Added Value - The Life Stories of Leading South East Asian Business People

Murmeli, 1st Edition 1999, Peter Church

Added Value - The Life Stories of Leading South East Asian Business PeopleAFG Venture Group has recently re-published its guide to doing business in Myanmar and is in the process of updating it. It is now available to view on our website at: http://www.afgventuregroup.com/myanmar_business_guide/

Below are a series of extracts from Peter Church's book Added Value - The Life Stories of Leading South East Asian Business People that profiled the lives of selected business people from South East Asia, and included the below people from Myanmar.

U Hla Tun (deceased)
Julia Aung (Tin Daw Tin Mar Kyi)
Dr. Khin Shwe
U Nay Oke
U Thein Tun
U Aik Htun

 

U HLA TUN

Founder & Principal
U Hla Tun Group
Myanmar

The U Hla Tun Group is the largest accounting firm in Myanmar. It is an Associated Member Firm of PriceWaterhouseCoopers. U Hla Tun is also Chairman of PriceWaterhouseCoopers- Hla Tun financial consultancy.

I met 76-year-old U Hla Tun for a late lunch in the coffee shop of the newly renovated Strand Hotel. In its heyday, it was one of the most famous hotels in South East Asia along with the Oriental in Bangkok, the Peninsular in Hong Kong and Raffles in Singapore. It was a typical, steaming Rangoon day and, by the time I saw U Hla Tun off into his car at the Strand entrance, the heavens had opened and the monsoon rains poured down.

Hla Tun is Myanmar’s most highly regarded accountant. He was born on 20 December 1922 in Mandalay, where his father was in private practice as a civil engineer and his mother was a housewife. He is the third child in a family of two boys and two girls and enjoyed a comfortable middle-class upbringing.

According to Hla Tun, it was a fascinating childhood. At the time he was born, King Tabaw, the last King of Myanmar, ruled the country from the Palace in Mandalay. The Palace takes up one and a half square miles of land in the centre of the city and is surrounded by a moat. Hla Tun vividly remembers a happy childhood fishing and swimming in the moat with other children. The British ruled until 1942 when the Japanese occupied the country until 1945.

The British then re-occupied the country and left finally on 4 January 1948, Myanmar’s Independence Day.

Despite his carefree day to day existence, Hla Tun (or Jimmy as he is known to many of his friends) was strictly disciplined by his parents and attended a Roman Catholic Christian Brothers School in Mandalay called St Peters English High School.

Hla Tun’s grandfather had been an engineer and was Myanmar’s chief engineer, Hla Tun’s father wanted him to follow the family tradition. So in 1940 he joined Mandalay College to become an engineer. Unfortunately, the Second World War interfered with his plans and the college was forced to close down.

Like a number of others I interviewed who lived in Myanmar through the Second World War, Hla Tun’s family evacuated further to the country’s north to escape the Japanese troops. They moved to a very small village above Katha together with Sir Dr Ba U who was then Chief Justice of Myanmar and who later became the first Burmese President of the Union of Burma (as it then was).

Many members of the High Court also moved with their families to this village. People took everything they could with them including all of their portable wealth such as jewellery. "In those days you didn’t bank your money, instead you held your savings in the form of jewellery. The people didn’t trust the banks", Hla Tun said.

When the Japanese gained control over Myanmar they attempted to ingratiate themselves with high ranking government officials and arranged for the Chief Justice and his entourage, including Hla Tun’s family, to be returned to Mandalay by a special boat which took them down the Irrawaddy. But when they returned to their home in Mandalay they found it ransacked.

Hla Tun at 20 decided he must learn more about the people who controlled the country and studied Japanese part-time. He was then given the opportunity to run a teashop at a Japanese military hospital. "If you knew their language, some of the Japanese would become quite friendly", he said.

By this time Hla Tun and his elder brother were supporting the family financially from their efforts in the teashop. Their father, although he was quite capable of working, did not want to support the Japanese military and had been out of work for a number of months.

When the allied bombing started in 1943 the family moved again to a small village about 25 miles from Mandalay, Taung-Byong, which is famous for its spiritual mediums. They moved to this particular district because Hla Tun’s uncle was a significant landowner and village leader there. Hla Tun became involved in agricultural activities in order to ensure his family’s survival. He started by keeping ducks and then went into the rice trade by buying paddy rice from the farmers, milling it and selling the rice in Mandalay.

Every trip he made to Mandalay at the time was dangerous as the allied forces were bombing many of the roads and bridges. Hla Tun’s small rice mill was destroyed after such an attack but, never one to give up, he set up a primitive manual milling operation pounding padi rice and eventually had about 20 labourers working full-time for him. It was then he started to make some real money by buying jewellery from people in the villages and taking it to more remote villages to exchange for oil and other items.

This proved to be extremely lucrative and he amassed boxes of Japanese currency but this profitable business was about to change: one day in March 1944 he heard shooting and went outside to see allied troops entering his village. "I remember British troops, who were a brigade from the 19th Dagger Division, entering my village and seeing Japanese army soldiers fleeing only hundreds of metres in front them. A number climbed trees and took on the whole brigade until they were shot and killed."

The villagers welcomed the allied forces with open arms when they drove out the Japanese invaders but the consequence for Hla Tun’s business was devastating. His boxes of Japanese currency instantly became worthless but, fortunately, he still had a lot of jewellery.

In the same year he married the daughter of a distant uncle who was the brother-in-law of his uncle, the village leader. It was a large wedding which the whole village of about 500 people attended.

Although Hla Tun was making a lot of money from buying and selling jewellery and goods, he decided he needed a more secure career. With the Second World War rapidly approaching its end, he moved to Mandalay where, in mid-1945, he joined the Civil Affairs Adminis-tration service as a Motor Transport Officer.

He found he had a natural aptitude for administration and, within two years, took a nationwide examination against British and others to win the job of Area Traffic Superintendent. At 25 he was earning Rupee1 000 a month, almost five times normal official salaries. He had a fleet of 150 transport vehicles, a workshop and about 200 staff under his supervision including, he pointed out proudly, an Englishman.

It was then an incident occurred which was to bring him to the attention of very senior officials in the country. This event was the "Hunger Lift Operation" which became urgent shortly after the war to avoid large-scale starvation. There had been a poor harvest and the railways plus "the one car at a time" roads to hilly areas had been destroyed. The government became aware that, unless they distributed over 7 000 tonnes of food to inhabitants in the northeast – called Mawchi – before the onset of the monsoon, there would be famine in the country.

