THE IN­TER­VIEW

Vicha Poolvar­aluck, founder of Thai cinema chain Ma­jor Cine­plex, breaks down his recipe for suc­cess

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - WORDS BY EUAN BLACK PHOTOGRAPHY BY LAU­REN DECICCA

Flanked by two as­sis­tants, Vicha Poolvar­aluck strolls into the empty cinema like he owns the place. It’s partly be­cause he does – this is one of 135 cine­mas he owns in South­east Asia – and partly be­cause he sees no room for weak­ness in the world of busi­ness.

“I’m al­ways telling my team that do­ing busi­ness is like you’re climb­ing a cliff. You just keep climb­ing and don’t look down,” the founder of the Thai cinema chain Ma­jor Cine­plex tells me half an hour later, while lean­ing back ca­su­ally in a black leather chair in a meet­ing room on the ninth floor of his com­pany’s Bangkok head­quar­ters.

“When you look down, you think too much… If you ask me, I don’t think too much. I just keep climb­ing… keep grow­ing. And that’s why we have what we have to­day,” he says.

Poolvar­aluck is re­fer­ring to a 70% share of the do­mes­tic mar­ket, five cine­mas in Cam­bo­dia and Laos, and a sig­nif­i­cant role in the Thai film in­dus­try through the com­pany’s dis­tri­bu­tion and pro­duc­tion arm, M Pictures. Add in own­er­ship of Siam Fu­ture De­vel­op­ment – the de­vel­op­ers be­hind shop­ping malls such as Mega Banga and Es­planade – and 250 McDon­ald’s res­tau­rants across Thai­land, and it’s fair to say that Poolvar­aluck, to use his own anal­ogy, has reached the sum­mit.

Born in Bangkok to Thai par­ents with Chi­nese heritage, the bullish 56-year-old ini­tially pur­sued a ca­reer in real es­tate af­ter grad­u­at­ing from univer­sity. But when his fa­ther’s cinema be­gan to strug­gle un­der the weight of for­eign com­pe­ti­tion in the early 1990s, he de­cided to switch ca­reers, ea­ger to prove that Thai­land could build its own suc­cess­ful chain of cine­mas.

“When Aus­tralian and US cine­mas came to Thai­land, it was like a tsunami. They were killing ev­ery­body. They took over the Thai mar­ket, and the orig­i­nal cine­mas, such as the ones run by my dad, shut down. Ev­ery­body quit be­cause the [for­eign] cine­mas were big­ger. They had more power and more money,” he says.

And so, just months af­ter found­ing Ma­jor Cine­plex in De­cem­ber 1995, he opened Ma­jor Cine­plex Pin­klao, a shop­ping mall that in­cluded a cinema and var­i­ous retail spa­ces for rent. But Poolvar­aluck soon re­alised that, to com­pete with the big­ger play­ers, he needed more ways to in­crease traf­fic to his malls and cine­mas.

“We needed all kinds of en­ter­tain­ment to draw traf­fic to the mall,” he says. “Later, I went to Ja­pan, which had a lot of nice bowl­ing… So about 20 years ago, we opened Ma­jor Cine­plex Ekka­mai. It was the first of our venues to in­clude bowl­ing. It helped us in­crease traf­fic to the com­plex, which meant we could earn more rev­enue from rent­ing units to retail out­lets.”

For Poolvar­aluck, it’s proven ef­fec­tive. The cine­mas and bowl­ing lanes – which were later sup­ple­mented by fur­ther en­ter­tain­ment op­tions such as ar­cade games, karaoke and ice skat­ing – help in­crease traf­fic to the shops, and the shops help at­tract more po­ten­tial cus­tomers for the cinema.

In ad­di­tion to build­ing his own malls to house Ma­jor Cine­plexes, Poolvar­aluck has placed his one-stop-shop en­ter­tain­ment con­cept in­side prom­i­nent malls at home and abroad, such as Siam Paragon in Bangkok and Aeon Mall in Ph­nom Penh.

