Inside the pioneering spirit of one Thailand’s most successful female CEOs
I was immediately drawn to Wandee Khunchornyakong’s sincerity. She didn’t seem like a CEO, instead she felt like a friend. We walked into the SPCG headquarters with the BBC team, passing by the many staff who greeted us with their smiles. It was our second day in Bangkok after interviewing some of Thailand’s most successful female CEOs.
“Here are some gifts for you all. The black rice is harvested within many Thai communities and the shirts were hand made by these communities too. Welcome to SPCG” Wandee said in the most welcoming of tones. Beautifully dressed, she met us at the door of what looked like SPCG’s central control room.
The assortment of Thai gifts were given to Wandee by people in Thai communities where Wandee would often frequent. When she wasn’t being a CEO, Wandee found time to visit the poorer communities, finding ways to use government funding to educate and serve their economic development.
Wandee’s hospitality felt important, as she showed us around the busy control room. The room was large with hundreds of screens and flashing cascades of numbers on display. There were about 50 staff who happily worked away, some chuckling away and sharing their lunches. You could immediately sense the family spirit that was distinctly different to a western workplace culture.
It was clear that the solar panel control room was the heart and soul of SPCG. It was a demonstration of Wandee’s aptitude and power, and it was where she controlled all 36 solar energy farms across Thailand. 260 megawatts, and a total investment $800 million dollars.
“I will bring all our investors and partners into this room. I will try and make all the stakeholders become one to fully understand the project. I give them all the information I believe that they need. Sometimes they don’t even ask for the information but I give it to them anyways” Wandee said during the interview.
Since meeting Wandee in 2017 at her headquarters in Bangkok, we have managed to stay great friends. As female leaders we have a strong kinship, with courage of our own conviction and a deep desire to be of greater service to the world.
In 2019, I invited Wandee to be a guest speaker in London where I had the opportunity to interview her again.
“You know it’s nice to be in London for a change. In Thailand we have 3 seasons, hot, hotter and hottest”. Wandee said when she greeted me in London. Along with being one of Asia’s most successful female CEOs, Wandee has a personality and sense of humor that can captivate anyone.
I asked Wandee to share her SPCG story for a second time round. A story I loved each time I heard it.
“Before I started this project I already started my retirement. I found it quite difficult to find the power inside me. Because when you want to move something, you really need your internal power.
“I walked into many banks and many denied me because they didn’t understand the project. Nothing like solar power had been done before. Many of the banks also told me that this wasn’t the sort of project a woman should pioneer at my age.
Until the last bank. Their logo colour was green. I said to the president of this bank, Sir if you don’t lend me the money, then you will need to consider changing the colors of your bank, because my project is also green”
Wandee retold her story as though she was living it for the first time. You could sense it was a story of pride and perseverance firmly rooted in the courage of setback. And although tired and frustrated from visiting so many banks, the green bank eventually gave her a loan for 60% of the start-up costs, leaving her to find the other 40%.
Wandee was faced with the monumental challenge of trading off her personal assets as a guarantee for the remaining 40%. After speaking to her husband and her family, they all agreed to support her.
By April 2012, the first project was launched and Wandee’s project was successfully delivered against the business model which she had so determinately pursued. The banks were surprised, and saw the potential for further growth. It was at this point they recommended she seek more investment.
“They said I had to get the World Bank to invest, so I Googled the World Bank and found their address in Hong Kong, Philippines, and Washington DC. I thought let’s go to Hong Kong, it is the best place for shopping!” Wandee’s said once again with comedic charm.
“I flew to Hong Kong immediately and knocked on the door of the World Bank. They asked me why I was there? I told them I was looking for an investment for my project. They then told me I was in the wrong place, and that I should have gone to the Philippines”
Within a few days Wandee flew to the Philippines where the World Bank investors had agreed to set up a meeting. They asked her where her office was. Wandee told them she didn’t have an office, and that they should meet at a cafe to discuss the project.
Wandee submitted for the project, and with much due diligence, the World Bank invested.
“I so strongly believe that when we want to make things happen, we have to really believe, and we have to have strong faith in what it is we want to do. If we don’t have that kind of feeling, then how can we convince others?” She said with profound simplicity as we closed the interview.
It is the nonchalant nature of Wandee that makes her so powerful. Her smile inviting, her perseverance enduring and her fearlessness like a bolt of lightning. It is this and her willingness to candidly share a story of great success in the face of setbacks that makes her such an inspiring CEO and leader.
As chairman and CEO of Thailand’s largest listed solar power company, Wandee is recognized by the United Nations for her commitment to clean energy and in 2015, Forbes dubbed her one of Asia’s most powerful women. Between 2013 and 2016, its revenues more than doubled and its profits more than quadrupled. She is a CEO with a true pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit, who cultivated a tremendous belief in herself despite all odds, and built an incredibly successful and sustainable company.
You can watch an excerpt of my interview with Wandee here:
Ana Marinovic is CEO of Newmanity, a leadership consultancy focused on providing human centered transformation for companies. Ana writes about leadership, human performance and CEO best practice. To receive insider access to Newmanity’s exclusive content, email firstname.lastname@example.org