Supaluck Umpujh is the model of success – sharp,spontaneous, sophisticated, intelligent and hard-working. Beneath the smart and strong veneer, the 62-year-old chairwoman of The Mall Group is one of the most powerful people in the Thai retail industry. She believes in dreaming big and putting your heart and soul to make those dreams come true, as she has done with many of her masterpieces – six The Mall shopping centres, The Emporium, The EmQuartier, Siam Paragon and Blúport Hua Hin.
Ms Supaluck never dreamed she would operate several billion-dollar retail projects around the country. Rather, “It’s destiny,” she said. “I felt lost as a child. My mother passed away when I was very young. I felt there was something lacking in my life. I was not a smart kid and just wanted to have fun. I was never proud of myself.” Seeing her entrepreneurial single father, Supachai Umpujh, who only finished high school and worked tirelessly for herself and her six younger siblings, inspired the Queen of Retail; “I felt I wanted to make my father proud, so I completely changed myself.”
After finishing high school at Mater Dei, young Supaluck chose to study doctor at Mahidol University, simply because she loved the architecture of the campus building, but finally changed the field to pharmacy. Graduating with first-class honours, she then pursued industrial pharmaceutical engineering at Purdue University in the United States.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to study, what I wanted to do or what I wanted to be in life. Then, bang! My dad told me to come home and help build the shopping mall.” Mr Supachai, who owned several entertainment venues and theatres, wanted to enter the retail industry and opened the first The Mall in the Ratchadamri district in 1981, when Supaluck was 23. Unfortunately, it closed down seven years later due to the competitive environment and the Umpujh family’s lack of experience in the retail business. “We failed, but that’s how we grew and matured.”
Thirty-six years later, The Mall Group is one of Thailand’s largest department store and shopping centre operators, with 15,000 employees, tenants, alliances, clients and partners, which continues to grow as new masterpieces, EmSphere (part of The EM District project), Blú Pearl Phuket and the Mega Bangkok Mall in East Gateway, blossom and looks forward to welcoming everyone in the near future.
Elite+ spoke exclusively with Ms Supaluck at her cosy, luxurious home about her role as the Queen of Retail, her passion for work and life, how the retail industry can contribute to advancing the country, and her great role models – HM the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and her late father.
- What is it like being an Iron Lady with many mega-projects and thousands of staff?
Taking care of the malls and my staff is my greatest responsibility. When I was a student, I couldn’t even take care of myself, but now I have to take care of so many people, from 100 staff around 30 years ago to more than 15,000 now. Relationships with tenants and clients go beyond profits; we have to build great partnerships and support them. If they have grand openings or events, I will try to be there beside them. So there are so many things to do. It is amazing how our King Rama IX took care of over 60 million people; how he could visit the country’s most remote zones in every province. He must have been tired but did it because he loved his people. Likewise, I have to visit every mall, take care of most people, and do everything with love and passion. It’s passion that gives me strength.
To successfully complete any big project, you need to have vision, determination and total dedication. If you have all of these, you can become successful. If you want to get the best grade in class, you need to work hard. If you want to be number one in the retail industry, to build the best malls for people, you can’t just dream about it; you have to persevere until you achieve it. And the achievement is not yours alone; no one can do it alone. Together as a team, not only will you reach your goals faster, you can also make something great. With teamwork, success is inevitable.
- The first mall you opened in Ratchadamri was not so successful. What did you learn?
It was a priceless experience. We were the new kids on the block and our mall was the smallest in the area. Convenience, products, varieties, attraction, size and scale – everything was inferior compared to others. I had no experience and I cried every day because it was not successful. Tenants couldn’t sell and I didn’t want to collect rent from them. We failed. I had no consultant. Basically I did everything by myself, so I learned from my mistakes. It was the toughest job I’ve ever had. My dad taught me that if you want to be a leader, if you want to win, you must dare to think and be different. You have to think outside the box unless you want to be a follower forever. So I kept searching and exploring to find inspiration and knowledge, and to create my own style. I love to create something timeless, unique, one of a kind, all in one and sustainable.
- What inspired you to open the first luxury mall, The Emporium, in 1997, and introduce high-end brands like Hermès and Chanel to the Thai market?
We had opened The Mall and a lot of people perceived it as just another department store selling mass products and promotional goods, so I wanted to create something different. Also, around 30 years ago, our country had a certain misleading reputation for foreigners that I thought should be corrected. When I travelled and carried a Thai passport, I wanted people to see something beyond this reputation. I wanted to be proud as a Thai woman. So I learned that if I wanted things to change, I had to be a part of that change. I thought about how I could alter that image and show the world that Thailand is a great country. We have style, we love fashion, women are not just only beautiful but they also have brains.