"The area was suffering from a severe shortage of rice after the war and as there was little or no public transport, I used the 150 vehicles I was in charge of to transport and distribute 7 000 tonnes of rice in three months. I knew there would be no food in the hilly areas during the monsoon period and the villagers would have starved. This brought me to the notice of the Road Transport Board." He was instantly promoted to Area Traffic Superintendent in Toungoo in Karen State which was very unusual for a Burmese at that time.

In 1947 there were strikes all over Myanmar for independence from the British. They spread to the country’s transport fleets and ten of the eleven went on strike with Hla Tun’s fleet the only exception. Out of respect for him, his workers had refused to go out on strike but warned that if Hla Tun was moved they too would strike.

In 1948 Myanmar gained its autonomy and Hla Tun’s life took another turn. Before independence, Burmese could not qualify as accountants but when the Burmese Auditors’ Certificate Rules were published in the newspaper inviting people to do the two year course, Hla Tun decided he would go to Rangoon and resign from the Road Transport Department.

During that time there were only three chartered accounting firms in which he could complete his articles to qualify. He did not bother to write to any of them but just turned up to ask for an apprenticeship. The first company he visited was a Scottish firm called Stewart Smith. One of the partners became aware of Hla Tun’s salary level and said he was crazy to think of joining them as he would only be paid Rupee120 per month compared to the Rupee1 000 he was then receiving.

Undeterred, Hla Tun wandered along the street and into the offices of the second possibility, Allan Charlesworth & Co, which had been in Rangoon since 1911.

He walked into the reception office and spoke to the chief clerk who told him there were no positions and that he should look elsewhere. With his usual positive spirit Hla Tun accepted the news and went to walk down the stairs. As he was doing so, Eric Drown, the English partner who managed the office, burst in the door, started sprinting up the stairs and, on seeing Hla Tun coming down, asked if he could help.

When Hla Tun explained the purpose of his visit to the office, Eric Drown invited him in and there started a life-long professional relationship and friendship. Hla Tun today, some 50 years later, owns and runs the accounting firm which had its base in Allan Charlesworth & Co. Eric Drown, who is now 86 and living in Johannesburg, regularly visits Yangon and he and Hla Tun have remained close friends.

Hla Tun found he had a natural ability at accounting and graduated top of the first batch of Burmese accountants studying for the Auditor’s Certificate. "I did so well in the course that I was ahead of all the other students and the partners decided to send me to London."

Hla Tun says luck and fate go together and he smiles dryly when he reflects on many of his friends and clients who were millionaires at the time the Socialists took over in 1962 but lost everything when all businesses, foreign and local, were nationalised. Practising as an accountant he was able not only to survive but also to prosper during those years. In his opinion, one succeeds not by diligence, hard work and education alone, but as a result of all of these combined with timing.

Having graduated top of his class he was ambitious to learn more. When Eric Drown arranged for Hla Tun to go to England he spent 1953 and 1954 at the Bishopsgate office of Allan Charlesworth. The partner responsible for Hla Tun gave him an extremely difficult consolidation to work on for London Telephone Trust.

As he was extremely hardworking and was there to learn, Hla Tun worked day and night, including weekends, to complete the consolidation in three weeks when the partner had estimated it would take him six. Hla Tun remembers with pride that the senior partner of the firm publicly praised him in front of all the other partners and called him a genius.

Fate also played a cruel trick on Hla Tun while he was in England. As he was about to sit for his intermediate examinations in London in May 1954, he received a telegram from the partner then in charge of Allan Charlesworth in Rangoon. The telegram contained a message to that partner from his wife giving an ultimatum of ‘Burma or me’, and therefore Hla Tun returned immediately – Hla Tun thus returned before he had become a chartered accountant – to relieve the English partner. Instead, he initially became a qualified assistant.

His monthly income was increased by Kyat120 to what was an enormous sum at that time – Kyat3 500. In 1956 he told Guy Tyrwhitt-Drake, who had replaced the firm’s managing partner, that he still wanted to complete his chartered accounting examinations and proceeded to do so by correspondence. Again, a turn of fate meant he could not go to London for the exams.

In 1957 his father was killed in a car accident, leaving behind his mother and his sister who was studying medicine. With no other means of support, Hla Tun took on the obligation of educating his sister and supporting his mother and sacrificed his qualification as an English Chartered Accountant.

In 1958 he became the first Burmese partner of Allan Charlesworth & Co. When he became a junior partner in the firm his monthly income was increased to Kyat4 500 plus one third of the annual profit. In 1960 Guy Tyrwhitt-Drake left and Hla Tun became the first senior resident partner of the firm. Then his partnership draw changed to Kyat5 500 per month plus two thirds of the profit. Comparatively, these were enormous sums of money at that time.

Life rolled along without any problem until 1962 when the Revolutionary Council period under General Ne Win began and most businesses were nationalised within a couple of years. The English were forced to withdraw from ownership of the firm and Hla Tun took over and changed the name to U Hla Tun & Co. He vividly remembers that on 23 February 1963 the government nationalised all banks, a move which lost him several major banking clients.

Almost a year later, on 19 March 1965, all businesses which had not been nationalised were closed down and Hla Tun lost over 100 clients on a single day. "At that time I was not sure whether it was a positive or negative outcome. On the positive side I would have less work and be able to lead a more leisurely life while, on the other, I was certainly going to earn far less and was very worried for my 120 staff. Even worse, as my firm was taxed on a single unit basis, my real tax rate in 1963/1964 leapt to more than 100 per cent of my actual income."

In 1969 all of the remaining big industrial companies were nationalised and, while this obviously meant the loss of the audits, many companies had to be liquidated which provided a substantial amount of work for a number of years.

During these years, Hla Tun kept the firm operational with 20 full-time staff, reduced from the previous 120. One particular client, he remembers, was acting for General Motors of the United States. They had heard of Hla Tun through Sir William Shapland whom became Chairman of General Motors’ Blackwood Hodge subsidiary in the United Kingdom. Sir William was a fellow Allan Charlesworth professional whom Hla Tun had met during his time in England when he was a junior accountant. He remembers that Sir William topped the English Chartered Accounting examinations in the same year he topped similar exams in Myanmar in 1952.

Fate was again to play a positive hand for Hla Tun when Myanmar started receiving soft loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. They needed a local consultant and the Burmese government recommended that they use Hla Tun. This led to a number of assignments such as a power project, a water project in Mandalay and a major fisheries project.

The consulting fees Hla Tun received from the Asian Development Bank alone put him in the 98 per cent tax bracket. He is proud to say that he deposited all his remuneration into his account at the government bank, receiving the official government exchange rate of Kyat6 to US$1 despite the fact the unofficial exchange rate was very much higher.

Sadly, Hla Tun’s wife died a number of years ago and 1997 was an especially difficult year for him as his only daughter died of leukemia despite having received the best treatment available at the Royal Marsden Hospital in England.

