(published originally in the July-August 1998 issue of Voyageur)

When Peter van Haren first learned he was being posted to Thailand he went to a used bookstore in Red Deer, Alberta, and started leafing through old issues of National Geographic. A librarian had given him a tip thats where he could find information on the Land of Smiles”. Well, he found stories on the birds nest caves, and some photo-op pieces on palaces and wats but nothing to really prepare him for his future travails in the kingdom of Thailand.  

So Peter showed up expecting lots of jungles, monkeys, and snakes. His job was to hook up fibre-optic telephone systems by aerial cable running along the sides of Thailands railway lanes.

Peter had only been associated with CanCham (then the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce) for a year-and-a-half before he became Chamber President. Remembering Peter says, Without the past presidents, and board members I couldnt have done the job. They gave me a lot of support and credit for what I did to date. If I didnt have those guys pushing me, and challenging me, and giving me some fatherly advice, it would have made my job a lot more difficult.”

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Peters parents immigrated to Canada in 1953, but they came from the Rotterdam area of the Netherlands, which is where Peters older sister Mary was born. Peter was born in Red Deer, Alberta in 1955. He says, I continually call myself Canadian, but there isnt an ounce of Canadian blood in me, its all Dutch. I wanted to be totally Canadian, so I balked at the idea of learning to speak Dutch when I was young because I thought it was inappropriate for a Canadian boy, so I never did.           

Peter built a house for himself back in Red Deer. “It was a good experience, a good confidence booster. Anyone who goes through the experience of almost single-handily building their own house is going to gain a lot of confidence in their ability to achieve something that is quite monumental. If you have any doubts about your abilities before you start, you realize that you quickly learn how to cope and how to make decisions.”

So how did Peter get involved in hooking up telephone cable? Before I came here I worked for AGT (the Alberta Government Telephone company),he says. “And I spent a lot of time traveling throughout Alberta, working with customers in rural areas in a province-wide private-line campaign that the AGT was promoting. We engineered the job and installed and commissioned the equipment. It was a very large project.

But, when I wanted to settle down and stop moving from motel to motel, I took up an office job with the same company. At first, the job entailed workload coordination and project management, but then I recognized the chance to do more than just work on the technical side of things. I saw there was more potential in working on the business side of things, so I started to go on more business-related in-house training programs and to attend night school to learn management and accounting principles.

I then moved towards budget administration, preparation and the monitoring of our telephone projects. At the same time, I started getting interested in computers, and I applied this interest to building applications that would increase and monitor the productivity of our offices, as well as the workload that was being done, and the products that were being shipped into the field. And how much all of this was costing us in trying to keep a balanced budget.

In the beginning, I wasnt sure of myself, because I had never really done anything like it before, but my boss soon asked me to help him prepare the provincial budget for the following year. I did, and when I was finished he said, It looks really good, now you can go present it to the panel, and the provincial director next week.’ When I protested due to my inexperience, he looked at me and said, Peter, dont be a shrinking violet.’ Well, I took that as a challenge, and I went ahead and did it. I continued to work in that department until the opportunity to come to Thailand arose.”

Peters company at the time, Com-Link, built and maintained telecommunication and fibre-optic networks. It was established on 9 Dec 1988, and in early 1990 became a bidder for the establishment and installation of fibre-optic cable along the railways' route of the State Railway of Thailand (SRT). One of five companies, the company submitted the winning tender to undertake the cable installation for a period of twenty years along the railway routes in co-operation with the Telephone Organization of Thailand (ToT), as well as the SRT. The contract was signed on 21 Dec 1990.

John Kortbeek, a Canadian, who was working for the international division of Alberta Telephone International (ATI) saw an opportunity to get involved with the then US$200 million fibre-optic project that was being implemented in Thailand. But he couldnt get sufficient support, or financing, from Canadian companies so he decided to resign from ATI and look for a number of Thai financiers to invest in the project instead.   

He was successful and those shareholders included: Kasikorn (then the Thai Farmers Bank); Telecom Holdings Co., Ltd.; Mr. Santi Bhirom Bkakdi; Mr. Siritaj Rojanapruk; and Pol. Gen. Maj. Vimol Indamra.    

Peter came into the project because Kortbeek had already made an agreement to bring in employees from ATI if he did get the contract. “When I was interviewed for the job, I said I wanted to go over, I dont know what jobs youve got, but Im interested in the project, and I feel comfortable and confident that I can do anything you want me to do.”

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Peter recalls the initial stages of the operation, After building the network, we were responsible for keeping the network operating, so any failures (which happened a lot) we had to dispatch rapid-repair teams. I spent countless evenings in my pajamas in the living room of our small apartment directing emergency restoration work from the telephone.”

All of Com-Links lines originate in Bangkok and stretch to Chiang Mai, Udon Thani, Ubon Ratchathani, Prachinburi, Rayong, and Yala. The system backhauls telephone organizationscircuits from the provinces to Bangkok and vice versa, and they are mostly used for long-distance phone lines.

