University of Pittsburgh

Couple Run Major Thailand Renewables Co.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

As Thailand's renewable energy sector continues its expansion, the company led by Somphote Ahunai (MBA '92) and his wife Blanca Shulan Huang (MBA '92), Energy Absolute Public Company Limited, is celebrating new milestones.

Primarily a manufacturer of bio-diesel fuels from palm oil, Energy Absolute is broadening its portfolio with significant investments in solar and wind farms. In December 2013, the company began selling electricity from a new 90 MW AC solar power plant in the Nakornsawan province. The power plant, the first of three of that size that Energy Absolute intends to build through 2015, is the largest in all of Asia. Funding came from a successful debut on Thailand's Market for Alternative Investment (MAI) and the project came on the heels of a successful launch of an 8 MW AC solar power plant a year earlier.

"I think we were quite lucky," says Ahunai, the director and CEO of Energy Absolute, which despite being in just its fourth year of business is already third in market share in the biodiesel fuels market — and is on track to claim the second spot within months.

"We went to the right place at the right time," Ahunai says. "Now everybody is active within the renewable energy sector."

Ahunai explains that, compared to its larger competitors, Energy Absolute has the advantage of being leaner, more nimble. The company breaks from a common practice in Thailand of paying the hefty consulting fees which are necessary to purchase the turn-key solutions that boost production output.

Before enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh's Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, Ahunai studied engineering. His network of alumni and former professors gives him access to people who can reengineer critical manufacturing processes. Ultimately, this enables of the conversion of low-value byproducts into high-profit margin products of pure glycerin and a compatible raw material for the biodiesel refinery. This re-engineering greatly reduces production costs and positions the company to capture market share.

A Low Point, Then New Highs

While Ahunai and Huang often say that luck shaped their success, nothing would be possible without their hard work, shared sacrifice, and appetite for risk taking. Prior to leading Energy Absolute, Ahunai built his fortune as a securities trader. He began at a French-owned bank as an equity research analyst, before moving to a Swiss-owned bank, then a Thailand-based firm. At this time, he earned his Chartered Financial Analyst designation — unusual then, as fewer than 10 professionals in all of Thailand had that certification.

Later Ahunai became a vice president of institutional sales, and in 1998, he and Huang proposed that a big broker firm in Taiwan acquire a Thailand broker firm that was badly shaken by the Asian financial crisis a year earlier. As a result, Ahunai became one of the youngest managing directors in the industry. In two years, by virtue of rapid expansion and 13 branch offices all over Thailand,  the  company controlled the largest market share and was profitable at a time others lost money. Meanwhile, his wife, Huang, managed the infrastructure to support her husband's business expansion — creating operation procedures and control systems that were clean, efficient, and secure.

But in 2001, the firm was accused of securities trading manipulation. As a consequence, trading with the firm was temporarily halted. Ahunai was forced to resign, although months later, a formal investigation revealed his firm innocent of securities trading manipulation.

"At the time, I was really hurt, because I built this company like my baby. I decided at this point to be my own boss. I would stand on my own going forward," Ahunai says.

Next, Ahunai focused on venture capitalism, investing his wealth into different firms. He helped the young companies gain major market share and build lean but efficient operation teams. Eventually, he and his wife, along with several partners, founded Energy Absolute.

"I help him to build the system, control the risk, and monitor the efficiency of the operation," Huang said of her contributions. "Basically, I look after the back office. He looks after the engineering and marketing."

MBAs and a Marriage

Now approaching their 20th wedding anniversary, Ahunai and Huang have three children. They met at Katz — Huang coming by way of a university in Missouri where she earned her undergraduate degree and Ahunai as a transfer from a University of Wisconsin branch campus. After graduation, each returned to their home countries — Ahunai to Thailand, Huang to Taiwan — and they maintained a long-distance relationship for three years, while steadily advancing in their jobs.

"When we were apart, every day I wrote one letter to her," recalls Ahunai. "In that time, e-mail was still primitive. The only way to communicate was to write a letter or call — and international calls were still quite expensive in that time as well."

Like her husband, Huang's own career is impressive. She excels in the area of management information systems, and prior to teaming up with her husband worked for Electrolux Taiwan, General Motors Taiwan, and the telecommunications company NCR.

"At Electrolux Taiwan, I was the first employee to ask the managing director to give me a computer instead of using the traditional typewriter like everyone else. Little by little, I built up the company's MIS system, which supported its rapid expansion to 26 branches in two years and attainment of the highest sales volume in history," Huang says.

While Huang was not naturally skilled in programming and database administration, she possessed a strong background in accounting and business processes. At the age of 23, she was given the freedom to interview the information technology department heads and staff.

"My advice to MBAs is to be open minded and brave in taking responsibility for all sorts of assignments or projects whenever the opportunities come. Try not only to focus on the outcome but also what experience you gained from the whole process," Huang says.

Set Goals and Stick to Them

For Ahunai, the road to Katz was anything but a straight shot. In fact, it took several tries.

"My English was poor," Ahunai says. "So I kept studying and improving my English. I took the TOFEL examination more than 10 times and the GMAT many times, and finally I got the score I needed. When I make a decision, I’m persistent."

His advice to Katz MBAs is to decide early on what their goals are and to then accumulate the skills to make those goals a reality. His hard work has paid off, as Ahunai is one of Thailand's wealthiest people.

"I'm quite lucky," Ahunai says. "When I studied in high school, I knew I wanted to be a successful businessman running profitable businesses by applying technology advantages. So I studied engineering in undergraduate school and then went to USA to study my MBA. I knew what I wanted to do after graduation. I think I’m lucky to know myself early."

By Huang's estimation, talent can only take one so far. At a certain point, people hit the promotion ceiling unless they have a graduate degree. Even after she earned her Katz MBA, Huang obtained the certifications of Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer and Project Management Professional.

"The MBA degree is your ticket to qualify you to compete with others for all available management positions. Once you get into the top rank of a company or a professional practice, you need to continue to update and upgrade your professional qualifications and profiles to further differentiate you from others," Huang says.