Thailand CP Group's Alex Jiaravanont Finds New Purpose At His Family Business
On the 64th floor of Two IFC tower in Central, with its sweeping views of Victoria Harbour, Alex Jiaravanont sits in an office that is spare but enormous, wearing a tightly tailored suit over a loosely buttoned shirt. The 46-year-old executive and former architect is a third-generation member of the Bangkok-based dynasty behind one of Asia’s largest conglomerates, CP Group, and has played an important role at the company as an advisor to several investment funds from its Hong Kong offices since 2015. But he keeps a lower profile than might be expected for someone whose family has topped lists of Thailand’s richest for decades.
“I’m actually a very private person and so getting written up was not, I mean... I don’t do it very often,” Jiaravanont says. “But a lot of people didn’t realise CP has a division in Hong Kong, so we see this as an opportunity.”
Jiaravanont might be a little shy, but he does not exactly go unnoticed. As tall and angular as a fashion model, with his head shaven clean to the scalp, he wears a heavy ring in the shape of a tiger, and when he leans forward, a considerable tattoo of an intricately coiled snake peers out from his chest. “On my side of the family, everybody thinks I’m the creative one,” he says.
“He has a lot of tattoos,” says Amy Ho, a lawyer and a business partner of Jiaravanont in, of all things, a collection of handbags called Esemblé that he designs in his spare time.
“No, not a lot,” he says. “A couple.”
In the family
The fact that Jiaravanont’s passions include business and design brings an intriguingly modern perspective to a company that has transformed dynamically over the last century from its agricultural roots into a global powerhouse. CP Group was started as a small seed shop in 1921 by Chia Ek Chor, a farmer who emigrated from China’s Guangdong province with his younger brother, Chia Siew Whooy—Jiaravanont’s grandfather—after a typhoon destroyed their village. Over several decades, the brothers created an enormous industrial feed business that eventually began trading poultry and swine, as well as operating marketing and retail channels across Asia.
Chia Ek Chor’s youngest son, Dhanin Chearavanont, who took over as CEO in 1969, led its international expansion into China when Deng Xiaoping sought to reform the country’s agricultural sector. After China opened to foreign investment in 1978, Chearavanont, who believed “a rich country cannot have poor farmers”, secured the first license, giving CP Group the distinction of being registered in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone as “No. 0001”. Today, CP’s vast array of holdings includes feed suppliers, supermarkets, a shopping mall, telecommunications firms and some 12,000 7-Eleven stores across Thailand—even the Meiji brand of milk products that are sold across Hong Kong is a joint venture between the Meiji Company of Japan and CP, produced from cows raised on CP’s farms in Thailand. The Chearavanont family is estimated to be worth US$30.7 billion, according to Bloomberg, which ranked them the 21st richest in the world last year.
And yet, here is the unlikely sight of Jiaravanont standing before a desktop covered with vintage-inspired bags of his own design, including a bell-shaped shoulder bag, a fanlike tote, a tweed backpack and a streamlined duffle-shaped carryall. His favourite style, he points out, is a sculptural leather pouch attached to a ring handle that looks roughly like a boxer’s speed bag—it’s named the Lucia, after the Dutch prize fighter Lucia Rijker.
“This is my creative outlet,” Jiaravanont says. “It’s almost like my side hobby. I used to joke that, hey, Bruce Wayne sits in a boardroom all day and at night he beats up criminals. I sit in a boardroom all day and at night I design handbags, which is a lot more glamorous, but a lot less heroic, let’s just say.”
When he moved back to Hong Kong six years ago, he says, “I was a middle-aged man with a gut and everything, but I got into boxing and somehow managed to box that away.” For a recent photo shoot, he got himself down to eight per cent body fat. While he normally takes inspiration from vintage styles, he likes to experiment as well with ideas that even he describes as “wacky”, like the Lucia, which came to him while he was training.
“I was handling a speed bag and I stopped and said, ‘Hey, this would make a great ladies’ handbag’,” Jiaravanont says. “My trainer thought I was crazy. He thought he had hit me on the head a bit too much.”
At CP Group, Jiaravanont’s title is vice president and advisor to Soopakij Chearavanont, his cousin and Dhanin Chearavanont’s eldest son, who became chairman in 2017. (Dhanin remains senior chairman and is still actively involved in its operations.) Jiaravanont’s official role in Hong Kong is to court investment opportunities, but in some ways he is still exploring the boundaries between corporate and cool while finding his place in the sprawling family business. The variations in spellings of surnames among the different branches reflect the nuances of how they were translated into English at various times.
