As the vice chairwoman and undisputed face of ‘The Mall Group’, Supaluck Umpujh, AKA ‘The Iron Butterfly’, is not only a powerful businesswoman in the global retail scene, but she is also an enthusiastic ambassador for, and key orchestrator of the unquestionable changes happening in Thailand’s retail world today. Khun Supaluck talks openly and passionately to Expat Life about how she has worked to aid the visible growth of retail in Thailand, her vision for the future and her continued work with Thai authorities to aid others to grow with her and The Mall Group.
On meeting Khun Supaluck it is clear from the offset that she is not only busy with demands on her time from all angles of her successful retail business, but also intent in her ability to take herself away from the day to day running of the business and focus solely on a one to one discussion about her life, her business and her passion for living.
That is a skill to be commended and certainly not one that comes easily to most. Khun Supaluck was welcoming, open and frank about why she joined the family business in the first place, a far cry from her original educational path of medicine. “I was too scared of ghosts” she jokes, “and hated the idea of blood and surgery!” so whilst studying at Perdue University, a letter from her father calling her back to the family business was the path Khun Supaluck chose and by all accounts, not the easy path!
The Mall Group was founded in 1979 by her father, the late Supachai Umpujh with its first mall ‘The Mall Rachadamri’. Now the leading force in shopping mall retailing in Thailand, The Mall Group owns and manages the leading malls in Bangkok including The Mall, Siam Paragon, The Emporium and EmQuartier.
There is no disputing the fact that The Mall Group’s branding, collaborations and determination has created this iconic and ‘new’ face of retail. “The business is only 35 years old, so still very young” Supaluck explains. “In the beginning my father had the idea to create his first shopping mall in Bangkok, but we were inexperienced, and had to learn the hard way. After 3 years of hard work we had to close our shopping mall”. Her explanation is far from candied, but this obvious struggle in the early 80s only made the family more determined to make things work.
“We took so much away from that experience. We learnt that in order to succeed, we needed to conduct our business with an innovative spirit, we needed to be inspired and we needed to create a unique formula. We learnt the hard way that we had to have the ‘drive to win’ and to create the best team we could. We treat our executives and staff like family, but work professionally. We understand what our competitors are doing and ensure that we have created a winning formula for success”.
Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, The Mall Group opened a selection of shopping centres including The Mall Bang Kae, The Mall Bang Kapi, The Mall Thapra and The Mall Korat. To my amazement Khun Supaluck is able to tell me the exact date that each of these malls and more, clearly indicating their individual importance and memorable stamp to her and her team.
“By 1994 we did it!” she continues “with our huge success stories of Mall 7 and 8, Bang Kae and Bang Kapi having both shopping and department stores opening on the same day at the same time that year.” With these stores came the international recognition needed to take The Mall Group to the next level of retail success with their undisputed ‘winning formula’.
So what was that winning formula? How did it come to pass that 35 years on The Mall Group are quite literally paving the way for retail domination? “We were the first in Thailand to get world class brandnames to join Thailand. We opened The Emporium in July 1997, the first ultimate luxury shopping destination.
This is when we realised that we could create The Em District, making Sukhumvit the place where everyone could appreciate the best quality of life, the chosen place to be for those living and working in Bangkok.
Hermès and Chanel were not keen of what Thailand could offer their brands and we made the connections and opened the door. We had moved into the ‘high end’ of retail and cater to Thais in the homeland. The Emporium was followed by EmQuartier in 2015. The next part of the plan was to create the ideal place for people to live in Bangkok. Not only a business hub, but the best condos, the best entertainment and the best shopping.
Anyone that has visited EmQuartier can see that is clearly stands alone as a unique structure, shopping experience and retail environment with its 3 main areas; The Helix, The Waterfall and The Glass Quartier, all boasting incredible architecture whilst keeping close to the iconic cultural traits of Thailand and Thai lifestyles.
This is when we realised that we could create The Em District, making Sukhumvit the place where everyone could appreciate the best quality of life, the chosen place to be for those living and working in Bangkok. Sukhumvit is set to be the iconic living space for those ‘in the know’ and is certain to continue with its success and growth with the forthcoming EmSphere in 2019” Khun Supaluck illuminates.