Originally, Peters job was to co-ordinate the workforce and materials to get the project finished. “It was quite monumental,he says, because we had equipment and materials coming in from all over the world, places like Holland, Germany, Australia, Israel, and North America. It was quite a task to coordinate and to make sure the procurement staff was getting everything cleared through customs, and then getting it out into the field so that work could get done. We had to make sure the bills got paid and the budget was balanced.”

Peter admits hes a workaholic and says it has hurt his home life. “Work has been a very high priority in my life, and my personal and family life have suffered for this. I devote a lot of energy to my job. I cannot sit still; I cannot just sit on the couch, watch TV, and chitchat about daily life. Ive got to be doing something. After supper, I go into my office and do some more work, or I go and work on one of my hobbies in the workshop.”

So why has Peter stayed in Thailand for so long? Originally, I was so involved with the work, and so involved with getting things done that time just flew by. I saw results, and also had some gratitude come back to me in the form of advancement, added responsibilities, and increased personal benefit. But really the first three or four years went by very quickly because I was so involved in the project.

Since it was a Build-Transfer-Operate (BTO) project we had to handle the transition of the project as well as the operation and that meant maintenance, routine and repairs and I was responsible for setting up all that as well as organizing the clean-uptoo.”

Was it more difficult working in one particular part of the country? The southern part of the country is the most challenging to work in,Peter says. “The accessibility and terrain are more difficult and the southern culture is different as well. To get things done in Thailand you have to work very closely with the people. If you work in the Northeast, you deal with the friendly Isarn people: in the North, you deal with the congenial northern people but there is a different agenda in the South and the attrition rate for foreigners in our company in that region was much higher than in any other area.”

Peter went on to become the CEO of the SET-listed company, Wiik & Hoeglund PLC and Executive Vice President of KWH Pipe Ltd. (Finland).  As CEO he was responsible for manufacturing and annual sales of approximately THB1.5 billion in the Asian region and was also a member of the global management team based out of Vaasa Finland, which controlled their 18 global offices.

What does he say about this?  Becoming the CEO of a publicly listed company was one of the best experiences of my lifeA business person naturally becomes familiar with company affairs and budgets through experience, however running a public company is a whole other ball gameTransparency, stakeholder and shareholder pressures that come from the gamut of punter investors and regulators alike might not be like roasting over a fire, but it gets pretty darn hot!”  He says it was worth every minute”.

Peter enjoys teaching part-time in the International Trade and Business Logistics (B.B.A) program at the International College at KMUTNBThese courses include Organizational Behavior, International Business Strategy, and International Business EthicsHes also a regular course facilitator for the Institute of Directors (IOD), teaching The Practice of Directorship to executives and board directors of Thailands top public and private businesses.

How does Peter relax? I try to get out bike riding as often as possible, with a goal of 100 kilometers per weekBesides the exercise factor, I find it kind of therapeutic.”   

Although it might not seem as relaxing for some, he loves to work in his home wood and metal workshopBuilding things, by first putting ideas into a 3d model cad design, then physically seeing them turn into something usable helps scratch his itch to feel productiveHe says I get bored easy, need to stay busy doing something all the timeMy mother says its the van Harencurse!”

Peter also flies remote-controlled helicopters and drones and he says its a great way to relieve stress. “Being somewhat technically inclined and always wanting to do something with my hands, whether it be pushing a pencil, or just tinkering around, flying helicopters is a challenge. To maintain, set-up and operate a remote-controlled helicopter is quite involved, and its difficult. It gives me a chance to vent.

Flying these aircraft requires concentrating one hundred percent on what you are doing or you will crash. So, it really blocks out everything else.”

Peter says there are some organized flying sites in Thailand where there are other fliers, so there is a social aspect to it as well. 99 percent of the other fliers are Thai so it gives him a chance to brush up on his Thai as well.

Despite his serious business side, Peter does have a keen sense of humor. At a luncheon put on by the Thai-German and Thai-Canadian chambers, he sat next to then Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, who complimented Peter on his Thai. At one point during the event, Peter had the PM in stitches with a joke that we, unfortunately, cant print here.

Ken Lewis, a former Trade Commissioner at the Canadian embassy in Bangkok approached Peter about joining the Chamber. “I thought I could use my -building confidence, organizational skills, and hard work, to be of benefit to the Chamber,he recalls, but when I was first approached about running for president I was unsure about taking the position, so I talked to my old friend John Kortbeek, who echoing the Nike commercial said, Just do it

Q & A with then CanCham President Peter van Haren (portions published originally in the March 2013 issue of Voyageur)

You have a gift for speaking Thai how did you so good at it?

I cant give you a specific answer to this. I did take private lessons near the beginning of my stay in ThailandAlthough our Canadian superior on the project told me that I would be wasting my time, and learning the language wasnt necessary or important, my usual stubborn self told me otherwise.  I took weekly lessons for approximately six months, starting with a painful first set of lessons only focusing on what seemed like noises (tones, vowels & consonants) and how to hold my mouth and tongue. Not fun, but for anyone to learn to speak Thai, I highly recommend suffering the initial pain and get the tones rightI had a great teacher whose name was Khru Phet (teacher diamond). Initially, I didnt know what her name meant, but was told one day at work (with much laughter) that her name was diamondand not duck” (bpet) as I had been pronouncing itThe point is, to learn a language you have to use it, but better yet have fun with it.”