Throughout all the years of Socialist rule through to the current regime, Hla Tun has served his country faithfully and tirelessly. He notes, with more than a tinge of pride, that the government approved within hours his request to send large sums of money to the United Kingdom to enable him to provide top care for his daughter. Her untimely and tragic death led him to establish a hospice for terminally ill patients in memory of her. It is known as the U Hla Tun Sanda Tun Hospice.

In 1990 U Hla Tun & Co became a correspondent company of Arthur Andersen and in 1996 an associate firm of Coopers & Lybrand International and U Hla Tun became Chairman of Coopers & Lybrand Hla Tun Consultancy. On 1 July 1998 his firm became an associated firm of PriceWaterhouseCoopers. "Their partners who visited me said I was probably the oldest professional accountant still in practice in their firm throughout the world."

Throughout his long professional life, Hla Tun has never had a holiday and, while in his younger days he used to play golf, now he finds he works seven days a week and perhaps harder than he did in the past. In earlier years he participated in a lot of athletic competitions and was almost selected for the College XI and the national soccer team representing northern Myanmar.

For many years he represented foreign governments in Myanmar and was the Honorary Consul for Sweden from 1983 until 1990. He was then appointed to a similar post for the Kingdom of the Netherlands from 1984 until 1996 when he retired from such duties due to his daughter’s illness. He was knighted by the Queen of the Netherlands in 1993.

He believes the secret of success is hard work and treating work as a hobby, not as an obligation and that, "people should put more time into ‘finding’ out how others know you rather than the important people one knows".

As the leading professional figure in his country, it is not surprising that Hla Tun places great importance on reputation for success in his chosen field. However, he believes, that unless one has one’s timing correct, even the most educated man is not going to succeed. "One has to be ready and capable to move when appropriate opportunities arise or adversity faces you.

"I have always found Shakespeare extremely perceptive in his understanding of life and two particular quotes come to mind as being relevant. The first is ‘Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like the toad ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel on his head’, and the other is, ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune’.

"Despite my quoting Shakespeare, it is in Buddhist philosophy I have found guidance which will not let you down. The Buddhists say, ‘The path to heaven or nirvana is always to keep to the right’. This is something I have always followed and will continue to do so."

I suspect it will be a long time until we see another accountant dominate the profession as much as Hla Tun currently does and has done for many years in Myanmar.

 

JULIA AUNG (TIN DAW TIN MAR KYI)

Founder & Managing Partner
Best Hotels Group
Myanmar

Best Hotels Group was one of Myanmar’s early entrants into the international tourist market as the country opened itself to market forces in the early 1990’s after almost 30 years of self-imposed isolation. Julia Aung established a small boutique hotel group catering for business to tourists. With the advent of the large new hotels making it difficult for small hotels to compete, Best Hotels is expanding into a number of other sectors.

Julia was born on 30 December 1949 into a successful Burmese business family. Her father founded Burma Government Securities Insurance Company in 1952 which, despite being nationalised, continues to operate to this day. She has an elder brother, Tin Maung Too (Gerald).

Both her parents’ families had been successful civil servants and were considered affluent. Her maternal grandfather was Inspector of Schools for Burma and her paternal grandfather was a District Commissioner.

Her father, from an early age, aspired to become an entrepreneur and, after working for the Government Civil Supplies Office, saved enough to start his own company.

He developed a successful insurance company together with his elder brother who was at that time the representative of American Insurance Group. On the other hand, her mother established herself as a designer of children’s clothes.

"My parents both worked an average of nine to ten hours a day and, although there was plenty of household help, I learned to take care of myself at a very early age", Julia admitted.

As a young child, Julia lived a happy and carefree existence until her father died of cancer, after a short illness, when she was sixteen years old. This was an extremely difficult period for her as her father suffered greatly before dying three months prior to her final high school examinations.

She believes her childhood would probably be called upper-middle class for that time and remembers how she was driven to and from school in a car, something quite rare then. She spent her whole primary and secondary education at the well-known Methodist High School.

Her maternal grandfather, the Inspector of Schools, was a particularly significant figure in her life. Julia was aware she was spoilt by him and of his concern that she received a good education. He would speak to her every day discussing homework and any projects she was working on.

"The turning point in my life could be attributed to my grandfather. By the time I could read and write he felt his only granddaughter should be more exposed to the English language than I was at school.

"Most of my friends and everyone at home spoke only Burmese and my English was somewhat sketchy. Every day I would be subjected to an hour-long telephone conversation with him on my activities for the day, starting with breakfast. When he felt my English was passable, he began sending me questionnaires daily", Julia revealed.

"For a seven-year-old who would rather be out playing with the children from the neighbourhood, I considered these lessons a waste of time. I often felt I would not be able to speak to anyone in English because the family was rarely in contact with foreigners.

"But I was very fond of my grandfather and so, to humour him, I continued with the lessons until he had a stroke which robbed him of his speech. By that time, while all of my friends were struggling with Nancy Drew stories, I was reading Shakespeare. He was responsible for my straight As in English. He was the one who introduced me to my love of books and the ability to communicate in English with relative ease", Julia said.

From 1967 until 1971, Julia studied for a Bachelor of Science degree at the Rangoon Arts and Science University. After graduation she was offered a number of job opportunities but the one which most appealed to her was a tourist guide and so, from 1972 until 1992, she was involved in travel and tourism.

Her first position was with the government’s Tourist Burma where she stayed from 1972 until 1973. She then worked for Thai Inter-national from 1973 until 1975. From 1975 to 1977 she worked on a travel desk of Esso Exploration. In 1978 she was appointed Business Manager for the American International School and spent nine fulfilling years there until 1987.

In 1988 Julia and her husband, Stanley, saw that the country was going to move to a market economy so, while economic reform and greater political stability took hold of Myanmar, Julia and her husband spent a lot of time in Bangkok learning new business skills and formulating ideas.

"After a number of years in the travel and airline business, I felt that wherever I worked, I would be in the service-oriented environment where I would meet lots of interesting people and help them organise whatever agendas they had during their stay in Myanmar.

"My first break came when a family friend living abroad suggested that he wanted to open a branch office in Yangon and offer travel services to the expatriate community living in Myanmar. The next two years proved to be a busy time for me learning about the trade and training my staff. Once the travel business got off the ground, it was time to branch out into another kind of service industry", she explained.

Initially, she set up and managed the Rangoon branch office for the leading Thai travel company, Skyline Travel, before embarking on her own course in 1994 with the establishment of a small hotel called Best Inn. She then set up her own travel agency, Tipperary Travel. In 1995 she expanded her operations and opened another small hotel called Best Executive Suites.