“I could try to give you a roadmap of our family, but it’s actually quite complicated,” Jiaravanont says. “When we get together for our yearly family reunion, I only know about 10 per cent of the people there, because about 300-500 people show up.”
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Jiaravanont, who was born in Bangkok, was raised until he was three by his grandfather, who had 12 children. His father, Apichart Jiaravanont, had been sent by CP to train in the US and then settled the family in Hong Kong, where he was involved with its newly built animal feed business.
When he was ten, Alex was sent to the US for schooling and remained there for 23 years, studying at the University of Pennsylvania and then Harvard University for his graduate degree in architecture. He moved to New York City and joined a small practice, where he was quickly promoted and began designing apartments; then a larger firm, where he found himself in charge of projects for scientific laboratories. In his youth, he experimented with many different creative professions: as a DJ while he was a student, as a comic book artist, even as an actor. He played an assassin in the 2008 movie Bodyguard: A New Beginning, having caught the attention of a crew member who thought the dark circles under his eyes, courtesy of his late nights working as an architect, made him look menacing.
“I consider myself almost like a journeyman, just picking up odd jobs here and there,” Jiavaranont says.
When family members asked why he had not asked to join CP, he pointed out that it was not an architecture firm. Eventually, in 2007, Soopakij Chearavanont convinced him to move to Shanghai, where he consulted on design and graphic aspects of the group’s assets, including Super Brand Mall in Shanghai and a model store for Lotus Hypermarket. He had a son, Anant, and, with his then wife, designed his own home and even some furniture, including a table made of Lego and a backsplash for the kitchen made of $75 worth of actual US pennies that his mother carried over in her luggage, regrettably in one trip (they weighed in at about 18.75 kg).
After eight years, he decided to take a break from architecture and returned to Hong Kong. Although food production and agriculture remain CP’s biggest businesses, Soopakij Chearavanont has led the company’s diversification into insurance, asset management and other non-core investments. (The company become the largest shareholder in China’s Ping An Insurance Group after acquiring a stake from HSBC in a US$9.4 billion deal in 2013. In 2014, CP Group acquired a 4.92 per cent stake in Japan’s Itochu Corporation for approximately US$1 billion.) Jiaravanont now focuses on identifying prospects for CT Bright, the company’s investment arm, targeting technology, pharmaceutical and duty-free brands, which is a substantial change from his previous line of work.
“A professor from architecture school once told me that architects are artists who want to please their parents,” Jiaravanont says. “But architecture is actually a very left-brain/right-brain activity. They’re just there at the centre, pulling together the structural engineers, mechanical engineers, plumbers, the client, the contractors and the suppliers, so it’s almost like a theatre where you have to direct a play, improv and just hope that it doesn’t blow up in your face.”
Still, he began to desire another creative outlet and when Ho’s husband, Marco Ngai, who also works for CP Group, suggested they start an accessories business in 2016, Jiaravanont was intrigued. Esemblé, pronounced “assembly”, is a modest business. Jiaravanont is co-founder and creative director; Ho is co-founder and director. Its competitively priced designs, mostly under HK$3,000, are sold in a handful of stores like Lane Crawford, Harvey Nichols and Kapok, as well as online, but there are some synergies with CP Group.
“When I came back to Hong Kong, Marco and I talked about starting something fun that can take advantage of my background as a designer and his background as a retailer, when we both worked for Lotus in China,” Jiaravanont says. “We saw how powerful online retail is going forward, and we wish to partake in this to learn first-hand from the perspective of building a brand. Our parent company for Esemblé is called Wisefools—derived from the idea that people often come up with ‘wise’ reasons not to do something, while our attitude is ‘why not?’. We believe that we have to be wise going through life, but with a healthy dose of foolishness to jump into something outside of our comfort zone.”
It’s also a way to draw attention to the fact that CP, which is well known in Thailand and mainland China, has a history in retail and duty-free shopping. And it shows off a bit of personality, too.
“Nobody pressed me to come back into the family business, but I’m very glad that I did,” he says. “They always think I’m a dreamer, but I’m actually a very practical person. Being an architect, you have to be.”
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