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Home » Vinai Gandhi, Co-owner of Phorn Charoen, blends success, passion, and a strong family legacy to shape the future of business.

Vinai Gandhi, Co-owner of Phorn Charoen, blends success, passion, and a strong family legacy to shape the future of business.

by Nikki Kumar

Of Industry and Humility

By Mahmood Hossain

Over 12 years of journalism, I have come across some of the most intriguing characters, from eccentric celebrities to industry titans, with their unique backstories and banter. However, I have come to realise the most meaningful conversations have been birthed from encountering influential individuals who are (by choice) far removed from the limelight; the unsung heroes, if you will. Their value isn’t necessarily determined by how many lives they have saved or that they were the catalyst behind a tectonic shift in how society behaves or lives. Sometimes, it narrows down to a person’s lasting impact in their respective fields of expertise, or the communities they belong to and serve. Cut from a similar fabric, Vinai Gandhi, who comes from an accomplished lineage and displays true grit, embodies the humility and dynamic nature of the stoic generations of yesteryear. 

Equally admirable is his ability to adapt to the modern approach to conducting business and live life to the fullest, while keeping his feet firmly on the ground and behind the scenes. Vinai has a reputation for being a private man; he would rather have his work do the talking. Hoewever, when I had the pleasure of meeting him for the first time in his beautiful home, I would have never pegged this gentleman to be reserved or closed off, as he has a genuine, warm, and welcoming aura about him. His ability to engage with people with such ease is rooted in the capabilities of his father and his chachas (father’s brothers).

Like many Punjabi families during the partition, Vinai’s grandparents decided to seek opportunities beyond the borders of the Indian subcontinent with their first three sons; Vinai’s father, the eldest, was 12 at the time. A couple of years after the Gandhi family established their new home in Songkhla, located in southern Thailand, Vinai’s father and uncles began the family’s venture into retail. Soon after, his grandmother gave birth to two more sons, bringing the total to five brothers. With plenty of mouths to feed, as one would expect, the work ethics of the time developed them into resilient members of society. It was a seven-day work week, up at six in the morning every day until nine at night, without the option of having a single holiday. The family simply wanted to work hard to provide a comfortable and happy life.

“It was peaceful, but I only have vague memories of the time,” Vinai says fondly. “Even though I was born and raised in Bangkok, we were shuffling back and forth when I was growing up. It took slightly over a decade until the family was financially comfortable to venture into Bangkok. They went from retailing in Songkhla, to selling wholesale in Bangkok. It was admirable the way my father and chachas were running the business, while providing proper education for their younger siblings back in India.”

In the 70s and 80s, there were several booming industries, including textiles. The family thrived with their expertise in this field. Soon, solidifying their presence in Bangkok was a necessity, and the family developed properties in the city from scratch and called them their home. Bangkok had become their new home. Vinai made his way into the family business at the age of 22, after graduating from Virginia Tech in the US.  

“By the time I joined, the company had begun to export goods. 

For example, there was also a high demand for our high-end polyester,” explains Vinai. “This boosted our wholesale operations to incredible success, and it was only natural for us to expand based on our rapid growth. We were providing goods to the fashion industry and major corporations, which only led to more expansion. For example, we were offered an embroidery factory as a viable branch of our business. As long as the brothers stayed together, we kept building on that success.”  

In natural procession, Vinai and his cousins took the reins of the family business. But as the family expanded, so did their ambitions, and they had the foresight to understand that pivoting into different fields was essential. Vinai, his father, eldest chacha, and cousins teamed up to realise their vision for the future together.

“We had the manpower to explore different industries, so we initially searched for commercial properties, putting quality first, just as in textiles” explains Vinai. “We also purchased land in certain locations for future development; a natural step in real estate. Not too long after, we decided on a property to usher us into the hospitality industry and gave it a complete revamp; tearing it down and building it back up.”

At this point, Vinai and his family had their hands in textiles, real estate, and hospitality. The success in these industries is rooted in Vinai’s inspiration: his father. We delved a little deeper into how this inspiration solidified his position in the family businesses, how critical his family is to his own success, and how, equally important, he maintains his work-life balance. Not to mention, bonding over our affinity for everything Italian, while the family’s ridiculously adorable dog, Justin, frolicked around to distract us. It’s safe to say, this has been one of my favourite conversations in recent times. 

