Scott Murray recently sat down with incoming CanCham President Derek van Pelt to find out a little about his life, what brought him to Thailand, his involvement with the Chamber, and his plans for CanCham moving forward, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.

In mid-April, Derek made history by becoming the first Chamber president elected through a digital AGM as the COVID-19 crisis prevented CanCham from holding its usual in-person AGM.

Derek was born in southern Ontario, but at a young age, his family moved up to Sudbury, where they lived for about seven years. Then the family moved to Yorkton, Saskatchewan, where he went to junior high and high school. His early desire to get out and see the world led him to enroll at Ambassador University, a small liberal arts college in Big Sandy, Texas, where he studied Management Information Systems. In 1997, he followed fellow-Canadian and Ambassador University graduate Daniel Fraser to Thailand to work at Chitralada Palace for a project under the support of Princess Sirindhorn.

When his time at the Palace was up two years later, he decided to take a year and explore Thailand, excited about traveling the country and exploring some of its more remote corners. Coincidentally, Dan Fraser had returned to Thailand with his high-school friend Scott Coates to start a local destination management company, Smiling Albino. Derek later became a formal advisor and investor in this travel company, a relationship he maintains to this day.

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Early jobs included working for TravelGuide.com, and then, as Thailand is renowned for being a silver manufacturing and handicrafts center, he found himself exporting silver back to a partner in Toronto. This arrangement eventually came to an end and Derek then partnered with a Swedish friend who had a growing export company called Reptile Asia which needed more manpower at the time. The company was mostly involved in trading - selling everything from handicrafts, belts, calculators, scooters, laser pointers and yoyos (much of the merchandise was manufactured in Taiwan and Thai traders brought it here by the container where it would be repackaged and shipped to Europe). Derek was responsible for doing the sourcing and buying in Thailand while his Swedish partner looked after sales and marketing in Europe from his base just north of Stockholm.

Derek’s partner eventually sought a return to the Land of Smiles and so bought him out of his half of the company.

Shortly after that he set up Siam Wheels, a custom big bike company - the idea being to make big bikes available on contract to people operating in Thailand or those based in the region who came and went. One unforeseen challenge to the initial strategy was that everyone very quickly wanted to go on motorcycle tours and Derek ended up running a motorcycle touring company which, being a new father to his son Xander, he didn’t have any interest in doing. The economics also changed: when Derek started the company there was a heavy tax on imported bikes but then the Thai government incentivized the local manufacturing of big bikes and the financial considerations of contracting a bike through Siam Wheels vs buying a bike personally changed.

After the birth of his second son, Dylan, and shutting Siam Wheels down, Derek then took a turn representing Travertures (MyMedHoliday.com) in dealing with Thailand-based agencies and partners, where he was responsible for preparing/delivering presentations and closing deals for the company and its media properties. This included meetings with high-level government and corporate officials to communicate value offerings of the company making sure stakeholders remained satisfied with the deliverables.
Derek has always been struck by wanderlust, some if his adventures include cycling from Lhasa to Kathmandu via Everest Base Camp over 21 days, cycling the French and Italian Alps as well as along the Dalmatian coast to Dubrovnik, hiking the West Coast Trail, and even playing hockey in Pyongyang, North Korea. He has Chernobyl marked as the next stop on his bucket list.

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Serendipity stepped in and a few years back he joined outgoing CanCham President John Stevens and CanCham Treasurer Dan McKay as a partner at Stonelotus Ventures. Derek and John had known each other for years, both having arrived in the Kingdom within weeks of each other in 1997, but they had never worked together. Derek calls the opportunity to work with Stonelotus a fortuitous one because of the way it allows him to work with like-minded people. “When you trust someone’s decision-making process and motives it’s very easy to get along with those people,” he says.

Stonelotus is a venture capital firm that invests in and has equity in a variety of companies, primarily in Thailand, and the near abroad. The firm looks for companies that can take the knowledge and experience that Stonelotus has to through contacts, tools, perspective, and even funding, allowing entrepreneurs to achieve scale in their businesses. The company typically looks for a three to five-year time horizon. Current investments include one of the largest cacao plantations in the world, a few hours outside of Bogota, Colombia, and the Get Fresh chain of restaurants that many of you will be familiar within Bangkok.

