Sam Cohen – A Life Well Lived

CanCham Thailand is sad to report the passing of Sam Cohen, one of its most charismatic and friendliest members. This story, written by Scott Murray, first appeared in the April 1998 issue of Voyageur magazine when CanCham was called the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

Sam Cohen doesn’t really need any introduction. He was the best known and best-loved member of the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce. Indeed, if the TCCC had a favorite chamber member award Sam Cohen would have won that award as many times as Bobby Orr won the James Norris trophy.

Sam was born in Calgary, Alberta on the 24th of August 1926. His family was based in southern Alberta and was quite active in farming, ranching, cattle feeding, and raising sheep.

During WWII, Sam was a cadet instructor and taught sailing on Chestermire Lake, an irrigation lake east of Calgary. Sam trained high school students so that by the time they hit the armed forces they had a trade.

After the war, Sam was awarded a scholarship to Royal Rhodes, Canada’s now-defunct Annapolis. But he didn’t want to devote five years of his life to the Navy so he went to the University of Oklahoma at Norman to study petroleum engineering instead.

“During the first courses, I took in geology when they were talking about my mountains, my foothills, and how they got that way so I became intrigued with geology and switched over to study it. My first wife Gea was from a small town in Oklahoma called Hugo, and we met as undergrads, then I went on to graduate school, and she went on to have children.

“My first job in the oil business came with an America oil company from Wichita, Kansas, and I worked in Oklahoma and Texas. Shortly after Leduc was discovered the company opened up a Calgary office and I was sent back to Alberta where I spent about four years working as a geologist.

“But my family business was expanding rapidly so my dad said: ‘Sonny, come home, we need you.’ I went home and worked with my brother and father. We had an airplane to cover our territory which stretched from Youngstown to Pollockville and down to Pincher Creek. I learned to fly and obtained all the licenses that were required: multi-engine, night endorsements, and centerline thrust.

“As a result, I think, my eldest son became a pilot and he was with Canadian Airlines for 25 years. Because of his seniority, he resided in Lethbridge and commuted to work in either Toronto or wherever his work requires.

Sam gradually developed a small agro-industrial base on a two-section irrigated farm in Vauxhall, Alberta. Sam’s neighbors were having difficulty with their crop rotation so he came up with the idea of dehydrating alfalfa as a source of vitamin A for the livestock industry. That later expanded into a partnership with an acquaintance of his from Calgary, Bill David who was in the pet food business which was fortuitous because Canadian Packers, Swifts, and Canadian Dressed Meats had all built packing plants in Lethbridge. This provided a huge source of raw material for the pet food industry. For the next sixteen years (1956-72), Sam was involved mostly in the manufacturing of pet food and running his company called Red Top Dog Food.

Sam and his brother, Emmanuel, invested their savings from the alfalfa dehydrating plant into two hotels in Watertown Lakes National Park, and their families ran the two summertime operations.

Red Top Dog Food was then sold to Standard Brands. Under the agreement of sale, Sam’s partner was left to run the company in Calgary, while Sam moved to Montreal so he bought his own meat company which he ended up selling to his partners, Alex Freeburg and Mike Nortik, a couple of years later.

This financial success allowed Sam to “re-become a geologist after twenty-seven years of not being one.” Sam went back to Calgary where he had a condo that he had bought for his daughter, and he went to the University of Calgary refreshing his memory of geological things. “I borrowed books and sat by the pool for two months, and then I answered an ad in the paper and one week later I was working for Union Oil (which in 1984 became Unocal) as a geologist. They were very good to me. They let me take short courses to upgrade, and they helped me with my revival as a geologist. In 1982, I transferred to the international division. That is when I first come to Thailand (1 Feb 82) to help develop the gas fields in the Gulf of Thailand.”

The reason Sam transferred to the international division was that in 1981 he was going to every university across Canada recruiting geologists, geophysicists, and engineers for Union Oil. When Sam got to Halifax, the Calgary office called him saying, “Continue to interview but don’t hire anyone” because Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau had nationalized the oil industry by putting Petro Canada in every concession being granted in Canada. This upset Sam greatly who thought this was a very unwise thing to do.

Thailand was coming on stream very quickly and when Sam got here he was told that he was going to be a petro-physicist. In 1986, during a slowdown in the oil industry half of the expats were sent back to their country of origin. So, Sam was sent home where six months later Unocal initiated a new retirement age of 60 which Sam happened to be at that time (Sam says Unocal was very good with money and shares.)

Sam actually retired for only one weekend though because the Monday after he was laid off he went over to the dreaded Petro Canada and got a job there. They were reinterpreting a seismic survey that Trudeau had given Thailand. Sam, as it turned out, was the only geologist in Calgary who knew anything about Thailand. So, for six months Sam helped prepare the report, which was then presented to delegates of the PTT. They asked for help to develop an exploration company to do these things themselves. So, the Canadian Government through PCTAC (Petro Canada International Assistance Campaign) funded Sam on a two-year contract to help set up the Exploration and Production side of the PTT (PTT-EP).

