As an entrepreneur in business since 1995, you have a unique perspective. In the words of Union Minister U Soe Thane, this year 2013-2014, are about the implementation of reforms. How is the reform process affecting the business community this year?
We are very positive about the effects of the reform process. We expected a lot of positive change once the President declared for inclusive growth. Now we are seeing a lot more opportunities for all types of companies and young people are seeing more options for jobs.
In terms of the investment law and changes that are happening that affect international investors, lets look at the financial reforms. Reforms are indeed happening quickly, but from such a low level, that they still have a long way to go. How do you feel the financial reform process is moving?
We have to look at this from two different perspectives, that of the international audience, and that of the local domestic businesspeople. I do feel that they need to open up banking services to the level of JVs, and people should be able to get more access to loans. However, with regard to 100% foreign ownership of banks, I still feel like it is a bit too early. Actually, I do think that government needs to protect our banking system a bit from the big international players, as it grows. We do need foreign banks to help our local banks to grow, but we don’t want them completely taken over. I look at the example of China, where they opened the financial sector 10 years after opening the economy more generally.
But there is tension isn’t there? When we were speaking with U Win Aung at the UMFCCI he was saying that the business community wants access to capital and they are less concerned about where that capital comes from. The banking community, though, says that they need time to catch up. Do you fall in the middle then?
Well I definitely think that if we go only with local banks we cannot grow. We have different criteria and circumstances for foreign currency loans and local currency loans. We understand inflation rates and other challenges, but a 13% interest rate is too much. We do need better loan conditions.
When we interviewed President U Thein Sein, he was very enthusiastic about Chairing ASEAN this year as it puts Myanmar in a good position while negotiating the conditions for the AEC in 2015. What effects to you anticipate from regional economic integration?
Actually, from a long-term perspective, ASEAN economic integration is a good opportunity for all Myanmar companies. We need to determine our Myanmar way of doing business and fit that in with our neighbors. In the short term, the government should consider which sectors are really ready to compete with international actors, and which are not. We also need to be a bit careful because, of course, although we are all brothers and moving forward together, each country also has its own agenda. We need to be careful to protect our agenda as well. Our government is already very open and welcoming to international investment but we do need to be careful about trade activities and what products we encourage. Our spending power should be used on necessary things. We do not want unnecessary things flowing in. We do need pharmaceutical products, but we do not need chocolates, for example.
You are in the manufacturing sector. As wages rise in China there exists the possibility that Myanmar can absorb more of the FDI directed toward manufacturing that would previously go to China. How do you expect the sector to evolve in the next 5 years?
How the government handles this is going to be crucial. In order for those companies to come we need the infrastructure and we need electricity, as well as reasonable labor costs. The skill-sets of the people are very important as well.
Human resources are another huge challenge for you and for all companies in Myanmar. Vocational training is one model that is being examined and promoted. How do you feel your needs would best be met?
There are two levels – the national level and the company level. Each company needs to bring expatriates to Myanmar in order to push them to share experiences with our local citizens. We need them to train our people. At the national level, the manufacturing sector will need a training center for technicians of all sorts.
You have been successful through much more difficult times. Since 1995 when you started with 50 employees your company has grown exponentially. Can you tell us how the reform process is affecting your business success right now? How are you adapting your own goals to take advantage of the reform process?
I strongly believe that we have excellent leaders driving the reform process. We are delighted, as I said before, to see young people getting jobs. We are seeing GDP growth. As a company we are also seeing the opportunity to increase our core business as well as subsidiary businesses. What we are currently studying is how to raise our standards in order to continue to be very competitive.
We would like to know more about how you are diversifying. We know that you have 80% of the whiskey market in Myanmar. You are also looking at supply-chain management and agri-business. Where do you see upcoming opportunities?
We always center our business on the consumer. We extended to beer, and then to cars, but we are always close to consumers. Agriculture is a much longer process. We are testing hybrid rice and some other things. We know that we have the strength, but we are working on quantity and quality. The government is now working more on this through MAPCO.
We have been astounded at the philosophy toward Corporate Social Responsibility in Myanmar. We understand that this is part of doing business here, without it being a separate department. We understand that you have multiple projects in motion, including a school building project. Can you tell us more about these efforts?
First of all we believe in fulfilling our obligations as a good corporate citizen, so you can note that we are the number three or number four taxpayer in the country. In terms of CSR activities, which are led by my brother, we are involved in projects to improve or restore eyesight to people in poor and rural communities. We have nearly twenty communities that we help in this way. We also build schools. We are now applying as well for IBTC Foundation to do real local level health clinics to provide emergency care.
Could you comment on your experience with football?
We have partnered with Chelsea since 2011. Sports is very important for young Myanmar people, and football is our number one sport. We use this to promote the idea of team-play. We think that they can learn this important skill through sports and then use it in their professional lives.
We are speaking to people who are very curious, but they are concerned and they have doubts. There are concerns about trust in this process; is 2015 going to change anything? What is your response?
As a businessman I must look at risk. When you look at our country, you see huge opportunities, but you also see new market risk associated, naturally, with new opportunities. It depends on what your individual strategy is; what sector you are involved in; and your tolerance for risk. I do think that we are moving forward, sometimes more slowly, sometimes more quickly, but moving forward regardless. I also think that our Buddhist mindset makes us more attentive to the hopes and benefits of 60 million people.