Convincing internationally renowned brands to come to Thailand was not easy. They didn’t even know where Thailand was. I had to fly to see them and get them to trust me. I think it was because they saw the determination and passion exuding from my eyes. I was not fake; I had vision, strategies with my passion and determination. When I discussed anything with my clients, they could look into my eyes and know that I was about action and not just talk.
The financial crisis hit Asia hard in April 1997, but our mall opened in July that year. Before the crisis, the exchange rate between the Thai baht and the US dollar was roughly 25 baht to $1, but it became 50-60 baht during the crisis. Everybody panicked. But we turned the crisis into an opportunity. Since the baht had fallen dramatically, millions of tourists flooded the country, from 7 million to 17 million. A lot of affluent Thais refrained from travelling abroad, while a lot of tourists came to Thailand and shopped for luxury products. Our sales grew 30-40 per cent. When you survive a war, you become a hero, and people trust you. We gained a great reputation from international clients after that. That’s how we fostered confidence, trust and commitment. Three years later we looked for another location and built Siam Paragon. I wanted to craft it to be “The Jewel of Asia, a retail entertainment phenomenon, a showcase of Thai heritage, and the pride of Siam”. That’s a big statement, but I showed the world we could actually make it happen.
- You are involved in almost every detail. You even chose every tree decorating The EmQuartier. Why is that?
I’m a perfectionist. I need to perfect everything I do. I want everything to be the best. Since I was a student, I have been an observant person. When my mother passed away, I felt I lacked something, so I began searching and trying to be the best, to make myself and my dad proud. When I studied pharmacy, I had a good photographic memory and got a perfect score on the chemistry exam. In medicine, everything must be accurate because someone might die or be endangered if you miscalculate dosages. It taught me to be observant and cautious.
When I was asked to come home and help establish the mall, I was 23 and didn’t know anything about it. I started from zero even sub-zero. It all started from observing, learning, trying, failing, solving problems and improving. There’s no elevator to success; I had to take the stairs. Sometimes I slip and fall but I lift myself up and climb up the stairs again. It’s impossible to live without failing at something.
I love to travel and take pleasure in observing cultures that are freshly different; you end up understanding “how things work” at your new destination. The mall I built had to be perfect. I drew master plan, architect and even landscape plans by myself. I wanted every corner to be an impressive place for everyone. I care that customers are happy and our tenants can run their business smoothly. I feel I have to take care of them from the very beginning until the contract ends.
- Each of the shopping malls has a different style and character. What is in your mind when you decide to open a mall?
I imagine Siam Paragon as a smart and tough working woman, like a New Yorker, whereas The Emporium is charming and sophisticated like a Parisian. For The Mall, I wanted it to be a fun, playful, warm hearted woman like Thai. For the malls in resort destinations like Hua Hin and Phuket, we want to make it cosy, fun and a “playground” of Asia. Building a mall is like building a town. Each town has a different character, and each mall I build must contribute something good to that community. Take The Emporium; back then, you couldn’t see any high-rise condominiums in the Sukhumvit area, but since its opening you see lots of condominiums sprouting up. We built the park for people to exercise, relax and spend time outdoors with friends and family. We don’t just open a shopping mall; we want to elevate the quality of life for people in the area. We want to entertain them and encourage them to enjoy their lives.
Our achievement depends on quality, not quantity. We want to craft the best, so everything needs to be perfect. We have to give our tenants time to consider if they are capable of opening new stores in our mall. For me, the number of mall does not matter, but satisfaction and perfection does. When everything is beneficial to others, I am happy.
- Does The Mall Group plan any changes for the near future?
We would like to turn an old district into a new important one, which will materialize within three years. Our existing plan is to modernize our image, as we have been in the industry for 35 years. We will transform Ramkhamhaeng district – there will be some demolition and transformation to turn it into a new shopping district. Siam has become the biggest shopping district in Asia. We will also refurbish the Ngamwongwarn, Tha Pra, Bangkae and Bang Kapi ones.
- You mentioned you will create a “playground” of Asia in Phuket. Why there?
Phuket is a world-famous tourist destination. Phuket has the beautiful Andaman Sea, which can have the same status as the Caribbean or the Mediterranean. It can be the Riviera of the East. However, as Phuket lacks glamour, the work is on us. It already has an aquarium. What else can the city offer visitors? Man-made cities like Singapore or Dubai can be tourist destinations. We are already rich in natural resources, but we should also have man-made attractions to complete it.
Tropical paradise enthusiasts, whether Chinese or European, love to visit our country because of the warm weather, great hospitality, and the kind and friendly people. But we still lack facilities and there are a lot of limitations; for example, entertainment in Thailand must close at 1 or 2am while those in other countries can close until 4 or 5am. With these limitations, how can we become a playground? If these are solved, we will become a rising star.