Do you believe that your passion came from a standard that was set by your father?

Yes! I was fortunate to see a man who did not complete his formal education grow into the great businessman that he was, like it was second nature. Getting into fabrics, finding the right resources, moving products, distribution, all of it. It seemed like he and his brothers knew nothing else; this was their passion. I was in awe of their commitment to their craft. People knew they always delivered on their word, and their progress was so meteoric that sometimes, I wondered if it was possible to live up to that expectation or that level of success.

From humble beginnings at the Krishna Stone in Songkhla, Vinai’s uncle Jagdish holding his elder brother with his father, Abnash, behind him.

Surely, there are always plenty of challenges along the way to meeting expectations. What were some of the challenges in this journey, and how did you overcome them?

Let’s take exporting, for example. We weren’t too successful on that front; that was incredibly challenging. Rather than boring you with the details, all I’ll say is we learned from past challenges and failures. You learn that if something fails, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should stop. You have to carry on and take different paths that eventually do work out. 

Secondly, the support of my family is another factor in my ability to overcome some of life’s challenges. Imagine building a hotel from scratch, what a massive undertaking that is, and how difficult it would have been without a support system. I have been blessed with many things, both in life and business. Fortunately for the latter, you could say I have two fathers looking after me and guiding me, both in my father and my chacha. Moreover, my three cousins are like brothers to me, and working with them is always a pleasure. There was always mutual respect between us all. All our business decisions are done together, regardless of our differences in age and experience. The rest of my family gives me both emotional and intellectual support, allowing me to juggle both my private and professional responsibilities. 

 Professionally, at the end of the day, a business person works for the bottom line. Whichever business is doing better, your priorities will shift slightly in favour of that business. That doesn’t mean you let the other businesses go. However, when making decisions and to avoid future challenges, it’s also important that whatever you get into, you’ll know how to get out beforehand. If there’s an entrance, there should be an exit – if there isn’t one, don’t get into it. 

 That unity must have been crucial, especially in different phases of your career. Things have changed in how business, such as textiles, was done decades ago compared to now.

 Absolutely. If you look at the 70s and 80s, the volume of textiles in Thailand depended on two main outlets. First, retailers. Most of the provinces had a good number of retail outlets that you could supply to; it was easier to distribute to those retailers. 

And the second was the garment manufacturers, which came in two forms, one of which was in exports. In that era, we didn’t have today’s multinational brands; no Uniqlo or Marks & Spencer, just local brands that didn’t deal with large volumes. The volume in Thailand came mainly from department stores. In those days, the networking between department stores was basically non-existent. If you wanted to supply those stores, you would have to have a selection and proper assortment of goods. For example, if you had 10 outlets, you would have to produce enough goods (each item in every size) for each of those outlets. You couldn’t pick and choose because whatever was being advertised in print media meant that consumers were expecting the same product in each of those 10 outlets. The difference between then and now is that these outlets no longer carry the same variety as the next outlet. Now, there is an actual network, where each outlet can provide or transfer the amount of goods needed for another branch’s request or demand. It doesn’t need to be all in one place. You also have more online sales, which means brands can first make samples, take orders, and then create the amount they need. That’s where pre-sales come in as well.

Where do you see the textile industry going next?

 I feel that the middlemen, the bridge between manufacturers or brands and the average consumer, will shrink drastically. Additionally, I don’t see much growth in Thailand for a couple of reasons. Firstly, many of the factories have either downsized or shut down and stopped investing in R&D because it’s too costly and overseas competition makes it even worse. In Thailand, there is no duty on textile imports, which makes things even more very difficult. If you’re going to depend on textiles in Thailand, it’s not going to look too bright for you; there honestly isn’t going to be a comeback. 

Secondly, this is a very labour-intensive industry, which is a worldwide issue. There are cheaper alternatives for these organisations now. Unless you already have a firm grip on sourcing imported goods for supply in Thailand, it’s almost impossible. It will only get increasingly difficult to conduct business in this field.  