“You can­not fail if you go with a big mall,” says Poolvar­aluck. “They have a lot of shops but only one cinema. When you have so much traf­fic, you’re not go­ing to lose.”

It hasn’t all been plain sail­ing for Poolvar­aluck, how­ever. Shortly af­ter he founded Ma­jor Cine­plex, the Thai baht was sent into freefall af­ter sus­tained spec­u­la­tive cur­rency attacks forced then-Prime Min­is­ter Chavalit Yongchaiyudh to aban­don the baht’s peg to the dol­lar. Overnight, the cur­rency’s value was cut in half, and mil­lions of Thais lost a gen­er­a­tion’s worth of sav­ings. But Poolvar­aluck soon bounced back. While his com­peti­tors licked their wounds, he gam­bled on a new project. The re­wards were great.

“When we opened the sec­ond Ma­jor Cine­plex in Ekka­mai, in 1998, there was no com­pe­ti­tion… There were no new de­vel­op­ments, so it was a big suc­cess. The Cen­tral Group and the Mall Group were very weak at the time, as they hadn’t fixed the debt that they car­ried,” he says. “The suc­cess gave us the cap­i­tal to open the third one here, at Ratchayothin. So I ac­tu­ally think, in the long term, we ben­e­fited from the cri­sis. We didn’t have any com­peti­tors for many years. It was like a hon­ey­moon.”

Poolvar­aluck’s even-handed re­sponse to the per­ils of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis typ­i­fies his ap­proach to busi­ness, which, he says, is cen­tred on not al­low­ing him­self to get too caught up in the mo­ment.

“I never get too happy or de­pressed. We bought out the sec­ond-largest cinema chain in Thai­land, then we went pub­lic, then we went in­ter­na­tional, then we in­vested in In­dia – we’ve had a lot of great suc­cesses, but I don’t cel­e­brate them too much. I think it’s bet­ter to be happy ev­ery day in­stead,” he says. “That’s my at­ti­tude: don’t

“You can­not fail if you go with a big mall. They have a lot of shops but only one cinema. When you have so much traf­fic, you’re not go­ing to lose”

be weak, or sad, or overly happy. Just be OK, and en­joy it. Have fun. In sport, it’s easy to see who wins be­cause you get the fi­nal score. But in busi­ness and in life, it’s dif­fer­ent. No­body ever wins, be­cause it never ends.”

Poolvar­aluck at­tributes his suc­cess to this roll-with­the-punches phi­los­o­phy on life, which he says he com­bines with a strong work ethic that sees him con­stantly work­ing, even while so­cial­is­ing.

It’s per­haps un­sur­pris­ing, then, that Poolvar­aluck re­mains fix­ated on con­tin­ued ex­pan­sion. By 2020, he hopes to have upped the to­tal num­ber of screens con­trolled by Ma­jor Cine­plex in Thai­land from 710 to 1,000, a tar­get he be­lieves he’ll meet due to the medium’s en­dur­ing ap­peal.

“You can­not find the movies that we show on Netflix or iFlix or HBO be­cause Hol­ly­wood has to take care of their 200,000 screens around the world. This is why cinema hasn’t died be­cause of dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion… It’s also one of the [most ac­ces­si­ble] and cheap­est en­ter­tain­ments for Thai peo­ple. Our coun­try doesn’t have a lot of sport; we only have con­certs – and tick­ets can run from 500 to 5,000 baht. But movie tick­ets are only 150 or 200 baht,” he says.

“Peo­ple may spend most of their time read­ing the news or watch­ing videos on smart­phones nowa­days… but they still have to go out, en­joy en­ter­tain­ment and so­cialise with their friends, boyfriends and girl­friends. And cinema gives them magic.”

Vicha Poolvar­aluck at his com­pany’sBangkok head­quar­ters (below left); an F&B outlet in­side Ma­jor Cine­plex

Young cus­tomers sit­ting in the lav­ish sur­rounds of a Ma­jor Cine­plex cinema

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