"By this time, the government was allowing the private sector to operate hotels, motels and inns. The foreign currency laws had changed and we were finally able to charge foreigners in hard currency and have them stay at hotels. In the past, there were only two or three state-owned hotels in Yangon where tourists and businessmen could stay.

"A group of friends and myself formed a small company and were able to lay our hands on a property that needed to be totally gutted and turned into a bed-and-breakfast place. At that time building materials were scarce, hotel supplies almost non-existent and there were no training centres for hotel personnel. The whole concept of running a small hotel was very new and I had to travel to Bangkok and Singapore to pick up supplies and stay at hotels to learn how things were done outside Myanmar.

"A year later, things were going smoothly and we were beginning to see some profit from our investment. It was time to launch another product. There were still not enough hotels in Yangon to meet the demands of the businessmen coming to Myanmar.

"As the country had just opened up and the need for hotels and travel agencies arose, I began to expand. The timing was just right but, like all business ventures, it took a lot of hard work, the right personnel and, of course, luck to make things work the way they did for us", Julia explained.

She has now expanded further into the tourism sector and, with a good friend of hers, Nini, imports French wine and gourmet food for the hotels. She has also joint ventured in the establishment of an Italian restaurant, Tinos.

Julia believes timing is crucial to success in developing markets such as those of Myanmar and was well positioned to take advantage of the initial influx of tourists and business people after the opening up of the country in 1988. However, with the recent construction of many large international hotels and with thousands of Burmese entering the small hotel sector, she believes she must now reposition herself within the tourist sector or seek other opportunities in the service sector. It is no longer viable, in her opinion, to operate small hotels.

Julia has been married twice, has a daughter, Myamon, from her first marriage and has now been married for over 20 years to Stanley.

"Without luck in a country like Myanmar it is extremely difficult for one to succeed. Combined with that, one needs an entrepreneurial touch or smell of where the opportunities are as well as choosing the correct timing to enter the market", she said.

In the developing countries such as Myanmar, Julia believes one must be adaptable and realise when it is time to move on to a new business or to change the attributes of an existing business. Julia attributes her own success to her education and facility with languages as well as a constitution for hard work plus an ability to organise. She has worked seven days a week for more than ten years.

Organisational skills are in short supply Myanmar and she is confident that with her skills she will identify new and satisfying businesses to pursue. Of that I have no doubt but, at the time of writing, business in Myanmar is almost at a standstill. A small part of that is due to the effects of the Asian economic crisis but, more particularly, it is due to a lack of appropriate government policies. As Julia says, to succeed one needs timing and currently the timing is not right for most business people in Myanmar.

 

DR KHIN SHWE

Founder & Chief Executive
Zaykabar Co. Ltd
Myanmar

Founded in 1990, after the economic climate in Yangon liberalised, Zaykabar Co. Ltd is Myanmar’s largest property developer with interests in hotels, tourism, agriculture and cigarette production.

Khin Shwe was born on 24 January 1952 in Moulmein, the capital of the Mon State in the south of Myanmar. It lies at the top of the Malay peninsular which is divided between Myanmar and Thailand. His father was a wealthy trader operating four sailing boats carrying goods from Moulmein to Pulau Pinang in Malaysia and on to Rangoon (as Yangon then was known).

Both his parents were ethnically Burmese and, although his father was only home for five days a month, Khin Shwe remembers that he had a carefree childhood which came to an abrupt end in 1962 when he was ten years old. "The event which dramatically altered my life was when my father deserted my mother and his seven children for another woman", Khin Shwe said.

"My father cut us off without any money and my mother and my siblings were plunged from being one of the richest families in the area to being one of the poorest. I can recall how at the age of twelve I had to take fruit and vegetables which my mother had bought in Moulmein to neighbouring towns to sell at their small markets. I was very young but I realised I had to help take care of my mother and the other children."

This event not only rapidly hurled young Khin Shwe into adulthood but also taught him some valuable lessons. "As a Buddhist and believer in karma I noticed how, shortly after deserting the family, my father’s business took a turn for the worse and a number of his boats sank. My father lived and played hard and I saw the deleterious effect drinking, gambling and womanising had on him."

Ironically, his father’s experiment with his second wife failed and he returned to live with his first family after a few years but he was a broken man, never worked again and died in 1968. That same year Khin Shwe graduated from high school and moved to Maymyo, 50 kilometres outside Mandalay. There he attended the technical high school on a scholarship and, with support from his mother’s brother who was a rich merchant, was able to complete his education.

By the end of 1970 Khin Shwe had finished his engineering studies and returned to Moulmein where he joined a government department which provided construction services to the army’s engineering division in the region. He remained in Moulmein until 1978 when he transferred to Yangon and joined the irrigation department as a survey engineer. "With the experience I had gained in Moulmein I immediately saw opportunities to work as a private contractor and so left the government in 1979 to pursue a career as a full-time private contractor."

The next major event in his life occurred when the government abandoned the socialist industrial model in 1988 and moved to a market economy. Indeed, Khin Shwe and U Htein Win travelled together to the United States to look for business opportunities.

With two other partners, Khin Shwe and Htein Win established Padamya Company in which Khin Shwe provided his experience and expertise as a civil engineer to build factories, while Htein Win contributed his skills as a mechanical engineer to install the various items of equipment required. "The company allowed me to travel abroad to Singapore and the United States. I saw a lot of new technology and I liked it very much.

"In 1990 I formed my own company, Zaykabar (‘Zay’ is his son’s name and ‘Kabar’ means global). My objective in establishing the company was to provide a business I could hand on to my children."

Khin Shwe believes that in his business career his concentration will be on developing the opportunities in Myanmar but he is hopeful that his offspring may be able to expand it into a global player. "My business", he said, "isn’t so extensive that I can handle global markets but perhaps one day my children might be interested in expanding it further. My decision to establish Zaykabar for my family was profoundly influenced by a young Singaporean I met who articulately described his own business philosophy of ethics, decision-making and the Asian concept of building a family empire."

Khin Shwe said that this philosophy contrasted significantly with the impressions he gained from meeting Americans during his trip to the United States with Htein Win in 1989. "I believe Singaporeans look to the future whereas many in the United States look to the past", he said. He has chosen to follow the Singaporean way.

Khin Shwe has been happily married since 1975 when he returned to Moulmein after graduating from his civil engineering studies in Maymyo but he already knew his wife from his high school days in Moulmein. They have a son, Zay Thi Ha and a daughter, Zay Zin Latt and, although his son is a full-time student, Khin Shwe has started to involve him in the property development business, giving him a small number of sites to develop and sell.

