Weekly Local Biography

  Armin Schoch

The managing director of Rowaco Asia Journey is a big bulldozer of a man, Armin Schoch. A man never short of words, he arrived for the interview on his Paris-Dakar enduro motorcycle and during our time together said, “I have a credo by which I live as best as I can - I am not a bastard. I am an honest and straightforward person. Honesty and generosity in helping others will eventually come back to me!” Powerful stuff!

Armin is Swiss born, with both his parents being teachers, but he did not follow them into that profession. By the time he was a teenager he was already showing an indomitable and straightforward spirit, refusing to continue into tertiary education, “Partly because I was cross with my father because he was too severe!” Instead he moved towards the aviation industry, eventually taking an apprenticeship with Swissair. This was not in the flight area, but in passenger services, as the young Armin was already showing that he had strong people skills.

To advance himself in that direction, he went to London to learn English. “I learned it playing pool,” said Armin with a large grin, challenging me to refute it. Now with linguistic skills he moved into a travel agency, dealing with ticketing. “I was writing tickets for my friends going overseas but I was not. I began looking for a way out of Switzerland.”

After three years in the travel agency, the ‘way out’ was an advertisement for a position in the Diethelm organization in Bangkok. “I was plain lucky. I was 25 and they were looking for an experienced 30 year old.” He married and they arrived in the nation’s capital in 1983.

His job was to attract tourists to Thailand. “I enjoyed Thailand, so it was easy to sell Thailand. The markets weren’t fully explored and the tour companies were not as professional as they are today.” History will show that he was spectacularly successful at this, though it did mean he spent 40 percent of his time, in those early years, just travelling backwards and forwards to Europe. He did also say, “In this kind of job you have to have an understanding wife!” I am sure she would agree.

As his stature in the company increased, so did the workload. By 1990 he believed that the company should look outside the pure confines of Thailand. He could see that Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar were changing their investment strategies and so he led Diethelm into Laos and Cambodia, taking the company into joint ventures in Indo-China.

However, it would have been difficult to keep a man like Armin Schoch tied down, and in 1994 he left Diethelm. “I thought to myself, what can I do? I decided to try Burma and eventually I managed to get the first joint venture tourism company in Burma off the ground. It took five months of negotiating,” said Armin, and I had the feeling those were five tough months.

He spent five years with this company, Insight Myanmar, working just as hard as before, though he would shrug it off. “Tourism is the easiest form of export. You don’t have to physically export anything. You are also well accepted by the government because you make sure the dollars are coming in.”

During this time in Burma his wife pursued the more usual form of trading companies, but separately from Armin’s Insight Myanmar. “I won’t have my wife working with me,” he said decisively. I would imagine that Armin’s CEO style of management was best left in the office and not brought home as well!

However, by the end of 1999, he felt that Burma was slipping back, so he returned here to open Insight Thailand and Insight Cambodia. That Armin was back was not unnoticed by his former employers who approached him with a buy-out scheme and promise of the top job in the new Diethelm, which he accepted. Unfortunately, as so often happens these days, there were high level mergers and restructuring and Armin felt that the resultant business milieu was not one in which he could perform the way he felt was needed, so again he resigned.

“So what now?” said Armin. “I could have started out again, but you have to move on. I didn’t want to be in a major tourism group again. I wanted a niche.” He decided the niche he needed was here in Chiang Mai.

He has so much pent-up energy and drive that it becomes difficult to stop Armin when he launches off at full throttle. “Make Chiang Mai the hub,” he said, continuing with, “There are road projects underway, tour possibilities that were not possible before. There are new hotels coming in (and he rattled off the names). This is where tourism operators like me come in. The client profile will change. There’s an untapped wealth of attractions and expertise in the north. Royal projects, pottery, textiles, Lanna. The Wa State wants to develop tourism. There are river explorations. My dream is the Salween - come from China through the Wa and Shan territories.”

When he drew breath I managed to ask what it was that drove him to try all these adventure expeditions. “I personally enjoy the challenge,” he said, “And it gives me something I can sell.”

One of the challenges he has set for himself is to drive to Lhasa from Chiang Mai via Yunnan province in China. I would not be surprised if he did this on a motorcycle, though he did admit that his wife does not follow his love of two wheeled excitement. “She needs to be convinced I need more motorcycles!”

Armin finished with, “I would like to end up as a healthy old man who can impart wisdom without being babbly.” He may have to give up motorcycles to do this, but like me, will live to be 100, or die in the attempt. It was an exhausting afternoon, Armin, and thanks for the beer(s)!