And it doesn’t stop there …. Khun Supaluck and her team are also the driving force behind Siam Paragon, ‘The Jewel of Asia’. The formidable shopping centre is, like EmQuartier and The Emporium, a tourist hotspot for those visiting Bangkok. “20 years ago tourists would not have connected Bangkok with high end shopping but these three malls have turned that ideal on its head and with the increasing tourist industry creating 30% growth year on year these are two affluent areas that can use one another to give Bangkok the new name of Asia’s ‘shopping paradise’.”
No one understands that more than Khun Supaluck and her team who have comprehended for some time that it’s not only those living in Bangkok, Thai and expat, that would benefit from the lifestyle and opportunities that arise from their luxury brands but also those visiting the city for business and for pleasure. Thai, Asian, Chinese, European, Russian, American, Australian, Middle Eastern the list goes on and all visit Thailand to experience the changing scene of tourism.
Thailand to experience the changing scene of tourism. “20 years ago Bangkok and Thailand were synonymous with backpackers, people looking for exotic beaches and experiences. Today this has changed and The Mall Group are working towards making Bangkok not only the cultural centre of Asia but the shopping paradise of Asia. We have the culture that people want to experience. We have a genuine smile on the faces of our people and a level of hospitality that is hard to beat. This combined with our understanding of the growing retail market means that we are catering for a different level of tourism, especially in our cities.”
By 2020, The Bangkok Mall will have completed with the next phase of their retail takeover “The city within a city”. Khun Supaluck and The Mall Group created the dream district with EmDistrict, which by all accounts continues to grow. “The idea of The Bangkok Mall, in Bang Na, is to have everything you would need in a city under one roof.
This is outside Bangkok city centre and you would be able to visit the mall and enjoy everything you need for the entire day from shopping through to dining, entertainment and more.” Khun Supaluck’s passion for this ideal is almost tangible and can only lead to further success under The Mall Group’s belt. On the back of the growing tourist industry, “The Mall Group have recognised that the retail experience shouldn’t and won’t stop at just Bangkok. The variety, the cultural diversity and the range of experiences open to the tourist industry across Thailand means that the opportunities for The Mall Group’s expansion are huge.” And this is credited extensively by Khun Supaluck.
“Thailand will definitely become the iconic tourist and shopping destination in Asia. The Mall Group has the strategy to develop the resort mall under the concept of “Blu” collection in Thailand’s key strategic tourist destinations. It has launched the first of its kind; the first ever resort mall in Hua Hin located in the best location in the heart of Hua Hin opposite The Intercontinental Hotel called “BluPort” – debuting this year.
The next project of the ‘Blu’ empire is set for Phuket, the “BluPearl”. Our vision and determination is to lift Phuket to become a world class resort and luxury shopping destination in Asia. Here we will develop a world class luxury shopping destination under the theme of the grand Majestic palace with an all in one concept and entertainment complex. The largest convention and exhibition centre, resort hotel and most importantly, the most spectacular world class theme park attractions in Phuket. BluPearl will be the Pearl of Phuket, The Pride of the Andaman and the world class luxury retail and entertainment resort destination in Asia.”
“Thailand will definitely become the iconic tourist and shopping destination in Asia.”
Whilst talking with Khun Supaluck I asked her opinions on the governments recognition of the importance of tourism as well as the importance of Thailand joining the AEC (Asean Economic Community) and how this might change the face of not only continual tourism growth but of the retail industry in Thailand as a whole. Her answer was exactly what I should have expected and come to understand from our time together.
“The government does recognise and is investing heavily in tourism across Thailand. Thailand is a beautiful and cultural country and there’s no doubt that being part of AEC will help to make it grow but it is the people, the place and the culture of Thailand that have helped it get to where it is now and that makes me proud to be a businesswoman in Thailand today.”
There is no doubt that talking with Khun Supaluck has enlightened me enormously into the world of Thailand’s retail industry, and her enthusiasm is almost addictive. Khun Supaluck is not only modest in her explanations about her successes but humble about her team, that I do believe she considers family. Her plans for the coming years are ambitious and exciting, not to mention admirably achievable and well within her, and her team’s reach. The changing face of retail? The Iron Butterfly? Certainly! A realist as well as an opportunist? Definitely, but all based on her clear and passionate understanding of her country, her culture and her business.