Property and its development seem to be Khin Shwe’s core business and his largest undertaking at present is the Magalong Garden City project where he is developing about 1 500 acres to include 3 000 homes, 100 apartments, an 18-hole golf course, an international school and a commercial area.

Khin Shwe believes luck is often the result of hard work. However, in addition to a number of the other common ingredients of success such as timing and business acumen, he raised a point which reflects the current stage of Myanmar’s economic development. "The need to be honest and sincere is of extreme importance", he said. "Myanmar will not develop without foreign capital, equipment and technology and its entrepreneurs will have to gain the trust of their foreign investors. Without an honest and sincere approach any success will be only short-lived."

Although many of the subjects of this book are philanthropists, either with their time, expertise or money, Khin Shwe, like many of them, places a very high importance on making charitable donations. Each year, among other donations, he provides over 1 500 robes for Buddhist monks throughout the country. In 1998 he was awarded the Buddhist title, Thiri Thudhamma Manijotadhara, for his charitable activities and contributions towards building three monasteries and six pagodas. Although part of the reason is purely philanthropic, Khin Shwe also says that Buddhist businessmen believe, "If you do good deeds like this you will be rewarded in other ways". Khin Shwe told me his charitable works were in large part responsible for the fact that Washington University in the USA in 1998 awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy in Business Administration.

One of Khin Shwe’s hobbies is horse-riding and he is extremely proud of the 20 horses he currently owns. He is also interested in archery which did not exist in Myanmar as an official sport until he backed it financially in 1995.

Khin Shwe completed our interview by reciting an old Burmese proverb about wealth which goes something like this: "Do not chase money because humans only have two legs and money has four legs and it will inevitably get away from you. However, if you do not chase money it will chase you and, with its four legs, will undoubtedly catch you."

 

U NAY OKE

Founder & Owner
The English Institute
Myanmar

The English Institute is the most famous English language school in Myanmar. Founded in 1979, the school has over 50 000 graduates. The Institute’s principal objective is to promote the knowledge of English in Myanmar and increase the effectiveness of local English language teachers.

Nay Oke was born 11 September 1943 in Myaung which was a large village in the Sagaing Township outside Mandalay in Burma’s north. His family had fled the capital, Rangoon, due to the Japanese occupation. Sadly, his mother died seven days after his birth as a result of a serious infection which could not be cured due to a lack of medical facilities. "My aunt played a significant role in my life after my mother passed away and, in fact, she looked after me before I was sent to boarding school."

When the war finished in 1945 Nay Oke’s father, U Ba Tint, and his eldest sister who was seven years older than he, returned to Rangoon. Ba Tint was made Commissioner of Customs and, in 1947, became Permanent Secretary of Defence. His father also remarried in 1947. In 1952, Nay Oke, at the age of nine, was sent to boarding school in Yangon at St Paul’s, a Christian Brothers school and one of the top educational institutions in the country.

Even as a child he was treated as a young adult and said he had little time for playing, as his sister was much older and he was the only child at home. "It was mostly a very un-Burmese upbringing as my father was extremely British in many ways and, until he died, was quite a distant and formal figure. We lived in a very disciplined household, had meals at regular hours and my father was always formally dressed for dinner."

His father was the only foreign educated member of his family and the only son of rich landlords from the Sagaing area where Nay Oke had been born. Whereas Nay Oke was sent to St Paul’s in Rangoon, his father went to St Peter’s, another Christian Brother’s school, in Mandalay. From there his father was selected on the basis of academic excellence to join the Indian Civil Service and then matriculated to London University from which he graduated with an economics degree.

As his father was such a formal and authoritarian figure, Nay Oke was instinctively drawn to his mother’s side of the family who were much more warm and Asian in their attitude to family. Not only was his father an outstanding civil servant but his mother and all of her siblings achieved pre-eminence in the different fields they undertook. His mother had been a leading Burmese poet.

"Apparently, she tore up many of her poems as she considered they were private and only for her and her friends. Interestingly, many years after her death, a book of her poetry was published based on her friends’ memories."

Nay Oke’s eldest uncle, U Tin Tut, went to England with U Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, to seek independence from Britain. Subsequently, he became Minister of Finance and a Brigadier-General in the British Army. Sadly, he was murdered before U Aung San himself was assassinated and, to this day, it is uncertain why he was killed.

His second uncle, U Kyaw Myint, became Attorney General after independence, and was intimately involved in the politics of the day. He had spent many years living in India, where he became a close friend of Nehru. He subsequently returned to Rangoon, where he became a very successful barrister and established a large private practice.

His third uncle, U Myint Thein, was nicknamed ‘Monty’ and his last official post was that of Chief Justice. Before that he had been Burma’s First Ambassador to China and was present in Nanking when the Communist Party took over. In fact, U Myint Thein was the instigator in Burma’s developing a close relationship with China.

Apparently, when the communist forces overran Nanking in 1948, U Myint Thein saw the overwhelmingly positive response from the people and sent a one-line telegram to the Burmese government, "Recognise government immediately". U Nu, who was then Prime Minister, reportedly also responded with a one-line reply, "Go ahead immediately". Burma thus became the first country after Russia to recognise the People’s Republic of China, something Mao Tse Tung always remembered.

Coming from such an academic, intellectual and politically active family, it is no surprise that Nay Oke did not ever dream of becoming a businessman. He felt drawn to academic life although his father, who had retired as Permanent Secretary of the Defence at the young age of 40, shortly after U Aung San’s assassination, tried to push him in to becoming an engineer or a doctor. Nay Oke was interested in neither.

Succumbing to his father’s pressure to go to university, he attended Rangoon University from 1962 to 1965 to study mathematics and graduated with a science degree. "I asked my father if I could go to college again if I paid for it myself, but he refused", Nay Oke said.

Nay Oke’s real passion was language and writing and by the age of thirteen he was getting articles published regularly in local magazines. "I translated short stories, wrote film criticism and biographies of famous people. Dr Htin Aung was another uncle and he helped develop my writing skills. He was also a well-known author and his works such as Burmese Folk Tales, Burmese Drama, The Stricken Peacock and The History of Burma, were all published by Oxford University Press and have become classics".

Nay Oke would spend every spare moment of his holidays with this uncle who, as he had no children, adopted Nay Oke as his foster child. "Dr Htin Aung was a wonderful storyteller and for many years was Vice-Chancellor and Rector of Rangoon University. However, by the time I had reached university, he had retired from that post and become Ambassador to Sri Lanka", Nay Oke recalled.

Having graduated with a science degree, Nay Oke decided to ignore his father’s wishes and earn his living as a writer. He studied English literature at Rangoon University graduating after two years with a Bachelor of Arts in 1967.

