Panus Watanachai doesn’t talk much, especially not in meetings that could determine the future of Panus Assembly, Thailand’s fastest-growing transport equipment company.
In a bid to circumvent the trappings of social stratification and corporate hierarchy, the young Chief Executive has made it a habit to “listen first and speak last,” as he puts it – in turn giving those obscure details, gestures and changes in tone more room to tell the story behind the story.
“Listening is where true progress occurs, and progress is what Panus Assembly is all about,” explains Ron Gysberts, a long-standing confidant of Watanachai and Panus Assembly’s Head of International Sales. “We think of ourselves as a learning organisation first and foremost, and our culture is testament to that. A good idea can start a revolution, so who are we to constrict our team’s creativity?”
Listen, learn, repeat – at just 43 years of age, Watanachai leaves little doubt that relentless innovation, the company’s somewhat belligerent tag line, is more than just a marketing ploy.
Ever since he was put in charge of the 47-year-old family business in 2006, seven years after graduating from Loyola Marymount University in California, it’s been the guiding principle behind his every move: It’s the reason why he moved back into the sprawling family home east of Bangkok – located right on the company property, opposite the steel workshop – and it’s why he cannot recall a Saturday not spent listening to his closest advisors in the boardroom across the road.
To Watanachai, the convergence of megatrends such as smart manufacturing, digitisation and electric mobility – the logistics revolution, as he calls it – is constantly “reshuffling the pack” and giving transport equipment companies like Panus Assembly a chance to reinvent themselves from the core, regardless of where they come from or what they’ve been doing in the past.
All that is needed, he says, is the ability to listen to the market and the flexibility to change and adapt. “The market has never been more transparent, technology has never been more accessible,” he elaborates. “Everything is in flux, meaning that as long as you are willing to embrace change, the opportunities are endless.
“In a globalised world, there is so much more potential to compare oneself with the best in the game, to learn and to share knowledge. We just need to stay nimble and keep moving forward.”
The most recent reward for Watanachai’s – deeply personal – commitment to “progress through change” came in the form of a richly ornamented certificate declaring Panus the first Thai business in the logistics sector to ever win a silver medal at the Salon International des Inventions de Genève, an annual technology showcase in Switzerland.
A local tech start-up backed by Panus secured the title back in April for the development of the ‘Smart Box’, a telematics device optimised for IoT (Internet of Things)-applications that’s been designed and manufactured entirely in Thailand – without any involvement from foreign suppliers.
While important as an international performance benchmark, however, Watanachai doesn’t see the Swiss innovation award as an entryway into Europe’s already overcrowded trailer-manufacturing market. Instead he hopes the high-tech device will serve as a catalyst to bring Thailand’s own trailer building scene into the 21st century.
In fact, he says the time might have come for Panus to act as the ‘agent of change’ for Thai manufacturing at large. “We’ve been observing the changes occurring across the logistics industry for a long time now, and I genuinely believe that Panus Assembly has the potential to lead the revolution here in Southeast Asia,” he explains. “The Smart Box is the perfect example of where focus and dedication can take us.”
According to Watanachai, the key to riding the wave that is the global logistics revolution lies in rethinking old manufacturing models from the ground up – much like he did with Panus Assembly.
“If we want to make real progress as an industry, we need to look at it holistically,” he explains. “At Panus, we started by updating our internal processes; continued by bringing in young, hungry and ambitious talent; and then took the brand overseas to ensure we knew what was waiting for us at the very top level. It’s a long and painful process, and certainly not a quick fix.”
Having launched the Panus brand in nearby Australia over the past decade has been especially important as a means of self-benchmarking, he shares, but it’s been the start-up economy that eventually made the difference.
“Embracing the opportunities that come with the start-up economy has been the final piece to the puzzle,” he says. “There is so much knowledge out there waiting to be tapped, especially in the Bangkok region – trailer builders just haven’t realised it yet. Investing in new ideas and bringing new perspectives into the business can release a whole new level of energy – just look at what we did with the Smart Box.”
He adds, “Having developed a full telematics package here in Thailand – from location tracking through to maintenance planning and driver training – is symptomatic for the potential of the region as a whole. If you’re ready to question everything, anything is possible.”
