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
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
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
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
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)!