With so many of his relatives involved in the public service and diplomacy, Nay Oke decided that he too would like to become a diplomat. So he sat for the foreign service examinations twice and on both occasions was selected, coming second, but was never appointed to a post as almost all of the positions went to families close to the socialist government.

While he was preparing for his examinations, Nay Oke worked as a tutor in the English department of the university. "I had never thought about teaching as a career but, disappointed in my attempts for a diplomatic career, I threw my full energies into the work and within a couple of years decided on an academic occupation. My years in the university’s English department from 1968 to 1976 were the happiest years of my life as all of my fellow tutors and lecturers were well educated and it was a time of great intellectual curiosity and debate.

"During this period, I also established my small private English language school. In 1976, I applied for a scholarship to go to the United Kingdom and the Deputy Minister of Education had given his approval to my going but asked to see me personally. The Minister asked me whether I was going to accept the scholarship. He then added, ‘Don’t forget if you take this scholarship you will have to work ten years for the government when you return and will not be eligible to join the Foreign Service’. He then asked about my English language school.

"I was shocked by the Minister’s reference to my small English language school. Although I was theoretically not allowed to set up the school as a private enterprise under the socialist regime, many people carried on private business activities in order to survive. While the Minister did not approve of the school, he said he had chosen to ignore it. I had never really thought about the consequences of taking the scholarship and with the Minister now putting it so boldly I asked for time to think it over."

The Minister gave him three days from Friday. By Sunday afternoon Nay Oke had still not been able to make up his mind and so met his father late on Sunday afternoon as he was taking tea. Nay Oke said that meetings with his father were like a junior employee confronting the chairman of a large company.

"I asked my father for advice. Not surprisingly, he urged me to take the scholarship as he himself had done, as had many of my maternal uncles.

"Spontaneously, all of the thoughts that had filled my head over the previous three days came together and I spurted out that I would not take the scholarship as the ten years after I returned from England would be the prime years of my life. I also felt the Minister’s clear implication was that if I went to the United Kingdom, I would have to close down the English language school.

"As an academic when I returned, I would have been condemned to move from university to university throughout the country for the next ten years and would forego the freedom that I had found developing the English language school. My father did not agree but there was little he could do."

The following day Nay Oke met the Deputy Minister and told him of his decision. "Fortunately, he understood my decision and perhaps that was really what he thought I should do. He most generously arranged for me to leave the government service and concentrate my energies on developing the school. Ironically, even though the Deputy Minister disapproved of the school, he sent his own children there as did many other high ranking officials in the government."

From that point on, Nay Oke has put most of his energies and intellect into developing the English language school which has become the most famous educational language institution in the country. Nay Oke estimates that over the 20 years the school has been operating, he has taught English to almost 50 000 Burmese and has put in a fourteen to fifteen hour day, seven days a week.

The school proved financially rewarding for Nay Oke and, several years after it was formed, he was able to save Kyat50 000 per month at a time when one could buy a house for Kyat100 000. "I believe that if I have been successful under the socialist regime, then I should certainly be able to succeed under a market economy, like we have now", he said.

"The most critical episode of my life was in 1985 when I was incarcerated for 95 days. I was arrested and thrown into jail for allegedly causing a public disturbance as a result of students crowding around the school premises to attend the final classes before the matriculation examinations the following day. I was taken into custody under Section 5(E) but released without being charged after three months. The real reason behind the incarceration was being too successful as a private entrepreneur, albeit educational, under the socialist government.

"The same year the socialist government called a special session of parliament and passed a new law concerning private schools. According to the new law, private teachers were no longer allowed to take more than four classes (or work more than four hours) a day consisting of no more than 40 students in each class. Tuition fees were restricted to Kyat10 (equivalent to US25 cents then) per month for each student so that a private teacher could not earn more than Kyat1600 a month, the salary of a brigadier-general in the Burmese Army, the government stated. Upon my release, my friends and neighbours visited me and welcomed me into their ‘club’ which was made up of a few thousand successful entrepreneurs who had, at one time or another, spent time in jail under the then harsh law protecting the socialist economy. Some of my friends in the foreign diplomatic circle asked me if I had any bitterness about the whole thing and I replied that, as a devout Buddhist, I believed this was probably the consequence of what I had done in my previous existence and so had no bad feelings towards anybody. However, I felt it was an honour to be the first language teacher ever to be jailed because he was simply a good and successful one.

"In spite of those tumultuous days under the socialist regime, I feel extremely satisfied with my life as a popular school teacher. Many of the students to whom I have taught English all these years are now holding responsible positions in almost every private as well as public sector. On arrival from my overseas trips, for example, I would almost always be greeted at the Customs Counter by one or another ex-pupil of mine who would help facilitate my baggage through the complicated customs procedure. Or when I had to go to the Home Ministry to renew my passport, there would be another former student wearing a uniform who would let me jump the long queue or, every time I flew our flag-carrier, an old pupil who happened to be a stewardess would bring me a glass of champagne from the first class or, better still, if one of the directors of the airline who was my pupil was on the same flight, he would upgrade me to the first class. When my driver broke some traffic rule and my car was stopped, if the officer turned out to be my former student, he would give me a polite salute and let us off. Such are the small privileges you enjoy if you are a popular school teacher in Myanmar."

Since the Myanmar government pursued a market economy in 1988, Nay Oke has formed a joint venture with Malaysia’s MBF Group to establish "The Garden International Education Centre" which will provide a secondary school education and will include an English language teaching division.

Nay Oke considers that it is easy for people to be successful if they are doing what they like. His friends tell him that he has succeeded because of his luck and family background. "Without luck, it would have been impossible to succeed to the level I have. Timing is also extremely important and I believe my decision to quit the government in 1976 and decline the scholarship to the United Kingdom was absolutely the right decision, albeit that of the 23 people selected to go abroad, it was only I who declined and left the government."

Nay Oke is an extremely youthful looking 55-year-old who attributes his vitality to doing what he enjoys. One of his friends, a police officer, remarked on their different appearance despite their similar age. "The policeman told me that he had to deal with the depressing and stressful elements of life whereas I had never had to grow up as I work with the young and those who are striving to add value to their lives.

"My wife, Wai Wai, whom I married in 1973, is also an extremely vivacious person and life is certainly never dull. We only have one child, a son, Nay Saw Oo, who was born in 1974 and is currently studying in New York."

Nay Oke’s final comments during our interview were about his father. "I feel that at the bottom of his heart my father never forgave me for not taking the scholarship to the United Kingdom. In his last days, I discussed this with him and told him that, even though I had not taken the scholarship, I was happy. My father did not reply."

