In this interview, we spoke with Chairit Sangsittiphan, Managing Director of Premier Tech Systems and Automation in Southeast Asia. Chairit dives into the origins and present innovations of Canadian manufacturing company Premier Tech, the realities of building a business in Southeast Asia, and the importance of customer service and client solutions for competitive advantage. Read on to learn more about Premier Tech’s “Glocal” (global and local) approach to multinational business.
What is the history of Premier Tech?
It all started in 1923 when two brothers imported peat moss from Europe to North America for the first time. In 1933, the company acquired a large wetland property in Rivière-du-Loup, Québec, Canada. It is about a 2hr drive outside of Québec and is where we have our corporate headquarters and research centres today.
In 1989, Premier Tech’s System and Automation was born. We first built our own bagging equipment to serve our peat moss line of products. This is how we really got started, by building the equipment for our own usage. Later on, our peat moss competitors in North America began asking us to build similar equipment for them, and then it started to become more commercialized—we realized that the equipment that we built can serve us and the world.
Today, in 2021, we have grown into four major business areas: PT Growers and Consumers, PT Water and Environment, PT Systems and Automation, and most recently, PT Digital.
These are our roots, our history: 97 years of passion, starting from peat moss before slowly expanding into engineering technologies, and now using technology to connect with people—this is what we do, this is our passion.
Tell me more about the four major business areas at Premier Tech.
The purpose of the Premier Tech Growers and Consumers sector is to serve professional growers and consumers through our horticulture and agriculture products. We help our customers build beautiful gardens with our brands such as ProMix, CIL, Wilson, and Alaskan.
The second group is Premier Tech Water and Environment, wherein we work to treat and recycle water. We build septic tanks to clean water before it is released into the environment, and some of our brands include Ecoflo, Solido, Ecoprocess, and Rewatec. We mostly market these products in North America and in Europe.
The third group, which is brand new for Premier Tech, is PT Digital. We realized that in manufacturing, becoming more digital is complementary, so we partnered with GE Digital and Microsoft on this particular business union. Going digital not only helps Premier Tech internally, but also helps the customers we already served in the market, to help increase their cost efficiency and modernize operations.
The last business sector is Systems and Automation, where myself and the rest of my team work. This division of Premier Tech was created in 1989 to build our own bagging equipment to improve the efficiency of packaging lines, but later on it became commercialized to optimize the manufacturing facilities and factories of our customers. The brands that we serve in the market today include Chronos, Slootweg, Prairie, and Kockums.
What brought Premier Tech to Thailand?
In 1992, a company from Europe called Chronos Richardson, specialized in industrial weights and scales, came to Thailand. Upon introduction to the region, their products mainly served agricultural and industrial purposes. In early 2000, Premier Tech acquired Chronos Richardson, and this is how we came to the region for the first time. Today in Thailand we are located in the industrial zone, where we have full assembly line manufacturing facilities with engineering, accounting, finance, marketing, production, supply chains, and client solutions—it is a full-fledged operation.
Tell me about PT’s Systems and Automation division (PTSA) in Southeast Asia.
PTSA has been a part of Premier Tech for 30 years as of 2021, with 1800 team members worldwide in four different global regions. We have five sub-sectors: nutrition, organics, agriculture, industrial, and client solutions. We have 1000 team members at four sites in North America, including operational centres, service centres, and our corporate headquarters in Rivière-du-Loup, Québec, Canada. In Latin America, we have 150 team members at 2 operational centres, one in Mexico and the other in Brazil. In Europe, we have 400 team members working in service centres in the UK, Denmark, and France, an operational centre in the Netherlands, and an International Development centre in Parma, Italy. In Asia-Pacific, we have 300 team members in operational centres in Bangkok, New Delhi, and Melbourne, as well as our Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, and Changshu sales and service centres.
Within PTSA, we create equipment to help optimize food manufacturing facilities for both human and animal foods; the customer base that we serve today includes brands such as Cargill, Land O’ Lakes, ADM, and ABF Ingredients. In organics, we serve companies like Scotts, Oldcastle, and Van der Knapp with solid fuel, fiber crops, wood and paper products, and growing media. In terms of agricultural products, we build equipment to handle seeds, grain, rice, and corn for big companies such as Monsanto. PTSA also builds equipment for the industrial sector, such as bulk handlings, building materials, installation, household products, and hardware consumer products; we serve companies such as Dow, Mauser, and USG. As for Client Solutions, we provide technical support, training, field services, spare parts solutions, equipment retrofit, and the latest digital services, to serve the customer and help them optimize their manufacturing process.
What makes Thailand so appealing for business?
Premier Tech grew from being a peat moss business, and Thailand is a complementary match because Thailand is also an agricultural country. As one of the top five exporters of rice into the world, the Thai market is already appealing and matches what Premier Tech does.
