Weekly Local Biography

  Fred Lambersoy

The manager of the Norwegian Handicraft Company in Chiang Mai is a laughing, blue-eyed Norwegian, Fred Lambersoy. He is, amongst many other things, an adventurer, and one can easily imagine his forebears in the long boats. He is also a man whose ambition includes building a toilet in a village in Nepal!

He was born in Narvik in Norway and his father was an air force major who had met a young English woman during the war. Along with peace came a return to Norway for the couple and a new baby - Fred.

When he finished school, he was like most of us - totally clueless as to what he wanted to do; however, in Norway some decisions are made for young men, called compulsory military service. In those days it was 15 months, but some lucky draftees were seconded out to the civilian air traffic control as unskilled staff. Fred described himself as a “pencil sharpener.”

Fred found the environment interesting and after the 15 months decided to join the Air Traffic Control group. However, it was not just a case of filling out the forms and lining up at the control tower - there was a very long ‘apprenticeship’ to go through. The first phase being taken on as an ‘assistant’ which would last for many years before there was a place in training school. For Fred, this took four years.

The next phase was the actual training which included theory in college in the UK and then practical work back in Norway. This went on in rotation for another four years before he then became a fully-fledged Air Traffic Controller.

He likened the work as similar to that of a pilot, who works very hard for the half hours before take off and landing, and is bored for the eight hours in between. “It can be quite a tricky job, a challenge,” said Fred. There is also more than one type of traffic controller, with the control tower guys controlling the traffic you can see, working with their eyes, then there are the approach controllers, with everything being monitored through radar and then there are the area controllers, monitoring all plane movements in the area, even ones not actually landing at your airport, but just going through your air space.

Fred enjoyed the work, with positions of air traffic controllers being lifetime posts and highly sought after; however, when his employers decided to send him to northern Norway, Fred resigned. “I think I was the only air traffic controller to resign,” he said.

It was 1974 and the beginning of the oil boom and Fred joined a helicopter company. “I did everything except fly helicopters or maintain helicopters. Call me logistics consultant if you like.” It really was boom time, with the company going straight up, taking everyone’s wages upwards too, but after five years, Fred had enough. “I was never home. I was working 12-14 hours a day.” He was also married (and still is, to the same lady 38 years later), and I am sure that also had a bearing on his decision to quit.

At this time there were jobs going again for air traffic controllers in Norway, and with the new equipment being phased in (for which he had been trained in the UK) he decided to return. The pay was good too. “We were paid more than the prime minister,” said Fred, laughing.

Wanderlust began to set in again after a few years and he pointed his long boat at the Middle East, after reading that air traffic controllers were needed in Oman. Unfortunately, certain other people were also headed in that direction, called Operation Desert Storm, and politically he found he had to be very circumspect in what he said, particularly as far as making any direct criticisms of how things were run at the airport. However, he did enjoy the country. “You had a six lane highway running to the airport and 500 metres away you were witnessing what it was like 2,000 years ago! Local people dressed in the burnoose and their veiled women, and under the tree their new Toyota van.” He travelled all over the country in the five years he was there, but it was time to settle down, he thought and he returned to his old air traffic control job in Norway.

What Fred did not understand at the time was that adventurers like Fred don’t settle down that easily, and after 18 months he was on his way to Hong Kong. It was 1997 and he was in Hong Kong to see the changeover from Kai Tak Airport to the new one, but after two years he had had enough. “I really didn’t feel that I was made welcome,” so he had no regrets at leaving, but where should they go? That was the burning question. Or was it time to retire with a pipe and carpet slippers?

The carpet slippers were actually quite close to the mark, as his wife had set up a little business in China manufacturing woollen slippers that she exported to Norway. As they both wanted out of China, they began to check other possible locations in SE Asia and were advised by an acquaintance to try Thailand, and in particular, Chiang Mai. They came for a week and decided they would give it 12 months and see what happened.

It is now five years later, and ‘what happened’ has become the Norwegian Handicrafts business now employing 75 people. The enterprise is branching into traditional Norwegian embroidery and Fred is sort of in slipper ‘logistics’ again.

But I did mention Fred’s toilet building ambition! He is an avid trekker in Nepal, and on one trek he stayed with a peasant family on the route, but was horrified when he got up in the morning that there was no loo! He said to his fellow trekker, “We should go back and build them a toilet!” One day, he will.