Vibeke Lyssand Leirvag was elected the first female chair of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand (JFCCT) in 2022 Elite+ had the opportunity to talk with this Norwegian entrepreneur, who has lived and worked in Thailand since 1989, to learn about the JFCCT and key challenges facing chamber members after emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ms Vibeke began by explaining the goals and strengths of JFCCT. “Our mission is to promote trade and foreign investment, encourage skills development and transfer with the overall aim to contribute to the Thai economy. We work with the Thai government and various agencies such as the Board of Trade (BoT), Board of Investment (BOI) and Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) as well as many sector-specific agencies, for the benefit of the Thai economy.
“JFCCT aims to build consensus amongst its members and collaborate with others to solve problems and offer solutions. We propose positive developments and identify threats that could undermine the Thai economy in the long term. We draw on the experience and expertise of our members and see ourselves as champions for the best ways to help make Thailand attractive for foreign investment through the formation of committees, with emphasis on such areas as Digital Economy, Education & Skills, International Trade, SMEs, Sustainable Development and Tourism, as well as other areas so we have an economy-wide approach. We also publish a set of Key Messages to summarise our essential points."
Fundamental and pervasive core issues are about sustainability and digitalisation across the board. Thus, JFFCT promotes sustainability integration with deep dives into ‘being digital’ and competitive.
Ms Vibeke is the founder of Felicia (Thailand) Ltd, a high-end manufacturer of silver and gold jewellery that she built into an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) jewellery business. As the first JFCCT chairwoman, she candidly shared how she took up this challenge in such a male-dominated chambers world. “I was serving as a vice chair for five years when our former chair, Mr Stanley Kang, finished his term. I then felt ready to continue to contribute to JFCCT’s important work. I am fortunate to be surrounded by a professional and knowledgeable working team. In all honesty, I have never considered my gender as an obstacle. Having said that, I decided to use the title ‘chairwoman’ instead of chairperson. I am proud to be the first woman in this position and to demonstrate that through hard work and commitment, gender does not need to set limits, as opportunities should be equal to all.”
So far, Ms Vibeke has put a strong emphasis on vocational training & cultural challenges. “Education is close to my heart. Reform in the Thai Education system is not a choice, but a necessity. The Thai Government, EEC and BOI have focused on new target industries, some related to the Bio Circular Green (BCG) economic model, where innovation and new technology are key.
“We are living in a fast-changing world with digital transformation. The Thai education system, especially in vocational training, must follow this change. As foreign investors, we also have a role to play. To support this change, we need to ensure knowledge transfer to teachers, who are instrumental in building the next generation of a skilled workforce. Soft, or rather core skills are not part of the educational curriculum today, but are vital for all businesses, Thai and foreign.”
Cultural understanding is another area that Ms Vibeke considers important to an investor’s success. She believes that for foreign investors to succeed, they should obtain some understanding of Thai culture as well as train their staff on their company’s culture. JFCCT also believes that their members should have a global focus as so much in business is now much more integrated and interdependent, particularly when it comes to sustainable development, a major focus for JFCCT and all its members. By embracing sustainability, the JFCCT can address challenges, seize opportunities and ensure long-term viability, competitiveness and societal well-being. Integrating sustainability promotes responsible business practices, drives innovation and contributes to JFCCT’s members and Thailand's sustainable development goals.
When discussing key challenges encountered by chamber members after emerging from the Covid lockdowns, Ms Vibeke said, “For the chambers of commerce and business associations, in particular the smaller chambers, the challenge has been to stay sustainable. During Covid, most associations experienced a reduction in their membership and financial position. They now need to find a balance of activities and added value services for members while strengthening their financial sustainability. Within our network, we now participate in multi-chamber events, which allow smaller chambers to reach out to a bigger audience when they organize events.
“For our chamber members, in particular the SMEs, the two most important areas are financial support and access to network and business opportunities. Covid skills shortage, economic issues such as inflation, and geopolitical uncertainty remain concerns for all. Most SMEs do not have access to financial assistance, which limits both growth and often their survival. Through JFCCT committee work, we advocate financial support opportunities for both Thai and majority owned foreign companies. We try to both support and complement these needs through events and provide an extensive network and information pool for our members through our policy and advocacy work.”
To address skill shortages, Ms Vibeke shared how JFCCT is assisting on this concern. “JFCCT actively advocates reskill and upskill, especially in the tourism industry. Most importantly, JFCCT can contribute through knowledge transfer to educational institutions. For the past few years, we have worked on a pilot project with two BMA schools to transfer soft skills to teachers and share knowledge related to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). We are in the process of finalizing a ‘Skilled Passport’ which will allow new graduates to become certified. In June, we signed an MOU with the Office of Vocational Education Commission (OVEC) confirming our commitment to work with them to best identify future skills and assist in transferring knowledge of such skills.”
JFCCT often organizes networking events for chamber members. One good example is their Reunion Party. With the formation of a new government, JFCCT hopes to again host their annual Prime Minister Luncheon. We also have an annual consultative session with the BOI and National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), to discuss Thailand's competitiveness.
As our interview drew to a close, Ms Vibeke was asked how she allocates her time between business and JFCCT. JFCCT has a team of highly skilled and professional committee chairs who the chamber and its members depend on. “At my company, I am very fortunate to have a great team, which allows me the flexibility to spend the time required for JFCCT. I also have amazing support from my family. In my first year as chairwoman, I have faced many challenges, but I believe I have found a good balance.
“After 34 years, I now consider Thailand my home. It offers high quality living and attractive opportunities for foreign investors. The country provides a unique opportunity as the gateway to the ASEAN market. Thailand has all I could want for business, leisure and family.”