Even the much talked-about ‘one-stop-shop’ trend that has been engulfing European trailer building of late is old news to the CEO, he adds: Panus-branded axles, landing legs or even curtains have long been standard items on the company order form, and concepts like contract maintenance, remote tyre management or online parts supply are just as topical in the Thai province as they are in the crowded conurbations of the West.
Western analysts, however, still tend to fall victim to the stereotyping trap, Watanachai continues – making his most recent telematics breakthrough something of a personal victory.
“It’s funny that regardless of what we achieve – even if it’s officially recognised in Switzerland – people often perceive Thailand as a third-world country and overlook our true potential as a trailer building hub,” he says.
“Almost all international OEMs now produce cars and light commercial vehicles in Thailand, and even here at Panus we have a subsidiary manufacturing high-tech ground support equipment for some of the largest airports in the world. Ignoring us would mean overlooking a serious contestant on the global manufacturing stage.”
Watanachai adds he is “not unhappy at all” that the trailer industry’s focus is still very much on Europe, the US and – more recently – China. “In the big scheme of things we’re still very much a small family business, so our anonymity has been our advantage over the past few years. It has allowed us to listen, learn and slowly set up a world-class operation that is perfectly in sync with the kind of industry trends you read about in Global Trailer.”
Unsurprisingly, Watanachai and Gysberts don’t see the Panus brand compete with OEMs from Europe or the US anytime soon. To the company’s leadership duo, the growth opportunities across the vast ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, made up of Brunei Darussalam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) region seem far more alluring.
“With a population of more than 600 million and a GDP of close to €2 trillion, ASEAN is fast becoming a major economic force in Asia and a driver of global growth,” Gysberts explains. “Thailand is right at centre of it all, so we feel we are in a very good spot geographically – especially if you take into account Australia in the south and China in the north. The future is most certainly here in the Asia-Pacific region.”
According to Gysberts, who can draw on decades of experience in multi-national logistics, the Thai market is currently leading the way in ASEAN trailer design – evolving rapidly from rugged, heavy equipment to a more refined, task-oriented design focus.
“The market here is definitely at a crossroads – you can literally see the orders become more complex and sophisticated every day (see breakout box, ed.). With logistical processes, quality standards and regulatory systems becoming more and more globalised, that shouldn’t come as a surprise, really, so we see it as a foreshadowing of what’s to come across the entire region.”
To cope with the projected increase in demand, Gysberts says Panus is now planning to gradually redevelop the company’s entire 52-acre plot east of Bangkok – starting with a new plant and show room in 2019, and a new head office in 2020.
“We are celebrating 50 years in the industry soon, so it’s time for a substantial upgrade,” he explains, indicating that decades of organic growth have left a mark on the expansive site. “It’s been a fascinating journey to this day, and we’ve achieved more than anyone could have ever imagined. For example, we are one of six businesses in Thailand – across all industries – to be labelled a First Class Manufacturer, which is an incredible honour, of course.
“But as a learning organisation, we are acutely aware of the impact megatrends like digitisation, connectivity and electrification will have on the industry, so we need to make sure we are ready to lead the revolution from the front.”
Watanachai himself adds, “We are already manufacturing electrified airport equipment today, so why not apply that knowledge to trailer building? There is so much potential for the industry to grow and evolve, and we believe we’re the right company to drive that development. Why wouldn’t the future start right here on the outskirts of Bangkok?”
Responsible for 60 per cent of overall sales, logistics equipment is the main revenue source of the Panus Assembly operation. The rest is made up from ground support and military equipment, parts sales and services, as well as a separate fabrication business unit focusing on the design and manufacture of ground fuel storage solutions for customers in the mining, transport and agriculture industries.
According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), annual infrastructure investments of more than €150 billion are needed across the ASEAN region to ensure roads, rail, ports and airports will be able to cope with the projected increase in freight traffic over the coming decade.
Panus Assembly is quickly expanding across the ASEAN region, with a special focus on Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar, where Panus’ curtain-sided semi-trailer range is currently building momentum. Australia, which has been on Panus’ internal expansion map since 2008, is also embracing Thai trailer design, especially in the skel and flat top market. Since the Bangkok OEM officially opened a local office in 2012, sales have risen steadily, making it one of the most successful Asian brands in one of the world’s most competitive trailer markets.