We are strong in cultural tourism, entertainment venues and shopping paradises, which attract millions of visitors who spend a lot of money. We have done well in promoting natural resource-based tourism, and it generates a reasonable amount of revenue. However, if we also focus on other aspects, such as the entertainment industry, to encourage visitors to stay longer and not complain they have “nothing to do”, this will move the economy forward.
- What are some current challenges faced by the retail industry?
The retail industry, the developments in the past are much easier but the story is different now as the competition is high, especially for online marketing, economics and politics. We must think globally and 360 degree perspective. We also have to consider the right timing to invite investors. Everything has to take time, similar to growing trees. They grow well in fertile land while taking a long time on arid or flooded land.
What investors are most concerned about is stability. We are the hub of ASEAN for everything we have. However, investors are concerned about Thailand’s political instability. We have been through 10 years of political unrest that prevented us from growing. We only picked up in recent years. But our country faces labour shortages, weakened purchasing power, a problematic tax structure, tough competition and slower exports, while our neighbours like Vietnam are speeding up their development. If our country can resume its development, we can become the top destination. It is time we learn to deal with conflict. We should step back and see how we can reconcile. We cannot move forward when we live with conflict. We should learn from history and reunited. In unity we will flourish.
- What is the Mall Group’s ultimate goal?
Our goal is to enable the country to compete with its neighbours. It’s sad to realize they are about to get ahead of us and we may be left behind. We had a number of opportunities, but many passed us by – a lot of investments were relocated to neighbouring countries. The “Made in Thailand” brand is not exciting any more. Why are we not there? Dubai is a small city with only 2 million people, but very advanced. Investors are talking a lot about Vietnam because they are making advancements. We should see businesspeople as ones who bring development to the country. If our country is doing well, everything else, from trade, family, education and the standard of living, will also do well. I pity the countries that once flourished and later became poor. We can learn from other people’s mistakes and move on with caution. I think we have to instil patriotism. I would feel sad if we are forgotten.
- Can you share your motto, or rules for work and life?
I have eight simple rules. It all starts with “love”. Everything you do in life, you have to do what you love and love what you do. If you love your parents, your friends, your work, your boss, your clients, you can get through everything; you can overcome every obstacle. I love my dad and I want to do my best in everything because I want him to be proud. So I give love to others as well. Love is what drives creation. Then you have to give. I was not born rich. My friends were rich and they always wore beautiful clothes, but I didn’t have any. Now that I have everything, I give. “Giving” is valuable. I know how important it is to give and to be given to. Giving with gratitude brings the giver purpose and fulfilment.
Next is to “care and share”. We have to take care of each other and help others. This makes life more meaningful. It’s important that you respect others. My employees respect me and I have to respect their opinion. It’s all about respecting one another. You also need to be “honest and sincere”. If you are not honest, you can lose integrity, trust and reputation. Once lost, they are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get back. The last two things are to “forgive and forget. Everybody can make mistakes, and sometimes when someone makes me upset, I say to myself, “OK, forgive and forget.” Forgiving sets you free.
- Who do you look up to and admire?
Our beloved late King and my late father are my role models – they had such big hearts. My father didn’t have a high education but he was a great man who would have done anything for his family, employees and friends. I admire our King Rama IX, the greatest King on earth, who did everything for his people out of love and care, and that’s why he is so wholeheartedly loved and respected. He demonstrated exceptional talent as a visionary, a thinker, a researcher, an inventor, an athlete, an artist, and a developer. He was a down-to-earth King who visited the most remote areas of the country to help solve problems for the people. Everywhere he went, he would carry a camera with him to capture memories and inspirations. His heart and actions inspired me to follow in his footsteps.
You can see that I worked really hard all of my life but I am not really tired at work because I know the King worked a lot harder than me. I’m determined to help other communities in Thailand have a better quality of life. We are born with only one life, and I would like to do something meaningful not only for my life, but for others as well. I want to use my brain and my experience to develop this small country with the greatest King that I love and am proud of.
- What remembrance campaigns have you been involved with for HM the late King?
Since his passing, we have done a lot. For example, our “Good Star” activity allowed the public to write their mission to do good deeds on one million pieces of star paper, and we hung them on branches like a giant golden tree, which looked absolutely stunning. We donated 20 million baht to the Chaipattana Foundation and other foundations. Blúport Hua Hin, located near the Klai Kangwon Palace, also held a lot of activities and exhibitions that showcased HM the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s life in the memories of the people of Hua Hin.
We have prepared one million artificial flowers for the royal cremation and invited the public to create these flowers at our department stores. On the royal cremation day, we have also organized a place for the public to offer sandalwood flowers and will provide food and drinks for people participating in the event. Our late King served as the centre-of-all-hearts of the Thai people for 70 years and his legacy will live on forever.