souvenir shop. One brother would go to university in the morning while the other tended the shop, and they would reverse places in the afternoon/evenings.

But in that environment, just running a shop was not enough. There were more business opportunities for the Woraros Market boy. He interested his father in property development. “When I was 18 I thought that real estate would be a good business. With 5 million baht I borrowed from my father I built 65 buildings. I returned 2.5 million baht profit to my father. It was one of the proudest days in my life.”

However, while your buildings are going up and university is 5 days a week, there is still Saturday and Sunday. So did young Boonlert do what you and I did at the weekends? Not likely. He would catch the bus to Bangkok, buy a car and drive it back to Chiang Mai, where he would clean it up and offer it for sale. Profits were sometimes slim, but he was a determined young man, and the profits would accrue.

University studies came to an end, with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, but this did not herald a chance to sit back and relax a little. “Now I could fully take care of my shop,” was the answer. The shop grew and became a wood-carving factory, and Boonlert, who by this stage knew the tastes of the tourists, had a very successful business going for himself - or rather, for the family.

Showing that the time spent at CMU was not wasted, Boonlert discussed the family business(es) with his father, deciding that the (by now) dynasty was too large and unmanageable. With parental backing they split the major company into two, with the girls in the family running one business, and the boys the other.

Expansion was now the name of the game and Boonlert opened a shop in Hong Kong, which he still has, commuting back and forth to Hong Kong for the first three years. After this came more property development with shops and hotels in Chiang Mai, and even expansion into Germany.

By this stage the individual members of the family were secure and Boonlert himself was married with two children. However, that “job sharing” concept that he and his younger brother had done for so many years was to rise again. “My younger brother was the mayor, but wanted out to be in politics. He asked me to take care of his projects by standing for mayor. I said, No, I am a merchant, but he insisted, and after the fourth time I agreed, but said that he had to promise me that I would not have to work more than one hour a day!”

That ‘one hour’ quickly became eight hours eight days a week, but now Mayor Boonlert has found he enjoys his mission as the mayor. “As a businessman I was trying to get money from the city. Now I have to find ways to give money back to the city.” He has environmental projects (even his business card is on recycled paper) including wastewater, energy saving, garbage disposal and air pollution. The wheel has gone full circle.

Boonlert is secure in himself and where he is heading. He does not have to look for ways to make money anymore, and when asked about his future replied, “I don’t think about myself. I think about my kids. I want them to have a good life.” It is a long way from a Woraros Market stall to City Hall, but I believe that Boonlert Buranupakorn deserves his leap upwards. Thank you for giving your time to the Chiangmai Mail too.