There are several customers, Asian and Western, sipping coffee or enjoying a casual late lunch to the backdrop of a peaceful urban scene outside.
Traffic on the partly-shaded Montri Rd is light, and pedestrians are moving about the three-storey shop-houses on either side of the two-lane street.
This was once the heart of Phuket, before Central Festival, before all the tourists flocked to the beaches en mass – all the business and entertainment centered around the vicinity of this hotel.
And it is in this 12-floor, 212-room iconic development – Phuket Town’s first high-rise opened in 1976 – where some of the most important politicians and people in Thai society made their stay on state and leisurely visits to the island in decades’ past.
The VIP guest list includes most of the Thai Royal family (including the Crown Prince, Princess Mother and Princess Sirindhorn), several Prime Ministers (General Prem Tinsulanonda and Chuan Leekpai, for example), Thai superstars (Tongchai “Bird” McIntyre, for example), and several members of the Royal family of Nepal and Denmark.
But I didn’t come to talk about them. My subject is the heir and Director of the hotel, Dr Siripattra Kusuwan Na-ranong, arguably, one of the most educated and internationally-experienced Thai executives on the island.
With a Bachelor, Master’s and PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Oxford, England, topped with five years working experience with leading global management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, Dr Siripattra, or as her family and friends call her “Gift”, now wears an important hat with her family’s business.
She is the Director of The Pearl Group of companies – which comprises both the Pearl Hotel and Indigo Pearl resort in Nai Yang, as well as all the Toyota dealerships on the island. And in addition to this, is in charge of several key land banks across the island.
And yet, for someone of such stature, she is quite humble, outgoing and easy to talk to, not unlike her famous uncle, Khun Wichit Na-ranong, who has the same distinctive, russet-coloured eyes.
Phuket is in a perpetual state of flux, having undergone its last major economic transformation only several decades ago. With the wane of the century-old era of tin-mining came the dawn of the present age of tourism, the lifeblood of which tens of thousands depend on to this day.
Credited with propelling if not catalyzing that shift is Dr Siripattra’s beloved uncle, Khun Wichit, who is the grandson of Khunlerd Pokharak, a Chinese immigrant-turned-tin-miner who built his Phuket fortune from little more than the classic values of hard work, saving, and intuitive investing.
Perpetuating Khunlerd’s legacy, it was Wichit who tirelessly lobbied for the Thai government to realize the value and thus invest in tourism, and who was subsequently nicknamed ‘The Father of Phuket Tourism’.
A major benchmark for Phuket's budding tourism industry was reached in 1976 – around five years prior to Thai Airways launching its inaugural flight to Phuket from Bangkok – when Wichit opened the Pearl Hotel, which to this day is still a major landmark on Montri Rd, in the old heart of Phuket Town, one of half-a-dozen structures in Phuket municipality's infant cityscape.
Gift notes that the hotel was the second major commercial establishment built in the Pearl Complex, following the opening in 1971 of the island’s first and only movie theatre (initiated by Khunlerd at the site of the Trick Eye Museum today) and was built simultaneously with several shop-houses and the adjacent former Pearl bowling alley.
Born in Bangkok and schooled initially in Phuket – at Dara Samut and Satree Phuket schools – Gift recalled her childhood in Phuket, when in the mid to late 1980s, and early 1990s, the Pearl Hotel complex was the centre of the island’s entertainment and business scene.
“At the time, my family lived in a house on [the historical] Thalang Rd., close to the hotel. I used to come to the hotel everyday after school, for swimming and piano lessons. … I spent a lot of time there. They fed me a lot. I had four meals a day,” she laughs.
In addition to movies, the theater also staged small concerts. One of Gift’s fondest memories was when she was singing along with the popular children's musical group “Nok Lae”.
Phuket’s entertainment and business scene continued to expand.
“Before Central Festival opened [in 2004], the area around the Pearl complex was always happening and there were a lot of new shops opening up all the time ... When I was about 10, Ocean Time Square [in the area of Robinson's Department Store today and later rebranded as the Ocean Shopping Mall in 1997] opened, which further contributed to the boom of the area.”
But the Na-ranong clan knew they would have to continue to diversify their business, realizing that demand and activity was starting expand to other parts of the island.