Back to the Chamber, Derek first got involved with CanCham in the late 1990s while seeking out fellow Canadians based in the Kingdom. Back then, the Chamber was more noted for its social gatherings than its business focus. The Chamber started to get more formal and business-like in the early 2000s before swinging back to what Derek says is a good mix of both today.

Derek got busy with life and drifted away from the Chamber until roughly 2004 when Smiling Albino started to become more active as a member and Derek was one of their three representatives. He stayed as a regular member for a number of years, joining the board at the behest of then Chamber president John Casella in 2010.
Derek recalls: “It was rewarding to be able to participate and give back to the Canadian community. The more involved I became, the more enjoyment I got out of it, and the closer I got to other people in the Chamber.”

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What does Derek enjoy about his role with the Chamber? “I like solving problems and analyzing situations and coming up with solutions, and I enjoy helping other people find success. I never went into the Chamber thinking ‘What’s in it for me?’ I have always looked at it as we are all in this together and what do the people around me need? How can I put people together to find what they are looking for? How do we improve the world we live in, and make it a better place? I believe that one of the best ways to do that is through commerce.”

What about the challenges that lie ahead? “I know that it won’t be all sunshine and roses. I am fully aware of the hard work that lies ahead, but I am fortunate to have the board and Executive Director Jen Meckhayai and the CanCham office staff to work with and we are thankful for the strong support we have from the Canadian embassy. As a Chamber, we need to make sure we are constantly relevant for our members and if not then we need to adjust course.”

How do we best deal with the COVID-19 situation? “We need to get through it with great creativity and determination and I think it’s a great opportunity for us to revisit what we do, why we do it, and how we do it. I think there’s also a lot of soul-searching going on right now and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

“But COVID-19 does not change CanCham’s mandate which is threefold: 1.) to support Canadian business interests in Thailand; 2.) to support Thais and Thai businesses who want to do business with Canadian companies, and 3.) to be a pillar of the Canadian social community in Thailand and to support Thai charities as best as we can.”
What about the complaint that the Chamber doesn’t have enough value for its members? “If all you do is send in your membership dues, and don’t get involved in any of the events or initiatives of the Chamber, then the value of the Chamber will be very low for you. But we do add a lot of value for our members who become involved, especially through our networking events – and now webinars.

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“We also have a strong voice within the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand (JFCCT) as Ron Livingston serves as the JFCCT’s vice-chair and John Casella serves as the JFCCT’s Treasurer. And the Thai government does listen to recommendations from the JFCCT.”

What are your goals as Chamber President? “I would like to promote ‘Brand Canada’ as Canada has a tremendous reputation in the world for things such as fairness, equality, peacekeeping, food safety, education, and environmental protection and awareness. These are all tremendous strengths that Canada has that we don’t leverage enough internationally. We need to encourage Canadian companies and companies with Canadian content operating here to wave the Canadian flag and take advantage of the halo effect that Canadian content should provide. We need to band together to tell the Canadian story. When you think of German products you tend to think of reliability, engineering, and precision, and with Japanese products, much the same. But Canadian companies also need to tell their story. For example, most of the Lays potato chips in Thailand came from potatoes grown in PEI. We need to be touting that and Lays should be advertising that on their chip bags because Canada should mean something to the Thai consumer. I’d like to kick this off by having a Brand Canada roundtable event with stakeholders once we are able to hold group events again.
“I’d also like to make a little shift in how the organization functions from just being based on social and business activities. We need to be storytellers, we need to be selling Brand Canada and sharing the stories of our members, so we need to have more of a media focus.”

Derek has served as vice-president for past presidents Peter van Haren, Ron Livingston and John Stevens so he has been well-groomed for his new role. And the Stonelotus office is in the same building (Sethiwan Tower) as the Chamber, so if he needs to discuss matters with Chamber Executive Director Jen Meckhayai, he just needs to take the elevator down a few floors.

Derek literally faces a pandemic of issues moving forward, but the board and the Chamber at whole are very confident that he is up to the task. He has an expression he likes to use, “a rising tide lifts all boats”, we are hoping for the Bay of Fundy.

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