“Don’t live your life like a greedy money-grubber.” James Duan, the Myanmar businessman who turned debt into wealth.

“Don’t live your life like a greedy money-grubber.” James Duan, the Myanmar businessman who turned debt into wealth.

How did you recover from failure?

In 2001, I decided to study an MBA in Beijing. I chose a thesis topic on Thailand’s real estate because it has been my primary interest. After than I also got a degree on Public Economics, which is another subject that I am particularly interested in.

After my graduation in 2004, I asked two foreign investors to join me in Thailand and establish “Fragrant Company”. Fortunately, I have always be honest and never been deceitful. I always pay off my debt. So, I earn my good reputation. When I do business, I usually get good response. I chose to do my business in Thailand because I have been living here longer than my own home country. Never think of moving anywhere else. I’d like to settle down and raise my family here.

How did the much talked about project like ‘green condo’ start?

The idea came to me during the construction of the Prime 11 on Sukhumvit Soi 11. I came across the construction report stating that in only one project, we need about 660 truckloads of trash. Wow…how did we make so much trash? So I did more reading research on the issue and felt so strongly that we need to establish a standard, same as what people do in the western world. I was impressed by the spirit of businessmen who care for the quality of construction materials as much as the environment. So it took me about 2 years to study. In 2009, I started building our first green condo which is an eco-friendly project. At first, people warned me that it might fall short since the idea was too new for Thailand. I just ignored them. All my life, I’ve never been in a comfort zone. I’ve always found myself walk a tightrope.

It doesn’t mean that I intentionally want to put my life on a line. But I dare to think. Building the first green condo in Thailand was rather risky, I admitted. Because we did not know if the consumer need it or not. But I was not afraid to try. If it’d fail, we can always start anew.

It seems like you are a CEO who loves to take a risk? (Chuckled)

I am quite hyper-active. The only two activities that can keep me concentrated are reading a book and playing sports. Apart from that, I’ve never sit still. I cannot just sit in the office all day. That is not my work habit.

I have a very active working day. I usually visit construction sites, or go to the sell gallery. I am detail-oriented. I also often work on weekends. I like to learn more about technology. I am a frequent flyer, often time to Germany or Japan where I usually found and brought back new technology or hi-tech gadget.

I once flew 11-hour from Bangkok to Frankfurt, then spent another 2 hours on a train to Stuttgart, and 5 hours on the road to France – to see a construction part.  You may want to ask me why I have to do all that. The answer is that each single part means quality which our customer can appreciate for the next 10-20 years. It’s our job to take that seriously.

We are a condominium building developer. It’s our job to give the customer only the finest. I do not compromise to quality. I am a perfectionist.

Have your team ever told you that you stress them out?

Frankly, I’ve never thought of myself that way, (laughed for teasing Praew). One time, while I was at a seminar in Hong Kong, my team texted me that the condo was sold out in one day. My response was, “Congratulations! But you have only one day to celebrate your success. There are still much more to do and make it even better”.

I always tell my team that this is not our highest peak. Do not be satisfied just yet. If you want to be successful, don’t be too easy on yourself. Otherwise we cannot achieve a higher progress. When I found a good book, I’d order it for every employee to read and expand their minds. Even a TV show can teach you something.

You know, I don’t really have any work system because everybody knows their roles and duties. Just like in a marriage. Do you think we need a system in a marriage? Yes, a marriage has no formula. You know it by heart. A system is in the heart. The important issue is how to make your team love their job. I used to run a company all by myself. I worked alone so effectively. But now I have to work with 100-200 employees. How do I make all 200 employees set for the same goal? They comes from all walks of life, from different professions, cultures, and family backgrounds.

Back then, I thought I got it all together by having everyone follow my policies. I only looked ahead. Spent 5 years expanding projects, I created value of about 12,000 MB. However, I did not realize that my rear end was in trouble. Some employees were not on the same page. And with lack of communication, the work could not go forward.

Most problems in every society are people problems. How did you fix it?

I tried to talk more and it have become our organizational culture, which we call ‘deep conversation’. In order to work well together, we need to understand each other – just like marriage. It’s impossible to be so in love all the time. It’s completely normal for people to argue or have disagreements. But you’d be trouble in a long run if you do not talk after a fight.

You seem to know it through and through. You must have a very happy marriage, I suppose?

My wife and I, we talk every day. I usually don’t go home late at night. I may have a night out with friends occasionally. But I try not to be home later than 10-11 pm. I’m not saying that I am such a good husband nor that my wife is tough. But I did go down the wrong path when I was in my 20s. I worked so hard and I splurged my hard earned money on cars; buying 2-3 cars at the same time.

But really, there’s a good thing in this. When you go all the way, then you realize that it is not your lifestyle. I sold them all. Now I only use one van. I don’t spend much anymore. I don’t go shopping.

At work, I am a very organized person. But with myself, I am an easy person. I like to do things the simple way. I can eat anywhere. I love Thai food, especially ‘Miang Kham’. I can sleep anywhere. I’ve been to many luxury places around the world. I travel to learn and earn different experiences. I usually take my wife with me. Many hours on the plane are great opportunity for us to have a good, long conversation.

My flaw is I am a workaholic. I cannot stop thinking about work even when I’m in bed. During my waking hours, I still think about work all the time. I rarely have any free time. Supposedly, I get home around 9pm, I would need an hour to unload the work mode. I confess that it is pretty hard. Sometimes I go to bed early, but I would wake up at 3-4 am thinking about work again. I just can’t help it.

So I try to have more conversation with my kids and play with them – so I can take my mind off of work. I have 3 children. We speak Chinese at home because I want them to have good opportunity like me. Sometimes we go to a meditation retreat together which is very wonderful. I notice, when we have a conversation, that they are better focused.  All 3 of them are also taking a golf lesson.

Are you an indulgent father?

I have never indulge my children. If they want something, they have to work for it. I used to have my oldest child work at the office. His job was to open & close the door for the customers. I gave him 60 Baht a day. He argued that he should earn the minimum wage of 300 Baht. I insisted that he only work half day. I could give you 90 Baht. And he was okay with that (laughed).

When I teach my kids, I always emphasize on being a good person, and being kind. I set up a charitable foundation for them. Whenever they earn money from Chinese New Year, a prize, or whatever; they have to give half of that money to the foundation.

At first, they were not happy at all. One time, we were in France. My youngest one was fighting with me because she wanted to buy an electronic scooter. I refused to let her buy it there. A scooter like that was so much cheaper in China – why would you have to buy it in France? It was so expensive. She insisted that she would use her own money. But I told her that it wasn’t enough because half of it would have to go to the foundation. We had a huge fight. But I explained reasons to her until she finally understood.

I want them to understand the power of sharing. I used to have them donated hundreds of winter sweaters to the poor. It’s not to show off that we are rich. But I want them to experience the good feeling when you are a ‘giver’.

I teach my children that the world is not for money-grubber. They must learn to live a useful life.

Do you think you have come close to being successful?

For me, being successful means being useful to others. In order to help others, do we need money? Of course. But money is not everything. The least you can do to your society is do not destroy it. I am where I am today because the society give me a chance. We are running our business and making sure that our objectives are benevolence. Whether it will do well or not, is also up to us.

Because nobody can ruin your business, except you.

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