When his contract finished, Sam decided he had enough of Canada’s bitter cold so he decided he would stay in Thailand for the duration.

“I always had thought that the Caribbean was a sailor’s paradise but I discovered the same conditions in Thailand but on top of that this country had beautiful, gentle and kind people.

“When I came back I recognized I needed to become involved in things very quickly because there was no guarantee as to how long I would be here, so I quickly joined three organizations which put me in touch with a lot of people which I’ve enjoyed over the sixteen years I’ve been here: the Royal Varuna Yacht Club (RVYC), the British Club, and the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

While with the RVYC he became involved with the Phuket King’s Cup Regatta and for ten years he was secretary of the organizing committee for that event.

In September of 1995, the usually optimistic Cohen hit a low point as he was diagnosed with non-Hodgins lymphoma. When he first got the news, Sam was quite despondent and almost resigned to cashing in his ticket, but two good men urged him to have faith, and battle on. Those men, Dr. Singh of Bangkok General Hospital, and Dr. Prasert Osoth-thong, who owns Bangkok Airways and Samui Airport, were a source of great inspiration to Sam.

Sam took chemotherapy for a year and while receiving his treatments he says he even surprised himself. “I had access to a direct phone line and fax machine on my floor at the Bangkok General Hospital so I could keep in contact with what was going on, and who was doing what. I’m happiest when I’m busy and making things happen. Khun Kiat Suttheeamorn was kind enough to step in to take over my remaining months as president of the Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce.”
The day that Sam got out of the hospital he went down to Sattahip as an advisor to one of Dr. Prasert’s companies. On the way down, Sam drove with a man who had a hacking cough. Two days later Sam dragged himself into the hospital again and was diagnosed with double pneumonia and was laid up for a further six weeks. But Sam recovered again and was right back at it.

Sam is one of the founding members of the Chamber. It used to be called the Canadian Club, and it would meet at the Canadian Embassy once or twice a month. “One of the parts I enjoyed most,” he recalls, “was the Foreign Chambers Coordinating Committee where representatives from every chamber would meet every month acting on behalf of the foreign community in relations with the Thai government. I chaired that organization for a couple of years and I got to meet and know everyone in the foreign community.”

Sam helped establish linkages with the Thai government so that it could hear the concerns and the problems of the foreign community. At Sam’s request, PM Chuan Leekpai established a committee to listen to foreign grievances. “We’d have many meetings and get together to talk about the problems like the alien business laws, visas, and customs hassles. Another one of the things I like about Thailand is the access to government that you have here. It is very easy to see anyone at any level of government (well, maybe for Sam).”

Sam was married to Gea for 31 years. Sam has three kids: Gil, the pilot who had one daughter and lives in Lethbridge; Don, a phys-ed instructor who lives in Nanaimo and was one of Canada’s best sea kayakers; and Chari, who has four kids, and is married to an architect and lives in Toronto. Sam met his second wife, Sumonman Kulthanachoreon at a function given by the Australian embassy (her first name means peace because she was born on the day that the Japanese surrendered during WWII).

Craig Stewart, the former Unocal Pailin Asset Chief, describes Cohen as a father figure in his life, says “He’s happy no matter what’s happening. He has a real thirst for life. He’s interested in everyone and everybody. He really likes people, and he thrives on entertaining people. He loves showing people around Thailand.”

I couldn’t leave Sam, a man that so many admire, without asking him about a few of the people he admires most. “I have a true high regard for the King Bhumibol and his involvement with his people and the example he sets. He traveled throughout the country and as he traveled he took people with him who had skills that were needed in the areas he is travelling to.

“I admire Khun Anand Panyarachun, a real statesman, even though he was solely responsible for canceling the Lavalin sky train project, which has never been satisfactorily explained to me. Here we are in Bangkok five years later and we are still struggling to get a mass transit system. He canceled the project unilaterally just days before it was to be finalized probably because of bad advice.

“I also admire Dr. Narin Voravut who worked with me at the Bangkok General Hospital. He spent seven years at Anderson Cancer Clinic in Texas, and he has set up his own research center at Chulalongkorn Hospital. He’s an extremely dedicated physician who really loves his country.”

Is there a special initiative that Sam has launched that he was most proud of? “The Canadian Fund is a fund that the Canadian Ambassador has access to, and together with funds raised by the TCCC we built and furnished a Garment Factory in Phayao, a town that is known for sending a large number of women into the sex trade. The gratitude we receive from the women when we opened the factory was really heartwarming. We are about to proceed to follow-up on that to see if we can be of further assistance in the ongoing operation of that factory.”

Sam was the Government of Alberta representative in Thailand for three years (Sean Brady held the same position for the government of Ontario during that time). After that, he continued to do supportive work for Alberta Energy.

A lot of people asked Sam for advice. His business ethos was the three P’s – patience, perseverance, and presence. “Follow them, and you will do ok in Thailand,” he said.

(On May 30, 2012, Sam Cohen became the first inductee into CanCham Thailand’s “Hall of Fame”.)