Thirdly, is obviously the rise of technology. People are now saving up money to pay for all sorts of bills and expenses that we didn’t have in the past. What used to be a hefty budget for clothing is now being cut down because of monthly subscriptions to streaming platforms or the convenience of ordering online. Adding to that is the end of the printing industry. Everything now is reliant on digital printing. We used to need 3,000 yards of fabric to print a design. Today, for the same design, we only need two yards. When digital printing began, they used to be priced around 100 Thai baht per yard. Now, they are doing it for quarter of the price.

You mentioned that an exit strategy is always important in business – going on the fly shouldn’t be a part of the formula. 

Yes! You can apply it to real estate, for example. If you are investing in property just because it’s cheap, that is not going to do you any good. Make sure there is resale value, or that you plan to raise its value overall. It’s the same in textiles. Focus on the quality first, not the price point. 

You have clearly gathered plenty of wisdom through these experiences and achieved many things. What has been your biggest reward?

To do what I do because of my family. My father, up until his passing four years ago, provided unwavering support. My mother is still around, thankfully, and her support has always been present. Moreover, I cannot stress this enough, my beautiful wife Vandana is an incredible blessing. She has always been there for me, and her simplicity and kindness are second to none. And the amazing way she has brought up our kids – I cannot begin to explain! I could not imagine a life without her in it. Then, of course, we have our three wonderful children. The eldest one, Akshay, in the US, specialises in private equity, with his wife Megan who shines in finance; the second, Sharad, is an artist, and some of these art pieces hanging in our home are from his brilliance. Then, there is my youngest, Rhea, still studying and has her own passions, from health-related topics to singing. There’s a bright future ahead for her as well.

The Gandhi family’s early years in Songkhla.

You must be very understanding and considerate of your children and their passions in life.

My kids may not be doing exactly what I am doing, but times have changed. It’s not like in our generation, when we used to follow the path of our parents or elders. I have had so many people ask me whether it’d be ideal if one of my kids took over the business after me. I usally reply, “How do you know that I won’t instead join their businesses or pursuits in life?” Why should I close doors of opportunities that can go both ways with my children? This generation is incredibly creative, with so many tools at their exposal. They are allowed to do so much more.

As part of the older generation, we cannot lecture the new generation on how we used to do things. What benefit will they receive by doing things the old way? We went from experiencing tape recorders to now operating in the Cloud. This generation’s starting point is the Cloud. Yes, if they do need guidance, old stories do bring new merits.

As older adults, we have a lot to learn from the younger generation. The latter is more open-minded and accepting of different groups of people and professions. We used to be limited to the subjects we wanted to learn about and hopefully pursue. Today, they are creating their own subjects or entirely new fields, which we can all learn from – I have learned so many things from my kids, and I am grateful that. 

Is there any advice you wish to give to this new generation of young adults who wish to create a lasting impact on their communities like you have?

Respect. You may think it’s too obvious or sounds too old, but you should always have respect. Always make sure you respect other cultures and heritage. First, get to know your own culture and traditions. Only then will others understand you better and respect you in kind. The same courtesy should be offered by you. 

The other crucial advice is to remain humble. There will always come a time when you will reflect and say, “I should have or could have.” That is when you will realise it would have been better if you had been humbler; it would be more beneficial and you would have valued what you had at the time.

Finally, follow your passion, but be calculated about it. Things change so fast in the modern world. If you cannot take calculated risks and not utilise the knowledge you have gathered usefully, you are setting yourself up to lose. They say there is “no reward without risk.” What people should say is, there will be no reward without calculated risk.

Risks and rewards. What are some rewards you give yourself, when you need to take a breather?

I’ve started to play golf more, that’s for sure. I love taking the time off in the early hours of the day, maybe twice or thrice a week, and hopefully get in 14 or 15 holes. I also love travelling with my family. I have made it a family activity to see the world more.

What are some of your favourite destinations?

I would have to say the north of Italy. You can drop me off in some town in Tuscany, maybe in Florence, enjoying some wine, and I will be a very happy man. 

Love for Italy and wine, you’re talking my language. What are your top three wines?

I’m biased, so anything from Italy, of course, and a select few from France. I would open up a bottle, but you’re on the clock! [Laughs]



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