It was clear that the chain retail business model would be the way “forward” for Thai consumerism. The trend of new franchises and chain businesses had exploded in the kingdom, initially in Bangkok and then pouring over into the provinces, inevitably penetrating Phuket.
“My family knew that the beach was the next big thing. My uncle opened the Pearl Village Resort in Nai Yang [the predescor of Indigo Pearl Resort Phuket] in 1986.”
Meanwhile, Phuket Town continued to spread west and south, the municipality rapidly approaching city status (which it would eventually attain in 2004 when its official population exceeded 50,000).
“A new chain movie theater opened in the Ocean Shopping Mall, and we leased out our movie theater to a private entertainment company.”
The once quiet town was attracting more investors, from Bangkok and abroad, with new hotels and establishments popping up, not only in town, but island-wide.
Aside from anticipating where the market was heading, just as important was knowing what the market needed.
“My family had known and seen the value of English language and the role it would play in Phuket’s future. My generation was encouraged to study abroad. In 1991, my older brother, Geng, left for boarding school, at Georgetown Prep School in Maryland, USA.”
At the age of 13, Gift also left Thailand to study abroad, enrolling at the prestigious Headington School in Oxford, England. And though an overseas education was encouraged, she insists that the decision was by her own initiation.
“After visiting my brother a few times in the US, I told my parents that I wanted to go abroad too ... I loved studying a lot. In Thailand at the time, it became clear that I would have to choose my course of study from early on, to focus on either language or science and math.”
But Gift wanted to focus on both Science and English – and the Western education system provided more opportunity, and independence, for such a curious mind.
After visiting schools in the US and England, her family opted on the latter, as the “lifestyle and teaching method were more similar to Thailand.”
For the next 12 years of her life, she lived and studied in Oxford, England making the visit home to Thailand – Bangkok and Phuket – two to three times a year, witnessing gradual changes in her hometown with each visit.
After culminating her formal education in 2006, concluding her doctoral dissertation with a research project on HIV Immunology, it was time for a new chapter in life.
“I’ve always loved science, but I realized that a career as a researcher would be difficult here in Thailand, with the complications in securing funding and so forth.”
Upon returning to Thailand in 2007, Dr Siripattra applied and was accepted into McKinsey & Company, one of the largest global management consultancy firms.
The next five years would prove to be one of the busiest chapters in her life. Based in Bangkok, she traveled frequently, consulting top executives of global companies in various projects and industries throughout Asia – banking, energy, aviation, pharmaceutical, telecom and retail, among them.
With a strong background in science and a good business sense, the transition into the business world proved to be smooth.
“In business you have to use a lot of maths, problem solving and analytical thinking. I didn’t find it too difficult of a transition also because I grew up seeing the running of all the businesses by my family,” she says, adding that she still reads scientific journals, and keeps in touch with alumni and friends from Oxford.
After such an uphill climb in the fast lane, Dr Siripattra felt it was time to settle down, and returned to Phuket in 2012 to answer her calling in the family business.
Soon after her homecoming, she married Khun Pawin Suthapong, a US-educated hi-tech entrepreneur, and formally took the reigns of the family-run hotel and land business.
Back to business
Phuket is perpetually in a state of flux. As an intuitive business leader – like her parents and uncles – Gift understands well the importance of paying attention to the signs ... to the trends, which may provide some valuable hints on the future. And though Phuket's center in the last decade has expanded much, in all directions, the traditional heart of the once-town-now-city looks to be on its own revival path.
Many signs suggest this. The Old Town historic district is as popular as ever among both domestic and international tourists; a number of new 10- to 15-storey developments are breaking ground or on the cards, while concrete remnants of decades past are being lined up for restoration and renovation, if not removal – and not to mention, the latest proposal to bring the Airport-Chalong mass-transit system straight through Old Town, also looks promising.
Face of change
Understanding the current trajectory of change, and inspired by her uncle Wichit’s strategic renovation and rebranding of the Indigo Pearl in 2006, Gift is now initiating her own revamp of the 38-year-old Pearl Hotel.
“We’re not rebranding. The Pearl Hotel brand is already very strong. We're just going to give it a face-lift. We’ll maintain the original concept and the elegant finishings and decoration for which it’s famous.”
Indeed, while the skyline of Phuket city continues its transformation apace with the 21st Century, the Pearl Hotel’s place and position as a key landmark has long-been cemented, not only in the memories of decades’ past, but surely in decades to come.