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From Backstreets Of Bangkok To Billionaire Philanthropist

17th March 2016 Tara Loader Wilkinson

Billionaire businessman William Heinecke discusses his unique, entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy.  

Every year on his birthday on June 4th, billionaire William Heinecke closes his company of 45,000 staff for the entire day.  “I ask everyone to give up their day to work for a charity, whether they are painting a school or working with their community. It is their gift to me.”

This approach to active giving has become a hallmark of Heinecke’s philanthropic mantra: corporate social responsibility interwoven into his day-to-day businesses. When it comes to philanthropy, the Bangkok-based founder of publically-listed restaurant, hotel and retail operator, Minor International (MINT), does not just write cheques.

Much of his philanthropic contributions came from the proceeds from the book he authored, The Entrepreneur: Twenty-Five Golden Rules for the Global Business Manager, which has been published in four different languages and had various reprints.

He is also heavily involved in elephant conservation. “Since commercial logging was banned in 1989, elephants and their mahouts have been unemployed. Many were just roaming the streets and begging,” he explains. He founded the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in 2001 as part of one of his hotels, the Anantara Hua Hin Resort & Spa, which he raises money for through the glamorous Annual King’s Cup Elephant Polo match. To date the competition has raised US$750,000 for the foundation.

He admits that his entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy may revert to cheque-writing over time. When he feels his company is sustainable, he will join Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge and donate at least half of his wealth to charity. “It is my personal goal to give more away over the years to come as we owe this to future generations. Currently, I am very focused on ensuring the continued sustainability of the company – long term business success so that we can ensure a bright future for all our stakeholders,” he told Wealth-X in an exclusive interview.

What keeps the 65-year-old US-born billionaire up at night is the thought of the direct and indirect impact he has has on his 45,000 employees. “We employ 45,000 people. We say for every one employee we have we affect 10 lives, so that is a lot of responsibility.”

His approach looks like it is paying off. Last year MINT realised record net profits of 4.1 billion baht (US$126 million), up 26 per cent on the previous year. The leap in profits meant that Heinecke, who owns a third in the company, was propelled into billionaire territory for the first time. MINT now operates over 1,400 restaurants, 250 retail trading outlets and over 100 hotels in 27 countries from Australia to Africa. His most well-known business is the luxury Anantara Hotel Group, whose postcard-perfect resorts are beloved by VIPs and celebrities from R&B star John Legend to footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and tennis champion Roger Federer.

Heinecke is the true essence of a self-made man. One of the wealthiest expatriates in Southeast Asia today, Heinecke started out life as the son of a military foreign serviceman and a journalist. They moved to Bangkok when he was 14 and two years later, he had successfully introduced go-karting to Thailand. He persuaded the editor of Bangkok World to let him write a column on the subject, who agreed on condition that he secured advertisements to run alongside it.

Heinecke’s first venture proved so successful that at 17 years old he took over from the paper’s advertising manager while still attending school. When he graduated a year later in 1967, he borrowed US$1,200 to register his first two companies under Minor Holdings (so-called because his entreprenurial career began at age 16); Inter-Asian Enterprise which supplied office cleaning services, and the radio advertising company Inter-Asian Publicity.

Five decades on and Minor International is the largest listed hotel operator in Thailand, with big names including the Anantara, AVANI, Oaks, Per AQUUM, Elewana, Four Seasons and Marriott. It also operates 1,200 restaurants in Asia including Swensens, Sizzler, Dairy Queen, The Coffee Club, Burger King, Thai Express and the Pizza Company, the largest pizza chain in Thailand, which Heinecke’s eldest son is in charge of.

“Our restaurants served over 6,000 tons of ice cream and over 13 million pizzas last year,” claims Heinecke proudly.

Heinecke, who dropped his American passport to become a Thai citizen in 1991, said despite his recent success he is still heavily involved in the businesses, and works “what most people would call very long hours, maybe 12 hours a day.” His record profits have been steadily rebuilt after a difficult period when the tsunami struck Thailand in 2008 and many of his businesses were damaged or worse. His Anantara Royal Coco Palm Hotel in Phuket was completely destroyed and 12 members of staff lost their lives.

“It was devastating for everyone. We couldn’t bear to build another hotel on that site so we just deserted it and rebuilt elsewhere,” he said. He said that the natural disaster heightened his awareness of the need for philanthropy and now he considers it a key part of his business model, although he keeps it low key.

“I’m not a big self-promoter when it comes to philanthropy. The best types of philanthropy are not exposed to the public because if you are doing it to raise your profile it is for the wrong reasons.”

He added that he is asked to speak at public and private events every day, and he frequently does, as long as the firm will donate to his foundation to pay for his time.  “I am happy to speak at public events but I sort the wheat from the chaff by asking them if they are willing to donate to a charity for me to speak. If they do they clearly think what I have to say is worth it.”

And what is his mantra in life? “I don’t do anything I don’t feel passionate about and enjoy immensely. My advice is don’t work for money or prestige, work for your passion. Then you will always be successful.”

Reproduced with permission from an article that was first published on Wealth-X - www.wealthx.com 

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