 

U THEIN TUN

Founder & Chairman
Myanmar Golden Star Company Ltd
Myanmar

Myanmar Golden Star Co. is one of the country’s leading corporate conglomerates. Incorporated in 1989, its objective is to expand its activities and transform from a small trading base to an internationally competitive venture. The group’s focus is on consumer products such as soft drinks, condensed milk and cigarettes.

Thein Tun was born on 26 March 1937 in Wakema, a small town in the Irrawaddy Division in the south of Myanmar. He was the second child in a family of three sons and three daughters. "In fact, I was the only child to receive a high school education", he said.

"My father was born and raised in Sinpyugyun Tanyaung in northern Burma, but seeking more opportunities, he moved to the south. The area in which we lived was famous for its rice production and my father became quite a successful rice trader. However, when I was four, my father – fearing for his young family – relocated us to his village in the north when the Japanese occupied our country in 1942."

Although he was only a young boy, Thein Tun remembers very clearly the journey to Sinpyugyun Tanyaung. His father bought a large rice barge capable of carrying 500-700 bags and the family travelled for almost a month along the Irrawaddy River to the village. He can remember the sights, sounds and smells of the trip as the boat moved northwards along the river past famous cities such as Pagan and through the dry zone.

"The journey took 21 days and it was filled with danger and excitement. I thought it was a great adventure", Thein Tun said.

His father’s hunch about the north’s safety paid off and Thein Tun has very happy memories of childhood there, in particular of riding horses throughout the countryside, visiting pagodas and monasteries.

What was going to be a short stay turned into ten years and it was not until 1952 when he was fifteen years old that Thein Tun left his father’s village to return to Rangoon and study at a small private high school known as AWA Private School.

When he completed school in 1954 he started to work as an assistant accountant at the Electricity Supply Board. His family was unable to afford a university education so, he remained with the Board for six years.

In 1961 he founded an import and export company called Aung Nyunt Swe Co. which, loosely translated, means "golden victory". Like a number of South East Asian entrepreneurs, Thein Tun has some faith in astrology and the name of his company was chosen by a leading astrologer of that time. This import and export business enabled him to travel to Japan, Hong Kong, India, Thailand and other destinations in Asia. He quickly acquired business contacts and was able to form strong partnerships.

By 1965, with the introduction of General Ne Win’s Burmese path to Socialism, the government nationalised all businesses and his company was closed down. The only possibility for entrepreneurs like him was to own and operate small family-owned businesses so he returned to his father’s village where he built a mill to produce edible oils from sesame seed and peanuts. "The socialist system at that time did not allow us to have companies but I acted as a sole trader selling ten barrels of edible oil a day", he said. After three or four years he was able to expand the business slightly into transporting products as well.

"In 1976, I learnt I could re-enter the import and export business by acting as an individual agent for foreign companies. Given all the contacts I had developed in the early ‘60s, I thought I had a great opportunity to represent foreign companies in Myanmar. I returned to Yangon from 1976 to 1989 and worked hard to develop a successful agency business."

He believes these years were extremely important as he learnt a tremendous amount from his international principals and developed an extensive network which enabled him to move quickly to establish joint ventures with foreign partners when the government allowed a market economy to re-emerge in 1988.

"In 1989 out of a population of 46 million I believe there were probably only 200 individuals operating agency businesses like me." He was, in fact, surprised when the government moved from a socialist to a market economy. "I didn’t think the system would change. I developed joint ventures with foreign investors easily because I had a lot more connections with foreign firms compared to most people", Thein Tun explained.

It was around this time that fate also played a hand, enabling him to expand even more quickly. In 1987 he fell ill and the government gave him permission to go to England for medical treatment. While he was there waiting for the doctor’s appointment, "paying £370 rent per week" as he tells me, he watched television every day and studied the companies that survived the stock market crash of Black Friday in October 1987. "I noticed it was mainly consumer products which survived the crisis and I told my sons who had joined me that, if Myanmar ever moved to a market economy, we should concentrate on developing the consumer products business."

If one looks at the businesses in which Thein Tun is involved today it is clear he has implemented his 1997 vision. Major products produced by the group include condensed milk, tetropack, detergent powder and mineral water from his reconfigured PepsiCola plant. It is, in fact, his joint venture with PepsiCola which brought him to international recognition, particularly in the United States. The venture proved enormously successful but then politics intervened leading to PepsiCola’s withdrawing from the Myanmar market.

Thein Tun purchased the Pepsi shareholding and now produces mineral water and other soft drinks from the factory. Many business-men would have been emotionally destroyed by the break-up of this joint venture, particularly as it was going so well and Coca Cola had not entered the market.

However, Thein Tun is philosophical and said, "It was the right business decision for both Pepsi and ourselves to establish this venture and, of course, I am sad that political pressure in the United States forced Pepsi to withdraw. However, that is life and there was nothing either of us could really have done to change the outcome. With the decision made, what was most important for me was to focus on the future, not the past".

The group’s trading activities are also profitable and so is the wholly owned wood products company, Pioneer Venture Limited. It produces 10-15 tonnes of semi-finished wood products a day. Another wood-based subsidiary, Myanmar Development International Company Limited, which is 46 per cent owned by a Singapore-based company, specialises in processing rubberwood and other kinds of wood.

Trading activities include the distribution of such luxury goods as Chivas Regal, consumer items from Proctor and Gamble and motor vehicles. At the group’s condensed milk plant, which is 49 per cent owned by the government, renovation work is underway to upgrade the production line with Dutch made machinery to increase capacity. Thein Tun is also Chairman of a company dealing in stationery and office supplies, a Director of Myanmar Citizen Bank and Myanmar Forest Products Corporation and the Chairman of the Myanmar Chamber of Commerce.

Thein Tun has three sons and two daughters but, unlike many of the other subjects in this book, he has placed no obligations on his children to enter the family businesses. His eldest son has sadly passed away and, of his other children, only his third son currently works full-time for his business. "My second son is employed by the Sofitel Hotel Group in Yangon where I am a small shareholder. My younger daughter, Kyi Kyi Khaing, is still at school and my elder daughter works for Myanmar Goldstar", he said.

As indicated earlier, Thein Tun to some extent believes in and consults astrologers. "I am sure there are some people who can tell the future", he said. "However, I do not consult astrologers so much for business decisions as for issues of health and family."

Not surprisingly, for someone with his beliefs, he thinks luck plays a 50 per cent role in one’s success or failure. The other ingredients are, in his opinion, vision, opportunity, timing, hard work, team work and decision-making.

"Even if you knew everything there was to know about a particular business you must have timing on your side. To succeed as an entrepreneur one has to learn how to earn money, then make money and finally to use the skills and experience of highly qualified people to make money with and for you", he said.