Also, Thailand and many countries in this region are in the stage of transforming from manual to automation, so this fits right in—Premier Tech came just at the right time. Thailand also offers a strong, skilled workforce; there are talented engineers and good people to work with. This was appealing to Premier Tech, and I am sure that it will be appealing to many more multinational companies in the future.
What has Premier Tech Thailand been innovating recently?
Recently, we brought in a few new products from Europe and North America. For example, a year ago we brought in a brand-new product to serve the flour market. This product is like the Ferrari of the flour industry, named “PTF”—an exceptional automatic bagger for speed and accuracy. It gives our customers high operational accuracy, minimizes waste, and increases speed. In terms of productivity, it gives the customer high productivity and saves the customer in terms of waste management. Flour is quite expensive, so any flour wasted is not only costly but also reduces line efficiency.
We also recently launched another product, called the CHRONOS OML-1060, an open mouth bagging machine. This product serves middle-sized capacity food and feed industries; it is also suitable for operations that want to convert their lines from manual to automation. For this, it is a good transition option as it is simple and user-friendly to operate and maintain the equipment. From the operational and marketing point of view, we have been quite successful in launching both of these products within the last few years.
What advice would you give to other businesses looking to expand into Thailand or Southeast Asia?
The first thing is to understand the local laws and regulations—this is a must in all businesses. Secondly, you need to do your own research. The research has to be relevant to your business, in terms of the resources and raw materials you are looking for and the competitive landscapes in the market. It is also important to minimize and manage your risk, because you are in a foreign country where things are not familiar. You can minimize risk by getting the right partners, agents, distributors, and importers that you can associate with. As a global company, you need to be very competitive locally and you also need to be understanding when competing with locals. At Premier Tech we have a term called “Glocal” which means that we are a global company, but we are able to compete locally.
For multinational companies who want to bring their business to this region, culture and language barriers are inevitable and every foreign company will struggle with that, but Thailand is familiar with foreigners and we have very open-minded people, which helps to ease the transitional period. Be agile and flexible in the local environment.
What resources are helpful for businesses expanding into the region?
For multinational companies, the first thing I think of is the BOI, the Board of Investment. This particular institution was established many years ago by the Thai government with the purpose of helping foreign businesses understand how to bring their business into Thailand for the first time. They help with registration, work permits, visas, and immigration—you can go to the BOI and you get everything you need. Other resources might include the embassy consulates, government agencies, and the Chamber of Commerce. These resources help businesses get data to understand the market and to establish their companies. The Chamber of Commerce in particular will help promote and attract business. The Chamber provides strong information, knowledge and networking, and helps speed up business transitions into new countries. We also have the national statistics offices that can provide good data for companies in the research stage.
Another good reason for businesses to come to this region is the recent free trade agreement among the ASEAN countries, implemented in 2015. The agreement allows free movement of ASEAN citizens to work in other ASEAN countries, and the movement of goods produced within the region is free trade. For Premier Tech Thailand this is very appealing, because we have our manufacturing in Thailand and our market is across Southeast Asia. This agreement gives us a big advantage because we can build our products here and then export to many countries in the region with zero percent duty taxes, making our products very competitive. Logistically we are competitive as Thailand is in the middle of the region geographically; Thailand also still has a growing economy, good infrastructure, and convenient access to airports and seaports. For these reasons, Thailand is an appealing destination for business expansion.
Overall, what makes Premier Tech so unique?
Client Solutions and Customer Service is a very important part of our business and gives us a competitive edge; this has been a huge contributor to our success so far. Having good engineering is one thing, but when the customer buys our equipment, they want to utilize our products for life—20, 30, 40, 50 years—they want to have good equipment in the long term. Good customer service and client solutions contributes tremendously within that regard, and the team members who work in the client solutions, they really are unsung heroes, contributing so much to our company. They help with maintaining the equipment for life, bringing critical spare parts to the customer, training customers, fine tuning equipment, and upgrading equipment when it is time. At the end of the day, providing good client services is very difficult to copy. Our strength is in the way we serve the customers, and the knowledge that we have.
Part of the Client Solution at Premier Tech is our call centre that provides support 24/7 worldwide. We utilize very advanced technologies for the call centres that are able to trade and transfer the calls worldwide, to answer immediate needs if the customers need it. For example, if a critical machine broke down at the customer’s site and they need immediate help and assistance, they can call our hotlines and immediately they can get help. With this technology, especially during the pandemic, we are able to access and help customers to keep the lines running and reduce idle time at the customer’s site. We are doing things online with our customers today, we are commissioning equipment online and helping customers online by using online connections to help the customer solve their problems today.