Weekly Local Biography

  Chanon and Chana Pongcharoenkul

Chanon and Chana Pongcharoenkul are handsome, intelligent, creative, fun, ambitious, and well educated. They speak English with slight American accents, and appreciate the intricacies of developing businesses in a global economy. They attended Prince Royal’s College, and then went on to graduate from the Chiang Mai University Demonstration School. Each in turn, one year apart, left home for university in the United States. Each graduated, the older from Hawaii Pacific University, the younger from Grinnell, and then completed certification at the American Institute of Gemology (AIG) before returning home. But don’t for a minute think that they are alike just because they have taken the same paths in education and business, or even because they are brothers. Chanon and Chana Pongcharoenkul, known to friends and family as Mai and Pai, are a delightful study in contrasting and complimentary personalities. Born first, Mai is the August 1980 edition of this dynamic duo. Pai followed just a year later in August of 1981.

I had dinner with them recently at the family restaurant. Their clothes were the first giveaway. Mai was dressed in designer black. Stylish and modern, he could have just stepped out of Gentlemen’s Quarterly. Pai was laid back and casual in an open neck sports shirt and slacks. No less handsome, he looked like an advertisement for a resort. But more on that follows.

We chatted briefly and ordered dinner. Fois gras imported from France, seared lightly, with a good red wine for Mai. The big wine glass arrived; and the latest in stemware was placed before him. The wine was decanted and poured. Mai expertly swirled it in his glass, leaned over to inhale the woody aroma, and then carefully sipped from the glass. A question arose in his mind. He handed it to his father for further investigation. They discussed the transportation and maintenance of fine wine in tropical weather. It was settled. Mai took a sip and smiled.

Pai on the other hand, observed it all but ordered a steak, medium rare, with a salad and fresh steamed vegetables. Cool, clear water on this hot evening was his drink of choice. "I eat simply", he said, "and I never drink alcohol." He is more studious, more competitive in academic work than his brother, but he has a fun and light-hearted side, too. A few months ago, he was a featured model in magazine advertisements for a Thai resort. He told nobody in his family until the ads appeared. "We were happy that he wore nice clothes", observed his mom with smiling relief. The magazine was Cosmopolitan.

Mai, the older of the two, is the consummate extrovert. He meets, he remembers, he networks. People are his forte, not academics, although he did well in college and at the AIG. He loves car racing and politics, both risky and dangerous sports. Pai is more introverted. He likes to study and learn; he examines trends and plans for future ventures. He knows all of the international business buzzwords. He’s willing to take risks of the business variety. Mai likes the hustle and bustle of big city life in Bangkok; Pai loves coming home to Chiang Mai.

They have been raised in a unique family and business environment. They did all of the little boy things that little boys all over the world do. School and friends, music and sports, family outings and interaction with their parents’ many friends were all part of their childhoods. Their grandmother’s home still stands on the family compound. She was simply too dear to them for it to be removed. But many sunrises followed many sunsets and here they are grown men.

Their parents live by unusual business concepts. They must be able to trust their employees and be trusted, there must be harmony in the work place, and each employee is responsible for his or her personal growth. Thus, a housemaid may learn to manage the books at one of the family businesses, and the gardener may become an expert tea grower. How, I asked, was this philosophy imparted to both of you? Very simply. The family businesses are their learning laboratories. They are allowed to make their own mistakes. That’s also part of their parents’ philosophy.

Jewelry, in particular fine jade and beautiful colored stones, is the family business. For over two decades the parents have developed their shop on top of Doi Suthep. Consulate and Embassy people buy from them, and bring their VIP guests and family members alike to buy. When Mai and Pai graduated from university and then AIG, the family opened a new store in Bangkok, then rapidly expanded to a small shop near a new five star resort. Now "the boys" have their eyes on two other stores. They envision a small boutique type store of original jewelry designs inside the resort, and they’re looking at property between Siam Square and the World Trade Center for a large store right on the Skytrain route. They have incredible energy and the wonderful vision of young entrepreneurs.

The family business does not stop with jewelry and jade, though. We’re dining in a restaurant that they grew up in and have recently redesigned. They were involved in the development of the menu, the newly upholstered silver colored silk chairs, the installation of long tables and benches for the informal serving of fondue. Then there is the arabica coffee and the oolong tea that their family is growing on a mountain outside of town. There is packaging to be designed and a website to be developed.

Both Mai and Pai are athletic, but again their choices differ. Mai played on the university basketball team. Pai played on the university tennis team. And both of them studied piano as youngsters, although – this won’t surprise you a bit - they like different types of music. Mai prefers the modern; Pai sticks with the more traditional.

We ended our evening on a light note when I reminded them that they’re both bachelors. Are there girlfriends? "I’m taken", said Mai. "I’m not", said Pai.