In a country which is 90 per cent Buddhist, it is not surprising to find that Thein Tun is a strict Buddhist and meditates half an hour to an hour each day. "Over the last nine years I have become even stricter in my Buddhist regime and now eat no pork or beef and only allow myself a small glass of wine from time to time."

While Thein Tun is an entrepreneur to the core, he has already achieved a level of financial independence so in the remainder of his business career he wants to concentrate on more philanthropic endeavours and to leave the running of his businesses to professionals. "Three years ago I established the Tun Foundation Bank, the charter of which is that 100 per cent of its profits will go to charitable objectives – religious, educational, health and social."

As I left Thein Tun, the impression which stayed with me was of someone who was, as we say in the west, "comfortable in his skin" and for whom business is an activity to be enjoyed. I think the most telling point he made was that you cannot beat "the market" and that timing is of critical importance to success. The demise of his joint venture with PepsiCola is testimony to both these points.

 

U AIK HTUN

Vice-Chairman
Asia Wealth Bank
Myanmar

Asia Wealth Bank is one of Myanmar’s leading local financial institutions. Established in 1995, it was the last to receive a licence to operate a private bank from the Central Bank of Myanmar.

Aik Htun was born on 10 October 1948 in a small town, Mine Kiang, in the Southern Shan States. There were only a few thousand inhabitants of the village which had no amenities such as electricity. The family had six children of whom Aik Htun was the eldest. His father was a small farmer trading agrarian products. Every five days his village would hold a market at which his father would buy and sell agricultural produce.

"At that time, my family was considered middle-class. My father was the only person in the whole community to have a horse and he would use it to transport food to the market", Aik Htun recalled.

It was an extremely simple life and at that time there were no motor vehicles in the village, only bullock carts. Perhaps because of the absence of cars and trucks, Aik Htun became fascinated with them and they were to play a significant role in his business development years later.

His childhood revolved around walking one or two miles to and from school each day and taking care of the family’s farm animals after school. On weekends and holidays he and his friends went fishing in the lakes and rivers in the area.

As was the case throughout South East Asia during this period, and still is in some areas today, education in the provinces and villages often only progresses through to primary school and after that some of the brighter children go on to junior and senior high in the larger towns and cities. It was so for Aik Htun as, after he completed primary school, four or five children from his class were invited to go on to high school in Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar.

He was the only child in his family to attend high school as the other children were not interested and one even withdrew from study after the fourth class of primary school. Some of this behaviour would have related to traditional attitudes as his father did not believe girls needed to participate in secondary school.

After high school Aik Htun worked in a motor car workshop in Mandalay for one year. Many people were fascinated with cars and wanted to learn to drive them so Aik Htun saw a future in this area. His aim at the time was to own a car or truck and transport products to and from his village to Mandalay.

After one year in Mandalay he went back to his village and worked for a Chinese Burmese, Mr Chaung. At that time many people who owned cars had two drivers, one the actual driver, the other known as a "spare". Aik Htun worked as a spare.

After two years with Mr Chaung he bought an old Chevrolet truck and achieved his life’s ambition to transport goods to and from Mandalay for sale. Unfortunately, life in Myanmar was becoming dangerous and after one year he had to stop this business as bandits were roaming the countryside attacking travellers. "Our village became overrun with bandits and they robbed us of all of our belongings. We were put out of business."

In 1970 he moved to Yangon in search of a better life. He had no contacts at all and it is at this point fate played a hand in his career. Myanmar is a country where people congregate in teashops to socialise and do business. The teashops are very simple affairs, usually based around a small internal shop where the tea and food is prepared although the customers sit outside on tiny tables and chairs.

There are probably thousands of such teashops throughout Yangon and Aik Htun found himself sitting by himself one day drinking tea when a rich Chinese tea merchant, U Nyunt Tin, asked him if he needed a job and whether he could drive. He started to work immediately for U Nyunt Tin as his real, not spare, driver. Aik Htun learnt a tremendous amount from U Nyunt Tin who was the leading green tea wholesaler in the country and operated what was the then famous Shan Brothers teashop.

After two years with U Nyunt Tin, in 1972, Aik Htun married and purchased a tiny biscuit shop in 16th Street, a property he owns to this day. He had virtually no capital and so he bought biscuits wholesale from the government factories and sold them retail for a small margin.

After three years of selling biscuits he persuaded some friends from Mandalay to back him and they expanded into the green tea business which he had learnt from U Nyunt Tin. "I would, for example, buy 50 bags of tea at wholesale prices and then sell them retail from my 16th Street store. By 1978 I had saved a little more capital and expanded into wholesaling and retailing other agricultural products such as chilli."

He clearly had a nose for trading agricultural products and by 1984, expanded into the border trade business where he bartered agricultural products with both China and Thailand. In 1988 Myanmar was moving to a market economy and he was able to significantly increase his trade business by inviting others to join him and provide capital.

"In 1991 I established Olympic Company with three other investors. I took 50 per cent and the balance was split amongst the three investors. The business imported motor cars and other commodities and exported marine products. By 1992 the company expanded into the timber business and developed good international contacts. However, only a year or so into developing this business, the government closed the export of raw logs and we withdrew from that market."

It was at this point that Aik Htun now looked for other businesses to expand into and identified the property and finance sectors. He redirected Olympic’s energies into the property sector and, together with nine other shareholders, founded Asia Wealth Bank. Both companies now have a leading position in their respective sectors of property and finance.

In Aik Htun’s view he has only just started as there are so many ways to develop his two main companies. With Asia Wealth Bank he wants to develop online services as soon as possible and expand overseas while he can see Olympic expanding into manufacturing products linked to the property sector such as building materials.

"Olympic Company has developed fifteen major residential complexes to-date in addition to schools, health centres, supermarkets and hostels", he said.

While he agrees that fate or luck has certainly played a part in his life, he believes this is only part of the story and that it is more important to have good ideas and work hard. He also believes he has been able to anticipate the future demands of the Burmese people and considers one of his strengths the ability to identify excellent partners to help him build his businesses and to employ able people.

"I am very good at forecasting the business market and can predict the exchange price of products for about one or two years. I also have a good eye for telling a good businessman from a poor one and am about 90 per cent correct most of the time", he said.

As with many first or second-generation Asian entrepreneurs, business is a family affair: his wife works on the finance side and each of his three children work full-time or part-time in the different businesses. His eldest son, Aung Zaw Naing, is now 24 and a full-time Executive Director of both Olympic and Asia Wealth, and his two daughters work part-time in the businesses, even though one is studying to be a doctor.

Although Aik Htun has come a very long way geographically and in business terms from his small Shan town, many of his roots are still there and one of his sisters still lives in the house in which he was born and raised.

 

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