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 You have a radio program in Thai; please tell us a little about it

I have been doing Thai language live radio on MCOT FM 96.5 for quite a few years now. I started when a friend of mine asked me if Id take on the challenge of doing a weekly evening program called The Stage for Thoughtwhere Id be a call-in guest to discuss a foreigners view of Thailand and the world. I did that for a couple of years until an opening came up for the popular program CEO Vision, every Thursday morningI jumped at the opportunity as CEO Vision has historically been one of the top radio talk shows in Thailand, and certainly more of a challenge (substance-wise).

The challenge has been a lot of fun, although sometimes a bit stressfulIt seems that no matter how diplomatic or contributory we try to be, theres always someone that doesnt see things that wayDiscussing political figures will always get me in troubleIve also learned that even though the program is supposed to focus on the vision of the management, the listeners always give more feedback on issues that touch them personally, regardless of the topic, or intention.

Ive often been asked what the feedback is likeSimply put, Ive received the full spectrum from you are a foreigner and dont have the right to say such thingsto keep saying it straight, we need more of these types of comments’.  Although, it might not in my nature Ive learned that, perhaps, unfortunately, as a guest to Thailand speaking on the radio, I should stay relatively neutral in my delivery.

Wouldnt it be fun to be able to say what is really on your mind?

This is your second time around as CanCham president, whats different this time?

Yes, this is my second time. I think the biggest difference this time is that Ive gained a wealth of experience over the past 15 or so years since my first involvement with the ChamberThese include having been the Chairman of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand for nine years, Vice-Chairman of the Board of Trade of Thailand for seven years, Advisor to the International Chamber of Commerce, Advisor to the Ministry of Industry, Advisor to the Thai Trade Representative and Director of the Thai-Finnish Chamber of CommerceAll these official positions taught me a lot about working on issues relevant to CanChamThroughout the time, Ive also learned and been told about the things I didnt do so well during my first stint as CanCham President; mistakes are great teachers if we accept that we are fallible.”

What are you most proud of about CanCham?

CanCham has been very active and visible lately and that is a very good thingWe are relatively small by member count but are perhaps the most active Chamber in ThailandWe continually host nearly 40 events over a twelve-month period, thats three per monthThat makes me very proud of the hard work of our Executive Director, staff and of course the Board of Directors.

But lots of activity isnt entirely what we are aboutCanCham is actively involved in giving to Thailand sociallyWe concurrently worked on two philanthropic programs, one to help improve human lives in the tiny village of Ban Nong Phai and the other to restore eyesight to needy rural people in remote areas of ThailandThe Chamber is very proud that we can give and contribute in these ways through the generosity of our membership.

Reflecting on the organization name Chamber of Commerce, Im proud to see that we can make a difference in the commercial lives of our members and business partners for the betterWhether it is active trade promotion through business-related activities such as trade fairs, a successful mission to Myanmar, or dedicated advocacy on regulatory issues, we should be proud that we, as Canadians, working closely with the Embassy, can improve trade relations for those around us.”

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How and where do you think CanCham needs to improve?

In my opinion, we need to modernize and perhaps shed some of our stodgy ways, while maintaining some of our more valuable traditionsSince my first day in the position for this term, I have stated that we need to have a fresh and young approach to what we doWe need to generate more opportunities for the younger members of the Board and membership to be able to express themselvesMy observation is that there can be stagnation within chambers, perhaps ours included, and there is a need for our chamber to differentiate from the other 30+ chambers established in Thailand.

We also need to capitalize on being CanadiansOur image is admirable and respected, yet we are subdued in exposing and promoting ourselvesAs Canadians, we have a lot to be proud of and CanCham can be the perfect vehicle to highlight this

I would also like to see more member involvementIf possible, we need to reach out to our general membership, inviting them to take a more active role in what we do.

I hope that the Chamber will grow and be more visible, and with that growth will come a desire of non-members to become members. This doesnt mean clamoring to get our pictures taken for magazines or social media, nor does it mean speaking behind the microphoneIts much more than that. If we can be active, positive and desirable then people will automatically want to become members of CanCham.”

Finally, I would like to see more participation from and activities for women, Thais, and the younger generation. We need to have more activities of interest for them while encouraging them to be involved in the Chamber management as well.”

What is about Thailand that most intrigues you and keeps you here?

I still see Thailand as the land of opportunityIts a matter of knowing how to get things done.

Also, just like our members, Ive had numerous chances to meet interesting and influential people while living hereThis wouldnt have happened living in my hometown of Sylvan Lake, Alberta.

Ive often said that Thailand can be challenging, frustrating, or sometimes even discouraging, however, Ive never been bored hereBoredom is the bane to my mental well-being and so far, contrary to the opinion of some, Im still ok on that front.”

What do you miss most about Canada?

Perhaps, the beauty of Alberta, living by a lake and all the activities that go with the lakercommunity.  Another thing that you wont know you even miss is the seasons of the year until you live in a country like Thailand which basically only has one season, hotTheres a lot to be said for seasonal change. 

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